The Popularity of Mawlânâ Rûmî and the Mawlawî Tradition

By Ibrahim Gamard, September 2009

(This essay was originally written for A slightly revised version was published in 5/10 in the new annnual "Mawlana Rumi Review", Vol. 1 (2010). For further information on the "Mawlana Rumi Review" see this link).


It is an amazing phenomenon that, hundreds of years having passed since his death in 1273, Mawlânâ Jalâl al-Dîn Rûmî, the great mystic poet whose fame has been lasting in the East, has now become so well known in the West. At the same time, few people have heard anything about the Mawlawî [Turkish: Mevlevi] Sufi tradition other than performances of the 'whirling dervishes'. And yet it is the Mawlawî tradition that has preserved the spiritual wisdom teachings of Mawlânâ [Turkish: Mevlana], his disciples, and his descendants for more than seven centuries.


At the end of the Ottoman Empire there were 114 Mawlawî centers [takya; Turkish: tekke] in existence and it has been estimated that there were about one hundred thousand Mawlawîs throughout the Empire. This came to an end in 1925 when the Turkish Republic outlawed all Sufi organizations and closed their centers. The famous Whirling Prayer Ceremony [samâ`; Turkish: sema], which for centuries had been done only at Mawlawî centers inside special 'whirling ceremony' halls [samâ`-khâna; Turkish: semahane], was forbidden for nearly thirty years thereafter.

The Mawlawîs had faithfully commemorated the anniversary of Mawlânâ's death every year. This was based on the Sufi custom of celebrating the anniversary of the death of a revered saint [walî; Turkish: veli] as if it were a 'wedding' [`urs, `arûs] when the soul of the saint was believed to have 'reunited' with God. Like all Sufis, the Mawlawîs commemorated Mawlânâ's death according to the Islamic lunar calendar. An informal and abbreviated ceremony was done by the Mawlawîs in Konya, Turkey with slow whirling; the commemoration was done indoors when the date occurred in winter and outdoors when the date occurred during warm months.

Then, starting in 1953, the 'whirling ceremony' [Samâ`] was allowed to take place once a year on 17 December (the anniversary of Mawlânâ's death according to the Western solar calender) in Konya as a public event, a performance that was to be, not a dervish ceremony, but a cultural celebration in honor of one of the great poets of Turkey--as well as an event that would attract tourists to visit Turkey. Although it was permitted as a secular 'Turkish folk dance', a compromise was made and recitation of the Qur'ân was permitted at the end of the Samâ.1

Now, nearly sixty years later, it can be seen that public Samâ` has been a mixed blessing for the Mawlawî Sufi tradition. On the one hand, it gave new life to the Mawlawîs and enabled them to continue to participate in an important Mawlawî ritual. But, on the other hand, it degraded the spiritual purity of the Samâ`. And although the attention of thousands of people every year is focused on the 'whirling dervishes', which is but one part of Mawlawî custom, few people are aware that this important tradition continues to exist.

The Sufi practice of Samâ` [literally, 'audition'] began in Baghdad several centuries before Mawlânâ's time2 as a form of the remembrance of God [dhikru 'llâh] that involved spontaneous bodily movements inspired by mystical poetry and music. Some of the movements resembled dancing (and sometimes included whirling). But it was not 'dancing', because planned or deliberate movements were forbidden. Bodily movements during Samâ` were acts of surrender to the will of God done only for the sake of remembering God, not for fun and excitement. Samâ` was neither done to be seen and admired by an audience (which leads to pretense and hypocrisy [riyâ']) nor was it done for money (in fact, generally, the dervishes themselves payed the musicians with coins or gifts of clothing). The Samâ` was only permitted for dervishes with permission from their Sufi guide [shaykh, murshid] and not for the common people, who would misuse it to excite the senses. During Samâ`, dervishes were to be attracted only to God, which sometimes led to 'ecstatic attraction' [jazba]; they were not to be attracted to other participants. Therefore, not only women, but 'beardless youths' were forbidden to do Samâ` together with men.

