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A Palestinian dervish in the 1860s.
A Qajar-era Persian dervish, seen here from an 1873 depiction of Tehran's Grand Bazaar.

A Dervish or Darvesh[1] (from Persian درویش, Darvīsh)[2] is someone treading a Sufi Muslim ascetic path or "Tariqah", known for their extreme poverty and austerity, similar to mendicant friars in Christianity or Hindu/Buddhist/Jain sadhus.

Dar in Persian means "a door", so Dervish literally means "one who opens the doors".[1] 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 Near East and South Asia, not only among the Muslims.


Religious practice

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[3]

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...


Dervishes (Mevlâna mausoleum, Konya, Turkey

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.


Whirling dervishes, Rumi Fest 2007

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, 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.[4][5]

Historical and political use of the term

A Turkish Dervish in 1913
A Dervish taming a lion and a tiger. Mughal painting, c. 1650

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" in the strict sense. (For example, a contemporary British drawing of the fighting in Sudan was entitled "The defeat of the Dervishes at Toski" (see History of Sudan (1884–1898)#British response).


While commonly the term dervish is used to describe beggars, a differentiation between mendicant Dervishes and common beggars can be made:[6]

While they walk around praising the Lord, anyone according to his own desire may voluntarily drop some coins in it (a kashkul)... a real dervish who wears the proper robe and carries the kashkul does not beg, nor does he make any demands.

Cultural references

  • "Dervish" is a profession in Guild Wars, a cooperative multiplayer online role-playing game.
  • In the Halo series of video games, the Arbiter was originally meant to be called the "Dervish". The name was changed because it could be considered offensive to Muslims.
  • In the British sitcom, Dad's Army, Lance Corporal Jones regularly refers to his encounters with the Whirling Dervishes during his military career.
  • Is sometimes referenced in American football to describe a runner who spins quickly to avoid tackles. The term is used on the official NFL Hall of Fame site to describe George Hallas as a "whirling dervish runner at Illinois."[1]
  • From approximately 1991 to 1995 the Grateful Dead, an American rock band, had a very small percentage of fans who termed themselves as "spinners", who would spin similar to dervish spinning to the band's music.
  • In the Sega game Universe at War, there is an aerial unit called a Dervish. Using these Dervishes to destroy 100 enemy aerial units earns the player an achievement called "Whirling Dervish."
  • In the game Star Trek Online (STO) created by Cryptic Studios "Dervish" is the name given to a class of Starship within the Star Trek Universe. The name was derived from a contest in which forum members submitted names for Cryptic Studios to use in STO.[7]
  • In the 1998 film "Meet Joe Black" Bill Parrish describes his wishes for his daughter's love life. "I want you to sing with rapture and dance like a dervish."
  • Loaded Longboards makes a model called the "Dervish"

See also


  1. ^ a b Darvesh - Dictionary of Islam
  2. ^
  3. ^ The Masnavi: Book One, translated by Jawid Mojaddedi, Oxford World's Classics Series, Oxford University Press, 2004. ISBN 978-0199552313, p63.
  4. ^ B. Ghafurov, "Todjikon", 2 vols., Dushanbe 1983-5
  5. ^ Rumi
  6. ^ *Afroukhteh, Youness (2003) [1952]. Memories of Nine Years in 'Akká. Oxford: George Ronald. ISBN 0853984778. 
  7. ^ - Star Trek Online Webpage

External links

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