Sufism in the Art of Idries Shah

by      Dr. Aref Tamer

from Sufi Studies: East and West
A Symposium in Honor of Idries Shah’s Services to Sufi Studies
by Twenty-four Contributors
Marking the 700th Anniversary of the Death of Jalaluddin Rumi
Edited by Professor L. F. Rushbrook Williams



     The « People of the House » are the major Arab family known in the world of Islam for absolute sovereignty, for pure descent, and for a chain of ancestry from the Prophet Mohammed. History has recorded that this family, throughout the centuries, has produced outstanding men, men of prominence and genius, who have played major roles in the theatre of life, being continuously in the eyes and the memory of the people. It cannot escape any researcher into the history of Islam that many of them have been active in administration, establishing nations, kingdoms, and principalities, and leading armies on the field; while others adopted science as the pattern of their lives, and were unsurpassed in their activity and contribution in this area.

     It is my opinion that Idries Shah, who is of this family, is one of their outstanding men. The life of Saiyid Idries may seem mysterious to some in the Arab world; thus it is all the more necessary for his works to be circulated there. This is a task of scholarship. As for myself, I am one who has been, through various phases of life, a supporter of virtuosity and genius; proud of it, I follow with attentive interest the products of the minds of the individuals of the House of the Prophet. It may indeed be true to say that, in the depth of my self, I feel a spiritual attraction to this noble family to which Idries Shah belongs.

     It has continually made sacrifices for the sake of the world of Islam. In every single century, the House has given, willingly, many hundreds of its members in testimony of their adherence and steadfastness, and brought a light that has penetrated to every corner of the world.

     As a historian of Islam, I cannot forbear from saying that whenever I have entered a library, anywhere in the Eastern world, I have been attracted to every book or article dealing with the subject of Sufism. This subject has for long occupied my closest attention and has been continuously present in my thoughts. This school of thought, which in Islam directed the controlling minds of various periods, still magnetizes the thought of scholars and remains the subject of intense discussion.

     In particular I have been interested in the works of Muhiyuddin Ibn al-Arabi, Suhrawardi, Jalaluddin Rumi, al-Hallaj, Omar al-Khayyam, Hafiz, and the other important Sufis. I cannot say why it is that I have been fascinated, since early childhood, by the greatest Sufi poet, Jalaluddin Rumi. In the many long pages that I have written about him, I have tackled the story of his spiritual attraction to the significant and beautiful personage Shams-i-Tabriz, who was related to the Fatimites who ruled in North Africa and Egypt.

     The deep spirituality and love of God shown by Jalaluddin and provoked by Shams-i-Tabriz, is seen in the Mathnawi and also in the Divan of Shamsi, illustrating meanings–and meanings within meanings, at different levels. The Sufi par excellence Jalaluddin thus calls for the longing for God, and regards life as a constant struggle in which the fighter should never relent, even for a single hour: for pain is the road to pleasure, and weeping the cause of laughter. How can the field smile if the rain does not weep upon it? How can a baby get milk if he does not cry?

     Shams-i-Tabriz was able to convert Jalaluddin from a preacher into a teacher, from a scholar into an inducer of experience and understanding. In like manner, Idries Shah has clarified and converted Sufi materials, in books and in speech and in action, into a method of provoking capacities for learning that are unimagined by the pedestrian scholar.

     Idries Shah shines in his quotations from Jalaluddin Rumi, and in his manipulation of Sufi thought; demonstrating his learning and his knowledge, as well as his abilities in research and his capacity to include the necessary and exclude the accretions, so that his work is a model of objectivity. Not that this is any secret, for Saiyid Idries is admired for this ability by students of Sufism of the world–and the Sufis who are themselves authorities of the subject.

