Mevlana Rumi, the Whirling Dervishes and the Islamization of Asia Minor

The Seljuk Sultans of Konya laid the foundations for the Islamization of Asia Minor. Sultan Kay Khusraw 1 started a systematic program to spread Islam throughout Turkey by inviting various Islamic Jurists, theologians, and Sufi mystics to relocate to Turkey from Iran. Religious architecture  also used to attract Christians by constructing many rectilinear Mosques inspired by Greek architecture.


The Sultans also built many Medresses (Madrassas) to settle and educate Dervishes which would then propagate Islam to the Christian masses. Sultan Alauddin Keyqubad 1 launched an Islamic coinage in Turkey which was made of silver and replaced the older Byzantine gold coinage.This change resulted in closer ties with the wider Islamic world, linking the monetary and banking systems of Asia Minor with those in Baghdad, Damascus, and the caravan cities along the Silk Road.


In June 1243 the Seljuqs suffered a devastating defeat at the hands of the Mongols in the Battle of Kose Dag (Bearded Mountains). The Sultan did survive and was forced to become a vassal of the Mongols. However by 1309 the Seljuq family in Konya had either died or emigrated somewhere else. This put an end to the Great Seljuq Sultanate of Konya which created a vast Islamic state with an efficient administration.


The political demise of the Seljuk Sultans of Konya does not detract from the very significant political, institutional, social, and religious changes they initiated. One notable example is the career of Mevlana Rumi, a Sufi mystic who took the lead in converting Byzantine Christians to Islam and the Turkish way of life. Mevlana’s real name was Jalal ad-Din Rumi. Originally a Persian speaker, Rumi was born in the city of Balkh somewhere around 1207.


He came from a prominent family in Balkh; his father, Baha ud-Din Walad, was an important theologian and jurist. Rumi’s family were forced to leave Balk when the Mongols invaded. Mongol invasions forced many theologians, mystics, artists to Asia Minor during this time, and Rumi’s family was one of them. The family initially relocated to Nishapur, but later moved to Baghdad and then Karaman before settling down in Konya at the invitation of the sultan.


When Baha ud-Din Walad died, Rumi took it upon himself to reorganize his father’s madrassa into a rigorous ascetic order called the Mevlevi Sufi Order. Initiates were trained to carry out a ceremonial dance popularly known as the whirling dervish. This was a significant innovation because it brought an entirely new dimension of religious experience to those who had previously practiced Orthodox Christianity.


The Whirling dervish was linked to the folk traditions of the Turkish world, as well as a kind of folk Islam the Turks had evolved since the 10th century. It was easily combined with village festivals and mores, traditions of hospitality that predated the arrival of the Turks and can still be seen in Anatolian life today. However, the Sufi Raqs can also be proven through certain Ahadith. Which would be at the end of this article.


Whirling dervish performances combined elements of Islam, a faith new to the region, with more traditional elements that appealed to Christian villagers. Followers of Rumi writing in the 14th century spoke of miracles that took place as the whirling dervishes traveled across the region, occasionally resulting in mass conversions.


The whirling dervish was linked to the folk traditions of the Turkish world. Byzantine scholars attribute much of Rumi’s religious influence to the severe disorientation of local Christians during this period. These Christians knew very little about their faith, their priests were illiterate, and bishops had not been sent from Constantinople for at least two generations. Monasteries had been neglected or abandoned. This religious vacuum was eagerly filled by Sufi mystics like Mevlana Rumi.


Mevlana Rumi had an instrumental role in the Islamization of Asia Minor (Turkey). The Whirling Dervishes which are often seen as an innovation by extremist Muslims were actually a part of a systematic cultural war that defeated the Byzantine traditions and attracted the masses towards Islam. Mevlana Rumi established a great Sufi Order which dominated life in Turkey for centuries to come.


Indeed even the Ottoman Rulers were highly aware of the debt they owed to the Great Mevlana Rumi. Many of the Ottoman Caliphs/Rulers were themselves followers of the Mevlevi Sufi Order which was started by Mevlana Rumi. And it was a custom of Ottoman Caliphate pay homage to the Mevlana by calling the chief custodian of the Tomb of Mevlana Rumi to present the sword to the newly selected Sultan/Caliph at the Sword Girding ceremony in Constantinople (Istanbul).


The narration goes like this

Umar ibn Khattab, the companion of Prophet and second caliph of Muslim community reported: One day the Messenger of Allah asked us for donations (for the newly established community). The desire came to me to surpass Abu Bakr, who had always been ahead of me in every good deed, I brought a fortune representing half of all I possessed and came to the presence of the Prophet.
The Holy Prophet inquired of Umar as to what he had left behind for himself and his family. Umar stated that he had donated one half of his wealth in the name of Allah and had left one half for himself and his family. Then Abu Bakr came in with a large sack of gold and placed it at the feet of our Master. The Holy Prophet put him the same question. Abu Bakr answered that he has donated all his wealth. Then the Messenger of Allah, looking at me, asked Abu Bakr, “Why haven’t you kept anything for your children?” Abu Bakr answered, “My family and children are in the care of Allah and His Messenger.”
After this incident, Abu Bakr was not visible for a few days and did not appear at the mosque of the Prophet. Feeling a void in the absence of Abu Bakr, the Prophet asked his whereabouts. The companions answered that Abu Bakr had distributed all his possessions and that he had nothing to wear except a piece of cloth, which he shared with his wife, each of them using it alternatively to wrap themselves at the time of prayer.
At that time the Prophet asked Bilal al-Habashi to go to the house of Prophet’s daughter, Fatimah, and asked her if she had an extra piece of clothing that could be brought to Abu Bakr so that he could clothe himself and come to the mosque. All that the noble Fatimah had was one extra piece of woolen cloth made of goat hair. When Abu Bakr wrapped it around his waist, it was too short. So he sewed some date palm leaves to it so that he could cover himself decently, and took the road to the mosque.
Before he arrived, Archangel Gabriel appeared to our Master in the same unseemly outfit that Abu Bakr was wearing. When the Prophet said to Gabriel that he had never seen him in such strange clothes, Gabriel replied that today all the angels in heaven were so dressed to honor Hazrat Abu Bakr, the loyal, generous and faithful.
Allah Most High was sending blessings and salutation to Abu Bakr. Gabriel said, “Tell him his Lord is pleased with Him if he is pleased with his Lord.”
When Abu Bakr came into the presence of our Master and heard the good news from the lips of beloved Prophet, he got up, thanked Allah, said, “Indeed I am pleased with my Lord!” and in his joy whirled around three times.
– quoted from Ibn al-Husayn al-Sulami‘s Kitab al-Futuwwah (The Way of Sufi Chivalry). Ibn al-Husayn is a highly respected Sufi saint and scholar of the 10th century and the book is founded on very strong isnad (chain of authorities).



Source: Ottoman Empire lecture series by Professor Kenneth W. Harl on the Great Courses Plus. 

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