In a dance studio above Barons’ Court Tube Station, as the trains rumble below sending vibrations through the wooden floors and rattling the thin window-panes, a group of ten or so individuals clothed in white gowns are spinning and turning across the dance floor.
A muffled recording of Islamic chanting emanates from a rudimentary sound system, whilst a framed verse by the great 13th century Persian poet and saint, Rumi, hangs on the wall behind the swirling robes and ecstatically serene faces of the turners. These are the Whirling Dervishes of West London, an offshoot of the Mevlevi sect of Sufi Islam that have been practicing here in Barons’ Court since the 1960s.
Sufism involves a mystical or spiritual relationship with God which can be considered blasphemous by doctrinal Islam, and as such many of its practices are banned across the Islamic world. In Turkey, for example, the Mevlevis, or Dervishes, are prohibited from holding religious ceremonies or gatherings. They are, however, permitted to engage in the practice of turning – which is a dance-like form of physical prayer – but only at “dance ceremonies” held for the benefit of tourists. This iconic, spinning ritual has earned them international recognition as “Whirling Dervishes”, though few foreigners are aware of the true significance of the “dance”, or the persecuted nature of those who perform it.
Here in London, however, where such practices are allowed and encouraged, the Dervishes are free to express their mystical religion without fear of oppression or censorship. The West London Dervishes have been keeping the Sufi tradition alive since it was first introduced to the Study Society at Colet House in 1963. When I discovered that there was a small group of committed individuals continuing this practice in the British capital, I was eager to find out more, and so arranged to spend an evening filming the sacred Mukabele ceremony in which the Dervishes use turning to enter a spiritual state theat they believe will bring them closer to “Him”, the true essence of God.
Apart from the simple beauty and serenity of the occasion, I was particularly struck by the cultural transcendence of this particular Sufi sect. Sufism, by tradition, is open to people from all faiths and backgrounds (indeed, the poet Rumi, on whose teachings Sufism is based, said that he was a friend to 73 religions) and does not require conversion to Islam in order to partake in its practices. But even in light of this fact, the make-up of the West London Dervishes is particularly varied. Along with several Muslims, there were also people from Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox backgrounds and from countries including Italy and Turkey. Most were British-born, and it was both incongruous and strangely enlightening to see this diverse group of people united in one simple act of faith that transcends the boundaries of institutionalised religion itself. I felt both moved and humbled by this demonstration of common humanity, and I’m sure Rumi himself would have been proud.
Come, come whoever you are.
An unbeliever, a fire worshipper, come.
Our convent is not one of desperation.
Even if you have broken your vows a hundred times,
Come, come again.
Made in collaboration with Not on the Wires