Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh
Former Master of Nimatullahi Sufi Order
12/10/1926 – 10/10/2008
Dr. Nurbakhsh was born in Kerman on the 10th of December 1926, affectionately referred to by sufis as the "capital of spiritual poverty."
Shah Nimatullah, the founder of the order bearing his name, called it the "heart of the universe." Nurbakhsh was descended from Shaykh Kamal ad-Din Nurbakhsh, one of the distinguished Shaykhs of the Nurbakhshi Sufi Order, over whose tomb the present sufi center in Kerman was built.
After a prodigious early life, he began his professional career as a medical doctor at the age of 26 when he became head of a local hospital in the southeastern town of Bam, Iran. The following year, 1953, he succeeded his master, Munes 'Ali Shah Zo'r-Riyasateyn, as master of the Nimatullahi Sufi Order, with the sufi sobriquet of Nur 'Ali Shah.
Following a term serving the people of Bam, he was transferred to Tehran, where he took up residence in the small sufi center in the downtown district of Shahpur Square. This became the center of a sufi revival in Iran as well as attracting western seekers and scholars from around the world.
Leaving Tehran in 1979, and after traveling widely in the United States, he settled in England in 1986 and never returned to Iran where the Order continues to thrive despite official attempts to deny the spirit of Iranian sufis. He himself personified the sufi life, serving humanity in humility and love. In addition to his role as a sufi master, he was a pioneer in developing and establishing modern psychiatric practice and facilities in his native Iran.
Through his tireless energy Dr. Nurbakhsh initiated the greatest renaissance of the Nimatullahi Sufi order since the work of the founder, Shah Nimatullah Vali in the 15th century. His teachings have attracted a massive following from every race, ethos, creed and national origin, inspiring a way of loving-kindness and service to humankind according to the tenets of Sufism.
Dr. Nurbakhsh never treated people in terms of their worldly position or rank, seeing all as equal in love and he attracted a wide association of eminent figures from around the world who became his friends, remaining in regular communication. Such persons included: the distinguished German scholar, the late Dr. Annemarie Schimmel; the Swiss academician, Dr. Hermann Landolt; the great French scholar of Iranian and Islamic philosophy, Henry Corbin; the Japanese Zen Buddhist and scholar of philosophy, Dr. Toshihiko Izutsu; American Islamic and sufi scholars such as Profs. Carl Ernst, William Chittick, and James Morris; American poet Robert Bly; as well as Russian scholars in the field like Prof. I.M. Steblin-Kamensky.
He became friend and mentor to western diplomats in Tehran in particular Sir Peter Ramsbotham of the United Kingdom and James George of Canada. He enjoyed warm relations with a number of other spiritual guides, such as Mme. de Salzman, head of the Gurdjieff movement at the time; Dr. Ganjavian, master of the Zahabi Sufi Order of Iran; and the spiritual heads of the Ahl-e Haqq and Qadiri Sufi Orders in Iranian Kurdistan.
After obtaining his Psychiatric degree from the Sorbonne, Dr. Nurbakhsh was appointed professor of psychiatry at the Tehran University school of medicine, a position which he held until he retired, along with that of director of the Iranian Medical Council, president of the Iranian Association of Psychiatrists, and head of the Ruzbeh Psychiatric Hospital. He was also an honorary member of the American Psychiatrists' Association.
He produced 37 scientific works in the field of psychiatry, as author, editor and translator, along with many articles in scientific journals and a compendium of instructional brochures for the use of researchers, professors and students.
Throughout his life Dr. Nurbakhsh wrote extensively on Iranian gnosis and Sufism. Besides publication of his prolific writings, including biographies of the masters of the path and the principles of the Nimatullahi Sufi Order, he also sponsored numerous international conferences and seminars, the papers of which have been compiled in three compendia in English.
