Dancing Dervishes

Whether you believe there is a God, Gods, or that there is nothing else other than us, or that everything is just waves, vibrating on some form of energy, or that there are infinite other realms, or that we are merely simulations – whatever it is, they are all attempts to understand the universe around us, indeed, how we came to be, and why.

Often times my friends berate me for going off on what they call “philosophical” tangents, laughing and saying “oh there she goes again” or “this is too philosophical for me right now”. Yet isn’t philosophising merely the act of being a human? A self-aware, conscious human, that is. To speculate, to theorise, yes, to philosophise- about our existence- is this not the most common and fundamental thing of man? For a man not to wonder where he came from, well, he must not truly understand what it means to be alive-  how miraculous it is, that we are here, conscious, self-aware; that all of this around us, is here. I’m not sure if I envy that man. For those angry atheists (of which I used to be one) – name a culture or time where man didn’t have some form of a “religion”? What is culture without religion? At what point do you draw the line between culture and religion? Granted, they have some different elements, but the point is they are inextricably intertwined. Ergo, religion should not be scoffed at, dismissed, or ridiculed- neither should philosophy.

Yet there is an age old argument between philosophy and religion. Many philosophers were persecuted or executed for their condemned thoughts on monotheistic religions. Perhaps most famously, poor Socrates, for not believing in the god of the state, condemned to drink hemlock. The list is too long to go through here. In the Islamic world, during the Islamic Golden Age, many philosophers began to use allegories, which led to what we now call the philosophical allegory. This is a tool, a weapon, of philosophers to use, a clever, sly, way, to theorise, stipulate, ponder upon the wonders of the universe without being clad by the iron fist of certain religions. It is similar to the hidden transcript method used by the persecuted Uyghurs in the North-West of China, who practice Islam and are heavily controlled and abused by the government. Here a religious minority, persecuted for their beliefs, uses linguistic tools in their defiance against the wrath of a nation-state, while, ironically, philosophers in the Islamic Golden Age, persecuted for their beliefs used philosophical allegories, to continue to express their ideas without being prosecuted for it by religious entities. Examining the history of man, it may be still up for debate whether war is natural or not, but one thing is clear – man has always persecuted one another for each other’s beliefs.

And so, one of these many ways of pondering about the universe that is particularly intriguing, and beautiful, to me, is Sufism. It is the mystical, spiritual way of understanding Islam, with most of them being Sunni. Sufism emphasises ridding oneself of one’s ego, of materialism, in order to become one with God. Due to their rather spiritual take on Islam, Sufis are often looked down upon by many Muslims, some even believing they are heretical, others believing many of them are on drugs, or crazy. The Islamic State and other extremist Sunni groups condemn them as heretical. In 2017 235 or more were killed in a Sufi mosque bombing in Northern Sinai.

These dervishes would twirl for up to twenty minutes without stopping, shedding layers of their brightly coloured clothing. This symbolises the ridding of materialism that Sufis believe is necessary to become one with God. near the end, the boys went into a trance- raising their arms as they faced the heavens, lost (Sufi Concert, Cairo)

One of my favourite films, Bab’Aziz – The Prince who Contemplated His Soul, is a Tunisian film about a blind dervish traveling with his granddaughter towards a massive Sufi gathering. This is one of the few pieces of art, that is authentic and that I would recommend for anyone slightly interested in Sufism, or just anyone looking at different paths to facing and understanding the world and the universe. This is a film that deconstructs many misconceptions about Islam, and about Sufism.

“You’d think he’s contemplating his image at the bottom of the water.”
“Maybe it’s not his image. Only those who are not in love see their own reflection.”
“So what does he see?”
“He’s contemplating his soul.”

“Hassan: But there can’t be light in death because it‘s the end of everything.

Bab’aziz: How can death be end of something that doesn’t have a beginning? Hassan, my son, don’t be sad at my wedding night.

Hassan: Your wedding night?

Baba’aziz: Yes. My marriage with eternity.”


The people of this world are like the three butterflies
in front of a candle’s flame.

The first one went closer and said:
I know about love.

The second one touched the flame
lightly with his wings and said:
I know how love’s fire can burn.

The third one threw himself into the heart of the flame
and was consumed. He alone knows what true love is.

