Laleh Bakhtiar: I Follow the Religion of Love
Dr. Laleh Bakhtiar, PhD, has a BA in History from Chatham College in Pennsylvania, an MA in Philosophy, an MA in Counseling Psychology and a Ph.D. in Educational Foundations. She is also a Nationally Certified Counselor. Dr. Bakhtiar has been practising Islam for over 30 years under her teacher, Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr. She is author of many books on Islamic unity, architecture, psychology, psychoethics, and moral healing through the Enneagram and the 99 Most Beautiful Names of God. Dr. Bakhtiar has translated over 30 books on Islam and Islamic beliefs into English, and has lectured extensively in both religious and academic institutions. MALA is honored to share her story here.
In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate
My story began as the seventh child of an Iranian physician father, Abol Ghassem Bakhtiar, MD, who was the first Iranian to finish medical school in the United States (1926) and an American nurse mother, Helen Jeffreys, who was the first American to marry an Iranian (1927) and migrate to Iran (1931) where she was the first American trained nurse in Iran.
In 1939, my American mother-nurse, who had become fluent in Persian by then, brought my two older sisters and myself to the United States to visit her family in Los Angeles when I was just 6 months old. World War II broke out and we were separated from my father and four siblings for six years.
We returned to Iran briefly in 1945, just long enough for my mother to gather up my four siblings in Iran and bring all seven of us to America so that we could all have an American education. Raised by a single parent and preceded by two brothers, my mother sent us to Catholic school so that my brothers would receive a more structured upbringing as they lacked the presence of a male figure.
(The seven of us, the first combination of an Iranian-American DNA, continued to write letters to our father and, as we grew up, to each other and Helen. My parents saved the 15,000 letters that are now in 2019 being published by Kazi Publications in thirty volumes of Family Letters.)
I grew up as a Catholic. By the time I was nineteen (1957) and in college at Chatham University in Pittsburg, PA, majoring in history, I was a Christian without any particular denomination.
One of my brothers was at Harvard so a college friend of mine and I decided we wanted to visit him for a weekend. We ironed shirts for 6 weeks to make enough money for the airfare.
While in Cambridge, I met a friend of my brother who was to become my life-long Sufi mentor, Seyyed Hossein Nasr. He was working for his Ph.D. at Harvard. He asked me what religion I had. I said: I had been raised as a Christian. He said: Since your father is a Muslim, people will expect you to be a Muslim. I said: I don’t know anything about Islam. He said: Well, learn!
I took this command to heart, and this is what I have been doing for the last sixty years, not just learning about Islam, but practicing it.
Say: If you love God, then follow me and God will love you. (Q3:31)
In 1958, I met and married an Iranian-Muslim architect, Nader Ardalan, moved to Iran where I spent twenty-four years, fifteen years under the Shah (1964-1979) and nine years—after a painful divorce (1977) and a revolution – under the Islamic Revolution of Iran (1979-1988).
During the first fifteen years, I renewed my friendship with Seyyed Hossein Nasr who had by then returned to Iran and was teaching courses in English at Tehran University on Sufism and Persian Culture. As I did not speak Persian at the time, I was able to greatly benefit from his courses.
It was during this time that I began having very spiritually engaging dreams. I recorded them in a journal that I kept. At times my dreams overwhelmed me and I sought out Seyyed Hossein Nasr for their interpretation. He told me that I was undergoing spiritual re-integration.
It was also during the time of the Shah that the University of Chicago Press asked Seyyed Hossein Nasr to introduce an architect would could write a book about Iranian architecture, not from a historic perspective, but from a creative one. He introduced my husband who then asked me to write the book with him as he felt a deep connection with traditional architecture and realized the presence of Sufism in the creative act, but did not know anything about it. I gladly accepted.
We wrote The Sense of Unity: The Sufi Tradition in Persian Architecture. While I did not know it at the time, God had blessed me by opening a door that had never occurred to me. I was a mother of three wonderful children and now was moving towards becoming a writer, translator, editor and eventually, a publisher. After The Sense of Unity, I was asked by the London publisher, Thames and Hudson, to write an introductory book on Sufism. I wrote SUFI Expressions of the Mystic Quest.
After my divorce, I opened a publishing house in Iran and began writing and translating books from Persian to English and I also studied Arabic Quranic grammar with an Egyptian professor for six years.
I left Iran in 1988 when my youngest child, Karim, was ready for college. My two daughters, Mani and Iran, had already left and were in college in America. Mani was at Wellesley and Iran had decided to go to the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque where my oldest brother, Jamshid, lived. He had been the first IranianAmerican All-American football player (UVA 1957), gone to medical school and become a psychiatrist. Karim and I decided to join them in Albuquerque.
