The New International Encyclopædia/Dervish

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DERVISH (Pers. darvīsh, poor, Avesta driγu, poor; the Persian equivalent of Ar. fagīr, poor, ascetic). In Mohammedan countries a class of persons who are supposed to lead a peculiarly religious life, resembling in some respects the monks of Christendom. There are many different brotherhoods or orders. D'Ohsson, in his work on the Ottoman Empire, enumerates thirty-two, but the list is far from being complete. The period of establishment extends from A.D. 768 down to the last century, in which several new ones were established. They live mostly in convents, well endowed, both in land and money, called Tekkije, and are under a chief with the title of ‘Sheik,’ i.e. ‘elder.’ Some of the monks are married and allowed to live out of the monastery, but most sleep there some nights each week. Their devotional exercises consist in meetings for worship, frequent prayers, religious dances, and mortifications. The main devotional exercise, however, is the zikr, which is conducted differently in the different orders. It consists in the repetition of certain formulas, accompanied by violent motions until the dervish falls into a cataleptic state. As the convent does not provide them with clothing, they are obliged to work more or less. Three of the orders, the Bastamiyah, the Nakshbandiyah, and the Bakhtashiyah, claim to be descended from the original order established by the first caliph Ahu-Bekr. Of these, the Nakshbandiyah are the most numerous. In their convents at Cairo and Constantinople and elsewhere, they have services on Wednesdays and Sundays, when about twenty performers take part in the zikr ceremony. The orders are spread throughout the Mohammedan world and in India. The most popular one is that of the Muradiyah, to which most of the fakirs belong who crowd the bazaars of India. The Rufaiyah (founded 1182) in India, Turkey, and Egypt, are known for their severe discipline and the castigations of their bodies. They are commonly known as the ‘Howling Dervishes.’ Another popular order is that of the Kalandariyah, known also as the ‘Wandering Dervishes,’ among whom constant traveling is an obligation. The Maulawiyah constitute the order familiarly known as the ‘Dancing Dervishes.’ At their zikr they follow one another about the floor in regular order, each with eyes closed and arms extended, turning around in a sort of waltz and intoning a monotonous chant. Each order has its own rules and principles, extending to the dress and the method of wearing the hair and beard. In many of the orders the initiation rites are most elaborate.

Tradition refers the origin of these orders to the earliest times of Islam, making the caliphs Abu-Bekr and Ali found such brotherhoods. While it is certain that Mohammed advocated poverty, it is more probable that dervishes arose later, when Mohammedanism came into contact with other religions, such as Persian and Hindu. Many Mohammedan princes have held dervishes in high respect and bestowed rich endowments on their establishments, and they are still held in high veneration by the people. For a time, however, they were regarded with suspicion by the Government, since they decline to obey any authority except the religious head of the order, Hence Mahmud II. in 1826 attempted to destroy the orders, actually putting to death some of the leaders. His attempt, however, failed.

Besides those dervishes regularly affiliated with an order, there are individuals who travel from place to place, and by feats of strength or sleight-of-hand manage to earn a livelihood. Consult: Lane, The Modern Egyptians (London, 1836); Brown, The Dervishes (Philadelphia, 1868); Malcolm, History of Persia (London, 1829); D'Ohsson, History of the Ottoman Empire (Paris, 1787-90).