He was known for his “prodigious activity” (Henry Corbin’s words) in the publication of classical sufi texts. By 1979, when he went into voluntary exile in the West, he had published some eighty books. Besides his own prose and poetical works, Dr. Nurbakhsh edited and published the divan and collected treatises (late 1970s, in 4 hefty volumes) of Shah Nimatullah, as well as many of the important works by nineteenth-century Nimatullahi masters, including collected works of Nur ‘Ali Shah, and works by Mast ‘Ali Shah, Muzaffar ‘Ali Shah, Majdhub ‘Ali Shah, Rawnaq ‘Ali Shah, Mushtaq ‘Ali Shah, and adr al-Mamalik Ardabili. He also edited and published critical editions of treatises and poetical works by classical Persian sufi writers, such as Ansari, Ahmad Ghazali, Ruzbihan Baqli, ‘Iraqi and Shabistari.
When the Nimatullahi Order began to set up branches in the West in the early 1970s, the Order’s own "Khanaqahi Nimatullahi Publications" in the United States translated and published scores of Dr. Nurbakhsh’s own works. Foremost among these should be listed: Sufi Women (New York 1983, reprinted 4 times and since translated into Spanish, French, Italian and German); Jesus in the Eyes of the Sufis (London 1983, reprinted once and since translated into Spanish, Italian and German); Spiritual Poverty in Sufism (London 1984, since translated into French, Italian and Spanish); The Great Satan, Eblis (London 1986, since translated into Italian and German); and The Psychology of Sufism (London 1992, since translated into Italian, German, Spanish and Russian). Dr. Nurbakhsh’s two volumes of Prophetic traditions used by the sufis, published in trilingual texts (Arabic, Persian and English), his five-volume work entitled The Gnosis of the Sufis (Ma‘arif-i Sufiyya), and his sixteen-volume work on sufi technical terminology entitled Sufi Symbolism (Farhang-i Nurbakhsh) remain his most significant contributions to Islamic sufi studies in the West to date. His works have been translated from the original Persian into English, Spanish, Russian, French, German, Dutch, Swedish and Polish. In addition, he has published a quarterly journal with articles, features, fiction and poetry on Sufism and related spiritual paths, now in its twentieth year, with editions in Persian, English, French, Spanish and Russian.
In the years up to 1979 he established 70 sufi centers in most of the major cities and towns of Iran, all set up as charitable organizations according to civil and Islamic law. A great number of these have since been expropriated under the current regime.
Since moving to the West in 1979, Dr Nurbakhsh had established 35 active centers across the rest of the world, including England, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Sweden, and Austria in Europe; Russia; the United States, Canada and Mexico in North America; Australia; and in the Ivory Coast, Benin, Mali, Burkina Faso, and Senegal in West Africa, each incorporated as an independent charity under the civil law of the respective countries.
Dr. Nurbakhsh made important advances in psychiatry in his native Iran, instituting improvements in the Ruzbeh Hospital which brought the institution into the forefront of psychiatric practice, including the construction of the first modern psychiatric clinic in Tehran. Under his leadership the Order provided financial and technical assistance to various charitable institutions in Iran and to two orphanages in Mexico as well as the founding and operation of two clinics in West Africa: in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, and in Porto Novo, Benin.
Nimatullahi sufi centers around the world reflect the vastness of his spirit and serve not only to promote the ideals of the sufi path but also the Persian language, its literature, poetry and mystical opus through which the culture, music and art of Iran are celebrated. A formidable personality, he was known for his startling wit, constant rapturous laughter, mastery of the art of conversation and use of humor as a pedagogic device. A ghazal in his lovely Divan of ecstatic Persian sufi poetry, concludes:
The world has been like a dream to you, Nurbakhsh
All the people therein bewitched and broken-hearted.
Dr. Nurbakhsh passed away in his retreat in the English countryside near the town of Banbury, Oxfordshire, where he spent his final years, and is buried there.
He has been succeeded by his son, Dr. Alireza Nurbakhsh, a doctor in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin and a practicing lawyer in London. His sufi sobriquet is Reza 'Ali Shah.
Through love, I have reached a place
Where no trace of love remains,
Where I and We and the painting of existence
Have all been forgotten and left behind.
- Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh