Compiled By: Hajj Mustafa Ali

One Man's Search for the Way -- Tale of One American Dervish

It seems incredible even now that from my beginnings in Wyoming and via the California Institute of Technology, Atomic Energy Commission, National Academy of Sciences and other such engagements, I should have found my way to the Khanegah of His Excellency Mr. Maleknia Naseralishah in Teheran and become one of his dervishes.  The story of how this apparently jumbles meander led to the Straight Way of Islam may encourage others to believe that “whom God guides, no man can lead astray.”

World War 2, the atomic bomb, and the chaos of the post-war world dissolved many illusions and exposed the painful contradiction of spiritual ideals and moral bankruptcy which had troubled me even as a child in my Protestant Sunday School.  I began also to see my own moral and ethical bankruptcy and the powerlessness of reason and science to solve any really significant problems, personal, social, or political.  I understood why Albert Einstein, whose photograph hung on my wall when I was a child, said:  “Science is a powerful servant, but a blind master.”

Outwardly my career appeared to be developing wholesomely, as I occupied positions of trust and responsibility in government and science administration.  Inwardly, however, I knew that I was drifting aimlessly, and finally in despair I sought psychiatric help.  This enabled me to bear the conflict between my inner and outer life, but it could not resolve it.  I realized that the answer must lie in the spiritual realm and undertook a definite program to explore the whole realm of spiritual ways, Hinduism, Buddhism, Zen, and Christianity, etc.

The friend who later became my wife introduced me to the work of George I. Gurdjieff, and for a thrilling interval I thought I had found the means of resolving the contradictions and becoming all that my heart told me a man could become.  Gurdjieff said that originally every religion in addition to its outer body of precepts and beliefs had an inner teaching about the transformation necessary for man to live according to them.  He indicated that he had found where those inner teachings were still being transmitted and implied that he had undertaken to bring them to the western world.  This was what I had sought, and for nearly two decades I threw myself into the Gurdjieff Work as if my life depended on it.  Indeed it did, for I had concluded that a life based on contradictions was not worth living.

I later came to doubt whether Gurdjieff had really intended to transmit these teachings, rather than merely point to their existence and demonstrate unequivocally their necessity.  His methods show unmistakably and organically one’s powerlessness over oneself and the tens of thousands of diabolical tricks the ego uses to avoid accepting this truth.  But this knowledge is not enough.  Self-observation and self-study alone are not sufficient to bring about unity and self-mastery, and I saw no one, at any level, who approached Gurdjieff’s ideal of “a man without quotation marks.”  Instead, I began to recognize in myself and those above me the subtle egoism of spiritual aspiration, the lust for power and position, and the unending betrayal of ideals by actions, which often led to remorse, but never to transformation.  In short, it was necessary to find a genuine teacher of inner transformation.

This realization was unconsciously growing, but not readily acknowledged, for so much time and emotion had been invested in the Gurdjieff work that its real implications were very hard to face.  My wife and I were drawn to visit Persia in 1965, but we told ourselves it was merely an outgrowth of my studies of Islamic ornament and calligraphy and her studies of carpet design and weaving connected with the Gurdjieff work.  Indeed, we made no attempt to meet any “interesting people” on our first trip, but were so captivated by the country that we began at once to plan our return.

The next summer, after studying Farsi all winter, we went again to Iran, and almost as an afterthought, as it seemed, sought a letter of introduction to His Excellency, Mr. Maleknia Naseralishah.  Our letter, which was to one of his dervishes, went astray, but as our contact was one of the leading citizens of Iran it was easy to find him, and he cordially invited us to visit him.  I shall never forget those scintillating two hours of urbane, sophisticated, yet humble and spiritual conversation.  He agreed to take us to meet His Excellency, whose Khanegah (dervish headquarters) is in a suburb of Teheran.

The following paragraphs from my diary say as much as I could convey about our conversation:

“The gate was opened by a man in a black suit who functioned as Maleknia’s servant.  It occurred to me later to wonder if he were in fact a Teheran businessman serving in that way as an exercise.  We sat for a moment at a small metal table in the garden under trees by a pool, and then we were invited to the veranda where we left our shoes and entered Maleknia’s study.

