Sema: Traditional Sufi Worship and Whirling

February 3, 2008 § 13 Comments

For over 700 years Muslims have performed a devotional worship, a form of sema, whirling in continual remembrance of their Creator. This tradition of whirling became commonly known through the sufi poet Maulana Jalal’ud-din Rumi. The word sema, which is arabic for “sound” is described best by Shamsi Tabriz, Maulana Jalal’ud-din’s master and shaykh saying,

“There comes a Sound, from neither within nor without,
From neither right nor left, from neither behind nor in front,
From neither below nor above, from neither East nor West,
Nor is it of the elements: water, air, fire, earth, and the like;
From where then? It is from that place thou art in search of;
Turn ye toward the place where from the Lord makes His appearance.
From where a restless fish out of water gets water to live in,
From the place where the prophet Moses saw the divine Light,
From the place where the fruits get their ripening influence,
From the place where the stones get transmuted to gems,
From the place which even an infidel turns in distress,
From the place to which all men turn when they find this world a vale of tears.
It is not given to us to describe such a blessed place;
It is a place where even the heretics would leave off their heresies.”

The place Shaykh Shamsi Tabriz discusses here is the aim of sema, hearing that which all men seek when the World and its pleasures become monotonous. Sufi whirling is a way, a form of sema, to approach Allah Almighty’s Divine Presence and if He is accepting, sufi whirling becomes a means to hearing that “Sound”.

It is interesting to note here that like all forms of worship, there is no guarantee of Allah’s acceptance of our worship. Indeed, the acceptance of our worship is really unknown to us and this is mentioned concerning sema in the passage above. One way we try to secure the acceptance of our worship is by pleasing Allah Almighty. And the best way to accomplish this is to do as he asks of us. Allah Almighty has sent the Shariat and allowed the lifestyle of the Prophet Muhammad (may Peace and Blessings be upon him) to identify what is pleasing to Him and what is hated by Him; what is recommended and what is disliked, respectively.

In other words, Allah Almighty has sent manners for our conduct and messengers as examples of these manners. And as in most forms of supererogatory Islamic worship, the various forms of sema should only be attempted given proper conditions, such as under the guidance of a shaykh, ritual purity: ablution (wudu’), a clear intention (niyyah), following Divine Laws and proper etiquette (adab).

Below you will find an example of Sufi Whirling in the presence of a Sufi Shaykh, Shaykh Abdul-Kerim al-Kibrisi of the Shaykh Nazim Osmanli Naks-i’bendi-Hakkani Sufi Association in New York City. This association gathers every Friday 7pm at 353 W. 39th St. #304, and all are welcome inshaAllah.

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§ 13 Responses to Sema: Traditional Sufi Worship and Whirling

  • Haamidah says:

    Salaamu Alaykum brother,

    Thank you for the post. I like what you’ve quoted of the sheikh’s saying.

    I’d be interested to know how one may reconcile the sunnah of the prophet (SAW) in dhikr and the whirling in dhikr as practiced by sufis.

  • Saifuddin says:

    BismillaharRahmanirRahim

    wa ‘alaikum as-salaam Haamidah. It is good of you to comment on this meager attempt at writing on Hazrat Shamsi Tabriz and Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi.

    “Thank you for the post.”

    Alhamdulillah, shukr ya Rabbi. I pray it is of benefit for more than just myself. Haamidah, you wrote,

    “I’d be interested to know how one may reconcile the sunnah of the prophet (SAW) in dhikr and the whirling in dhikr as practiced by sufis.”

    And I will be happy to answer with what I know. Muhammad Thana’ullah al-‘Osmani ad-Dahiawi (ra), a great Islamic scholar, wrote a book called Irshad at-Talibin. In it he says,

    “There are those who have learned the Zahiri knowledge which Rasulullah (alayhi salatu wa salam) was ordered by Allah ta ‘ala to preach, but who do not believe the ma’arif of tasawwuf, Batini Knowledge, whcih Rasulullah (alayhi salatu wa salam) was permitted to teach as much as he wished to those Sahabis whom he selected.”

    Here the ‘alim is referring to “Batini Knowledge”. These are the inner teachings of Inner Knowledge one learns from association with the Shaykh in imitation of the same tradition the Sahabi learned from association with the Prophet (s.a.w.s.). This knowledge is the excellences relating to the ascent of one’s soul compared to Zahiri excellences which relate to believing in accordance with the Qur’an al-kerim, hadith ash-sharif, performing the fards, wajibs, sunnats, and mustahabs. Avoiding haram, makruh, mushtabihat and bidat.

