Taking the First Step

Salaam and Greetings of Peace:

“O you who believe! let not your wealth, or your children, divert you from the remembrance of Allah.”
– Quran, Surah Al- Munafiqun 63:9

I have been asked to explain how one gets to take that first step on the Sufi path. What confluence of events and/or intention causes a person to be attracted to the path of Love, whether they are Muslim or not? The short answer is: God knows.

But I have come to realize over the years that all human beings have the potential for spirituality within them. Whether the desire for it becomes activated or not depends on a multitude of factors, or, only one: God’s will. I have known some darvishes who picked up a book of Sufi tales and were so moved by them that they sought out a Sufi Order. The tales spoke to their hearts. And there are those that come from a Muslim family where one or more of its members are darvishes, and they want to share in their path. I know of at least one darvish who came to the path in order to find a wife. He did, and became a wonderful darvish also.

And there are those that think: If I become a Sufi, I can get mystical powers and then people will respect me and look up to me, and I can get girls (or boys) to pay attention to me, and other people won’t frighten me as much.

Many are called, but few are chosen. In other words, there are as many reasons (cultural, romantic, selfish) to step onto the Sufi path (or any other mystical path) as there are darvishes. And most have no idea of how difficult the path is, or what it asks of you. Nothing of your self will remain hidden. Many drop by the wayside, or drift off to other pursuits. May Allah bless them and watch over them.

In the end, how surprised I was to find that all you need is love. Here, for what it is worth, is my own story.

I had lived most of my life in Chicago, and only moved near New York City six years ago, to be with my beloved. I have been a darvish of the Nimatullahi Sufi Order for over 14 years now, but I will never forget how I came to be initiated.

I had always been interested in mystical studies, and earned a Master’s degree in Philosophy from DePaul University. I had read about Sufism for some time, beginning with Tales of the Dervishes by Idris Shah, and was drawn to it strongly, but being wrapped in the cloak of my nafs, my self-absorbed ego, I never really did anything about it. Then one day I read a small classified ad in the local Chicago paper that said, Sufi Shaykh coming to Chicago. Anyone interested in meeting him, please call… and they listed the khaniqah phone number.

My wise girlfriend at the time went and became initiated, but I did not go. I was not ready. But over the next year I did accompany her to the khaniqah once in a while for dinner. The Persian food was excellent. A year later, Mr. Niktab, the Shaykh mentioned in the ad, returned. He was the Shaykh of Shaykhs of the order, second to our Master, Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh. I wanted to meet him now, to see if he looked like what I thought a Sufi should. What a fool I was!

He was a thin old man, about 80 then, with a warm smile and gentle manner. Through a translator, he welcomed me warmly, asked a few questions, one of which was, “Do you believe in God?” When I said that I did, he said I was welcome to come back at any time.

For another year I would go to the khaniqah every so often, as the darvishes kept inviting me for dinner, though I really had no intention of joining. I was too self-absorbed to contemplate giving up my indulgences for a spiritual path. Yet I went to the dinners to please my girlfriend, and was drawn to the gentle courtesy, the adab of the path, and the wonderful Persian cooking. Another year passed and Mr. Niktab visited again. I went just to say hello to him once more. I was invited to his room again and will never forget the exchange between us.

I said, “It’s good to see you again.”
He said, “It’s good to see you again also. Come back tomorrow, you are being initiated.”

That was it. I just stammered, “Uh, yes sir.” I really had not had any intention of asking to be initiated, but I felt like I had been looking over a cliff to the enticing scene below and he came up behind me and kicked me off. I was sure a big footprint was now visible on my behind. I laugh when I think about it now. He read my heart truly, and my hesitation, and took action.

That night I was initiated as a darvish of the Nimatullahi Sufi Order, and placed in a corner of the meeting room and told to meditate silently. This is the time of mohasebeh, the balancing of accounts. As it is written in the Quran, “And verily, whether you manifest what is within you are keep it hidden, God will call you to account for it.” Thus we struggle to eliminate the selfish and petty deceits of the ego from our thoughts and deeds. And to come to terms with the past and ask forgiveness for all the lies, betrayals, hatreds, greed, envy, and jealousy of our past, and the hurt we have inflicted on others because of it.

It takes many years to do so, but with constant remembrance of God, the source of all love and forgiveness, the nafs slowly, slowly let go and allows love to enter to enter the heart, and then joy comes with each breath of remembrance (at the time of initiation, each darvish is given a word or phrase as their zekr, their remembrance of God, to be said with each inhalation and exhalation, so that each breath is a prayer and a blessing).