He is a small slender man with a cropped gray beard.  He wore a pair of gray western trousers and a cream-colored short-sleeved sports shirt with the tail out, gray socks and slippers.  A single gold ring with orange-red stone was on the little finger of the right hand.  He and the bright, comfortable room, in which he received us, were scrupulously clean.  The most remarkable thing about his appearance was his eye... luminous, as if a world lay behind them, and when he turned his gaze towards one, his whole being looked… nothing in him flinched from another’s eye.  He is ill, weakened by a medical error during an illness for which he was being treated in Vienna six years ago.  He sat reclining on a sofa in the corner of the room, and walked with a cane.  He was wholly relaxed, smoked a little, smiled readily and laughed occasionally.  At one point when I said that in my work on myself I seem to move the dirt from room to room instead of out the door he was very amused and asked if I am a writer since I speak in vivid similes.

Before we set into serious conversation the servant brought three large oval glasses of delicious melon balls with ice and sweet thin syrup.  That had scarcely disappeared when tea came in, ours in enameled cups and saucers, and his in a glass.  A tray of astonishingly beautiful fruit followed tea.  Enormous pears, some peaches, and grapes with glass plates and knives and forks.  It seemed too much of a distraction to me, but when I declined he said to please have the grapes, because they were from his own garden.  I gave my wife a small bunch, took one myself, and offered them to him.  He rose politely, took one grape, and smiled his thanks.

“Little of the hour and three-quarters we talked together can be recorded.  He emphasized that the work of transformation is really done by the teacher, and the pupil’s role is to prepare himself to be worthy of the effort of the teacher.  He cited two similes:  If one wishes to attract bees, one must become sweet, and if one wishes the hard stone of one’s soul to reflect the truth, one must polish and polish it.  He said that there are two stages, the first fana or “annihilation,” which we have to taste.  It is not permanent, but in time must give way to another state, which I found difficult to translate, but hoped that like fana, I knew the Arabic.  It was bagha, which he decided was “permanence.”  Then, he said, one comes and goes as one will, all will be the same.  This was in response to my question about the meaning of the couplet “Agar lazat-I tark-I lazet bedani, magar lazat-I nafs-I lazat bekhani.”  (If you savor the taste of abandonment, you will lose your taste for gratifying the ego’s taste).

“At the end of our talk he said that he felt moved to say something that was perhaps unnecessary to say.  He said we had chosen a very long slow way.  He said this was not to criticize our way, or to suggest that he thought we ought to follow his, but so that we would know what to expect.

“We thanked him for the conversation, which had animated us very much, and reluctantly took our leave.  In fact I turned back at the door and embraced him with tears in my eyes.”

It was two years before I saw Mr. Maliknia again – two years during which I became wholly convinced that I could not transmit an esoteric teaching in a way that would result in the transformation of being that Gurdjieff had defined as the aim of all ways.  Nor did I see evidence that anyone else could.  When I told the head of the Gurdjieff Foundation in New York of my meeting with Mr. Maleknia he said, “We have a teaching, but no teacher, and they the (Sufis) have a teacher, but no teaching!”

I was very much struck by this question of teaching vs. teacher and the Sufi saying, “There are as many ways to God as there are human hearts.”  If this were so, there could be no question of “a teaching” but an infinite variety of very individual journeys through unknown territory for which an experienced guide, not a fellow pioneer, is necessary.

The decisive moment came in June 1968 after a rather ludicrous four-day conference of people like myself to discuss the problems involved in transmission of the Gurdjieff work.  My wife and I were seated one evening at opposite sides of an audience of some 150 people at the Gurdjieff Foundation when we simultaneously felt the call to Iran.  It was so clear and sudden that I noted the time on my watch.  Outside, my wife asked me if anything strange had happened to me.  I said, “Yes, at 7:00.”  She said “Exactly!  We’ve been called!”

