The Whirling Dervishes and Orthodox Islam

Because their sama‘ or “spiritual recital” comprises a number of various elements, such as remembrance of Allah (dhikr), singing, dancing, and instrumental music, it seems best to mention some general considerations about the Islamic shari‘a before discussing each of these separately, in order to reach a more valid conclusion that is at the same time more general in scope.

First, the Islamic shari‘a furnishes a comprehensive criterion for all possible human actions, whether done before or never done before. It classifies actions into five categories, the obligatory (wajib), whose performance is rewarded by Allah in the next life and whose nonperformance is punished; the recommended (mandub), whose perfor­mance is rewarded but whose nonperformance is not pun­ished; the permissible (mubah), whose performance is not rewarded and whose nonperformance is not punished; the offensive (makruh), whose nonperformance is rewarded but whose performance is not punished; and the unlawful (haram) is that whose nonperformance is rewarded and whose performance is punished.

Now, Allah in His wisdom has made the vast majority of human actions permissible. He says in surat al-Baqara, “It is He who has created everything on earth for you” (Qur’an 2:29), which establishes the shari‘a principle that all things are mubah or permissible for us until Allah indicates to us that they are otherwise. Because of this, the fact that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) did not do this or that particular practice does not prove that it is offensive or unlawful, but only that it is not obligatory.

This is the reason that when shari‘a scholars speak of bid‘a, they do not merely mean an “innovation” or something that was never done before, which is the lexical sense of the word, but rather a “blameworthy innovation” or something new that no legal evidence in Sacred Law attests to the validity of, which is the shari‘a sense of the word. The latter is the bid‘a of misguidance mentioned in the hadith “The worst of matters are those that are new, and every innovation (bid‘a) is misguidance” (Sahih Muslim. 5 vols. Cairo 1376/1956. Reprint. Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1403/1983, 2.592: 867), which, although general in wording, scholars say refers specifically to new matters that entail something offensive or unlawful. As Imam al-Shafi‘i explains:

New matters are of two kinds: something begun that contravenes the Qur’an, sunna, the position of early Muslims, or consensus of scholars (ijma‘): this innovation is misguidance. And something begun of the good in which there is no contravention of any of these, and is therefore something new (muhdatha) but not blameworthy. For when ‘Umar (Allah be well pleased with him) saw the [tarawih] prayer being performed [in a group by Muslims in the mosque] in Ramadan, he said, “What a good innovation (bid‘a) this is,” meaning something newly begun that not had been done before. And even though it had, this does not negate the foregoing (al-Dhahabi, Siyar a‘lam al-nubala’. 23 vols. Beirut: Mu’assassa al-Risala, 1401/1981, 10.70).

As for the practice of Muslims gathering together for group dhikr or the “invocation of Allah,” there is much evidence of its praiseworthiness in the sunna—aside from the many Qur’anic verses and the hadiths establishing the general merit of dhikr in every state—such as the hadith related by Bukhari:

Truly, Allah has angels going around the ways, looking for people of dhikr, and when they find a group of men invoking Allah, they call to one another, “Come here to what you looking for!” and they circle around them with their wings up to the sky of this world.

Then their Lord asks them, though He knows better than they, “What do My servants say?” And they reply, “They say, Subhan Allah (‘Allah is transcendently above all things’), Allahu Akbar (‘Allah is ever greatest’), and al-Hamdu li Llah (‘All praise is Allah’s’), and they exalt Your glory.”

He says, “Have they seen me?” And they answer, “No, by Allah, they have not seen You.” And He says, “How would it be, had they seen Me?” And they say, “If they had seen You, they would have worshipped You even more, glorified You more, and said Subhan Allah more” . . . .

The hadith continues to where Allah says to the angels:

“I charge all of you to bear witness that I forgive them.” Then one of the angels says, “So-and-so is among them although he is not one of them but only came for something he needed.” And Allah says, “They are companions through whom whoever keeps their company shall never meet perdition” (Sahih al-Bukhari. 9 vols. Cairo 1313/1895. Reprint (9 vols. in 3). Beirut: Dar al-Jil, n.d., 8.107–8: 6408).

