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Rumi and the Sema
Jul 1, 2004



The human being is equipped in the best possible way, both materially and spiritually. The human is able to achieve the level of “the best of creation,” which is dependent on the ability to use and develop these given spiritual aspects. Hence, those people of faith who have achieved closeness to God Almighty are always careful in their worship, and they are always extremely cautious not to lose their sensitivity to maintain this level.

Those who can escape from the material world and escalate toward the ranks of the heart and soul will feel this world in a different way, and will be conscious of the secrets of Creation. When they look, they see things that others cannot; everywhere they look, they see the attributes of the beautiful names of God Almighty. During worship they taste the unspeakable flavors of spiritualism, and they will not trade those moments for anything. They are nothing but the Friends of the Truth (God).

Meanwhile it should be noted that these beloved Friends of the Truth are the people of will who have succeeded in acting against Satan and the carnal desires; they have stopped their low and vulgar feelings, and made God’s intentions for them come about. These people lead on the ways toward the Truth with the enlightenment of the Qur’an and the Prophet, and they spend all the bounties given to them for the sake of God with the intention of reaching Him.

Mevlana Jalaladdin al-Rumi was one of these Friends. Like the other devotees, he was a person of self-discipline, will and ambition, and he walked on the path of Sufism which is “The Spiritual life of Islam.” He traveled through the ranks of maturity without leaving the path of the Prophet, and spent his whole life teaching and advising people about the ultimate destination, that is, God; this was his whole purpose in life.

The theoretical aspect of this path is Sufism, while the practical aspect is Dervishood. Jalaladdin al-Rumi led the theoretical path, a leader for his time and all times to come after him, while, on the other hand, with his mature dervishood, taken from this world, decorated with angelic qualities, setting a good example of devotion to God with his passion and love he inspired millions.

His Life

A great man of heart, Rumi was born on September 30th, 1207 in Balkh, Horasan, within the borders of present-day Afghanistan. His mother, Mumina Hatun, was of the Harzam Turks, and his father was a renowned scholar called Bahauddin Walad. The sultans listened to his sermons and talks, therefore he was also known as the Sultan al-Ulama (The Sultan of the Wise). Rumi was about six years old when his father left Balkh because of the Mongol occupation; another reason for leaving was that he was involved in a conflict with another scholar, Sultan Muhammad Takish Harzamshah. On their journey, they visited Makka. After residing for about 3 years in Erzincan (in eastern Turkey) the family then moved to a more secure city, Karaman (central Anatolia, Turkey), which was then called Larende.

Rumi married Gevher Hatun when he was 18. Shortly after this marriage he lost his mother, Mumina Hatun, and his elder brother, Muhammad Aladdin. Following these sad events, his first son Sultan Walad was born, and following him, Aladdin Celebi was born. He had two other children later on, a son named Amir Alim, and a daughter, Malika Hatun.

After living for 7 years in Konya, upon the invitation of the Seljuk sultan, Aladdin Kaykubat, Bahauddin Walad took his family and moved to Konya in 1229. In the third year of their life in Konya, when Rumi was in his mid-twenties, Bahauddin Walad died.

After his father’s death, Mawlana Jalaladdin al-Rumi, who had immensely benefited from many sources of knowledge and inspiration, dedicated himself more to learning. For this purpose he took Muhakkik Tirmizi, one of his father’s disciples, as a teacher, and also traveled to Aleppo and Damascus where he stayed for 7 years in order to meet with the famous scholars of the day and to train himself further.

In 1244 he returned to Konya, and started to teach many disciplines; the main subject of instruction was Fiqh (Islamic Law). Two years later, the arrival of a man called Shams al-Tabrizi into the city caused major changes in Rumi’s life. With this meeting, two talented spirits came together. From that point on Rumi and Shams, who were both like two deep seas, started to pour into each other, and they started to climb toward the summits that no one else could achieve. They started to travel along the Emerald Hills of the Heart.

At one point Shams disappeared, and after learning that he had gone to Damascus for personal reasons, Rumi sent his son Sultan Walad to invite him back to Konya. Shams could not turn down this invitation and returned to Konya, but he still felt restless there. He disappeared for a second time and nobody heard from him again. His disappearance upset Rumi very much, and he always felt this pain in his heart for the rest of his life.

Rumi, a true devotee of God, a follower of the Prophet, died when he was 66, on December 17th, 1273. He saw life as a corridor to meet with God, and defined death as being the meeting time, as he described in this poem:

On the day of death, when my coffin is on the move,

Do not suppose I have any pain at leaving this world.

