Table of Contents in the Asian Legal Encyclopedia

Dervish in Asia


Dervish, a Persian word, meaning “seeking doors,” i.e. “beggar,” and thus equivalent to the Arabic faqïr (fakir). Generally in Islam it indicates a member of a religious fraternity, whether mendicant or not; but in Turkey and Persia it indicates more exactly a wandering, begging religious, called, in Arabic-speaking countries, more specifically a faqir. With important differences, the dervish fraternities may be compared to the regular religious orders of Roman Christendom, while the Ulema (q.v.) are, also with important differences, like the secular clergy. The origin and history of the mystical life in Islam, which led to the growth of the order of dervishes, are treated under Şūfi’ism It remains to treat here more particularly of (1) the dervish fraternities, and (2) the Şūfï hierarchy.

1. The Dervish Fraternities.—In the earlier times, the relation between devotees was that of master and pupil. Those inclined to the spiritual life gathered round a revered sheikh (murshid, “guide,” ustadh, pir, “teacher”), lived with him, shared his religious practices and were instructed by him. In time of war against the unbelievers, they might accompany him to the threatened frontier, and fight under his eye. Thus murābit, “one who pickets his horse on a hostile frontier,” has become the marabout (q.v.) or dervish of French Algeria; and ribat, “a frontier fort,” has come to mean a monastery. The relation, also, might be for a time only. The pupil might at any time return to the world, when his religious education and training were complete. On the death of the master the memory of his life and sayings might go down from generation to generation, and men might boast themselves as pupils of his pupils. Continuous corporations to perpetuate his name were slow in forming. Ghazali himself, though he founded, taught and ruled a Şūfï cloister (khānqāh) at Tus, left no order behind him. But ’Adï al-Hakkārï, who founded a cloister at Mosul and died about 1163, was long reverenced by the ‘Adawite Fraternity, and in 1166 died ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Jilānï, from whom the Qādirite order descends, one of the greatest and most influential to this day. The troublous times of the break up of the Seljuk rule may have been a cause in this, as, with St Benedict, the crumbling Roman empire. Many existing fraternities, it is true, trace their origin to saints of the third, second and even first Moslem centuries, but that is legend purely. Similar is the tendency to claim all the early pious Moslems as good Şūfïs; collections of Şūfï biography begin with the ten to whom Mahomet promised Paradise. So, too, the ultimate origin of fraternities is assigned to either Ali or Abu Bekr, and in Egypt all are under the rule of a direct descendant of the latter.

To give a complete list of these fraternities is quite impossible. Commonly, thirty-two are reckoned, but many have vanished or have been suppressed, and there are sub-orders innumerable. Each has a “rule” dating back to its founder, and a ritual which the members perform when they meet together in their convent (khānqāh, zāwiya, takya). This may consist simply in the repetition of sacred phrases, or it may be an elaborate performance, such as the whirlings of the dancing dervishes, the Mevlevites, an order founded by Jelāl ud-Dïn ar-Rūmï, the author of the 76 great Persian mystical poem, the Mesnevi, and always ruled by one of his descendants. Jelāl ud-Dïn was an advanced pantheist, and so are the Mevlevites, but that seems only to earn them the dislike of the Ulema, and not to affect their standing in Islam. They are the most broad-minded and tolerant of all. There are also the performances of the Rifā‘ites or “howling dervishes.” In ecstasy they cut themselves with knives; eat live coals and glass, handle red-hot iron and devour serpents. They profess miraculous healing powers, and the head of the Sa‘dites, a sub-order, used, in Cairo, to ride over the bodies of his dervishes without hurting them, the so-called Dōseh (dausa). These different abilities are strictly regulated. Thus, one sub-order may eat glass and another may eat only serpents. Another division is made by their attitude to the law of Islam. When a dervish is in a state of ecstasy (majdhūb), he is supposed to be unconscious of the actions of his body. Reputed saints, therefore, can do practically anything, as their souls will be supposed to be out of their bodies and in the heavenly regions. They may not only commit the vilest of actions, but neglect in general the ceremonial and ritual law. This goes so far that in Persia and Turkey dervish orders are classified as bā-shar‘, “with law,” and bï-shar‘, “without law.” The latter are really antinomians, and the best example of them is the Bakhtashite order, widely spread and influential in Turkey and Albania and connected by legend with the origin of the Janissaries. The Qalandarite order is known to all from the “Calenders” of the Thousand and One Nights. They separated from the Bakhtashites and are under obligation of perpetual travelling. The Senussi (Senussia) were the last order to appear, and are distinguished from the others by a severely puritanic and reforming attitude and strict orthodoxy, without any admixture of mystical slackness in faith or conduct. Each order is distinguished by a peculiar garb. Candidates for admission have to pass through a noviciate, more or less lengthy. First comes the ‘ahd, or initial covenant, in which the neophyte or murïd, “seeker,” repents of his past sins and takes the sheikh of the order he enters as his guide (murshid) for the future. He then enters upon a course of instruction and discipline, called a “path” (tarïqa), on which he advances through diverse “stations” (maqāmāt) or “passes” (‘aqabāt) of the spiritual life. There is a striking resemblance here to the gnostic system, with its seven Archon-guarded gates. On another side, it is plain that the sheikh, along with ordinary instruction of the novice, also hypnotizes him and causes him to see a series of visions, marking his penetration of the divine mystery. The part that hypnosis and autohypnosis, conscious and unconscious, has played here cannot easily be overestimated. The Mevlevites seem to have the most severe noviciate. Their aspirant has to labour as a lay servitor of the lowest rank for 1001 days—called the kārrā kolak, or “jackal”—before he can be received. For one day’s failure he must begin again from the beginning.