A few weeks later we were again in the Khanegah of His Excellency Mr. Maleknia.  I said:  “You called us.”  He said “I have been calling you for two years, but your hearing is very bad.  However, if God wills, it will get better.”  He said that he would see us as often as we liked during our stay in Teheran.  The young Iranian dervish who was our translator whispered that he would give a lot to be in our shoes.  Mr. Maleknia said that unfortunately he was going to be out of town for a few days, and with boldness born of despair we asked where he was going and if we could see him there!  I’m sure our dervish friend was shocked, but to his surprise, Mr. Maleknia agreed.

Our next meeting with him was in the Imperial Hotel in Ramsar on the Caspian, where, unfortunately, no one in his entourage spoke English, so we laboriously wrote a letter in Farsi explaining our conclusion that our Way was indeed a very long way, that our lives were already at least half finished, and that we desperately needed his help.  He said that he understood our letter, and not to be anxious, a phrase he repeated many times during the three weeks we were in Iran.  He returned to Teheran, and we followed him over the Elburz Mountains in our Volkswagon with his assurance, amply proven in our hearts, that he would be traveling with us.  “Do not be anxious,” he told us, as we left the Caspian.  In Teheran, the night before our scheduled return to New York, we spent an hour with at the Khanegah, struggling not to be anxious, for it appeared the help we sought was not to be ours yet.  Then he began to speak of the conditions for receiving his help.  In essence all he said came to this:  could we accept him unconditionally, that is, follow him not as a test of his power, provisionally, but wholeheartedly and unreservedly?  For example, if he told us the tea in our teacup was red, we would believe it is red.  And if he next said it is white, we would believe it is white.  Everything he would say in this way would be for a reason, he said, but not necessarily understandable to us.  He also spoke of the greatness of the Prophets.  Noah was a great teacher, but Moses had something special.  Jesus was nevertheless greater than Moses, but Muhammad was the greatest of all, and `Ali was his successor.  Returning to the conditions, he told us go home that night and consider them carefully, and the next day if we were prepared to accept, he would help us.  I said that the next morning we were scheduled to depart for New York at 7:00, though that could be changed.  But in any case, I said, there was nothing to think about; we had already made that decision.

Within a few minutes we had become dervishes and nothing in our lives has been the same since.  The first task given was to keep silent until given permission to speak, for, as His Excellency, said, if we told our friends in America that we were called to Teheran and what occurred there, they would think we were mad.  A Persian couplet, which he taught us, summed up the miracle:

“O you who are ignorant of burning and being burned, know that the coming of Love is not something learned!”

We had our own part to play in traveling on the Way, smaller than we had expected, but essential.  Help came abundantly in a thousand ways, for God Most High, to whom we were introduced by His servant, had suddenly been transformed from a thin, theoretical deduction or a desperate hope, to a Living Reality, however remote.

I realized that I had entered Islam, and soon was required to observe the outer forms of Islam, prayer, fasting, charity, etc., though still unseen by others.  His Excellency had said that the teaching is in the prayers, and I began to see that this is so.  The Qur`an, which had seemed largely opaque to me before, now shimmered with layer upon layer of meaning.  The Mathnawi of Jallal ed-Din Rumi, often referred to as the Persian Qur`an, and highly regarded by His Excellency, seemed to me to have been totally re-written.  But most important of all, the knowledge that I am a creature of God Most High freed me for the first time to dare to see and in a certain way to accept myself as I am.  A reservation or barrier that had always kept my relations with both friends and strangers distant began to dissolve.  And gradually the habit of refusing the reality that is before my eyes, and the arrogant conviction that I am the judge of right and wrong have begun to fade in the peace of submission.

It would be wrong to imply that virtue has suddenly become my firm possession.  The change has been in another dimension, the direction of humility.  The ego still reigns, but on an uneasy throne, and often its place is taken by something else.  Life has taken on a new aspect:  instead of a series of conquests and defeats, hopes and fears, it has become an adventure of discovery, each day revealing more of the will of God.

If God wills, you, too, may find the Way.

An American dervish