Bab’aziz and his grand-daughter in the film, “Bab’aziz”. 

This brings me to Rumi. Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, Persian, of the 12th century, is one of the most read poets in the world. Referred to typically as Rumi, his works have been translated into countless other languages, and has influenced Turkic, Iranian, Turkish, Azerbaijani, and other literatures. And, yes, he was a Sufi mystic. His master, Shams of Tabriz, is often pondered about what the nature of their relationship was – merely student and teacher? friends? lovers? I believe all, their love transcended these categories, they had the deepest, purest, form of love- in all of its being. These are some books I have on Rumi, Shams, and Sufism; given to me by someone very special, and that I know will aid anyone in their journey, regardless of the nature of their journey:

  • Discourses of Rumi – Jalaluddin Rumi
  • Fiih Ma Fihi – Jalaluddin Rumi
  • 40 Rules of Love by Elif Shafak

Finally, the moth and flame metaphor, which is said to describe certain parts of Sufism. It is said to describe the relationship between Man and God, or between Shams and Rumi, or to symbolise self-transformation, as the moth’s annihilation occurs again and again as it is always drawn to the flame- the annihilation is said to depict the passing into the Divine (fana) on the Sufi path. Or perhaps the love affair of the soul of the human with That Which We Cannot Understand, which is also Everything. Some call it God. others call it Nothingness.

Moth: I gave you my life.
Flame: I allowed you to kiss me.
-Sufi Master Hazrat Inayat Khan


10 responses to “Dancing Dervishes”

  1. It’s more than a little odd that all human descriptions of God always conceive of what is an ego. The fact that the Abrahamic God is clearly distinct and separate from the artifact of creation also lends to the idea that man is also. And so people are cluttered into the odd circumstance of being born into this world instead of being born out of it. This leads to a sense of not belonging.
    Taoism and Buddhism don’t see things that way at all and instead believe that coming out of this world is natural and more than that that the ego is an illusion!


    • Yes, I believe because culture and religion are inextricably intertwined, they both enforce the other. Religion is, to some extent, a reflection of culture, as the two continuously shape each other. The God of the monotheistic religions is anthropomorphic. In other words, ironically, we created God in our image here. THis says something about these cultures of which these religions exist within and with. And as you said, polytheistic religions – also Shintoism and Hinduism as well as your mentioned Taoism and Buddhism, do not, and therefore focus on that other than the Ego.


  2. The butterfly and fire metaphor is a beautiful metaphor — how do you interpret it into your actual lifestyle? Just curious how that influences you. 🙂 Awesome article.


    • Thanks, Morgan! Well, for me, the moth and fire metaphor has two meanings. The main thing it signifies for me is the relationship we each have with what we call life… this can be, I think, also called God for believers, or energy in quantum physics, or the Universe for atheists. It is just the explanation or the thing as to how we are here, and why we are here…

      The moth, is always drawn to the flame – inevitably. This inevitability is the notion that we cannot control life. Many fear death because they understand very clearly that they cannot control its occurrence – but they do not fear life itself. Yet, if they fear death, because of its inevitability and our lack of agency regarding it, then, following this logic, one should fear life as well. However, I do not think we should fear life, nor death. We are like the moth, going towards the light – we are born into this world, in this body, in this consciousness – and we do not know what the light we are going towards is- what happens after death, when will we die? But, like the moth, we are drawn to it anyway, and it is beautiful. I think that’s what the metaphor means to me.


      • And so, to answer your question – I think this is what I try to do in my life. I try not to be afraid of the inevitable, and the unknown, and to love fate… the Latin phrase “Amor Fati” comes to mind here, a phrase that I love- it means “love of fate.”


  3. This is a remarkable piece! Light and yet contains solid substance. Really enjoyed reading it along with my cup of tea. The soul’s journey to Divine Presence is of epic proportions, i think. Stuff of legend. As the story of the prince (somehwat similar to famous Sufi Ibrahim Bin Adham), he forsake everything to find the Beloved and continued his(Soul’s) journey to Divine Presence of bewilderment (also similar to the third moth who gave up everything to taste real Love) and therefore unveiling the heart and soul’s secret or reality.
    Good luck in your journey of existential understanding of the self.


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