But besides these full members there is an enormous number of lay adherents, like the tertiaries of the Franciscans. Thus, nearly every religious man of the Turkish Moslem world is a lay member of one order or another, under the duty of saying certain prayers daily. Certain trades, too, affect certain orders. Most of the Egyptian Qādirites, for example, are fishermen and, on festival days, carry as banners nets of various colours. On this side, the orders bear a striking resemblance to lodges of Freemasons and other friendly societies, and points of direct contact have even been alleged between the more pantheistic and antinomian orders, such as the Bakhtashite, and European Freemasonry. On another side, just as the dhikrs of the early ascetic mystics suggest comparison with the class-meetings of the early Methodists, so these orders are the nearest approach in Islam to the different churches of Protestant Christendom. They are the only ecclesiastical organization that Islam has ever known, but it is a multiform organization, unclassified internally or externally. They differ thus from the Roman monastic orders, in that they are independent and self-developing, each going its own way in faith and practice, limited only by the universal conscience (ijmā‘, “agreement”: see Mahommedan Law) of Islam. Strange doctrines and moral defects may develop, but freedom is saved, and the whole people of Islam can be reached and affected.

2. Saints and the Şūfï Hierarchy.—That an elaborate doctrine of wonder-working saints should have grown up in Islam may, at first sight, appear an extreme paradox. It can, however, be conditioned and explained. First, Mahomet left undoubted loop-holes for a minor inspiration, legitimate and illegitimate. Secondly, the Şūfïs, under various foreign influences, developed these to the fullest. Thirdly, just as the Christian church has absorbed much of the mythology of the supposed exterminated heathen religions into its cult of local saints, so Islam, to an even higher degree, has been overlaid and almost buried by the superstitions of the peoples to which it has gone. Their religious and legal customs have completely overcome the direct commands of the Koran, the traditions from Mahomet and even the “Agreement” of the rest of the Moslem world (see Mahommedan Law). The first step in this, it is true, was taken by Mahomet himself when he accepted the Meccan pilgrimage and the Black Stone. The worship of saints, therefore, has appeared everywhere in Islam, with an absolute belief in their miracles and in the value of their intercession, living or dead.



Notes and References

  1. Encyclopedia Britannica (11th Edition)

See Also

Further Reading

The bibliography of this subject is very large, and the following only a selection:—(1) On Dervishes. In Egypt, Lane’s Modern Egyptians, chaps. x., xx., xxiv., xxv.; in Turkey, D’Ohsson, Tableau général de l’emp. othoman, ii. (Paris, 1790); Turkey in Europe by “Odysseus” (London, 1900); in Persia, E. G. Browne, A Year among the Persians (1893), in Morocco, T. H. Weir, Sheikhs of Morocco (Edinburgh, 1904); B. Meakin, The Moors (London, 1902), chap. xix.; in Central Asia, all Vambéry’s books of travel and history. In general, Hughes, Dict. of Islam, s.v. “Faqir”; Depont and Cappolani, Les Confréries religieuses musulmanes (Alger, 1897); J. P. Brown, The Dervishes, or Oriental Spiritualism (London, 1868). (2) On Saints. I. Goldziher, Muhammedanische Studien, ii. 277 ff., and “De l’ascétisme aux premiers temps de l’Islam” in Revue de l’histoire des religions, vol. xxxvii. pp. 134 ff.; Lane, Modern Egyptians, chap. x.; Arabian Nights, chap. iii. note 63; Vollers in Zeitsch. d. morgenländ. Gesellsch. xliii. 115 ff.

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