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Dance's Main Influence in Istanbul: Islam

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 2818 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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Turkey is a Muslim majority county and many of their dances are influenced by Islam. Islam is believed to have been established in the early seventh century in Mecca and has spread around the world ever since. Islam consists of two main sects: Sunni and Shia. While these sects fall under the umbrella of Islam, they are different and their respective dances will reflect this difference. Shia and Sunni Muslims both believe in one God, follow the Quran as their holy book and abide by the five pillars of Islam. These five pillars include Prayer, Faith, Charity, Fasting, and Pilgrimage to Mecca. (Pillars of Islam). One of the key differences, and one that has caused much controversy between the two groups is their belief on who should be the successor to the prophet Muhammad. Shia believed that someone in Muhammad’s bloodline should be the successor while the Sunni believed anyone who was qualified and devout should be appointed. Another difference is their size. Shia Muslims consist of 85% of all Muslims while Sunni represents a small minority in comparison at 15% (Pariona). One final difference between the two groups is their belief in the power of their religious leaders or Imams. The Shia believe the Imams are guided and appointed by God while Sunni’s acknowledge Imam’s humanly element and see them more as saints. These differences have led to the distancing of the two groups over time which has allowed each to create their own unique religious dance within Islam.

Mecca Picture


The Prophet Muhammad

History of the Sema and the Semah

Islamic mysticism is critical to understanding the spiritual dances of both the Shia and the Sunni people. Sufism is the primary expression of Islamic mysticism. In this case, Sufism refers to a reconnection with God.  This can be done in many ways, but in this blog, we will examine how the dance allows Muslims to further connect with God. One of the ways this happens is through the prayers, rituals and dances which allow people to subdue their “nafs” or earthly desires. It is believed that this opens a place in their heart for God in which the Sufi can be completed by the entrance of God while still on Earth. Sunni and Shia understand that a connection with God is an arduous journey but they understand the tremendous value of this connection.

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One of the most famous dances that reflects Islamic Sufism is the Sema of the Sunni Mevlevi Order. The Mevlevi Order was established in its final form in the fifteenth century when Mevlana died during the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Mevlana’s influence within the majority Sunni Ottoman Empire elite allowed the religion and the dance to gain favor within the majority of the Ottoman Empire and become allow Sunni Islam to become a dominant force in Turkey today.

The other dance that will be discussed in this blog will be the Semah dance from the Shia Alevi’s. The Semah dance comes from within the religious Cem ceremony. Within the larger Ottoman Empire of the fifteenth century, the Shia Alevi were a significant minority causing their culture to remain in secret for much of their history. It wasn’t until a more modern Turkey emerged in the 1990s where Alevi culture began to be seen by the public. The Cem ceremony serves a dual purpose for the Alevi people. It serves as a place of spirituality for them as well as a court of sorts after the Cem ritual is over. This ceremony is led by their religious leader called the Dede who is both the leader of the ceremony and adjudicates disputes between community members.

Map of the Ottoman Empire


Dress in the Sema and Semah

The Sema follows a very traditional dress code. The men in the ceremony wear a black robe called a djubba on top of a white robe called a tennure with a tan conical shaped hat called a sikke. These clothes represent that the Dervish is knowledgeable in his religion. The leader of the dervishes wears the same except he wears a destar instead of a sikke.

The semah, on the other hand, had no strict dress code but both men and women are expected to wear their best clothes. Women usually wear red and green dresses while men wear a white dress shirt and black dress pants but this is not a hard rule.

Where are the Sema and Semah performed?

The Sema is a very strict dance in terms of its space. It must be performed in the semahane which is a octagonal shaped religious hall. Opposite the entrance is the mihrab which is the direction facing Mecca where the Mevlevis pray towards in accordance with the Quran. Near the entrance is where the musicians are seated. Right in front of the mihrab is the post which is a red mat on which the Shaikh sits. The room is also divided in half by an imaginary line called the hatt-i istiva from the post to the entrance of the semahane.

Galata Mevlevi House

In contrast to the Sema, the Semah has no requirement for the location of the dance and can be performed anywhere as long as the intention is for worship. The Cemevi or Cem house is the primary location where the Cem ritual takes place and this room is not standardized in any way but is usually square and contains pictures of the prophets of Muhammad along with a central circular area for the Dede and the dancing to occur.


