The Whirling Dervishes of Damascus
Sufy liturgy from the great mosque of Ommeyyads

The Great Master Junayd was asked why the Sufis felt such powerful emotions in their spirit and the urge to move their body when listenning to sacred music. This way his reply : " When God asked the souls in the spirit world, at the moment of the First Covenant : " Am I not your Lord ? ", the gentle sweetness of the divine words penetrated each soul for ever, so that whenever one of them hears music now, the memory of this sweetness is stirred within him causing him to move. "

The Whirling Dervishes of Damascus

In the early 9th century, when the Muslim mystics organised their Sufis brotherhoods or orders, they adopted music as a support for meditation, as a means of access to the state of grace or ecstasy, or quite simply as " soulfood " in other words, something that give new vigour to a body and soul tired by the rigours of the ascetic life. In sufism, the sama' (meaning literally 'listenning') denotes the tradition of listenning in spiritual fashion to music, chanting and songs of various forms, all ritualised to a greater or lesser degree.
The very meaning of the world sama' suggests that it is the act of listenning that is spiritual, without the music or poetry being necessarily religious in content. The major preoccupation of the Muslim mystics was to give the ecstasy a real content and the music a true meaning.
The Sûfis mystics brotherhoad known as Mawlawiyya (Turkish : Mevlevi-s, more familiar to us in the West as the "whirling dervishes") was founded at Konya (Anatolia) by the great Persian poet Jalâl al-Dîn al-Rûmi (1207-1273).
Although we associate this ritual above all with Turkey, local traditions have been in existence in Syria, Egypt, and Iraq since the 16th century. They survived there after the dissolution of all Sûfi fraternities in Turkey in 1925 and the suicide of the Great Master 'Abd al-Halîm Thsélébî Bashî.

Damascus is one of the principal centres of Islam, the former capital of the Ummayyad dynasty and a stage in the pilgrimage to Mecca. In their meeting-places there (takiyya or zâwiya), the Mawlawîyah adopted the original suites (Wasla), modes (maqâm) and rhythms. The ritual may not be performed in the mosques, where musical instruments are either completely forbidden or else only allowed in the form of percussion instruments, which are generally played in the courtyard.
Certain great mosques, such as the Umayyad Mosque (also known as the Great Mosque of Damascus) possess a specific vocal repertory . The sacred suites are known there as nawba-s, a term reserved for secular suites by the former inhabitants of Andalusia and the Maghribi.

Photo : Nicolas Nylsson

Sheikh Hamza Shakkûr and Julien Jâlal Eddine Weiss with the Choir of Munshiddin from the Great Omeyyad Mosque in Damascus

Generally accompanied by a male-voice choir (bitâna), the reciters (munshid) work into the "samâ" (sacred concert) extracts from the repertoire of the Great Mosque, the naming of God (dhikr-s) and extracts from the Birth of the Prophet (mawlid). Their expressivity (hiss) is fundamentally serene, always subtly inventive and rigorously organized rhythmically in order to progressively lead the assembly into a trance (inkhitâf) or a state of meditation (ta'ammul) a choice which depends on each individual fraternity.

Considered one of the greatest interprets of muslim songs, Munshid of the Great Ummayad Mosque of Damascus, Sheikh Hamza sings the praises of divine love and God's prophet Muhammed in sublime, deep tones. Replying to his soaring, powerful invocations to God, the musicians of the Al-Kindi Ensemble alternate subtle flourishes and arabesques with refined preludes, whilst the dervishes whirl on stage following an immemorial devotional ritual. The orison blends with dance, and prayer with art.
This is how proceeds this plendid and spell-binding sight event, this truly spiritual concert, session of Sama' - spiritual listenning - where the only distraction from our state of bliss is the rustling of the dervishes'robes.

Bi hamdika yâ ilâhî
O God, I begin my entreaties by praising your goodness.
In humility and acceptance I turn to Thee.
If Thou dost not grant me forgiveness, who else could do so ?
Thou art Allah, our generous Lord,
I have entrusted my earthly fate to Thy heavenly powers.
Grant me Thy succour, relieve my worried breast.
Thou knowest my intimate secrets just as my outward acts,
O Thou, my God, forgiving and full of Mercy.

Allah, Allah, lâ ilâha illâ-llâ, Ataynâka bi-l-fakr
Allah, Allah, there si no other God but Allah
We come to Thee, poor and bereft,
Thou who holdest all riches
And constantly pours Thy blessings down on us.
May Thy generosity last for ever,
God, may this prayer on the Chosen One, mean for us
Protection and serenity.
With Thee at my side at all times
I can renounce all worldly goods.

Formation :
Sheikh Hamza Shakkûr -
Julien Jâlal Eddine Weiss - Arabic zither (Qânun), artistic direction
Ziyâd Kâdî Amin - Reed flute (Ney)
Qadri Dalal -
Lute (luth)
Adel Shams el-Din - Percussion (riqq)
Suleyman Al-Khechn, Abdallah Chakour
Choir (Munshiddin)
Hatem al-Jamal, Maher al-Jamal
Hicham al-Khatib, Ghassan Janid - Dervishes (Mawlawi)