The Sufis and Idries Shah By Doris Lessing
It is not easy to sum up the life of as multifaceted a man as Idries Shah, who died last winter, and particularly not his literary achievements which covered such a range of subjects and disciplines, amounting to a kind of map of Sufi living, learning and thinking. He was a Sufi exemplar and teacher, that is to say, a mystic, but right from the first of his books where he began to describe the Sufi outlook The Sufis (1964) he challenged some pretty stereotyped ideas about what a mystic should be. For one thing he was a friend, and often an adviser, of scientists.
The Sufis had a preface by Robert Graves, and attracted attention from some distinguished people, among them Ted Hughes and Geoffrey Grigson. This was remarkable for a book at such an angle to our materialist western ideas. The Sufis is the definitive book for our time: essential to the Sufi way of thinking is that books and teachings are for a time and a stage in culture, and must be superseded. Sufi books are written in response to a demand, say the Sufis, and this one was eagerly anticipated. I was far from the only person who, having heard that a genuine Sufi teacher had arrived, waited for a book that would be called, simply, The Sufis. I felt it answered questions I had been mulling over all my life.
There quickly followed Caravan of Dreams, Wisdom of the Idiots, The Magic Monastery, The Dermis Probe the reference is to "The Elephant in the Dark", the little fable about people who feel different parts of an elephant, all believing that what they feel is the whole beast. Each of these, and later books, are a rich mix of tales, ideas, verses, jokes, and at first people's reactions, my own included, illustrated Shah's remark that we should not expect Sufis to teach in an expected manner. With each book there was a slight initial feeling of let-down, even bewilderment, and this was because the words 'Teacher', 'School', 'Teaching', evoke expectations of a person standing in front of a class and saying, "For the next hour I shall instruct you in so-and-so. Now: a, b, c, d..." In a Sufi school you first learn what is being taught and, above all, how. Sufi books are designed to be read differently from our usual habit: quietly, non-argumentatively, willing to absorb what is there, noticing how a question in one part may be answered in another, observing juxtapositions and intimations of the unexpected, above all not interposing screens of 'received ideas' between the author and one's best self. Perhaps this is what Goethe meant when he said he was a very old man and had only just learned how to read.
From the start it was evident how ignorant we in the West are about the very bases of a practical and living mysticism, and how right Shah was when he told us repeatedly that what we needed was information before anything. Thirty years ago cults and gurus abounded: we were invited to go off and find the characteristics of a cult as defined by the sociologists, to be sure not to fall into the trap of despising people who think differently, to be careful not to use the Sufi community as a family or social life, or a means of enjoying exciting psychic experiences what Shah called "spills and thrills". People who wanted a guru or a father figure were urged to go off and find one, because that was not what Shah was interested in.
I am writing as one who studied with Shah as a pupil and the books were part only part of the curriculum, but they were read by a variety of people who found them useful. Desmond Morris, for instance, said that a joke or a tale may suddenly explode into meaning, illustrating a situation or a person, perhaps years after reading it. There are people all over the world I have met them while travelling who say that Shah's books are the foundation, the 'warp and weft' of their lives, and not least because Shah's explicit warnings prevented them from haring after one of the many phoney "Sufi" teachers or gurus. Besides, one has only to compare the many-sidedness, the complexity, the depth and variety of Shah's teaching with his imitators. Perhaps its chief characteristic is its precision, the clarity, the sharpness, which is a thousand miles away from the dozey emotions so often associated with "mysticism".
Idries Shah was born in 1924 in North India, of an ancient family that holds a special place in the community of the Sufis. This family has always produced remarkable people, influential in their communities in the world. Idries Shah's father, the Sirdar Iqbal Ali Shah, was a diplomat and worked in cultural organisations designed to bridge the gaps between east and west. He wrote books, still valuable and very entertaining, compilations of tales and adventure, like The Golden Caravan, some directly informational, like The Spirit of the East . He later lived in this country and taught "classes". The Sufis may plant a 'root' in a culture. It looks as if the Sirdar planted a root, and Shah's "school" encouraged the plant into the light, which he has done openly, strengthening the Sufi current for everyone to see. I have always seen The Sufis as an announcement: this is what can be done, and this is what will be done.
