Matt Boury’s interest in Sufism, the inner, mystical dimension of Islam, was sparked by a class he took during his sophomore year. He became particularly interested in the Mevlevi, a Sufi order known to many as the Whirling Dervishes because of the spinning dances they perform while reciting religious poetry. The practice, known as Sema, is a way for the Mevlevi to channel the divine, and has been a part of the order’s spiritual rituals since the 13th century.
When Turkey became a republic in the early 20th century, the country’s leaders sought to establish a more “secular and progressive” state, outlawing the Mevlevi order and banning its members from performing Sema. After 30 years though, the government began easing the restrictions and granting the order some leniencies, albeit with concessions. These days, the Mevlevi can train and practice their Sema rituals, but the government bills the events as cultural and folk rituals, not religious ceremonies, Boury said. “The government goes so far as to use certain terms when describing the practices, because leaders don’t want to be seen as allowing something that is so blatantly illegal to continue.”
Because of this arrangement, Boury said, the events have become part religious ceremony, part political event. The Mevlevi’s performances of Sema are interspersed with political speeches, and the media covers the proceedings. “For the Mevlevi, the Sema is still a very important, very serious, and very spiritual event,” Boury said. On the other hand, “the Turkish government feels the dances are a good tourism draw, and hypes the events as ‘come see the Whirling Dervishes.’”
It makes for an interesting dichotomy to see this unspoken agreement between the two sides play out, Boury said. Thanks to a donation from Gale Wayman ’70, Boury traveled to Turkey in December to witness it firsthand.
Wayman established the Mary G. Roebling International Travel Fund several years ago. The fund supports academic research abroad by paying a student’s travel costs. Boury, who graduated in May with a history degree, was awarded a Roebling scholarship during last fall and used the funds to research his senior thesis.
“My thesis examined the ways in which the Mevlevi tradition was challenged and the ways in which it overcame those challenges,” Boury said. “I went to Turkey to see the state of the Mevlevi order today.”
Thanks to a connection he made through Professor Jo Ann Gross, Boury was able to meet with and interview Faruk Hemden Chelebi while studying abroad. The head of Turkey’s Mevlevi order, Chelebi is the 22nd descendant of Rumi, the 13th century Persian poet whose teachings form the basis for the Mevlevi order. Chelebi served as Boury’s tour guide, showing him the country and giving him access to the Mevlevi’s religious sites and rituals—which, in the government’s view, are tourist sites and cultural events.
The trip had quite an impact on Boury, who this fall enters New York University’s master’s program in Near East Studies. “It was interesting to see the order try to exist in this sort of unstable state,” he said. “The whole [situation] is a delicate balancing act.”
Boury continued, “It wasn’t the original intention to have politics in such a religious setting…[but] my research showed the situation has actually benefited the Mevlevi order in its endeavor to spread the teachings and message of Rumi to as many people as they can.”
Photos courtesy of Matt Boury ’09