This data was last updated on 27 September 2018.
History: The Nimatullahi Order of Sufism was founded in Iran by Shah Nimatullah Wali at the end of the 14th century. Shah Nimatullah’s message became very popular and attracted disciples from across Iran because it was able to integrate the social and spiritual life of a Sufi practitioner. Shah Nimatullah rejected the seclusion, asceticism, and divisive nature of many Sufi communities at the time and instead encouraged his followers to “embrace lives of constructive occupation” in their jobs, families, and greater society. Spiritual activity within the Order consisted of a combination of dhikr (remembrance of God), self-examination, and meditation. The Order remained primarily in Iran and India for the next six centuries until the appointment of Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh as the Master of the Order in 1953.
Dr. Nurbakhsh was born in Iran, obtained degrees from the University of Tehran and the Sorbonne, and ran the Psychiatry Department at the University of Tehran until retiring in 1977. Dr. Nurbakhsh’s relationship with the Nimatullahi Order began at age 16 when he was initiated. Soon after he became the shaikh (spiritual director) of his local center at 20; he became Master of the Order at age 26, when his spiritual Master and predecessor died. Upon becoming Master, Dr. Nurbakhsh began expansive efforts for the Order on an international level. Since the beginning of his work, Dr. Nurbakhsh has founded over 100 centers in close to 30 countries on 5 continents. After founding its first US centers in New York and San Francisco, the Nimatullahi Order wished to set up a Boston location. After a short search, the Nimatullahi Sufis purchased a building on Pembroke Street in Boston in the late 1970s and the House of Sufism opened by the Master Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh himself. The House of Sufism is considered a non-profit charity organization, which “serves the public, [by] providing a place to practice peace unity, love, and kindness.” Though it recognizes its Islamic roots, it does not promote any institutionalized religion and has always been open to all who are interested in finding the truth through love of God.
Description of the Center: The Sufi House, or khanaqah, is located on a quiet street in the South End neighborhood of Boston. It is the end brownstone on the mostly residential street, distinct from the other houses only by a large, blue sign across the front, reading “House of Sufism.” The Nimatullahi Order owns the entire building, which contains a tearoom for reception, a meditation room and residential apartments for members and non-members alike. The tearoom and meditation room are richly decorated with Persian furnishings: rugs, candles, pillows, tapestries, and curtains printed with the Nimatullahi seal of two axes, a begging bowl, and prayer beads.
The seal of the Order is symbolic of a practitioner’s journey of a submission and cutting off of the ego to become closer to God. Adorning the walls are framed poetry by Rumi and other Sufi Masters, brass castings, a painting detailing the spiritual lineage of Nimatullahi Sufi Masters, and photographs of the current Master, Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh. Also inside these meeting spaces are large libraries of CDs and books from Khaniqahi Nimatullahi Publications (KNP), the Order’s publication company, and other donated texts. Alongside KNP books on Sufi practice, psychology, ethics and biography, Dr. Nurbakhsh’s extensive writings, and SUFI, KNP’s quarterly magazine, are books on Zen, Yoga, and western philosophy, reflecting the openness and diverse backgrounds of those attending the House of Sufism.
Leadership: The international Nimatullahi Order is lead by the Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh, who was appointed as Master of the Order in 1953. Dr. Nurbakhsh currently resides in England, but makes trips to visit the Nimatullahi community around the world and has written a large collection of works on Sufism, such as The Path and a sixteen volume set on Sufi symbolism. A pir-i-dalil (spiritual counselor) or shaikh (spiritual director) is appointed at many Sufi Houses of the Nimatullahi Order.
Center Activites: The Sufi House is open to the public, inviting anyone from the Boston community and beyond to come to learn about or participate in the center’s activities. Once a week there is teatime for anyone interested to meet with the Sufis and learn about their practices. During the summer, weekly teas are held on the first Sunday of every month from 12:00 to 1:00 pm. The teas are free and open to the public. Though the Boston khanaqah does have an initiation process for those who wish to become full Sufis of the Order, activities at the center are often attended by numbers much greater than their 15 to 20 regular attendees.
Activity at the khanaqah centers on weekly meditations done in silence, following the Order’s emphasis on dhikr (remembrance of God) of the heart over vocalized dhikr. Silent meditation also allows members the freedom to communicate with God in whichever way they deem appropriate, recalling the principles of equality and democracy found in the Nimatullahi Order. As one member put it, “[the House of Sufism] wants to make a space for everyone.” These meetings sometimes also include live music and poetry. Monthly talks and teachings, which are free and open to the general public, are given to provide educational and spiritual opportunities to all those seeking instruction. For example, in July 2007, a Nimatullahi darvish (Sufi) presented a meditation navigation, where she led meditation, answered questions, and explained the health benefits of the practice. There is also a day set aside every week where members are invited to give their service towards the upkeep of the Boston Nimatullahi Sufi House through cleaning, gardening, and maintenance. Service is heavily emphasized within the Nimatullahi Order, as its founder, Shah Nimatullah, felt active service to society with love and kindness was the best way to purify the heart and purge the soul of the nafs (ego). The Nimatullahi Order has its own publication company, Khaniqahi Nimatullahi Publications, under which Master Dr. Nurbakhsh publishes all of his works and the Nimatullahi Order’s semi-annual magazine, SUFI. The House of Sufism offers contemplation meetings every Thursday and Sunday, but participants must call to secure their spot. The House of Sufism provides a weekly meal for the residents of a Pine Street Inn facility in the South End from 1:00pm to 4:00 pm every Sunday. Since 2011, the House of Sufism began volunteering in Boston's South End by offering sandwiches to neighbors and eventually partnering with local homeless shelters. Because of the large growth, the House of Sufism Charity Initiative has received donations from Pepperidge Farm.
Outreach: The House of Sufism maintains no affiliation with local religious groups or academic organizations but is connected to the global Nimatullahi Sufi Order that has centers in North America, Africa, Europe, Iran, and Australia. While Nimatullahi Centers run independent of one another, members of the Nimatullahi Order come from all over the globe for an annual meeting in London, the resident country of Dr. Nurbakhsh. The Boston chapter of the Order has sponsored and participated in academic conferences with North Shore College and Boston University, and are open to other collaborative academic events in the future.
Demographics: The House of Sufism attracts a wide range of ethnicities, religious backgrounds, and age groups; on its website it promotes itself as a place “open to spiritual seekers of all traditions and backgrounds.” Since it does not consider itself a religious institution, the House of Sufism believes it can serve as the main spiritual venue for some while providing spiritual “enhancement” for others who maintain their practice of Islam, Buddhism, Yoga, Judaism, and Christianity outside the center. As basic principles of their Order, the Nimatullahi Sufis are encouraged to wear conventional clothing, respect all faiths and peoples, and maintain equality amongst initiates of the Order, making it easier for those coming from diverse religious backgrounds to participate together at the center. One member expressed this sentiment of inclusion by stating that, “if you get in the way of others’ practice, you are not a Sufi.” The House of Sufism runs entirely on donations and requires no annual dues from its members.