After the Mawlawîs formalized Samâ` into a ritual of choreographed movements (primarily whirling) in the 15th century (during the time of Pîr `âdil Chelebî II),3 it took place privately in Samâ` halls. The early history of Samâ` among Mawlawîs has been largely forgotten, to such an extent that in present-day Turkey, this centuries-old Sufi word is understood to mean only the Mawlawî form of whirling: the whirling ceremony, whirlers [semazens] turning while musicians play and sing hymns [ilâhîs], or even one whirler turning alone ('doing Samâ`').

In addition, the Mawlawî practice of whirling has become so corrupted, that sometimes a single whirler or group of whirlers will wear Mawlawî garments and spin for money in inappropriate places, such as in hotel lobbies and restaurants, at parties, weddings and concerts, and behind pop music stars. Whirlers generally lack training and knowledge in the Mawlawî tradition. And whirlers who have had dervish training may not view themselves as Mawlawîs, but as members of another Sufi order.

Even when the ceremony is done well, according to current standards, significant imbalances remain: parts of the ceremony may be abbreviated for the sake of audience interest level, the floor area may be too small or too large or too rough, there may be too many whirlers for the length of the musical sections, not all of the whirlers may be silently chanting the name of God [Allâh] in their hearts for each rotation, there are usually too many musicians and too many percussive musical instruments (such as plucked strings) for what should be a quieter and more tranquil flow of the music, the musicians lack the traditional training in Samâ` whirling that would enable them to understand the tempos of the whirlers, both musicians and whirlers lack understanding of the Persian verses (often composed by Mawlânâ) that are sung in the musical sections, and the singers are not trained to pronounce the Persian (and sometimes Arabic) verses correctly. For these and other reasons, the ceremony would more accurately be called the 'Whirling Hall Prayer Ceremony', because it was created to take place in traditional Samâ` halls in accordance with particular aesthetic harmonies.

Yet in spite of all the exploitation, commercialization, and folklorization of the Mawlawî Samâ`, it is not uncommon for spiritual blessing [baraka, Turkish: bereket] to be experienced by ticket-paying audiences, as well as a strong emotional impact. Perhaps this may occur if the ceremony is done correctly, with the right intentions, and with at least some of the whirlers remembering God intensively in their hearts, so that the circular movements and music instill feelings such as humility, reverence, tranquility, and awe from the experience of spiritual beauty.

In summary, awareness of the Mawlawî tradition has been overshadowed by the huge popularity of one of its rituals, the Whirling ceremony.


Mawlânâ's poetry can be viewed, generally, as of two kinds: the spiritual wisdom poetry of the Mathnawî-yi Ma`nawî and the ecstatic love poetry of the Dîwân-i Kabîr (although the Mathnawî contains ecstatic love verses and the Dîwân contains spiritual wisdom, especially in the quatrains section).

A. The Mathnawî

Mawlânâ viewed his Mathnawî as his greatest gift to the world. According to his early biographer, Aflâkî, he prophesied about the Mathnawî:

"By God, by God, from the place where the sun rises to the place where it sets, the deep spiritual meaning [ma`nâ] (of the words of the Mathnawî) will take hold and extend. And it will travel to (all) the climates [or regions] (of the world). And there will not be any meeting or gathering where these words will not be recited, to the extent that they will be read (out loud) in places of worship and on benches. And all religious communities will wear a garment (consisting) of those words continually."4

"...and our deep spiritual meanings and secrets [asrâr] will extend down and seize the world."5

"And in that time our Mathnawî will act (the part of) a Sufi teacher [shaykh]."6

It should be noted that Mawlânâ's prophecies were about his words, specifically his words in the Mathnawî, and not prophecies about his own name. After all, he wrote, in an authentic quatrain:

"My turban and gown and (even) my head--all three together--
Were valued at a penny, (or) something less.
Have you not heard my name in the world?
I am nobody, I am nobody, I am nobody."7

B. The Dîwân and Mawlânâ's Life Story

In addition to nearly two thousand quatrains in his Dîwân-i Kabîr, or collected poetic works, Mawlânâ composed over three thousand ghazal poems, often for the purpose of being read or sung during Samâ`. And he would sometimes compose them while in a spiritual ecstatic state, such as when whirling. These poems are best understood as expressing the spiritual stage of 'passing away' in the overwhelming spiritual presence of the Sufi guide [fanâ fî 'l-shaykh]. In these poems, Mawlânâ saw his spiritual master, Shams-i Tabrîzî, everywhere he gazed upon or contemplated something beautiful. In contrast, his final and most mature work, the Mathnawî, can be understood as expressing the spiritual stage of 'passing away' in the overwhelming spiritual presence of God [fanâ fî 'llâh].