    When the Holy Prophet is asked, “what is Ihsan?” by the angel Jibril (a.s.) in the hadith al-Jabril, he answers,

    “To worship Allahu ta ‘ala as if one sees him”

    This is explained by Muhammad Thana’ullah al-‘Osmani ad-Dahiawi, that this identifies a third perfection, an excellence besides iman and ibaadat, called Ihsan. The heart of the AwliyaAllah dissolves in the observation of Allah Almighty when love over takes him. And although Allah Almighty cannot be seen in the world the Wali enters a state called hal as the result of his desire to see him. This is what Ahl-Sunnat wal Jama’ah understand the Holy Prophet to mean when he says,

    “…worship Allahu ta ‘ala as if one sees him”

    As Hamza Yusuf and Zaid Shakir have stated in their, “Agenda to Change Our Condition”, in Chapter 2, The Heart and its Treatment, it reads,

    “It is extremely difficult to achieve sincerity of the heart through the actions of the limbs.”

    And they go on to emphasize sincerity to the degree that either they know or are obliged to explain for that project. However, it is the responsibility of the shaykhs of ahl-tariqat to polish the hearts of Muslims who have tired of this dunya so that they may sincerely seek worship as if one sees Allah Almighty.

    Our way, the way of Naks-i’bendi-Hakkani is coming through the forty Grand Shaykhs of ahl-tariqat. Beginning with the first transmission of our Silsila (Authentic Chain of Successive Transmission), from the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.s.) to Sayyidina Abu Bakr Siddiq (ra).

    -Saifuddin

  • Yursil says:

    BismillahirRahmanirRahim
    Salamu’alaykum Haamidah,

    Sama in the forms practiced by authentic tariqats is a sunnah practiced in the presence of the Prophet (S) and by the Sahabi (R).

    -Yursil

  • Saifuddin says:

    BismillaharRahmanirRahim

    as-salaamu ‘alaikum. Nice Yursil, simple, short and sweet.

    -Saifuddin

  • haamidah says:

    Salaamu alaykum brother,

    May Allah reward you for your kind response.

    I share your view of ihsan and the states/hal that one can experience and sema’ in general which relates to this but my issue is really with the whirling.

    Is it (whirling) a form of worship that originates from the practice of the prophet, or has it ever been practiced in his presence with approval?
    Doesn’t it need to meet those conditions to be considered valid?

    Also personally I find that worship brings stillness which I don’t see in whirling. Then again sight (physical, insight, inner vision etc) is a limited faculty I believe.

    Allah knows best.

    Please excuse me if I have missed the point in your previous answer.

  • Saifuddin says:

    BismillaharRahmanirRahim

    wa ‘alaikum as-salaam Haamidah. You wrote,

    “Please excuse me if I have missed the point in your previous answer.”

    No I think you grasped my point just fine. However, it appears you may have missed Yursil Effendi’s comments answering the very important question,

    “I’d be interested to know how one may reconcile the sunnah of the prophet (SAW) in dhikr and the whirling in dhikr as practiced by sufis.”

    He replied in comment #3 saying,

    “Sama in the forms practiced by authentic tariqats is a sunnah practiced in the presence of the Prophet (S) and by the Sahabi (R).”

    Yursil’s point actually addresses your question. Whereas I was explaining more or less how this occurred, that is to say, that there are those of the elite among the Sahabi that received the inner teachings through direct association with the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.s) and these inner teachings are practiced by authentic tariqats today.

    -Saifuddin

  • haamidah says:

    Salaam to brothers Saifuddin and Yursil.

    I didn’t miss Yursil’s point- It was in astonishment really that I had to ask the question in a more clear way.

    So the prophet witnessed it with approval? Is there any evidence to support this claim?

  • Yursil says:

    BismillahirRahmanirRahim
    Alaykumsalaam Haamidah,

    That is a pretty deep question, and secondly I am not a whirler myself.

    The answer to this question depends on your criterion for proof. I’m not one to dwell on such matters, and nowadays I find such conversations a bit dangerous and dreary.. yet… it helps some people.