When you see my hearse, say not

“Leaving! He’s Leaving!”

That time will be for me union and encounter.

When you commit me to the grave,

Say not “Farewell! Farewell,”

For the grave is a veil over the reunion of Paradise.

It is also narrated that he had requested his funeral prayer to be lead by Sheikh Sadreddin of Konya. When the Sheikh came to the front for the prayer, Tabib Akmaladdin warned the people by saying “Mind your manners and be respectful. He was the Sultan of the true sheikhs; that is who has passed away.” Sheikh Sadreddin, after hearing this, was moved to tears and could not continue with the prayer; instead it was Qadi Sirajaddin led the prayer. (Asaf Celebi, Hayat Mecmuasi, 1960)

His Works

Apart from the Mathnawi, Rumi has four other major works, written in Persian. One of them is lyrical and the other three are prose. With more than forty thousand couplets, Divan al-Kabir is full of an enthusiasm and awe that reflects the inner spiritual world of Rumi.

The works in prose are: Fihi ma Fih that contains Rumi’s teachings to his students and the public on various topics, Majalis al-Sab’a which contains his sermons, and Maktubat, which contains his letters to various people.

Rumi’s love and awe for God, combined with his poetic character, blossom in Mathnawi which was written down by his student Husamaddin Celebi. Rumi was in his fifties when he started Mathnawi and took 8 years to complete it.

The following are some important pieces of advice from Mathnawi:

“Oh son! Untie the knot, and be free! How long will you be enslaved by gold and silver?”,

“If you want to receive mercy, be merciful to the weak,”

“The nafs (carnal soul) inside you that is waiting to ambush you is worse than anything else in terms of pride and resentment,”

“Before you say anything, first listen,”

“The wars of men are like the quarrels of children; both are meaningless and stupid,”

“Hard work and earning are not obstacles to finding a treasure! Continue to work hard, if it is God’s will, the treasure will find you,”

“There is nothing superior to a good temper in this world of struggle,”

“Thoughtless friends are themselves the enemy,”

“Look where you step. You will avoid a wrong step and you will be saved from stumbling,”

“The essence of all wisdom is to know the answers to ‘who am I?’ and ‘what will become of me?’ on the Day of Judgment.”

II - The Sema Ceremonies

The roots of Sema

It is narrated that one day Rumi was passing in front of his friend’s jewelry shop. In the shop the assistants were shaping gold by hammering it in rhythm. Having heard this rhythmic sound, he raised his hands toward the sky and started to whirl in a state of awe. Inspired by this rhythm, his excitement was great. Rumi, whose spirit was already full of love and awe of God, started performing the Sema, overflowing with emotions.

It is believed that Rumi heard the word Allah (God) in this rhythmic sound, and this had inspired him; his inspiration put him into a state of ecstasy, which resulted in his whirling.

The form of Sema

Sema was not performed in an orderly format during Rumi"s lifetime. It started with Rumi"s son Sultan Walad, and Ulu Arif Celebi, and evolved slowly until the time of Pir Adil Celebi. It was then that the form started to be taught and learned. It took on its final form in the 15th century, with the Naat al-Sharif (eulogies that praise the prophet) being added to the Sema in the 17th century. The Sema symbolizes the creation of the universe, the creation of the human being and our birth into this world, the progress of the human being after the realization of servanthood, which is supported with a love for God, and our escalation toward the ranks of Insan al-Kamil (Perfected Human). The Sema starts with the Naat written by Rumi, with music composed by Bahurizade Mustafa Efendi, which is known as the Itri. This Naat is sung by the Naathan without any musical instruments in a standing position. Naat al-Sharif is followed by a drumbeat (on the kudum) symbolizing the Divine command: —Kun!— (Be). The Naat is followed by an improvisation on the ney (reed flute). This expresses the Divine breath, which gives life to everything, and perfects them. During the Sema, other traditional instruments like the tambur, the ud, the kemençe, the kanun, and the bendir are also used along with the kudum and the ney. The Sultan Walad Walk, which is accompanied by the peshrev music, is a circular procession that consists of three turns around the middle space. The greetings of the semazens during the procession represent the salutation of soul to soul concealed by shapes and bodies. A virtual line that stretches between the entrance point and the red fleece divides the Sema platform into two. This sacred line is called Hatt al-Istiwa and it is never stepped on. During this circular procession, the semazens greet each other three times. This visual greeting symbolizes the salutation of the spirits. The semazens come from the right side of the platform up to the red fleece, without stepping on the Hatt al-Istiwa and without turning their backs to the red fleece, then step to the other side, and face the semazen behind them. The two semazens face each other, bow and greet each other at the same time; this is called Muqabala. At the end of the third procession, after the Sheikh sits down on the red fleece, the Sultan Walad Walk, which symbolizes reaching the Truth (God), finishes. Standing and leaning into one another, the semazens, after a short ney improvisation, straighten their sikke (long woolen hats that resemble an Ottoman tomb stone in shape), and take off the black coats. They then become separated from this world, symbolized by their pure white gowns, and become spiritual, opening their eyes to the truth. By holding their left shoulder with their right hand and their right shoulder with the left hand they symbolize the number one, which reflects and witnesses the unity of God. After kissing the Sheikh"s hand and attaining permission to proceed, the semazens start the Sema.