It is the poems from the Dîwân that have become so greatly popular in the West, to such an extent that it has been asserted that renditions of Mawlânâ's poems have been the best-selling poetry in America over the last two decades. However, there has been little interest in accurate translations from the Dîwân. Rather, the enthusiasm is for what can be characterized as popularized interpretive poetic versions. The covers of these books mislead the public with the claim of being 'translations', when the authors do not know Persian; instead, they recast the accurate and literal translations of scholars, omit verses, change the meanings of verses, and sometimes even make up verses (and Iranian American authors of popularized translations have done the same). In order to make their books popular, these authors have eliminated or minimized Islamic and religious content and references as much as possible--sometimes, even expunging the word 'God'.

Since many Westerners tend to have suspicions and negative prejudices toward Islam, those who are enthusiastic about Mawlânâ Rûmî's poetry are inclined to believe that he was a practicing Muslim only until he met his spiritual master, Shams-i Tabrîzî. They believe (from reading popularized Rûmî books) that he had been a scholar and a theologian (implying a 'Muslim fundamentalist') up until the time he met Shams, who transformed him into a universal mystic, freed from the bonds of a particular religion and who was knowledgeable about, and accepting of, other religions. This belief is not only widespread among Americans and Europeans, but also among Westernized and well-educated Turks and Iranians.

In order to support such a secularized view, verses from poems that are not in Mawlânâ Rûmî's Dîwân are frequently quoted in newspapers, magazines, books, and public readings. Among such verses that have been rejected by scholars as not composed by Mawlânâ are the following:

"Return (in repentance), return! Whatever you are, return!
Even if you are an unbeliever or a Magian, or an idol worshipper, return!
This court of ours is not a court of despair.
Even if you have broken (your) repentance a hundred times, return!"8

"What advice (is there for me), O Muslims? For I do not know myself.
I am neither Christian nor Jew, nether Magian nor Muslim."9

"I am (such), that I am sometimes hidden and sometimes revealed;
Sometimes I am a believer and sometimes a Jew and sometimes a Christian."10

"(For) the one who has been given the wine of union with the Beloved,
The Ka'ba and an idol temple are one in his creed."11

Some of the above verses can be found in editions of Mawlânâ's Dîwân published during the past hundred years, however, they are definitely not found in the earliest manuscripts. Over the centuries, many verses and poems have been added to Mawlânâ's Mathnawî and Dîwân. That is why it is necessary to trust only editions that are based on the earliest manuscripts.

Documentary films about the Whirling Prayer Ceremony have been made that include non-authentic and distorted versions of Mawlânâ's poetry and current myths about Mawlânâ's life. In regard to the coming documentary films about Mawlânâ's life story (that is, with actors cast in the role of Mawlânâ), this trend seems likely to continue. Although less dramatic, it would be preferable to see his life more accurately portrayed. For example, by the time he met Shams-i Tabrîzî, Mawlânâ was a Muslim scholar as well as a mature Sufi following a nine year period with his first Sufi master, a disciple of Mawlânâ's father, Sayyid Burhân al-Dîn Muhaqqiq Tirmidî (who also sent Mawlânâ to Syria in order to get a thorough Islamic education). After he became an advanced Sufi following a less than three year period with his second Sufi master, he remained a devout Muslim who followed the Hanafî school of Sunnî religious law. And he stated, in an authentic quatrain:

"I am the servant of the Qur'ân as long as I have life.
I am the dust on the path of Muhammad, the Chosen one.
If anyone quotes anything except this from my sayings,
I am quit of him and outraged by these words."12

There are also serious defects in the way Shams-i Tabrîzî has been portrayed for more than a hundred years, chiefly by Orientalist scholars, and later propagated by popularized books, articles, and poetry readings in recent decades. Thankfully regarded as now outdated is his depiction as an illiterate dervish who was indifferent to his appearance, wild, outrageous, rude, tyrannical, and perhaps born into a heretical sect.