It took 800 years to get Sufi thought accepted by orthodox Islam, and since then Moslems have claimed it as their own. A young friend of Shah, a British orientalist, a pupil, was sent by him in answer to a request from a group of Moslem divines in the Middle East, but they had to be persuaded that the Sufis are not a Moslem monopoly by being invited to look again at the Sufi classics they venerated but seemed not to have read. The Sufi reality predated Islam, has always been introduced, secretly or openly, into every culture. "We work in all places and at all times." (The word "Sufism" is not liked by Sufis: they see it as a typical western abstraction, away from the living reality of the Sufi Way, which is embodied in people.) The actual word "Sufi" is not necessary for a fresh introduction of Sufi feeling: many an activity or event or series of events have been Sufic, but no one has known it, perhaps not even the people involved. Many books have been for a Sufi purpose, the word never being used. There are times when a transmission of Sufi truth is possible, because cosmic influences are in alignment "... the appropriate wave of the unseen laps upon the shore of possibility..." and times when nothing happens because nothing can. This has nothing to do with astrology, fortune telling and horoscopes.
People are always asking, "But what is Sufism, what are the Sufis, surely it can be put into a few words?" There are some statements, almost aphorisms: for instance that in every human being is an initially tiny, precious, shining thing, capable of development, which can bring her or him to fulfilment. Or, that the Sufi truth is at the core of every religion, its heart, and religions are only the outward vestments of an inner reality. This last is helpful to people like myself, who find it hard to see in religions anything more than systems of indoctrination with perennial tendencies toward the persecution of differently-thinking people.
People say, "But these secrets, why don't people simply say what they are, and be done with it?" In the body of work that Shah has left can be found a whole cosmology, the "secrets" set out as openly as a recipe for soup or instructions how to plant a garden. Clearly, people's eyes slide over them, because they are not set out in an expected way. A fact startling or even shocking in its implications may be part of an anecdote, a joke, or an apparently casual paragraph. Some "secrets" are to be discovered by letting something simmer in the mind contemplation. Materials from traditional religion, for instance, the teachings of Jesus, are brought to life by being put into the context of a school. It has been consistently puzzling to me that people can't see what is set out so clearly, even if not in an a,b,c,d fashion. "The secret protects itself." In the early days of Shah's supper sessions, because people became used to what seemed like a pretty casual way of doing things, a man sat down next to me and promptly went to sleep. Asked why, next day, he said, "Nothing was happening, so I thought I might as well have a nap." Another complained that people drank so much. I have never seen more than half a dozen bottles of wine put out for perhaps up to thirty people. Astonished, I made enquiries and discovered he was an alcoholic. These two tiny incidents illustrate for me why people continue to ask, "But what are the secrets?"
Jokes, humorous tales, are a large part of Shah's work, whether written or verbal. He could be a very funny man. The "joke" figure, Mulla Nasrudin, is of great importance in Sufi teaching. The jokes cross frontiers, embed themselves in every culture, sometimes on the level of pub humour. Shah published three volumes, The Pleasantries of the Incredible Mulla Nasrudin, The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin, The Subtleties of the Inimitable Mulla Nasrudin. There is a chapter devoted to the Mulla in The Sufis . Some jokes are immediately funny or informational, others flat. Their property is that the joke which seems merely silly may years later suddenly come to life: it is said this happens as the student or interested reader develops understanding. A little book, Special Illumination , is about the Sufi use of humour; not an academic treatise, but taking the reader through a sequence of tales, explaining possible meanings.
"If you want special illumination, look upon the human face:
See clearly within laughter the Essence of Ultimate Truth."
Rumi was a great mystical teacher of the 14th century, whose Masnavi is a mine of Sufi ideas. It still enthrals readers. But Shah warns not to fall in love with the great classics of the past. "People study Rumi and turn themselves into perfect replicas of 14th century people." For classics to be of use, we need a Sufi to choose the parts that are still relevant, and put them into our context to 'unlock' them.
Learning How to Learn (1978) is Sufi thinking put into our terms. "Psychology and sociology that's your mind set." This book is accessible to people who experience other books as difficult or off-putting; though perhaps they may find it helpful to remember that Edward VII, seeing one of the first motor cars come hissing and grinding toward him, said, "Good God, it's the Devil!" It cannot be described as a soothing read. How about this: "The human being is so intensely standardised that an outside observer, noting his reactions to various stimuli, need not infer an individual controlling brain in each person, but would rather infer the existence of a separate outside brain and the people as mere manifestations of its will." A Perfumed Scorpion followed: the scorpion is the unregenerate human being.
