From a profile on Dr. Laleh Bakhtiar in Religion BookLine, a subsidiary of Publishers Weekly. Dr. Bakhtiar is the author of a recent book called Sufi Women of America: Angels in the Making (Kazi Publications).
In 1927 at New York's Harlem Hospital, a girl from Idaho fell in love with a young man from Iran. Abol Ghassem Bakhtiar had come to the U.S. to study medicine, and Helen Jeffreys was only the second American ever to marry an Iranian.
"Iranians would go to Europe to study, but they wouldn't come here because it was so far," says Laleh (Mary) Bakhtiar, their seventh and youngest child and the author of ten books, including Sufi Women of American: Angels in the Making (Kazi, Feb.). "My father came on a scholarship given by a missionary group in Iran."
Shortly after her birth, Bakhtiar's parents divorced, and her father returned to Iran. Growing up in Lost Angeles and Washington, D.C., Laleh was raised as a Christian. Her mother, a Presbyterian, sent the children to Catholic school, and Bakhtiar loved it.
At the age of eight, she decided to become a Catholic and for a while, she was very devout. "I walked to six o'clock mass each morning," she recalls. But by 13, she had drifted away from that faith.
After graduating from Chatham College in Pennsylvania with a history degree, Bakhtiar married an Iranian architect who had also grown up in America. She bore two girls in San Francisco before the couple moved to Iran. There she met Seyyed Hossein Nasr, now professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington University. "Nasr became my teacher and introduced me to Islam through Sufism, the mystical dimension. I converted in 1964."
She explains, "The appeal for me, which sounds very Christian, was the idea of loving other people. But it is much more structured. The five-times-a-day prayer, the month of fasting, what you eat-its all covered by the law. And Islam is very strong on banning anything that would intoxicate you and make you forget God. That structure, combined with the Sufi emphasis on love, gave me both dimensions."
In 1969, the University of Chicago commissioned her and her husband to write a book on Persian architecture, as a gift to the shah for a promised donation to the university.
The Sense of Unity: The Sufi Tradition in Persian Architecture was published in 1971. British publisher Thames and Hudson then asked her to write an introductory book on Sufism and art, Sufi Expressions of the Mystic Quest (1974).
After she and her husband divorced in 1976, Bakhtiar started a publishing house in Tehran called the Hamdami Foundation. In 1979, says Bakhtiar, "We produced an art book that was like a traditional Persian book of miniature paintings with illuminated text in calligraphy."
As beautiful as the book was, the timing could not have been worse. "It came out about six weeks after the revolution began so of course there was no one to buy it; those who had the resources left the country," Bakhtiar recalls.
When the revolution came, the change was not difficult, she says. "My divorce had been so devastating to any kind of social position I'd had. A single woman has no place in that kind of society. I had American citizenship, but no money to get there." She began to make her way as a translator and interpreter and continued to operate her publishing company there for eight years.
Finally, her brother, a psychiatrist in Albuquerque, New Mexico, helped her to move there with her son. They both entered the University of New Mexico, where she earned two master's degrees (one in counseling psychology and the other in philosophy, with a concentration in religious studies) and a Ph.D. in educational psychology.
"By broadening my abilities through psychology, I was able to discover the Sufi interpretations of the Enneagram, which dealt with what was called practical philosophy but was actually psychology." Sufi Women of America examines the lives of seven women, matching their experiences of the Sufi process of self-perfection against the structure of the Enneagram.
Bakhtiar uses the Enneagram in counseling at the Institute of Traditional Psychoethics, which she founded in 1991, working mainly with immigrant Muslim teenage girls.
"They have first-generation parents who really don't speak English, and they're feeling peer pressure to join in with things that their parents object to," says Bakhtiar. "So the girls are really caught. This method helps give them the balance they need." Bakhtiar is also resident scholar at the nonprofit Kazi Publications.
Bakhtiar's next book will be a history of the role of women in early Islam. Encyclopedia of Muhammad's Women Companions and the Traditions They Related (Kazi, June). She expects to dispel some stereotypes: "I have found there were over 600 women who were active in the early community. Many orally related the traditions that were then put into the canonical works. If a woman said, 'This is what I heard the Prophet say,' it was accepted."
Laleh Bakhtiar sees herself as a bridge between American culture and the Islamic world. "I feel it was God's will for my life. I know the two cultures, the two languages. I know the two peoples, who I believe can come together in many areas. The political climate is in opposition to such a task, but it is my work."
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