While my son, Karim, and my daughter, Iran, who was married by then with a three year-old son, Saied, were enrolling in classes at UNM, we agreed to meet for coffee in the Student Union. As I was waiting, I came across a brochure about earning an MA in Religious Studies. Not having considered going back to college, it suddenly felt as if that was exactly what I needed to do. I enrolled in graduate school. I was to earn two MAs, one in Philosophy with a Concentration in Religious Studies and one in Counseling Psychology. This, then led to a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology which I completed in 1992 at the age of fifty-five.
One day at the end of a Group Counseling class, as I was almost out the door, I heard the professor say that there was one more type of group counseling called the Enneagram and it had Sufi origins. I was struck by a divine flash! I told myself that I would find those Sufi origins.
Once I had my Ph.D., I found a job in Chicago with Kazi Publications, the oldest Muslim publisher in North America (founded in 1972), founded as a non-profit organization by a Pakistani, Liaquat Ali. Kazi Publications had a distribution network, but lacked a production department. I had been doing book production during my years of graduate work to support my son, Karim, and myself so it was a perfect fit. I have been here at Kazi Publications as the Resident Scholar ever since.
The first intellectual challenge I undertook was to find the Sufi origins of the Enneagram. I found them in spiritual chivalry (futuwwah, javanmardi), the psychology of which is to morally heal. My work ended up being three volumes I entitled: God’s Will Be Done. Volume 1: Traditional Psychoethics and Personality Paradigm; Volume 2: Moral Healer’s Handbook and Volume 3: Moral Healing Through the Most Beautiful Names.
Over the last twenty-six years, I have been blessed to author or translate over 250 books (listed on the Amazon author page), the most important ones being the first English edition of the complete five volumes, 5,000 pages of The Canon of Medicine by Avicenna, which was the only medical textbook taught in Europe in Latin translation for over 600 years and took 1,000 years to get it into English.
The other was the first critical English translation of the Quran by a woman. It took seven years to translate. I named it The Sublime Quran. I do not consider it to be a feminist translation, but an intellectual endeavor as many of the other English translations have been.
I recalled that I had written a high school textbook on the life of Prophet Muhammad in my early days at Kazi Publications. When the book was ready to go to the printers, I looked at it and thought: How can I write the life of the Prophet without it containing all of the Quran? Just a few passages here and there would not be fair to his life’s journey. I studied all the then available English translations and found a lack of consistency and reliability in the translations. I knew that I had learned Quranic Arabic while in Iran so I would be able to translate the Quran in a way that I made sure that the same English translation would be used for the same Quranic word, if the context allowed.
In the Introduction to the translation I explain that Islam promotes marriage and discourages divorce so based on this, verse 4:34 cannot mean that husbands can “beat” their wives because this causes a contradiction with another verse, 2:231 4 where husbands who want to divorce their wives cannot harm them or commit aggression against them. The Arabic word translated by some as “beat” or “scourge” or “strike” has twenty-six meanings. It also means “to go away.” From the perspective of the victim, what Muslim wife would want to remain married under the threat of being beaten when if she is being divorced, she cannot be harmed or have any aggression committed against her? To interpret the Arabic word, daraba, to mean “beat” contradicts 2:231 and clearly goes against the basic Islamic principle regarding marriage and divorce.
With God’s blessings, this translation has been used in child custody cases where Muslim husbands have tried to show the courts through other English translations that their religion allows them to “beat” their wives. The wives then show the judge The Sublime Quran indicating that there is an alternative understanding to what their husbands have shown.
I had found that the Quran taught me how to be a critical thinker. While continuing my spiritual practices, I was able to write a 30 volume work on Critical Thinking and the Chronological Quran in the Life of the Prophet, one book for each year of the 23 years and a few months of the revelation. I placed the stories of the other Prophets in volumes 25-28. Volume 29 is the life of the Prophet up to the revelation and volume 30 is the Teacher’s Manual.
Living in Chicago and being a part of the Muslim community here, I saw how often Muslims quoted the Hadith, the sayings and actions of the Prophet as related by his companions using them as a first source instead of reciting Quranic verses which should be the first source. There are over 300 commands in the Quran that Muslims should follow, but little attention is given to them. I wrote Quranic Sunnah to include just them as well as the other verses where the revelation speaks directly to the Prophet.
As a counseling psychologist, I realized that another aspect of the Quran has been ignored and that is its psychology. I have written: Quranic Psychology of the Self: Volume 1: A Textbook on Its Philosophy and Volume 2: A Textbook on Its Psychology, both to be published in 2019. Hopefully, with the grace of God, I am now working on Quranic Psychology of the Self: Volume 3: A Textbook on Its Psychotherapy of Moral Healing.
None of this would have been possible without God’s blessings. The dreams I had awakened within me a deep love and affection for the Beloved. May God continue to bless the journey of His fedeli d’amore (‘ashiqun, muhibbun, javanmardan, fata, fatat).
I follow the religion of Love:
whatever way Love’s camels take,
that is my religion and my faith.
(Ibn Arabi, Tarjuman al-Ashwaq, Poem XI.)