The Commanding Self , Shah's latest published book and just out in paperback, is based on letters to him asking for clarification, interviews, question-and-answer sessions, lectures. The commanding self is that mix of primitive and conditioned responses, common to everyone, which initially inhibits and distorts human progress and understanding. "Do you want to lead an angry, biting life?" A tiny tale: a complacent would-be pupil is asked, can you accept the fact that soon you will not like yourself as much as you do now? And to his pupils, sitting near, the teacher says, "Those of you who do not think well of yourselves, stand up." And the whole row of his senior pupils promptly stood up.
Oriental Magic , with a foreword by Dr Louis Marin, Director of the Ecole d'Anthropologie de Paris, describes and compares Jewish, Babylonian, Egyptian, Iranian, Indian and Chinese magic, the practices of the Atharva Veda, and of the Fakirs. Probably it is the historical and cultural information here that modern people will find most interesting.
When Shah was young, he travelled extensively, collecting among much else proverbs and folk sayings. These appear throughout his work. Sufis say that in apparently trivial or worn out proverbs and clichés are often depth of wisdom, and it is a mistake to dismiss them. Contemplating them may bring one into contact with the other dimension which it is the Sufis' function to cultivate.
Shah also collected folk tales. World Tales is the result. I have yet to meet anyone who is not fascinated by this book, even those who yawn at the idea of folk tales. Each tale has a scholarly and often startling note about its provenance. Some have taken root all over the world. When I gave the book to Shona and Ndebele friends they were delighted to find tales that are part of their traditions. "Fairy" tales were originally called 'fate' tales: they may embody the other dimension if not too debased. Some originated as Sufi teaching stories. Nearly all Shah's books include tales, some of extreme antiquity, some from the Middle East (like the Bible parables) and Central Asia and elsewhere. Many readers have been, continue to be, entranced by these tales. In Caravan of Dreams Shah spoke openly, but briefly, about the Sufi use of tales, and at even greater length in A Perfumed Scorpion. Sufis have always taught through stories, and pedants and traditionalists have perennially complained and sometimes about the greatest of the Sufis "But these are merely tales of the kind you tell to children." The claim is that the action of the genuine Sufi teaching story is "direct and certain" upon the innermost self of the human being, and this is true whether or not the said human is prepared to acknowledge that he or she has an innermost self. This attitude to literature brings us into an unfamiliar relation with our own literary heritage. The tales, anecdotes, illustrative recitals, jokes are not meant to be attacked by the intellectual apparatus. "There was once a little boy who pulled apart a fly, and when he had a heap of wings, thorax, head and legs, asked, 'But where is the fly?'" It does not matter if feminists claim "fairy" stories as a female tradition, or socialists say they are about the class struggle: it is a free country. But they are using the tales on a technically lower level than was the intention.
A book for which I have a particular weakness is Tales of the Dervishes. Some are part of many countries' store of stories, but here they are restored to an original state, sharp, taut, pithy, without story-teller's tricks or the elaboration that may soften and distort. A note to The Dervish and the Princess is informative: "Many have been misled, because this kind of literature has its own conventions, into believing that Sufi classical writings are other than technical descriptions of psychological states." The notes are helpful in understanding some of our own literature. An appendix lists authors ranging from Abu Bakr, 634, a Companion of the Prophet, to Sheikh Daud of Kandahar, 1965 14 centuries, including some of the great names of Eastern classical literature who are known to us: Avicenna, Ansari, El Ghazzali, Sanai, Attar, Rumi, Jami all great masters of the Sufi Way.
Thinkers of the East contains directly informational material about the Sufi Way.
The Way of the Sufi contains among much else sections on Ghazzali, Attar of Nishapur, Ibn el Arabi known to the West in the Middle Ages as Doctor Maximus and Hakim Sanai. It is composed of portions of their work. Four Major Orders, Chishti, Qadiri, Naqshbandi, Suhrawardi are here: all have had an enormous impact on the Moslem world, and on the West too. There are teaching stories, themes for solitary contemplation, letters and lectures. It is surprising how often this book turns out to be people's favourite: there is a kind of magic about it.
A tiny book of compressed aphorisms is Reflections by Shah, a very concentrated dose of Sufi thought. For instance: "I have heard all you have to say about your problems. It is my view that your real problem is that you are a member of the human race. Face that one first." This is by no means a clever turn-off, but the essence of the situation, hard to accept and then to apply. What happens to our pet beliefs and convictions that what is wrong is that we are women, or men, or black, or old, or poor? "No, you are a human being. Face that one first."