The last line of the hadith shows the religion’s highest approval for gatherings of dhikr. Further, the explicit mention of the various forms of dhikr in the hadith suffice in reply to certain contemporary “re-formers” of Islam, who, in an attempt to reduce “sessions of dhikr” to education gatherings alone, quote the words of ‘Ata' (ibn Abi Rabah, Mufti of Mecca, d. 114/732), who reportedly said,

Sessions of dhikr are the sessions of [teaching people] the lawful and unlawful, how you buy, sell, pray, fast, wed, divorce, make the pilgrimage, and the like (al-Nawawi, al-Majmu‘: Sharh al-Muhadhdhab. 20 vols. Cairo n.d. Reprint. Medina: al-Maktaba al-Salafiyya, n.d., 1.21).

Perhaps ‘Ata' intended to inform people that teaching and learning shari‘a are also a form of dhikr, but in any case it is clear from the Prophet’s explicit words (Allah bless him and give him peace) in the above hadith that “sessions of dhikr” cannot be limited to that alone, but primarily means gatherings of Muslims to invoke Allah in dhikr.

As for dancing, Imam Ahmad relates from Anas (Allah be well pleased with him), with a chain of transmission all of whose narrators are those of al-Bukhari except Hammad ibn Salama, who is one of the narrators of Muslim, that

the Ethiopians danced in front of the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace); dancing and saying [in their language], “Muhammad is a righteous servant.” The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “What are they saying?” And they said, “‘Muhammad is a righteous servant’” (Musnad al-Imam Ahmad. 6 vols. Cairo 1313/1895. Reprint. Beirut: Dar Sadir, n.d., 3.152).

The fact that dancing was done before the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) establishes that it is mubah or “permissible” in the shari‘a, for if it had been otherwise, he would have been obliged to condemn it. For this reason, Imam al-Nawawi, in his Minhaj al-talibin, the central legal work of the late Shafi‘i school, explicitly says:

Dancing is not unlawful, unless it is languid, like the movements of the effeminate. And it is permissible to speak and to sing poetry, unless it satirizes someone, is obscene, or alludes to a particular woman” (Minhaj al-talibin wa ‘umdat al-muttaqin. Cairo 1338/1920. Reprint. Cairo: Mustafa al-Babi al-Halabi, n.d., 152).

Islamic scholars point out that if something which is permissible, such as the singing of poetry or dancing, is conjoined with something which is recommended, such as dhikr or gatherings to make dhikr, the result of this conjoining will not be offensive (makruh) or unlawful (haram). Imam Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti was asked for a fatwa or formal legal opinion concerning “a group of Sufis who had gathered for a session of dhikr,” and said:

How can one condemn making dhikr while standing, or standing while making dhikr, when Allah Most High says, “. . . those who invoke Allah standing, sitting, and upon their sides” (Qur’an 3:191). And ‘A’isha (Allah be well pleased with her) said, “The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) used to invoke Allah at all times” [Sahih Muslim, 1.282: 373]. And if dancing is added to this standing, it may not be condemned, as it is of the joy of spiritual vision and ecstasy, and the hadith exists [in many sources, such as Musnad al-Imam Ahmad, 1.108, with a sound (hasan) chain of transmission] that Ja‘far ibn Abi Talib danced in front of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) when the Prophet told him, “You resemble me in looks and in character,” dancing from the happiness he felt from being thus addressed, and the Prophet did not condemn him for doing so, this being a basis for the legal acceptability of the Sufis dancing from the joys of the ecstasies they experience (al-Hawi li al-fatawi. 2 vols. Cairo 1352/1933–34. Reprint. Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyya, 1403/1983, 2.234).

Now, al-Suyuti was a hadith master (hafiz, someone with over 100,000 hadiths by memory) and a recognized mujtahid Imam who authored some six-hundred works in the shari‘a sciences, and his formal opinion, together with the previously cited ruling of Imam al-Nawawi in the Minhaj al-talibin, constitutes an explicit legal text (nass) for the Shafi‘i school establishing that circles of dhikr which comprise the singing of spiritual poetry and dancing are neither offensive (makruh) nor unlawful (haram); rather, they are permissible.

