Dervishes were a sect of Mohammedian priests, occasionally exercising a semi-esoteric doctrine, and their «paths» or systems were of great antiquity, perhaps originating in Persia and/or Egypt, which strongly resembled Magism.
One of the leaders was Bektash of Bokhara, living in the 15th century, received his mantle from Ahmed Yesevee, who claimed to be the descent of the father-in-law of Muhammed. He established a «path» consisting of seven degrees, only four, however, were essential. Their aim was to establish an affinity between the aspirant and the Sheik, from whom he is led through the spirit of the founder, and that of the Prophet of Allah.
The initiatory ceremony provides a severe test. The aspirant is tried for a year with false secrets, and his probation time having expired; a lamb is slain, from its carcass a cord is made for his neck and a girdle of initiation for his loins.
Two armed attendants then lead him into a square chamber, where he is presented to the Sheik as «a slave who desires to know the truth.» He is then placed before a stone altar, on which are twelve escallops. The Sheik, who is attended by eleven others, grips the hand of the aspirant in a peculiar way, and administers the oath of the Order, in which the neophyte promises to be poor, chaste, and obedient.
He then is informed that the penalty of betraying the Order is death. He then says «…Mohammed is my guide. Ali is my director,» and is asked by the Sheik, «Do you accept me as your guide?» The neophyte replies that he does. Then the Sheik says, «Then I accept you as my son.» The neophyte then is invested with a girdle on which are three knots, and receives the alabaster stone as a token. The sign of recognition is that of the first degree of masonry.
Among their important symbols are the double triangles and two triangles joined at the apex. One of their maxims is that «the man must die that the saint must be born.» As a jewel they used a small marble cube with red spots, to typify the blood of the martyred. These Mohammedian sects are not popular with the orthodox Mussulmans, as they devote themselves to the well being of the Order rather than to Mohammedianism.
A notable exercise indulged in by several Dervish sects, is that of gyration in circles for extended periods of time, or prolonged dancing. The objective of such performance is obscure; some speculate that it produces a condition of ecstasy, while others see it as having a planetary or astronomic significance.
Derwish, or Dervish, Persian «beggar,» was a member of a Muslim religious fraternity (although the word may just simply mean a religious mendicant, in Arabian iaqir). These fraternities probably began as groups gathering around a particular Sufi teacher. Each group has its own chain of succession (silsilah, which every member must know) through which the esoteric teaching and practice have been transmitted.
For that reason, the particular ritual of a group is as important as the salat. The practices and teachings of the many groups are so varied to be summarized, but central to all is dhikr, the calling to mind of Allah and the unseen world, and of the worshipper’s dependence on it. The elimination of outward stimuli is achieved by many different techniques, of which the best known is whirling, thus the whirling dervishes; more correctly known as the Mawlawly(y)a, translated as Mevlevis. A.G.H.
Spence, Lewis, An Encyclopedia of Occultism, New York, Carol Publishing Group Edition, 1996, p. 121 Bowker, John, The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions, New York, Oxford University Press, 1997, p. 270