     The Sufi schools that flourished in Iran, Turkey, and Iraq in the fifth and sixth Islamic centuries and afterwards served to rivet the attention of the Islamic world, and to open the doors wide for ideological freedom and freedom of thought. This school, thanks to the real genius of its directors, was capable of establishing what we can truly call a « thinking method » that extended its influence and control over chosen educated men in Islamic society. Practicing this method without being indebted to any political power, they sought and established proofs through search and contention, so that the branches of their institution encountered no limits, and included not only all areas of the Saracen world but also all spheres of study, and embraced outstanding individuals in both science and literature. It is essential that we should neither ignore this signal contribution nor neglect the importance of this school, recognizing its value in a myriad of areas. We find many parts of this story simplified in Idries Shah’s books about Sufism, where he stresses the importance of liberating mental processes, awakening a certain pattern of awareness of life, and receiving the right guidance.

     Shah’s work reminds one forcefully of the affirmation of Jalaluddin: « How can the nations cross this nothingness, one after another? One moment in darkness, and another moment in light. » Who adds: « The human being is like a flower which passes through the periods of childhood, youth and old age, ending eventually in death. This is like what happens to the tree in Autumn. » And he directs us to look intently on this universe, alternating between a state of Spring and Autumn; and then he ends by saying that the Arranger of all this and the primary cause of it is the « Mind of all,  » which infuses all in this world, like the scent of the rose emanating from the rose, whose perfume one smells and wears without seeing, or like the ecstasy that overwhelms the drunkard without his knowing its cause or action.

     I do not want to expand here on the literary treasures that Idries Shah has revealed, for they are a lasting heritage for thinkers who move toward the Real. They should be assembled and preserved as a body of higher literature and made available to all for research and study.

     I bow in respect to Idries Shah, a man of learning who has worked so much for humanity, without bias and in sincerity, and who has rendered great services to society.

     There is nothing either unprecedented or even unexpected about the emergence of a major interpreter of traditional thought from among the descendants of the Prophet Mohammed. Nothing remarkable or unexpected, but something of outstanding importance. In our tradition, the « empty Chair » of such an individual need not be filled publicly. He need not make an outstanding impression on people of a different culture from our own in order to qualify for the respect and admiration that he should receive; but he must be capable of such success. And anyone who can show such achievements as Idries Shah has shown—in many fields—becomes in our eyes, just as much as in those of Western authorities, worthy of close attention, for his potentiality as well as for his established proofs of capacity.

     A reader of these lines living in the West might not immediately appreciate the relative rarity of the appearance of an individual who commands the respect of various persuasions of Islam. Yet Shah’s capacity to demonstrate the underlying unity in fact, in spite of the apparent differences, even oppositions, of manifestation and formulation, is one that the Western reader, since the time of Jalaluddin Rumi, has been able to grasp with greater ease than some of the scholars of the East whose thinking is centered upon appearances rather than internal logic. If we point to the fact that contributors to this book include Arab and other Christians, a Hindu monk, Turks, Persians, and Africans, as well as many others, we shall be able to underline something of the unusual catalysing power, at deeper levels of the perceptions, of Idries Shah. In the East, as in the West, there is a deep-seated and burning desire to find and follow a way of life that can achieve the increasingly difficult objective of retaining coherence while providing common ground for people of many persuasions in their spiritual as well as in their psychological and social orientation.

     The drastic misunderstanding by many Western authors and even numerous Eastern thinkers about the quality, nature, and texture of minority thought in Islam has been partly due to the misguided simplifications of a few fossilized prelates. The essential and inner significance of the mystical doctrine undoubtedly meets other certitudes of Islam in the analytical revelations of Idries Shah. In a word, he works at a more profound and sophisticated level than most thinkers employ, and this has plainly led to his being able, through perception and not shallowness, to lay bare basic truths of human existence.

     It is only an interpretative method such as this that can command the respect of people with a greater range of understanding than narrow theoreticians; and it is only such a mind as that of Idries Shah that can also render, on the lower level, indications of the truth of the unity of the human experience of the divine in a manner that can bridge the gap between more superficial thinkers, of whatever ideology.