I wept for a year. And still do at the enormity of the gift I have been given.


Thank God! Without the path, I would have been cooked in the stew of my own nafs long ago. Mr. Niktab passed away a few years ago, but I will always remember his kindness and sincerity, and am grateful every day to him and to the Master for accepting this unworthy darvish.

I have a poet friend who lives in Switzerland and belongs to another Sufi Order. She is in the habit of going into her prayer room and slowly writing down verses of the Qu’ran. She says:

To learn is useful
but to be in love is sweet.

Those two lovely lines sum up the entire path from beginning to end. To answer the original question, when you are ready, it will happen, if it is meant to happen. Not everyone is willing to give up his or her comfortable, self-involved life. But that is what’s necessary, for love of God, and for love of all His creation, which is manifested in the adab of the path. Many fall by the wayside. Those who remain have taken the first step.

Ya Haqq!

13 Responses to Taking the First Step

  1. Starlight says:

    Truly inspiring!

  2. Karen says:

    Salaam Irving ….

    This is indeed a beautiful “coming out” story. It does seem that the true and complete giving of oneself to the Path, the desire for this, is itself the most precious of God’s gifts. The intellectual desire is a very different thing from the irresistable pull from within that will not be stopped. How could the human being possibly awaken to this without help in the form of the call of the Beloved?

  3. Salaam Dear Sister Karen:
    A good question, dear sister. Although even those who are called do not always answer, or if they answer, cannot go forward, or if they go forward, cannot complete the journey. Of your own free will you must take the first step. Then, as the hadith say, “If you walk toward Him, He will run toward you.”

    Ya Haqq!

  4. Zomillah says:

    Waiting for the Call could be taken too literally; we WAIT for The Call. Allah mentions “ikhtiar”. I take this to mean one should be responsible for one’s own learning and should investigate all the avenues of spirituallity that one is attracted to. In these modern and stressful times, work envelopes our lives mercilessly, and when one has the option of going for spiritual courses, one should, no matter which path. The Path I have been waiting for has not chosen to appear and reveal Itself.

  5. Bilquees says:

    Salaam, Irving,

    Very nice blog, Alhamdulilah.

    Peace and blessings,

  6. saly says:

    Salaam Irving, SubhanAllah! Thank you so much.

    I have always believed that each person who reaches out to God has a waseelah that helps him/her to see the truth. Maybe your then girlfriend was very wise indeed; maybe she was your waseelah. Had you not visited Mr. Niktab to impress her you wouldn’t be what you are. Allah sent her for you so you could reach out to him.

  7. Stranger says:

    Subhanallah! :) My friend you have left me with a smile – jazakallah

  8. Salaam Dear Friends and Strangers :)
    Thank you all for the kind comments, and the smile :)

    Ya Haqq!

  9. blog400 says:

    I enjoyed this post, Thanks.

    BTW I found this: http://www.zensufi.com/

    I am not sure if it would interest you, but, anyway, there it is.


  10. severina says:

    Asalaamualaikum. I stumbled across your blog quite by accident (after having ordered “Master of the Jinn” online) and have enjoyed what I have read here and will continue to read your posts in the future. You speak so openly and plainly. It is refreshing to read thoughts that are not masked in egocentric agenda and solipsism in a blog. What a particularly interesting statement you’ve made about the accounting of deeds spoken or hidden — it is certainly easy to forget what is inside when coated in the residue of one’s own nafs.

  11. Irving says:

    Salaam Dear Severina:
    May Allah bless you for the kind and generous words. All new friends that come into the home are a gift of Hu, so welcome, and please read the previous posts also, and the latest ones.

    Ya Haqq,


  12. Paavo says:

    I often remember my first encounter with Mr. Niktab. When I was a small child of 5 or 6?, i was introduced to him by my mother. We were living in a Sufi house in Seattle and he was visiting. There were usually tea and cookies after everyone meditated…i had wandered into the kitchen looking for a cookie. My mother found me out, and told me i had to meet Mr. Niktab before getting one. I agreed of course and timidly went with my mom to meet him.

    He was sitting down cross legged in one of the large rooms…the lighting was low, and i was holding on to my mom’s leg, peeping out from behind it.

    Mr. Niktab was toking on a pipe and the smoke was curling around his head. To me he was a wizard. I shook his hand and we said hello…

    …this experience remains with me forever…i’m glad i wanted a cookie.

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