But the Mevlevi or “Whirling Dervish” sama‘s have another aspect to them that must be discussed before reaching a complete conclusion; namely, the use of musical instruments. This is something of a difficulty, for the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said:

There shall be groups of people from my community who shall consider fornication, silk, wine, and musical instruments to be lawful: groups shall camp beside a high mountain, whom a shepherd returning to in the evening with one of their herds shall approach for something he needs, and they shall tell him, “Come back tomorrow.” Allah shall destroy them in the night, bringing down the mountain upon them, and transforming others into apes and swine until the Day of Judgement (Sahih al-Bukhari, 7.138: 5590).

Hadith commentaries mention that the transforming (maskh) may mean either “their forms, literally, as happened to some previous mations; or else figuratively, alluding to the metamorphosis of their character” (al-Qastalani, Irshad al-sari li sharh Sahih al-Bukhari. 10 vols. Bulaq 1306/1888. Reprint. Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1410/1989, 8.317–18), but in either case, the punishment named in the hadith is a clear proof of the unlawfulness of each of the things mentioned in it.

This hadith is not part of the main text of Sahih al-Bukhari, but is rather of those appended to the Sahih by al-Bukhari ta‘liqan or “in commentary,” meaning hadiths (generally given together with the chapter headings) that are not always at the same level as the rigorously authenticated (sahih) ones, but may include the hasan or “well authenticated” as well, and which al-Bukhari mentioned to clarify or expand on the hadiths of the main corpus. But this particularly hadith is fully authenticated. The hadith master (hafiz) Ibn al-Salah states:

Ibn Hazm claimed that its chain of transmission was dissevered between al-Bukhari and Hisham ibn Ammar [al-Sulami, d. 245/868, whom al-Bukhari quoted it from], and considered this a rebuttal of the hadith as evidence that musical instruments were unlawful. He was wrong about this, in a number of ways. The hadith is rigorously authenticated (sahih), and known to have a contiguous chain of transmission meeting the requirements of the rigorously authenticated (al-sahih) (al-‘Asqalani, Fath al-Bari bi sharh Sahih al-Bukhari. 14 vols. Cairo: al-Maktaba all-Salafiyya, 1390/1970, 10.52: 5590).

The hadith is thus a fully authenticated proof of the unlawfulness of instrumental music. This is also the recorded position of all four madhhabs of Sunni jurisprudence, the Hanafi school (Ibn ‘Abidin, Radd al-muhtar ‘ala al-durr al-mukhtar. 5 vols. Bulaq 1272/1855. Reprint. Beirut: Dar Ihya’ al-Turath al-‘Arabi, 1407/1987, 5.253), the Maliki school (al-Dardir, al-Sharh al-saghir ‘ala Aqrab al-masalik ila madhhab al-Imam Malik. 4 vols. Cairo: Dar al-Ma‘arif, 1394/1974, 2.502), the Shafi‘i school (al-Nawawi, Minhaj al-talibin, 152), and the Hanbali school (al-Bahuti, Kashshaf al-qina‘ ‘an matn al-Iqna‘. 6 vols. Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1402/1982, 5.170). Readers who know fiqh literature will observe that each of these works is the top fatwa resource in its school. While it is true that certain Ottoman muftis made exceptions from this general rule, it was only under special circumstances of necessity considered pressing enough to warrant making an exception, such as with military bands, which they argued should be excepted from the prohibition because of the need to rouse the army to fight harder in jihad.

Certain muftis also gave fatwas that the exceptionalness of the spiritual states of the Sufis in their sessions of dhikr made it lawful for them to listen to musical instruments. This, they said, was because the reason for Allah’s prohibiting musical instruments was that they distract the heart from Allah, while in sessions of dhikr, they remind the heart of Him. This argument fails in my opinion not only because the shari‘a should apply to all Muslims equally, but also (and most importantly) because we cannot establish beyond a reasonable doubt that distracting from Allah is the only reason for music’s prohibition, in order to negate the prohibition in situations where it does not. There may be other reasons for its prohibition, or no “reason” at all, except as a test of our obedience to Allah.

The whirling dervishes in Aleppo and Damascus, I am told by Syrians, did not use musical instruments, but only the tambourine (daff), which is permissible in the Shafi‘i school of jurisprudence and others. I have heard that some Turkish sheikhs say that the Mevlevis’ use of musical instruments was begun only after the death of Jalal al-Din al-Rumi, the founder of the whirling dervishes. The opening lines of his Mathnawi are:

Listen to the reed how it tells a tale, complaining of separations—

Saying, “Ever since I was parted from the reed-bed, my lament hath caused man and woman to moan.