Again, although less dramatic, it would be preferable to see his life more accurately portrayed based on English translations (from the original Persian) of excerpts from his 'Discourses' (that is, his talks as recorded by his disciples). This contains very important information about Shams' life teachings that has been little known in the West until recently, and which has revolutionized the understanding of this extraordinary Sufi teacher.13 For example, he was not only an advanced Sufi of profound wisdom, but he had memorized the Qur'ân, was well-educated in the Islamic studies of the time in the Arabic language, was devoted to following the example [sunnah] of the Prophet Muhammad, and followed the Shâfi`î school of Sunnî religious law. He once expressed regret when he missed the Friday congregational prayers, as well as when he and Mawlânâ were so occupied (presumably in doing spiritual exercises and discussing mystical secrets) that they missed one of the prayers at the mosque and had to make it up.14

In addition, scholars such as Franklin Lewis have pointed out the weaknesses and contradictions in the story that Shams-i Tabrîzî was murdered.15 Much more persuasive are the words that Shams himself has been quoted as saying, such as when he hinted that he would need to leave permanently in order to further Mawlânâ's development as a spiritual master. For example, in one speech recorded by his disciples in which he appears to have addressed Mawlânâ, he said:

"Since I am not in the situation where I might order travel for you, I will place (the need for) travel upon myself for the welfare of your work, because separation is a cook... What is the value of that work (of yours)? I would make fifty journeys for your welfare. My travels are for the sake of the (successful) emergence of your work. Otherwise, what's the distinction for me between Anatolia and Syria? There's no difference (if) I am at the Ka`ba (in Mecca) or in Istanbul. But it's certainly the case that separation cooks and refines (the seeker)."16

C. Rûmî Scholarship

Partly due to the surge in popularity of Mawlânâ's poetry and life story, scholars have been quite active, such as for the international conferences held in 2007 to honor of the 800th anniversary of Mawlânâ's birth. However, in regard to the Mawlawî tradition, the main emphasis has been on Mawlawî history before 1925, while only a few works have been written by scholars that include information about the surviving Mawlawî tradition.17

In summary, awareness of the Mawlawî tradition has been overshadowed by the huge popularity of interpretive versions of poetry from his Dîwân, which also falsely portray him as a universal mystic, not as the devout Muslim mystic that he was. Meanwhile, Mawlânâ's major work of Islamic spiritual wisdom, the Mathnawî, has been under-appreciated so far in the West.


On account of the 1925 law that continues to restrict the Mawlawî tradition, in the foreseeable future the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism can be expected to continue to manage and supervise groups that perform the Whirling Prayer Ceremony in Turkey as well as tours of such groups in Europe, America, and elsewhere. Therefore, one cannot expect information to be given to audiences that attend such performances to mention either that the Mawlawî tradition still exists or that the leader of the ceremony [pôstneshîn] is a teacher [shaykh, murshid] of the tradition.

Despite these constraints, there is a growing movement in Turkey to do more to preserve the purity of the Whirling Ceremony. This began in 2004 when the International Mevlana Foundation (Istanbul) began making a Candidature File to UNESCO in application for the Mawlawî Samâ` ceremony to be declared a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. The application was accepted by UNESCO, in 2005, which also announced (in 2006) that the International Year of Mawlana would occur in 2007 (in commemoration of Mawlânâ's birth in the year 1207). UNESCO's purpose in declaring 'Masterpieces' is to preserve valuable musical traditions of the world that are at risk of becoming extinct. In cases in which there remain only a few living musicians skilled in a particular tradition, the work of preserving that tradition involves making recordings of the music. In cases where there are sufficient musicians still playing the music (such as Mawlawî Samâ` music), the work involves improving the quality of the musicians' training and preserving the time-honoured setting and function of the musical tradition (such as being played in a traditional Samâ` hall during a Samâ` ceremony).

