Courage, Temperance, Justice and the Enduring Wisdom of the late Scholar Laleh Bakhtiar
Renowned Iranian-American Scholar, Laleh Bakhtiar, lauded for Islamic spirituality and Quranic critical thinking, dies at 82.
Laleh Bakhtiar, an Islamic and Sufi scholar and the first American Muslim woman to translate the Quran, passed away peacefully on Sunday October 18, 2020 in Chicago, from Myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS), a rare blood disorder. She was 82.
Our Mom lived a rich and fulfilling life as a scholar, a mother, a grandmother, a sister, an aunt, a friend, a mentor, an activist and a global citizen. She has been our greatest champion and guardian angel. May she rest in power.
— Her children Mani Helene Farhadi Ardalan, Iran Davar Ardalan, and Karim Ardalan
Born in Tehran on July 29, 1938 and raised in America, Dr. Bakhtiar dedicated more than 50 years of her life to the study of the mystical or Sufi dimensions of Islam and to revisiting Islamic texts from a Muslim woman’s perspective. Dr. Bakhtiar was the Founder and President of the Institute of Traditional Psychology and Scholar-in Residence at Kazi Publications.
The late Laleh Bakhtiar was for me, at once, a student, a friend, and a colleague. Deeply rooted in Islamic studies and avidly interested in Persian culture, she devoted a lifetime to scholarship and produced many fine works in the fields of Islam and Persian studies, Sufism and psychology. I pray for the blessing of her soul. — Seyyed Hossein Nasr
Dr. Bakhtiar authored, translated, edited, and adapted over 150 books including The Sense of Unity with Nader Ardalan, and Sufi Expressions of the Mystic Quest. One of her proudest accomplishments came in 2007 with her translation of the Quran called The Sublime Quran. Since the advent of Islam, the translators and interpreters of the Quran have mostly been men.
In May 2016, Dr. Bakhtiar was awarded the inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award from the Mohammed Webb Foundation in Chicago for her contributions to the American Muslim community.
“As a women’s advocate she challenged patriarchy by using her mighty pen, as a spiritual confidant she set a tone for scholars and activists to create an open debate by sharing feelings that ranged from the most general to the most intimate and as a spiritual exemplar she inspired young generation of women with her deep humility and service to community.” — Daisy Khan, the Founder of WISE Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality
Contributions to Islamic Psychology
Dr. Bakhtiar has also been lauded as a pioneering scholar and practitioner in the emerging discipline of Islamic Psychology. Her new book, Quranic Psychology of the Self: A Textbook on Islamic Moral Psychology, has helped Quranic Psychology claim its place as its own science, incorporating Ethics, Medicine, Natural Philosophy, and Philosophy.
[Quranic Psychology of the Self] will be a valuable resource for students, professors, educational institutions, and mental health professionals as it offers a powerful return of psychology to its transcendent origins…
— Samuel Bendeck Sotillos, editor of Psychology and the Perennial Philosophy
Dr. Bakhtiar attended Holton Arms High School in Maryland. She received her BA in History from Chatham College in Pennsylvania, and Masters degrees in Philosophy and Counseling Psychology and a Ph.D. in Educational Foundations from the University of New Mexico. She is also a Nationally Certified Counselor. For over 30 years, Dr. Bakhtiar studied Islam under her teacher, Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr. In addition to The Sublime Quran and Quranic Psychology, she has authored many books on Islamic unity, architecture, psychology, psychoethics, and moral healing through the Sufi Enneagram.
Growing up in Washington, DC, Dr. Bakhtiar’s favorite books included Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and Jo’s Boys, and, oh yes, she loved Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. As the family historian, she saved thousands of letters and mementos from 1880 to the present between her mother, father and siblings as they travelled in between America and Iran.
Dr. Bakhtiar’s mother, Helen Jeffreys, was a constant source of inspiration throughout her life. Helen was born in Weiser, Idaho, at the beginning of the 20th century. Working as a nurse, she met Iranian physician Dr. Abol Ghassem Bakhtiar at Harlem Hospital. Previously, Abol Ghassem Bakhtiar had emigrated to Ellis Island, NY in 1919. They fell in love and were married at New York City Hall in 1927.
In the 1950s, Helen travelled to Iran as a public health nurse as part of President Truman’s Point Four Program. The rural improvement project sent American experts in agriculture, health, and education to work in villages in less-developed countries. Traveling in the remote mountains of Chahar Mahal in her own jeep, Helen worked with the legendary Bakhtiari tribe of Iran, helping women learn about the importance of health care. The people of Chahar Mahal loved Helen and years later would name a mountain and protected environmental region in her honor. That same spirit of service to community is what inspired Dr. Bakhtiar in her path as an Islamic scholar.
