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Raising their arms, holding their right palm
upward toward heaven and their left palm
downward toward earth, they gradually started
whirling in a counterclockwise direction.
No one rushed, every step looked measured.
At times, all the men paused, returning
their arms to their chests. Then the whirling
began anew, just as unhurried as before.
Whirling thereby became a form of contemplation.
--Jack Anderson, New York Times

Sufism is the mystical sect of Islam. Rather than focusing on the Five Pillars of Islam, Sufis seek ultimate religious experience through mystic trances or altered states often induced through twirling dances or "whirling dervish."

The rise of these orders (turuq; sing., tariqa, "way" or "path") was connected with the development of Sufism, a mystical current in Islam that began during the ninth and tenth centuries and reached its height during the twelfth and thirteenth. In Somalia Sufi orders appeared in towns during the fifteenth century and rapidly became a revitalizing force. Followers of Sufism seek a closer personal relationship to God through special spiritual disciplines. Escape from self is facilitated by poverty, seclusion, and other forms of self-denial. Members of Sufi orders are commonly called dervishes (from the Persian plural, daraawish; sing., darwish, one who gave up worldly concerns to dedicate himself to the service of God and community). Leaders of branches or congregations of these orders are given the Arabic title shaykh, a term usually reserved for these learned in Islam and rarely applied to ordinary wadaddo.

Dervishes wandered from place to place, teaching and begging. They are best known for their ceremonies, called dhikr (see Glossary), in which states of visionary ecstasy are induced by group- chanting of religious texts and by rhythmic gestures, dancing, and deep breathing. The object is to free oneself from the body and to be lifted into the presence of God.

--From the Somalia Army Area Handbook