Unfortunately, the Turkish government has not yet fully accepted the UNESCO declaration; to do so would commit the government to take direct responsibility for preserving and improving the quality of many Mawlawî traditions relating to music and Samâ`--not simply managing Samâ` groups for touristic purposes with minimal traditional standards. On the other hand, the government has been active for years in a number of ways that help both the Mawlawî tradition as well as the government's interest in supporting Samâ` to celebrate Turkish culture and promote tourism. Among these are the following: (1) reopening the Mawlânâ mausoleum in 1927 as a museum (after a two-year closure), (2) permitting Samâ` to be performed in public starting in the 1950's (after a thirty-year ban), (3) establishing two professional Samâ` groups: one in Konya (musicians and semazens, founded in 1990) and one in Istanbul (musicians only, founded in 1992), in which the members are permanent employees of the government Ministry of Culture and Tourism, (4) restoring a number of Mawlawî centers in Turkey (such as the historic YenikapI Mevlevihane in Istanbul), (5) establishing quality control standards for Samâ` groups (such as certification of acceptable training levels), and (6) discouraging businesses in Konya from exploiting the name of Mawlânâ in advertising (such as "Mevlana Kebab").

The Mawlawî tradition could be further strengthened by Turkish government policy changes and financial support. The following are among the possibilities: (1) fully accepting the UNESCO declaration about preserving the Samâ` Ceremony and its music, (2) allowing Mevlevis to operate the YenikapI Mevlevi center in Istanbul as a cultural and educational organization18, and (3) building a similar Mevlevi center in Konya and allowing one of the Konya Samâ` groups to operate it as a cultural and educational organization. Unfortunately, the Mawlawîs have little hope of managing the Mawlânâ mausoleum and Mawlawî center in Konya with the aim of reviving the traditions, as it presently generates so much income for the government: for example, 1.3 million Turkish and foreign (generally about 25%) visitors bought museum tickets during 2006.

Another, and perhaps concurrent, way to preserve Mawlawî traditions that would involve fewer bureaucratic restrictions would be to construct a major Mawlawî center in Europe or America, a semi-traditional complex of small buildings that could include a whirling hall, mosque, kitchen, classrooms, and living quarters--adapted, of course, to living in the 21st century. In such a center, Mawlawî traditions could be kept up, such as teaching and studying the spiritual wisdom in Mawlânâ's works (through accurate translations, as well as by the study of Persian), teaching and learning Mawlawî music (instrumental and compositional), doing calligraphy and other visual arts, whirling in the Samâ` ritual, practicing refined manners [adab] in order to cultivate selflessness, learning to become authentic dervishes through humble service (especially in a kitchen, from which the poor should be fed free of charge), and following the Mawlawî Sufi path of selfless love under the guidance of a Mawlawî shaykh (such as by struggling against ego-centered tendencies and repeating the Mawlawî chant ['Allâh, Allâh'] of the remembrance of God [dhikr] in the heart as much as possible throughout the day).

Then, individuals who attain proficiency in such areas could become teachers and exemplars in their specialties for younger generations. By this means, excellent standards of training could benefit other Mawlawî groups and lead to the founding of new centers in other countries as well. And in this way, Mawlawî traditions could be strengthened for the future--perhaps even to flourish anew in Turkey, should religious freedom be protected there once again for dervishes.


1Friedlander, Ira. The Whirling Dervishes (New York: Macmillan, 1975), p. 112.

2During, J. 'Samâ`, 1. In music and mysticism', Encyclopedia of Islam: 2nd ed., vol. 8, pp. 1018-19.

3Tahsin YazIcI, Encyclopedia of Islam: 2nd ed., cited by Franklin Lewis, Rumi--Past and Present, East and West: The Life, Teachings and Poetry of Jalâl al-Din Rûmi (Oxford: Oneworld, 2000; revised 2003), p. 461.

4Shamsuddîn Ahmad Al-Aflâkî Al-`ârifî, Manâqibu 'l-`ârifîn (Tehrân: Dunyâ'î Kitâb, 1362/1983), vol. 1, p. 435. This is a reprint of the edition of Tahsin YazIcI (Ankara, 1959).

5Al-Aflâkî, vol. 1, p. 261.

6Al-Aflâkî, vol. 1, p. 409.