Advice couched in a line or two can keep one engaged with it for years. "Service is the performance of duty without either reluctance or delight. It is this which sharpens your perceptions." And that brings us to the Sufi attitude to emotion, possibly the most abrasive to the West, which values emotions and ever stronger sensations. Remarks like "Nearly all so-called religious and mystical experience is in fact no more than emotion" shock many good people. Throughout the whole body of Sufi literature the point is repeated in a thousand ways, not least in the Nasrudin jokes. A sick man sends for the doctor, saying he has a temperature of 107 degrees. The doctor replies, "You don't need me, you need a fire engine."
The book which perhaps encapsulates the Sufi Reality is The Book of the Book. It contains nine pages of print, but all the rest of the pages are blank. It predicts all possible responses to itself. This tiny, highly-charged tale is like a mirror reflecting much more than is in the area it is apparently meant to reflect. Every time I read it, I see more in it.
Our attitudes to literature are very primitive, says Shah, and they will be seen as such by our successors. Some books are designed to be read in company, others in solitude, others at special times and places. Some have in them encoded information for initiates, or passages deliberately inserted to deflect or mislead sensation seekers. One easily observed practice of Sufi literature can be seen in Shah's work, when he expands and elucidates in one volume a trend of thought that has been left in the air in a previous volume. The actual structure of tales may be designed to affect thinking: an example is Amina Shah's The Tale of the Four Dervishes, where four men meet and tell stories that lead to other stories, illustrating the complexity of life, of cause and effect, and at least temporarily deflecting the mind's habitual responses away from the sequential, the a,b,c,d, the either/or modes of thought.
Shah created The Octagon Press so as to keep up with his flow of books some were published by conventional publishers and to keep existing classics in print, or those which needed new translations. Among the former is El Ghazzali's The Alchemy of Happiness My favourite is The Secret Garden by Shabistari of the 14th century, which was the answer by a sage to a friend asking, "What is mysticism?" It is in the form of questions and answers. Another book under whose spell I fall each time I read it is The Journey of the Soul, in a new translation by Dr Riad Kocache. It is supposed to be the inspiration for Robinson Crusoe. The Revelation of the Secrets of the Birds and Flowers by Al-Muqaddasi, who died in 1280, is in a new translation by Irene Hoare and Darya Galy. It is described as "astonishingly modern" in its psychology. Sanai's The Walled Garden of Truth and Jami's great love story Yusuf and Zulaikha are newly translated by David Pendlebury. The English, it is fair to say, have always had a feeling for Eastern literature: astonishing how much was translated in the 19th century. Octagon republished Gertrude Bell's version of Hafiz, the poet who had such an influence on western writers Goethe, for instance. Also Richard Burton's wonderful The Kasidah, the book which Isabel Burton said she could not read without shedding floods of tears, though she did not, to say the least, admire his religious beliefs. Shah invited Ramsey Wood to make a new version of part of the great classic Kalila and Dimna. It was first translated in England by Sir Thomas North, whose version of Plutarch influenced Shakespeare, and there were many translations after that: twenty in the century before 1888. Then it was forgotten. This great book, which originated in India about two thousand years ago, has been described as being as widely translated as the Bible.
Three of Shah's books illustrate his versatility. Two are about this country, The Natives are Restless and Darkest England; both are very funny and, if abrasive, useful because of this sharply observant viewpoint. Kara Kush is about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, in the form of an adventure and love story with accounts of real battles, such as when a whole army of Soviet tanks was brought to a standstill by women and children using sticks, stones, boulders, home-made bombs, catapults and bows and arrows. I am told the book is as good as a treatise on modern weaponry, too. A book for connoisseurs of the unusual and the unexpected.
Octagon has published books that came into being because of Shah's encouragement, and were designed to amplify aspects of his teaching. One is Journeys with a Sufi Master, another People of the Secret: the author, Ernest Scott, was invited to trawl through the centuries to find what evidence there might be for the persistent rumour that there is a hidden directorate influencing human affairs. Two other books in this category are compilations of material from the family's great store, one by his daughter Safia Shah, Afghan Caravan, and one by his son Tahir Shah, The Middle East Bedside Book. Both are full of delights; there is a great deal that is surprising; and, as with all books from that source, we are reminded of a generosity and largeness of mind in a culture that once, long ago, gave us the concept of chivalry.
Copyright 1997 Doris Lessing
- Doris Lessing: On Sufism and Idries Shah's The Commanding Self (1994)
- D o r i s L e s s i n g : A R e t r o s p e c t i v e
- Dr. Alan Godlas: Sufism's Many Paths
A copy of the entire Serendipity website is available on CD-ROM. Details here.
Two Ways of Running Serendipity Home Page