Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Sufis - Idries Shah

"Humanity is asleep, concerned only with what is useless, living in a wrong world.... Do not prattle before the People of the Path, rather consume yourself. You have an inverted knowledge and religion if you are upside down in relation to Reality. Man is wrapping his net around himself. A lion (the man of the Way) bursts his cage asunder." 
- The Sufi Master Sanai, teacher of Rumi, in The Walled Garden of Truth (1131 C.E.)

Eleven years ago I was eighteen and packing to go to University. I asked my father for a couple of books to take with me. He handed me two battered books, The People Of The Secret by Ernest Scott and The Sufis by Idries Shah.

In the turbulent weeks that came with my first term at University I completely forgot about my books, only to re-discover them a few months later while hibernating in bed after a nasty bout of freshers flu. I started reading The People of the Secret and barely left my room for the next few days in order to finish it. I remember writing down lists of questions and ticking them off as I answered them as another piece of history or knowledge snapped together like jigsaw pieces in my mind. I'm glad I read it first, because it was everything I needed to hear as the final shaky foundations of my angsty teenage atheism crumbled, and prepared me for the next book.

I initially knew nothing about The Sufis, only faintly what Sufism was (Islamic mysticism or something similar?) and that it was written by a man my father knew who died when I was eleven. I have read the book and it has had a great impact on me. On that I am not qualified to elaborate and all I can do is urge you to read it yourself. Here is how I read my copy, a chapter here and a chapter there: I highlight the parts that jump out at me, and then go through the section again and try to focus more on the parts that didn't.

Ending my great risk of 'prattling', I'll pass you on now to more qualified reviewers, John Bell and John Zada writing for Aljazeera on The Sufis as an antidote to fanaticism:
"This month [October 2014] marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of “The Sufis”, penned by the late Idries Shah. This classic by one of the foremost authorities on the subject was written for a western audience caught in a vogue of Oriental spirituality cults, or an overly academic approach to Sufism. The book was designed to help readers come to better grips with what constituted genuine mysticism, and to provide a sense of Sufism’s universality, which according to Shah, went far beyond its role in Islam.
Shah asserts that genuine Sufis are followers of an age-old tradition of experiential knowledge that is flexible and ever evolving, and which aims to bring its adherents to a true understanding of the nature of reality – which the biological brain or the culturally blind mind, operating in a certain mode, cannot ascertain on their own.

Sufis, Shah says, far from necessarily being members of an Islamic sect, have always existed within different faiths and cultures, including those of early antiquity that predated Islam.

It is not a system of thought or an academic process, Shah explains, but a living state. Indeed, Sheikh Abu El Hasan Fushanji sums it up: “Formerly, being a Sufi was a reality without a name. Today, it is a name without a reality.”

In “The Sufis”, we learn of the fascinating, and little-known influence that Sufis have had on the world, including Europe and the West. We are shown, for example, how the music of the Troubadours, the writings of Chaucer and Dante, medieval chivalry, and Freemasonry, as well as many less overtly mystical cultural fruits, are linked to the Sufis of the East.

Many of the “giants” among them are household names all over the world: Jalaludin Rumi, Omar Khayyam, Saadi of Shiraz, Ibn al-Arabi, al-Ghazali – just to name a few. It is partly through their achievements that the idea of Sufis as strictly Islamic mystics is perpetuated. But Shah uses them in this book for illustrative purposes. The most famous Sufis, he suggests, are exemplars of what humans east, west, north and south can be.

Indeed, given the rather strange state of the world, the type of thinking outlined in “The Sufis”, and other books by Shah, may be more needed than ever. With its flexible and organic approach to life and its refreshing lack of exclusivism, Sufism represents a powerful counterpoint to the dogmatic and violent fixations of extremists everywhere. In contrast to the closed extremist, oblivious and often inimical to his or her context, the Sufi might be defined as one who is open, through experience and learning, to any, and all, possibilities appropriate to an ever-widening horizon of contexts."
The Idries Shah Foundation has embarked on a programme to re-publish many more of Shah's books, all as relevant (or more relevant) today as when they first appeared, given the state of the world we are living in.

The East, where this knowledge sprung from, may in particular benefit from a reintroduction, which is why subscriptions to the foundation have made it possible for 32,000 books by Idries Shah (which include children's books [scroll down]) and related Eastern classics to be sent to Afghanistan — where they are going to be distributed for free to schools, universities, and public libraries. It's like the literary equivalent of the rediscovering of the crafts used to build the original Minbar of Saladin.

The 50th Anniversary Edition of The Sufis is physically stunning in design and quality, reflecting its inner content. It is a book that will be read and re-read by me for the rest of my life. 

For £12.99 on Amazon you can't go wrong.

Full disclosure: I was contacted by the Idries Shah Foundation and offered a copy of their new 50th Anniversary paperback edition of The Sufis. They invited me to mention it on my blog which I am very grateful for as it has caused me to reflect on the effect the book had on me and how I must read it again soon.


  1. As I'm sure you know, Shah's 30-odd books represent a complete introductory course in Sufi thinking, and I'm curious to know if you have started working your way through the entire corpus! I started in 1974 aged 25 and I'm still working at it... If you are, I wish you every success.

  2. Y picked up a copy of The Sufis at a yard sale, in Cincinnati in '77. Though its author made no attempt to elicit admiration for himself he quickly became my favorite author on any subject by drawing my attention to other sources and other subjects. The Sufis themselves, to me, are the closest thing to an all-encompassing enigma whose inspiration will always be the all-encompassing enigma of existence.

  3. They seem to be the only people who know what is going on in this strange existence of ours.


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