7Ibrahim Gamard and Rawan Farhadi, tr., The Quatrains of Rumi (San Rafael, California: Sufi Dari Books, 2008), quatrain F-1284, p. 35.

8A Persian quatrain composed by Abû Sa`îd Abi 'l-Khayr, two centuries before Mawlânâ Rûmî's time. See the translation from Persian by Vraje Abramian, Nobody, Son of Nobody: Poems of Shaikh Abu Saeed Abil-Kheir (Prescott, Arizona: Hohm, 2001), p. 4. This quatrain is not in Forûzânfar's authentic edition of the quatrains (Volume 8 of his edition of Kulliyât-i Shams yâ Dîwân-i kabîr).

9A Persian ghazal by an unknown poet, ending with the counterfeit verse, 'O Shams-i Tabrîzî, I am so drunk in this world that I have no story except (about) drunkenness and visiting taverns.' It was first translated into English by R. A. Nicholson, Selected Poems from the Dîwâni Shamsi Tabrîz (London: Cambridge, 1897), pp. 124-27. Nicholson admitted that, 'The original text does not occur in any of the editions or MSS. used by me' (p. 281).

10From a Persian quatrain by an unknown poet. It was first translated into English by Shahram Shiva, Rending the Veil: Literal and Poetic Translations of Rumi (Phoenix, Arizona: Hohm, 1995), p. 178. Shiva mistakenly believed that a one-volume edition of Mawlânâ's Dîwân --entitled Kulliyât-i Shams-i Tabrîzî (Tehrân: Amîr Kabîr, 1957, later revised and reprinted) --contains the complete edition of the Dîwân as edited by the renowned Iranian scholar, B. Forûzânfar; whereas, it actually contains an inferior edition of the quatrains printed in Isfahân in 1941. This quatrain is not in Forûzânfar's authentic critical edition (Volume 8).

11From a Persian quatrain by an unknown poet. It was first translated into English by Shiva (cited above), p. 33. This quatrain is not in Forûzânfar's authentic edition (Volume 8).

12Translated from Persian by Gamard and Farhadi (cited above), quatrain F-1173, p. 2.

13Maqâlât-i Shams-i Tabrîzî, ed. by Muhammad `Alî Muvahhid (Tehrân: Intishârât-i Khwârazmî, 1377/1998). The first excerpts translated into English from this edition were done by Franklin Lewis, Rumi--Past and Present, East and West: The Life, Teachings and Poetry of Jalâl al-Din Rûmi.

14Maqâlât-i Shams-i Tabrîzî, pp. 742-43. This was translated by William Chittick in his accurate translation of selections of this important work of Shams' 'Discourses', Me and Rumi: The Autobiography of Shams-i Tabrizi (Louisville, Kentucky: Fons Vitae, 2004), p. 80. This passage was translated (from the Turkish translation by Gencosman) by Erkan Türkmen, Teachings of Shams-i Tabrezi (Rumi's Master) (Konya: Anadolu Manshet Gazetesi YayInlarI, 2004), p. 34. It was also translated (from the Turkish translation by Gencosman) by Refik Algan (with Camille A. Helminski), Rumi's Sun: The Teachings of Shams of Tabriz (Sand Point, Idaho: Morning Light, 2008), pp. 188-89.

15See Lewis (cited above), pp. 184-200.

16Maqâlât-i Shams-i Tabrîzî, pp. 163-64. This passage was translated by Gamard and Farhadi in The Quatrains of Rumi, p. 34 (cited above) and also translated by Lewis, p. 182 (cited above), by Chittick, p. 305 (cited above), and by Algan, p. 96 (cited above).

17Three works that contain such information are the following: (1) Friedlander's book (cited above), (2) Lewis' book (cited above), and (3) YüzyIllar Boyu Mevlâna ve Mevlevîlik, Mevlana and Mevlevi Order Throughout Centuries (Istanbul, 2008, edited by Esin Chelebi Bayru and Bekir Reha Saghbash (Istanbul, International Mevlana Foundation and the Republic of Turkey Ministry of Culture and Tourism, 2008) (in Turkish with a parallel-text English translation).

18This has been proposed in Mevlana and Mevlevi Order Throughout Centuries (cited above), pp. 390-91.