Dervish, Or Dervise, a Persian word equivalent to the Arabic fakir, signifying poor, used in Mohammedan countries to designate a religious class corresponding in some respects to the monks of Christendom. There are many orders of dervishes, distinguished by peculiarities of faith, ceremony, and costume. They are gathered usually into communities, each in charge of a sheikh, and live together in monasteries, but many dwell in villages with their families. Their discipline professes to be very strict, its chief requirements being poverty, chastity, and humility. Mendicity is forbidden, except in the order of the Bektashis, and their monastic rules require them to support themselves by the labor of their hands, though they are usually supplied by donations. With the exception of the order of the Mevlevis, all are allowed to marry and have dwellings outside of the convents, but must pass at least two nights of each week with their associates. Their religious rites consist of mortifications of the flesh, prayers, and dancing.
Besides the fast of the Ramadan, they observe one weekly fast from morning till night, and they hold religious meetings on Tuesdays and Fridays. They are frequently to be seen in the streets haranguing the multitude and making a display of their wisdom and piety, but their actual practices are often far from consistent with their professed standard. Some of them lead a vagrant life, and traverse all the countries of the East from the Mediterranean to the Ganges, being lodged and fed in the convents of their order; and they are occasionally met in European cities, playing the part of jugglers, sorcerers, and mountebanks. They wear coarse robes and go bare-legged and with the breast uncovered, and the use of intoxicating liquors and of opium is said to be common among them. The most numerous sect are the Mevlevis, or whirling dervishes, whose principal monastery is at Konieh in Anatolia. Their ceremonies consist chiefly of fantastic dances, in which they whirl around with great rapidity to the sound of a flute, stopping suddenly when the music ceases, or continuing until they drop from exhaustion.
They do this in memory of their founder, Mevlevi Jelal ed-Din el-Rumi, the Persian poet, who died about 1262. He is said to have turned miraculously around for four days without food or nourishment, while his companion Hamza played the flute. The Rufais, or howling dervishes, sway their bodies backward and forward until they foam at the mouth and fall to the ground, vociferously ejaculating meanwhile the name of Allah and incoherent phrases. They are distinguished also for self-mortification. Their founder was Sheikh Ahmed Rufai, and they date from 1182. The Calenders are noticeable for their peculiar dress, which is sometimes parti-colored, and sometimes consists of only a sheepskin about the loins, while the upper part of the body is painted fantastically. There are older orders, but none of equal importance, and some that have various peculiarities of doctrine. The Munasihis believe in the transmigration of souls; the Eshrakis are given to a kind of poetical mysticism, seeing divinity in forms, colors, and sounds; and the Hairetis hold opinions almost equivalent to those of the ancient Epicureans. - Religious orders similar to the dervishes are traced in the East beyond the Christian era, and tradition assigns many of the existing brotherhoods to the earliest days of Islam, the foundation of some being attributed to the caliphs Abubekr and Ali; but it is doubtful if any of them are older than the 9th century.
The Marabouts among the Mohammedans of the Barbary states are similar to the dervishes.