She performs ablutions, prays, and mends shoes for years, only to don her death shroud upon her back and place a symbolic tombstone upon her head. With death cloaking her compassionate body, she begins to twirl, invoking the name of the Beloved within her heart. She is a whirling dervish and her name is Fatima. The daughter-in-law of the esteemed Sufi poet, Rumi, joins with the myriad other Holy Women Icons with a folk feminist twist that I write about each month: Virginia Woolf , the Shulamite, Mary Daly, Baby Suggs, Pachamama and Gaia, Frida Kahlo, Salome, Guadalupe and Mary.
Fatima is best understood when placed in an historical context. So, I begin with a very brief history of the whirling dervishes, while also offering glimpses into women’s roles in the Mevlevi Order. The primary Islamic sect that proclaims that dancing is a way of connecting with the divine—for both men and women—is the Sufi Order. Over eight hundred years ago, Mevlâna Jalâluddîn Rumi inspired faithful Muslims to whirl in harmony with all things in nature. The whirling dervishes of Turkey unite the mind, heart, and body, and help to usher peace into the world through their dance by dedicating their lives to service and compassion. After Rumi’s death on December 17, 1273, his followers responded by whirling. These followers of Rumi are known as the Mevlevi Order, or more popularly, the whirling dervishes. Until around the fourteenth century women were included in the practice and leadership of turning. As Muslims in Turkey became more and more conservative, however, women were forced to the sidelines and not allowed to whirl. And even with the secularization of the country with the reign of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, women were still denied access to the turning path because Ataturk essentially made whirling illegal in an attempt to take away as much religion from Turkish life as possible. Ataturk banned tekkes, or dervish homes, in 1925 as he secularized the state. By the 1970s the Turkish government allowed turning once again, but only if it was a performance and not a prayer. There were even reports of an old dervish being arrested because they saw his lips mouthing “Allah” as he turned in a theatre performance for tourists.
In the West, however, the Mevlevi Order of America was formed and women were again permitted in the turning path. Less than one month ago, a myriad of whirling women gathered for sema, remembering Rumi’s union with the Beloved on December 17, and turning in solidarity with the earth.
Before Western women began to whirl, however, women found inclusion and affirmation in the Mevlevi Order in Turkey. The inclusion of women in the early developments of turning was based primarily on the women in relationship with Rumi, such as his daughter-in-law, Fatima. Further, his granddaughters, Seref and Mutahhara were pivotal in helping their brother, Ulu Arif Chelebi, develop the Mevlevi Order. Additionally, Arifa Hoslika, a follower of Rumi, by the time Sultan Veled was made Pir of the Order and was initiated as a halife by Ulu Arif. A halife is usually the sheikh’s successor or the primary representative of the Order in the world; for a woman to be given such an honor speaks to the primacy of empowering women in the early phases of the Mevlevi Order. In the same way, women were initiated as postneshins, or the one who leads the turning ritual, and women were also deemed successors to be the sheikha, or leader, of the tekke. For a woman to lead the covenant of communal life designed to accommodate the dervish lifestyle, also known as the tekke, is a highest honor and responsibility.
Selaheddin Zarkub increased the number of women devoted to Rumi’s teachings. Zarkub’s daughters, Fatima and Hediyya, and his wife, Latifa, learned about Sufism through Rumi’s teachings. He taught them to read the Qur’an and referred to Fatima as his “right eye” and Hediyya his “left eye” and Latifa “the personification of God’s grace.” One of Rumi’s greatest joys was when Fatima married his son Sultan Veled. Fatima developed as a mystic under Rumi’s tutelage and Sultan Veled eventually became Rumi’s successor to the evolving order.
This is only a brief glimpse into Fatima’s fascinating history and the birth of the whirling dervishes. If you are interested in learning more about this topic, I detail it further in my book, Embodying the Feminine in the Dances of the World’s Religions, as does Shakina Reinhertz in Women Called to the Path of Rumi: The Way of the Whirling Dervish.
Turning toward the One she whirled, her heart receiving blessing from the Beloved and pouring peace onto the revolving earth…
Fatima’s dancing body—as portrayed in the icon—exemplifies the symbolic movement vocabulary essential to whirling. Her right palm faces up so as to receive blessings from the Beloved. Her body is then a conduit for that divine grace and blessing. As the love of Allah courses through her body, it exits out her left hand as her palm faces down toward the earth, bestowing blessings and peace as she revolves. Her dancing body stands as a paradigm for all the women who have whirled in union with the Beloved. May Fatima’s whirling body inspire our bodies this New Year to become conduits for grace and peace, bestowing blessings upon the whole earth with open hands.
Angela Yarber is Pastor for Preaching and Worship at Wake Forest Baptist Church at Wake Forest University. She has a PhD in Art and Religion from the Graduate Theological Union at UC Berkeley and is author of Embodying the Feminine in the Dances of the World’s Religions, along with numerous articles about the intersections among the arts, religion, and gender/sexuality. In 2013, she has two new books coming out: The Gendered Pulpit: Sex, Body, and Desire in Preaching and Worship and Dance in Scripture: How Biblical Dancers can Revolutionize Worship Today. She has been a clergy woman and professional dancer and artist since 1999 and she teaches a course as an adjunct professor at Wake Forest University School of Divinity. For more on her research, ministry, dance, or to purchase one of her icons, visit: www.angelayarber.com