“Our story, like the story of so many emigrants, would never have been if it had not been for Ellis Island and the hope that it inspired so many such as my father to make the great journey to the shores of America in order to gain an education.” — — Laleh Bakhtiar May, 2014
In her final days, Dr. Bakhtiar was surrounded by her family who comforted her, even through social distancing, by reading messages of prayers coming in from all over the world, including one from her mentor Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, who praised her for standing up for “Islam, Sufism and the truth.” Her children took turns reading her passages from The Sublime Quran, writings of the poet Jalal al-Din Rumi, the philosopher Al-Ghazali, and played music from singer and songwriters Joan Baez, James Taylor, Yusuf Islam’s Tea for the Tillerman 2 and a rendition of Amazing Grace by her grandchildren.
Dr. Bakhtiar will be laid to rest in Chicago, where she has been a scholar-in-residence at Kazi Publications, managed by publisher Liaquat Ali. She is survived by her children Mani Helene Ardalan Farhadi, Iran Davar Ardalan, and Karim Ardalan; her grandchildren Saied, Samira, Rodd, Ryon, Aman, Amir, Ryan, and Layla; as well as her daughter-in-law Susan Khalili and sons-in-law Shervin Farhadi and John Oliver Smith. Her surviving siblings are Parveen, Jamshid, Lily, Maryam, Parvaneh, Shahrbanou, Afsaneh, Norooz, Pirooz, and Abol.
On Sunday November 15, 2020, WISE, Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality, based in New York City, will host a virtual memorial for Dr. Laleh Bakhtiar at 1pm EST and present her with a lifetime achievement award for scholarship in religion and spirituality.
“She dared to see beyond the horizon, maintained her trust in God, led by example, influencing countless women and men through her servant leadership, scholarship and spiritual integrity.” — Daisy Khan Founder of WISE
To offer your sympathy during this difficult time, you can choose to have a memorial tree planted at a U.S. National Forest in the memory of Laleh Bakhtiar.
Reflections on Dr. Bakhtiar’s work and contributions
Jordanian Prince Ghazi Bin Muhammad, Chief Advisor for Religious and Cultural Affairs to King Abdullah of Jordan, endorsed her translation of the Sublime Quran on Amazon:
The work Dr. Bakhtiar has put into her interpretation — the consistency, the method, the attention to tense, root, case and detail is second to none. I have never seen its like before. The English reading of it is also lovely and smooth. This is clearly a blessing.
Dr. Bakhtiar’s translation of the Quran is a universal translation meaning there are no parenthetical phrases further interpreting and elaborating a verse, thus allowing the translation to be free of any transient political, denominational or doctrinal bias. Her translation has generated intense scrutiny and criticism as well as praise and recognition from around the world.
Dr. Laleh Bakhtiar is an extraordinary woman… Her contributions to the study of Islam in the West have been in a stunning array of different of capacities and have resulted in a legacy that is truly monumental.
— SCOTT ALEXANDER, chair of the Theological Education Committee of the American Academy of Religion and consultant on Catholic-Muslim relations for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (reflections from 2009)
Through the years, Dr. Bakhtiar heard from hundreds of Muslim women, battered women, and social service groups who thanked her for bringing an alternative translation into the public eye. As a keynote speaker in New York in July 2014 for Turning Point, an organization for Muslim women and girls affected by domestic violence, Bakhtiar turned to the Quran itself to empower the audience to be brave and strong as they transformed their lives. Shireen Soliman, the Board Chair of Turning Point, described the personal impact of Bakhtiar’s work:
You can imagine how validating it was to finally hear of and read Dr. Bakhtiar’s work and her ability through her work and her research to be able to arrive at a translation of the Quran which finally for me really captured the essence of Islam, and is so beautifully aligned with the work we’re doing…with Turning Point.
Reading the Quran was so illuminating. I was able to find a wonderful translation by Laleh Bakhtiar, and it opened me up to the beauty of the faith in a way that no interpretation of the text had before. And, of course, in the book you find, very clearly, Islam’s dedication to social justice, to peace, and to the less fortunate.
Contact: Davar Ardalan, Davar@ivow.ai
Resources and Interviews:
The Complete Quran Recitation by Laleh Bakhtiar
Laleh Bakhtiar on her life, recorded by Samira Ardalan
The Sufi Enneagram Course: Knowing Ourselves and Developing Moral Healing November 2018
Laleh Bakhtiar interview with Matt Scott 180º of Impact (September 2018)
Laleh Bakhtiar interview with Homa Sarshar