The Sema consists of four greetings: —Being conscious of one"s servanthood,— —Being awed before the greatness and power of the Lord,— —The transformation of this awe into love,— —Return to the highest rank possible for the human which is servanthood.— These are symbolized by the first, second, third and fourth greetings, respectively. When the recitation from the Qur'an starts the semazens finish the Sema and they take their places and sit. The Sema ritual finishes with the greetings of the Sheikh, the semazens and the musicians toward the red fleece. Rumi"s understanding of the Sema The following poem of Rumi expresses how he understood the Sema: What is Sema, do you know? It is hearing the sound of —yes— of separating one from himself and reaching the Lord Seeing and knowing the state of the Friend and hearing, through the divine veils, the secrets of the Lord What is Sema, do you know? Being ignorant of existence and tasting eternity in the ultimate mortality What is Sema, do you know? Struggling with the carnal soul; fluttering on the ground like a half-slain hen What is Sema, do you know? Feeling the cure of Prophet Jacob, and sensing the arrival of Prophet Joseph from the scent of the shirt. What is Sema, do you know? Like the staff of Prophet Moses, it is swallowing all the tricks of the Pharaoh"s magicians What is Sema, do you know? Opening the heart like Shams al-Tabrizi, and seeing the Divine light.

Sema and Contemplation

Sema is contemplation in action. Contemplation was initially carried out silently in the inner self. Under the enlightenment of the hadiths that warn not to contemplate on the essence of God Himself, meditation was focused on the manifestations and actions of God. While thinking about the actions and manifestations, hallucinations can interfere with contemplation. In order to avoid any interference, sounds were used as an aid to meditation. At first, only natural sounds were used, but with time the sounds of different musical instruments that have spiritual essences were also used. This is how music was introduced into the Sema. In the early days, usually the ney, the rebab, the def, and the zurna were used, but over time, only the ney and the rebab survived. Music is defined by Rumi in the following couplet: —Music is the nutrition of the souls of the Servants of the Lord, since in music, there is the hope of reaching God.— Therefore, music, when combined with mediation and contemplation, is seen as being a faster way to reach God. On the other hand, music brings out physical movement, as it addresses the bodily emotions and desires. At first, these bodily motions were restricted to the swinging of the body while seated. However, with time people started to accompany the musical harmony with the motion of their bodies, which in time evolved into the Sema. In this way, contemplation became the union of the heart, sound, and motion. Both the heart and the body came to be in a state of meditation, which avoids any bodily or intellectual interference. The Sema symbolizes the escalation of the human spirit: the servant"s turning of their face toward the Truth, and being exalted with Divine love, the abandonment of one"s own identity and self and becoming lost in God, and the final return to servanthood, mature and purified. The semazen, with the sikke on his head, with the Tennure (his gown which is like the shroud) on his body, is born to the truth by the removal of his jacket, and he evolves on that path. During the Sema, his arms are wide open, with his right hand turned toward the sky as if praying, ready to receive the honor from the Divine One, with his left hand turned down, transferring the bounties that come from the Lord to the public. The semazen whirls from right to left, circling around his heart, embracing all the nations on the Earth, and all the creation with love and respect. Humanity was created to love and to be loved. According to Rumi, all types of love are a bridge to Divine love.

III - Conclusion

Rumi spent his whole life dedicated to God Almighty. He did not only try to reach the Lord himself, but helped others to do the same. He was a traveler on this journey of love, describing this love as one that —did not leave anything of me, or on me.— He made his feelings and emotions be heard by others and inspired many different souls. The following quote from him summarizes this: —As long as I am alive, I am a servant of the Qur'an, and a grain of sand on the path of Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him. If anyone narrates anything from me but this, I am absolved of those words, and of him.—