I want a bosom torn by severance, that I may unfold (to such a one) the pain of love-desire.

Every one who is left far from his source wishes back the time when he was united with it.

(The Mathnawi of Jalal al-Din al-Rumi. Trans. R. A. Nicholson. 3 vols. London 1926. Reprint. London: Luzac and Company, 1977, 5)

—From these lines, they understand the “song of a reed-pipe” as a metaphor for the longing of the spirit for its original knowledge of the Divine.

To summarize, circles of invocation of Allah (dhikr) conjoined with singing of permissible poetry and even dancing are compatible with the shari‘a of orthodox Islam, as we have reported above from the works of Imams al-Suyuti and al-Nawawi in the Shafi‘i school of jurisprudence. Music produced by instruments, in view of the Prophet’s condemnation of them (Allah bless him and give him peace) in Sahih al-Bukhari, is not lawful in Islam. The Mevlevis or whirling dervishes seem to have used musical instruments in their sama‘s at some times and places, but not used them at others. The latter, according to the evidence we have examined, is permissible (mubah), but the former, sama‘ with musical instruments, is not permissible, as the reasoning behind the fatwas that permit it is not strong enough, in my view, to modify the unlawfulness established by the hadith, which is also the position of the four schools of jurisprudence. And Allah knows best.

[Note: Someone writing to the editor in a subsequent issue of Q-News objected to the article’s saying that “Islamic scholars point out that if something which is permissible, such as the singing of poetry or dancing, is conjoined with something which is recommended, such as dhikr or gatherings to make dhikr, the result of this conjoining will not be offensive (makruh) or unlawful (haram).” This, the reader said, was wrong because the prayer (salat), for example, is something that is either obligatory or sunna, while eating and drinking are mubah or “permissible,” despite the fact that doing either in prayer is unlawful, showing that my reasoning here (on which Imam Suyuti’s fatwa above also turns) is mistaken.

The argument fails because its analogy is delusive. Eating, drinking, extraneous movement, everyday speech, and so forth are unlawful in prayer because of specific interdictions of them that have reached us in hadith from the Prophet himself (Allah bless him and give him peace), which is why the opening Allahu Akbar of the prayer is known in books of fiqh as the takbirat al-ihram, or simply the tahrima: It makes a whole range of permissible things haram or “unlawful” until one finishes. The analogy between the prayer, on the one hand, regarding which there are hadiths forbidding such permissible things in it, and dhikr, on the other, for which no such hadiths exist, is a false analogy, insufficient to build any ruling upon. The sole exceptions in Sacred Law to the praiseworthiness of dhikr in every state are lovemaking and going to the bathroom, when one’s dhikr must be confined to the heart, and neither relates to our question here.]

MMII © N. Keller

[Note: Someone writing to the editor in a subsequent issue of Q-News objected to the article’s saying that “Islamic scholars point out that if something which is permissible, such as the singing of poetry or dancing, is conjoined with something which is recommended, such as dhikr or gatherings to make dhikr, the result of this conjoining will not be offensive (makruh) or unlawful (haram).” This, the reader said, was wrong because the prayer (salat), for example, is something that is either obligatory or sunna, while eating and drinking are mubah or “permissible,” despite the fact that doing either in prayer is unlawful, showing that my reasoning here (on which Imam Suyuti’s fatwa above also turns) is mistaken.

The argument fails because its analogy is delusive. Eating, drinking, extraneous movement, everyday speech, and so forth are unlawful in prayer because of specific interdictions of them that have reached us in hadith from the Prophet himself (Allah bless him and give him peace), which is why the opening Allahu Akbar of the prayer is known in books of fiqh as the takbirat al-ihram, or simply the tahrima: It makes a whole range of permissible things haram or “unlawful” until one finishes. The analogy between the prayer, on the one hand, regarding which there are hadiths forbidding such permissible things in it, and dhikr, on the other, for which no such hadiths exist, is a false analogy, insufficient to build any ruling upon. The sole exceptions in Sacred Law to the praiseworthiness of dhikr in every state are lovemaking and going to the bathroom, when one’s dhikr must be confined to the heart, and neither relates to our question here.]

 
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