Based only in Iran until the 1970s, one branch of the Ni’matullahi Sufi Order came to the West after its head, Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh (d. 2008), emigrated following the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
The past 30 years have brought radical changes to the group, reported Eliza Tasbihi (Concordia University, Montreal) at the November conference of the American Academy of Religion. Many of the Order’s members are now Westerners, but Iranian followers remain a significant minority, especially conspicuous in the organization of social events. Along with the expansion of the Order to other parts of the world, including the creation of centers in the West and in Africa, the order has undergone other changes.
While Nurbakhsh had stated in his earlier writings that being a Muslim was a requirement for practicing Sufism, this has ceased to be emphasized. He brought about a major shift in his teachings through using a universal language and actually detaching Sufism from an exclusive association with Islam. Conversion to Islam is no longer a requirement today for those who want to join the Order. In addition, the Order does not want to equate Sufism with an orientation toward seclusion and has put an emphasis on charity work and engagement with scholarly work, including international conferences. Another development is gender equality, manifested by the fact that men and women sit together while practicing silent meditation and that women are not required to cover their heads.
Some changes may have also partly been motivated by the small size of the groups; for instance, originally, initiates and non-initiates were supposed to sit in separate rooms, but this did not seem to make sense with only a small number of participants. The change has not affected the groups in Iran, however. Moreover, not only do the other branches of the Ni’matullahi Sufi Order not follow such adaptations, but a number of members within the branch under the leadership of the late Dr Nurbakhsh have not accepted them, and have seceded to create separate centers. Among Iranians in the West, some people with no involvement in traditional Muslim religious life feel attracted to the new, inclusive approach. It is too early to say how the Order will now evolve under its new leader following the death of Nurbakhsh.