Movement in the Semah and Sema

The Sema is a more individual dance than the Semah. The Sema aims to induce ecstasy in the performer allowing them to connect with God. It begins when the chief semazen kisses the sheikh’s hand and this gives the signal that the ceremony can begin. “At this point, the whirling begins with heads on one shoulder, eyes down or closed, with arms crossed and hands clasping each shoulder.The whirling is done by pivoting around on the left foot with the right foot crossing over the left instep” (Ersoz). As the spinning speeds up, the right arm is up with palm facing the ceiling and the left arm is down and palm facing the floor. In contrast, The Semah consists of three parts the Agirlama, Yurutme and the Yeldirme. It has turning and swirling like the Sema but is performed by both men and women unlike the Sema. The Agirlama is the slow tempo dance where dancers bend their body in rhythm with the music. The Yurutme is the second part where the dance speeds up and the people form in a circle and move the circle with their arm movements and steps. These arm movements are unique to the Semah. The Yeldirme is the last part and the fastest part where the dance gets even faster, and the movements get more complicated.

Hierarchies and relationships between participants in the Sema and Semah

The sema and semah have different hierarchies and participation between participants. Both dances are similar in that God is the highest person then their respective religious leaders then the other participants. In the Sema, the sheikh and chief semazen are the leaders of the ceremony and the rest of the dervishes are below them. This ceremony only includes men and these men do not engage with each other. The ceremony is incredibly individualistic and is supposed to allow the dervish to connect with God.

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The semah, on the other hand, is more of a joint celebration. Participants can be male or female and pray and dance in the presence of each other to confer unity within the group. The Alevi are led by their religious leader, The Dede, and below him are all the other Alevi in attendance. Unlike the Sema, the Semah serves as a community effort which reflects their history of oppression.

Symbolism in the Sema and Semah

The Sema’s space and movements serve as important symbolic representations of the overarching influence of Islam in the dance. The symbolism of the Semahane is critical to understanding the importance of the Sema to the Mevlevi people. First, the Mevlevi people pray in the direction of Mecca to represent their focus and importance of God in their lives. The red post represents the color of the sunset and Mevlvana’s death. The imaginary equator in the middle of the room represents the shortest distance between the Mevlevi people and their unity with God that they wish to achieve. Mevlevi must never step on this line. This equator symbolically divides the room into the visible and invisible worlds on the right and left respectively. The right semicirle made by the equator represents the descent from the divine while the left represents the ascent from human to the divine. Which demonstrates the focus of the Mevlevi on moving from our physical world to the world of the Divine. The larger room itself represents the year, the leader is the sun and the dancers turn around him like the moon and planets.

The ceremony itself also consists of symbolic references to Islam. When the ceremony begins, the chief semazen kisses the hand of the sheik which signals his blessing for the ceremony to begin. The four dances the occur during the Sema represent the four season and the four ages of man. The number three also serves as an important symbol in the ceremony. The ritual combines the three integral parts of human nature: the mind, the heart and the body to strengthen a Mevlevi’s strength with God (Celebi). The three orbits around the center represent knowledge of God, seeing God and the innermost represents unity with God. Their hand right hand up represents taking knowledge from God and with their left hand down they pass that knowledge to people on Earth.

The Semah also has its unique symbolism which directly reflects its Islamic influence. The Dede sits in a higher position than the rest of the Alevi which is called the post and represents the place of Ali. The most important number for this ceremony is the number twelve which has many different meanings. It represents things such as the twelve Imams who were the successors of Muhammad, the twelve key services of the Cem ceremony, and is reflective of their Shia faith. The ceremony itself embodies the Alevi values of unity and tolerance as well as a reconnection with God like in the Sema. Also, the main instrument used, the Baglama serves as a symbol of group identity of the Alevi people.

Comparison of the Sema and Semah videos

The Sema ceremony video shows a public demonstration of the modern version of the ceremony. It consists of multiple prayers and whirling throughout. It is led by the Shaikh who sits on one side of the room on the post while the other dervishes sit around him. They say prayers to the tune of mellow music from instruments like the rebab, kudum and ney. Then once the prayer is complete, the dervishes take off their djubbas and bow to the Shaikh. Once they have bowed to the Shaikh, they begin to whirl around with their right hand towards the ceiling and their left towards the ground. At this point the music begins to speed up and the dervishes whirling follows. Once the whirling is over, another prayer is said and then the dervishes kiss the hand of the Shaikh and follow his lead out of the Semahane.

Semah dance

The Semah dance is much more informal but still integral to the Alevi culture. It can be performed anywhere and any formal dress is allowed. Unlike the Sema, women can also participate with the men in this ceremony. The dance movements vary between performances but they all consist of specific arm movements, steps and moving in a circle while dancing. The men are usually wearing black and white and the women are wearing colorful clothing but this is not a hard rule. The music and pace of the dance varies between performances as well. It can be a very fast paced dance with large arm movements but it also can be a slower paced dance with small movements.

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