    The sunnah of the stars of the skies, the galaxies and the earth itself is to whirl. As the Quran al Karim states, everything is going in its own orbit.

    BismillahirRahmanirRahim
    “It is He who created the night and the day, and the sun and the moon, all (the celestial bodies) swim along, each in its orbit.” (21:33)

    Besides that reality of the universe, our Grandshaykh is teaching that the first whirler was Abu Bakr as-Siddiq (R), and this coincides with centuries old knowledge about Abu Bakr as-Siddiq(R)… even prior to Mevlana Rumi’s (R) opening of this type of Sama to the world with the Mevlevi Tarikat. The lengthy narration concludes with:

    Allah Most High was sending blessings and salutation to Abu Bakr. Gabriel said, “Tell him his Lord is pleased with Him if he is pleased with his Lord.”

    When Abu Bakr came into the presence of our Master and heard the good news from the lips of beloved Prophet, he got up, thanked Allah, said, “Indeed I am pleased with my Lord!” and in his joy whirled around three times.

    – quoted from Ibn al-Husayn al-Sulami’s Kitab al-Futuwwah Ibn al-Husayan is a highly respected sufi saint and scholar of the 10th century and the book is founded on very strong isnad (chain of authorities).

    It was Abu Bakr as-Siddiq (R) whose heart contained the largest amount of knowledge poured from the Prophet (S) directly, yet who is one who narrated very few hadith of his own…

    This is also a document with plenty of proofs of various other forms of physical movement in front of the Prophet (S):
    http://www.marifah.net/articles/hadra-ibnajibah.pdf

    The centuries old flourishing of the orthodox Sufi orders who very clearly trace their specific teachings and teachers back to the Holy Prophet (S) is a final (and sufficient) witness for us to see and think about.

    Islam is broad, but it is also specialized and appropriate for the individual spirit.

    What may suit you or me may not suit others, what closeness they achieve may be higher in whirling than what we can hope to achieve in sitting. We may never know, but it is far better in manners to think this way.

  • haamidah says:

    salaamu alaykum Yursil.

    MayAllah reward you for your kind response which is very clear.

    I’m not at all learned in sufism so my concern in asking this question was not for the purpose of argument or debate. since our brother Saifuddin made a small introduction to sema’ and reference to whirling I was interested to know how this practice is understood in the sufi community. By asking this question I’m not at all advocating or denouncing any practice in favor of a narrow Islam.

    and Allah Knows best.

    So thank you I will look into the references you have given.

  • Yursil says:

    BismillahirRahmanirRahim
    Alaykumsalaam,

    I’m glad you found it of some benefit, I think the main thing to understand is the first point, rather than the ‘proofs’ or references. The sufi ‘community’ understands Sama as being Sunnat.

    Since you were astonished so I thought it would be best to provide just a few insights into understanding Mevlevi Sama. So my comment in summary is discussing three points:

    One: whirling being an inherent and intimate part of the nature of creation

    Two: whirling of Abu Bakr as-Siddiq (R),and

    Three: the nature of knowledge transmitted from heart to heart to the Shaykhs of Sufi Tariqats.

    The final, of course, precludes the necessity of textual references and rather relies on Sunnat (in its literal translation of ‘tradition’).

    -Yursil

  • Nur Jemal says:

    Asalaamo alleikum ya akhee!

    It’s great that you are blogging about the Sema. My daughter’s name is Sema and she whirls innately. We have never coached her on this or taught it to her.

    She didn’t jump in her baby “Johnnie Jump -Up”, she whirled. She started whirling on her own 2 feet as soon as she could walk. Now she whirls whenever we dance, alhumdulillah.

    We are part of the Mevlevi tariqqa, with our immediate Sheikh being Sidi abdul-Kabir Helminski, alhumdulillah.

    http://www.sufism.org

    May Allah accept our prayers.

    Eyvallah, Huuuuuuuuuu.

    -Nur Jemal

  • Aaminah says:

    Asalaamu alaikum.

    I’ve got nothing intelligent to add to the general discussion, but feel compelled to tell Nur Jemal that is the sweetest story, mashaAllah! 🙂 May Allah keep your little Sema on His Path, ameen.

  • Saifuddin says:

    BismillaharRahmanirRahim

    wa ‘alaikum as-salaam wa rahmatullah. Welcome Nur Jemal and Aaminah its good to have you here, thank you for commenting.

    -Saifuddin

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