Dervish is a word that means poor, destitute one. Even though it is used for the poor and helpless in worldly terms, in Sufi terminology it is used for those who are aware of their poverty and helplessness before God. Although poverty and helplessness in worldly terms are associated with beggary, travelers to God are not poor and helpless in that they do not ask anyone for anything. Heroes of truth, who have dedicated themselves to God, are content with what He has given them and are indifferent to all other things. Even in hunger and thirst they unburden themselves to God, without revealing their need to others. A dervish is also regarded as being the threshold to a door. This does not mean that dervishes humiliate themselves before people; rather, it means that they are humble and in their awareness of their nothingness before God attribute to Him whatever they may possess that is worthy of appreciation. They are also humble among people because of the Creator and always aware that they are a precious work of God’s art with all the Divine gems inherent in their nature.

Sometimes perfect people are mentioned as being the dervishes of a certain guide. This is because it is important to stress the place of a dervish, both in the sight of God and of people. Besides, sometimes simple, humble, content, and lenient people are called dervishes, while there are some great, sagacious persons with a deep knowledge of God who are known as “a poor one with the heart of sultan,” in that they are magnanimous even though poor.

The leading scholars of Sufism describe a true dervish as one who is abstinent, pious, righteous, patient, loving, tolerant, and steadfast, severing relations with all else save God from the heart, and devoted to His service with the intention and effort of reaching Him.

Dance Dervishes Rotate Towels Whirling Dervish

Whirling Dervish

A dervish takes his or her first step by holding back from sins and by fulfilling obligatory and supererogatory religious duties. The second step is to be loving and tolerant toward everyone, to see the universe as a cradle of brotherhood/sisterhood, and to try to represent the nature and morals of Muhammad, and the truth of his being Ahmad, upon him be peace and blessings. The third step is to reach the horizon of sincerity and perfect goodness and to develop the theoretical knowledge and belief based on imitation into experience and verified truths.

At the first stage, dervishes are at the beginning of piety, and demonstrate that they are ready to understand the Qur’an and to start the journey to meet with the Almighty. They are awarded in proportion to their sincerity and purity of intention and advance toward piety and the summits of being pleased with God and finally into the Gardens of Paradise.

God Almighty says: The great among you are those who are pious.
The last abode of the pious will be Paradise and their drink will be kawthar.[1]

In the second stage, they build relations with all existence, living or non-living, (without, however, assigning their heart to any other than the Almighty) and appreciate each according to its position. They love and embrace everything, repel hostilities with love, and evil with good. Thinking that the road that they are to follow is the road of not showing resentment, but rather that of patience and tolerance, they run toward the rank of being pleased with God, and whisper like Yunus:

You should be voiceless to one who curses, and handless to one who beats;
A dervish should have no heart to resent, so you cannot be a dervish.

Mevlevi whirling dervishes, 1887

Mevlevi whirling dervishes, 1887

In the third stage, dervishes are persons of peace and spiritual vision, having entered the way of seeing, feeling, and knowing only Him, and being faithful friends of Him. It makes no difference to them whether good comes from friends or evil from enemies. This is even more so if they have heard the voice of the Friend, then they will no longer feel breaths other than His, and will be freed from interest in and worries about any other than Him, acquiring a second nature that is determined by “secret.” They know what they really should know and are freed from bearing a burden of unnecessary information.

Everyone can enter the way of being a dervish. No one who has taken a step on this way is denied. However, entering such a way has some requirements which one who is ready to take the first step on this way is expected to fulfill. Tokadizade Sekip[2] states that the door to being a dervish is open for everybody, but warns that this is the way of offering the soul to the Beloved and therefore requires sincerity and perfect goodness:

The door to the Truth is open to a wakeful person,
But those who know how to sacrifice their souls can reach God.
I have seen many who have come to this dervish convent,
Willing and ready to sacrifice themselves on the way of truth.

The Prophet Abraham is an excellent example to remind one that reaching God is possible by sacrificing one’s soul in His way. He breasted the fire of Nimrod[3] in this way and, leaving his home and native land, set up his home in the desert. In utter submission to God, he took his wife and son and left them in a desolate valley. He offered the “fruit of his heart”-his son who had been bestowed on him in return for many years of desiring a son-to the Truth, as a sacrifice.[4] In short, he showed such resolution, power of will, and determination at every step, that except for the pride of humankind, he has no equal in human history. It is as if Sayyid Nigari[5] uttered the following couplet about him:

Does one who seeks the Beloved struggle for his own life?
And can another who seeks his own life be in quest of the Beloved?

So, being a dervish means aspiring to be a hero of meeting with the Beloved, which signifies devoting one’s life to acquiring God’s good pleasure and approval in the consciousness of the meaning and purpose of the religious commandments. It has also been described as being in quest of the Truth under the guidance of love and zeal and by dominating one’s voice, heart, and carnal soul. This description is also significant. Riza Tevfik, a late Turkish poet and philosopher, presenting the characteristics of being a dervish, enlightens this point as follows:

Being a dervish means dominating one’s essence;
One who is a captive of his ego is not a dervish.
It is adopting love as a guide and finding God;
It is not sweets, an axe, a staff, a needle or a skewer.

