By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
When Pope Benedict XVI said in the aftermath of his Regensburg lecture that he wanted a “frank and sincere” dialogue with Islam, this may not have been exactly what he had in mind, but here it is anyway: On June 5, a troupe of Whirling Dervishes from Turkey will perform for the pope in the Vatican.
Technically known as the “Mevlevi Sema,” a Sufi form of worship using ecstatic dance, the performance will take place in the Vatican’s Palazzo della Cancelleria, with a seating capacity of 300, as part of a “Dialogue between Religions” organized by the Pontifical Council for Culture.
“Dervish,” which literally means “poor person” or “beggar” in Persian, is one term for a follower of Sufi Islam, which accounts for roughly 20 percent of the global Muslim population of 1.6 billion. The “Whirling Dervishes” take their inspiration from Jelaladdin Rumi, a 13th century Turkish philosopher and mystic born in what is now Afghanistan, known to his adherents as “Mevlana,” or “master.” After Rumi’s death, his followers founded the Mevlevi order, known for their trademark dance as a form of dhikr, or “remembrance” of Allah. The dance symbolically depicts the ascent of the soul.
The inspiration for the dance is said to have come from Rumi himself, who, according to tradition, read his poems aloud while spinning around a column. The Mevlevi brand of Islam is considered moderate and open, premised on Rumi's belief that all created things point to mystical truth.
The Mevlevi order was banned by Atatürk as part of his secularizing program in Turkey, but was resurrected beginning in the 1950s as Turkish officials realized the Whirling Dervishes had value as a tourist attraction. Since that time, their popularity has grown steadily. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization has declared 2007, the 800th anniversary of Rumi’s birth, as a “Mevlana Year.”
June 5 will not mark the first time the Whirling Dervishes have performed for a pope. During the 1970s, a group of dervishes danced the sema for Pope Paul VI. When they meet Benedict XVI, the Turkish Sufis intended to present the pope with an Italian-language edition of the Mesnevi, considered Rumi’s masterpiece.
The performance for Pope Benedict XVI is part of a 22-city, 18-nation tour in 2007 for the Whirling Dervishes.