A Dervish or Darvesh (from Arabic or Persian درویش, Darvīsh) is someone treading a Sufi Muslim ascetic path or "Tariqah". Dervishes are known for their extreme poverty and austerity, similar to mendicant friars in Christianity or sadhus in Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.
Dar in Persian means "a door", so Dervish literally means "one who opens the doors". The word is also related to terms for "ascetic" in some languages, as in the Urdu phrase darwaishana thabiyath, "an unflappable or ascetic temperament".
As Sufi practitioners, Dervishes have been known as sources of wisdom, medicine, poetry, enlightenment, and witticisms. For example, Nasrudin became a legend in the Middle East and South Asia, and not only among the Muslims.
Many Dervishes are mendicant ascetics who have taken a vow of poverty, unlike mullahs. The main reason they beg is to learn humility, but Dervishes are prohibited to beg for their own good. They have to give the collected money to other poor people. Others work in common professions; Egyptian Qadiriyya – known in Turkey as Kadiri – are fishermen, for example.
Some classical writers indicate that the poverty of the Dervish is not merely economic. Rumi, for instance, says in Book 1 of his Masnavi
:Water that's poured inside will sink the boat::While water underneath keeps it afloat.:Driving wealth from his heart to keep it pure::King Solomon preferred the title 'Poor':
- That sealed jar in the stormy sea out there
- Floats on the waves because it's full of air,
- When you've the air of dervishood inside
- You'll float above the world and there abide...
There are various orders of Dervishes, almost all of which trace their origins from various Muslim saints and teachers, especially Ali and Abu Bakr. Various orders and suborders have appeared and disappeared over the centuries. Rifa'iyyah Dervishes spread into North Africa, Turkey, the Balkans, Iran, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
Other groups include the Bektashis, connected to the janissaries, and Senussi, who are rather orthodox in their beliefs. Other fraternities and subgroups chant verses of the Qur'an, play drums or dance vigorously in groups, all according to their specific traditions. Some practice quiet meditation, as is the case with most of the Sufi orders in South Asia, many of whom owe allegiance to, or were influenced by, the Chishti order. Each fraternity uses its own garb and methods of acceptance and initiation, some of which may be rather severe.
The whirling dance or Sufi whirling that is proverbially associated with Dervishes, is the practice of the Mevlevi Order in Turkey, and is part of a formal ceremony known as the Sema. The Sema is only one of the many Sufi ceremonies performed to try to reach religious ecstasy (majdhb, fana). The name Mevlevi comes from the Persian poet, Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi (born in Balkh, modern day Afghanistan), whose shrine is in Turkey and who was a Dervish himself. This practice, though not intended as entertainment, has become a tourist attraction in Turkey.
Historical and political use of the term
Various western historical writers have sometimes used the term dervish rather loosely, linking it to, among other things, the Mahdist uprising in Sudan, Mohammed Abdullah Hassan's 1920 conflict with British forces in Somalia and other rebellions against colonial powers.
In such cases, the term "Dervishes" was used as a generic (and often pejorative) term for the opposing Islamic entity and all members of its military, political and religious institutions, including many persons who could not be described as "Dervishes" is the strict sense. (For example, a contemporary British drawing of the fighting in Sudan was entitled "The defeat of the Dervishes at Toski"
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