Do not sit absentminded in the name of devotion;
Do not shout, nor dance violently, nor beat your breast!
Nor foam by crying “O He, O All-Living!”
Mentioning God is not a part of digestion.

Learn the secret about God from your heart;
It is the heart which sees the Beloved through love.
What causes a wakeful one with knowledge of God to feel that pleasure,
Is not henbane, nor wine, nor opium, nor anything else.

Do not expect wonder from the stone of Najaf,[6]
Nor separate from human beings, your brethren.
You cannot see the Truth from graves or tombs;
A true man of God is a sultan, not a hermit.

Everywhere are heaps of crude souls,
What is your relation with them?
Take refuge in your heart that tends to seclusion!
The world is not as spacious as the heart.

In the beginning, a dervish is a student who studies theoretical knowledge; his or her practicing what is learned is representation; then, feeling and experiencing more deeply what is known and practiced-by each according to his or her capacity-is certainty. The first stage can also be regarded as theoretical Shari’a, the second as practical Shari’a, and the third as Shari’a experienced in truth. A traveler is a dervish during the whole of the journeying, through all of its stations, from the beginning to the end.

Sunset Spring Melting Ice Nature Landscape

Sunset in Spring

Some exacting scholars of Sufism regard being a dervish as an essential condition on the way to meet with God. According to them, being a dervish has the same meaning and importance for the cleansing of the carnal self, the refinement of heart, and the purification of spirit and its acquiring transcendence as treatment, diet and abstention from harmful habits, food and drink do for health. As a doctor’s advice is essential for the cure of diseases, spiritual diseases also require the advice and direction of a spiritual guide. The character of an individual is important in the diagnosis and treatment of bodily diseases, which is why modern medicine advises that every patient requires individual attention. This is also true for spiritual diseases and treatment. Each disease may require a treatment which is different, at least, in its details.

For example, for an initiate who cannot be saved from the pressure of corporeality or bodily desires, or reach the level of life lived in the heart and the spirit, austerity is essential. A guide who knows the person and can diagnose his or her disease well, will advise renunciation of the world and whatever in it relates to the pleasures of the worldly life. If the initiate has fully concentrated on the pleasures of the other world without considering the Truly Desired and Eternally-Besought One, the guide will urge renunciation of the other world with its pleasures and concentration on the Truth. If, on the other hand, neither the world nor the hereafter can keep an initiate from the main goal of the journeying, if both serve to improve concentration on eternity, the guide will open the doors on the world and the hereafter wide for the initiate. Concerning this, Jalal al-Din al-Rumi says:

The world means heedlessness of God; it does not mean possessing silver coins, clothes, or a family. Our Prophet praised wealth earned in lawful ways and used for the revival and uplifting of Islam, and said: “How good is any wealth earned in lawful ways for a righteous one!” If enough water finds its way into a ship, it causes it to sink, but if it is under the ship, it causes it to float. If you do not put the love of wealth in your heart, then you can swim safely in the ocean of spiritual journeying and initiation.

True dervishes, from the time of Adam until today, have thought and acted in such a way. Even though they were not called dervishes, we can regard the People of the Suffa -the poor Companions who stayed in the antechamber adjacent to the Prophet’s Mosque in Madina- as the first dervishes of the Muslim Umma. They observed both the balance between the world and the hereafter and the Divine rights to a degree that no one else has been able to, and they became heroes of resignation (to God’s will).

Model of a dervish studying.

Model of a dervish studying.

After the Companions, all the people of journeying and initiation who have journeyed on the way to God under different titles, such as asceticism or Sufism or being a dervish, have performed great tasks, as if they were the soul and blood in the veins of the society, so long as they have had no interest in politics and concentrated all their efforts for belief in God’s Unity and maintaining the Islamic life in this belief. When they have acted to the contrary, they have both harmed society and ruined themselves.

Using being a dervish, which, in fact, is a state based on humility and a feeling of nothingness, for worldly benefits is such a means of contamination of the spirit that nothing other than a special Divine grace can clean it.

Let Mawlana Jalal al-Din al-Rumi have the last word:

A luxurious life is a shame on dervishes; a burden in their hearts.
How nice is feeling destitute before Him;
And being in need of Him on His way.
For pomp and luxury on the way to the Beloved
Are like thorns; they hurt the feet of dervishes.

O God! Make full of blessings my religious life, which is the guarantee of my innocence, and my other life, to which I am bound to go, and my world, in which I can be perfected. And bestow Your blessings and peace on our master Muhammad, and on his family and the Companions altogether.

By M. Fethullah Gulen

[1] Kawthar is the name of a river in Paradise. (Trans.)
[2] Tokadizade Sekip was one of the Turkish poets and writers who lived in Izmir in the first half of the 20th century. He wrote in favor of freedom during the reign of the Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II, and was one of the founders of the Association of Defending the Basic Rights in Izmir. (Trans.)
[3] Nimrod was the title that was given to the Chaldean kings in Iraq. (Trans.)
[4] Prophet Abraham, upon God’s command, left his elder son Ishmael in the valley of Makkah together with her mother Hagar. (Trans.)
[5] Seyyid Mir Hamza Nigari was a Sufi poet from Azerbaijan. He wrote lyrical poems to express God’s love. (Trans.)
[6] Najaf is a city in the southern Iraq, which bears holiness for the Shi’ite Muslims. (Trans.)

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