     But in order to see whether the work being done by Shah accords with tradition, we may briefly turn to something written in the London Times some years ago, which represents the unalloyed traditional belief about the nature and operation of the family of the Prophet:

They do no preaching, but circulate their message in a special way unfamiliar to this age and not specified … Humanity had to perfect itself by welding together, under rare and secret auspices, the scattered elements that it inherited, as well as imbibing certain secrets which took shape only rarely and under difficult conditions. Some of the methods were conventional study… 1

     The London Times has the slogan: « When the Times speaks, the world listens. » The world, is seems, is certainly listening a great deal to Shah and the traditions that are now being released in greater volume than they have for centuries.

     The doctrine of a source of knowledge, developed in a specialized manner and transmitted from a remote origin to a receiving culture, may seem bizarre, as some Western observers have noted. But it is not without significance that the concept, which, in the more-stilted days from which we have recently emerged, appeared improbable in the extreme, now finds far readier acceptance where it would hardly be expected. Taking this quotation from a newspaper with a daily readership of three million people, Walter Lang, in speaking of the work of Idries Shah, notes:

It may indeed be true that the mere reading of such material will, in the long run, switch in new areas of the brain–areas which have hitherto been dormant, but wich in « normal » humanity would be fully active. In which case it seems high time that official psychology took a close look at a remarkable foundling which has been deposited overnight on the Western doorstep. 2

     Some modern psychologists (who are today of less importance than formerly, since fresh insights have become available through sociological research) would have held with Freud, and would have once conviced virtually every reader, that this kind of idea is a wish fulfillment. That is to say, the person has a wish and fills it in by inventing something to assuage his desire. More modern thinkers are beginning to see, and to indicate, overtly or covertly, that, just as a man who is hungry may dream of food (which actually exists), a man in need of a certain kind of guidance may also dream of it when it does exist and contribute to the knowledge of its existence. A thing does not have to be imaginary in order to be desired. Such might easily be the case with the kind of phenomenon to which we are referring here.

     Well, if this is the tradition, does reality give any support to it? Indeed it does. If there is a body of persons who know how to communicate with people at large with consummate efficiency, in spite of the relative strangeness of the marterial and ideas communicated, it seems as if they would certainly do so, as and when it was possible. The possibility would depend upon the time and the people. And it is hard to resist the conclusion that Idries Shah is a man with the requisite communication capacity.

     To someone rooted in Eastern analogical traditions of thought, and especially the Arabic language, the very name of the man becomes significant when he is thinking along the above lines. Idries means the « scholarly communicator. » And Idris is the traditional link between higher powers and humanity in the personage of the prophetic Idris of our scriptures. Shah, though a Persian word, is customarily employed not only for descendants of the Prophet (Persian-Shahim, Arabic-Sayedna) but also conveys the sense of the succession of kingly capacity, which operates in a continual series of levels, from the highest rarefication to the lowest, terrestrial one.

     I am aware that here I am writing in a vein and a language that may not be familiar to all my readers, especially those who are not accustomed to the traditional symbolic use of words. But this usage exists, and it is possible to note that it is being used increasingly in the West today. This in itself can be a justification for its continued employment.

     In our tradition, the teacher will often dress himself in the clothes of the people with whom he is to interact, and among whom he will live. There is an interesting story about the custom of the great-grandfather of Idries Shah, the Jan-Fishan Khan, whose personal name was Mohammed Shah.

     The quite astonishing finesse, wisdom, and consideration shown by Saiyid Mohammed Shah indicates how personal interactions can be employed to create effects that are perhaps improbable in societies more familiar to us today. When the Saiyid once went to visit someone in Damascus, he first went to stay in Basra. There he lived the same kind of life as the man who he was about to see, to familiarize himself completely with the surroundings and outlook of his host. When he eventually presented himself at this man’s house, he was, as was his custom, dressed in almost exactly the same style of clothes as the man he was visiting. This behavior contrasts with the cloud of retainers that other people of rank always took with them when visiting anyone at all-just in order to impress or to maintain a sese of their own dignity. In a vivid metaphor, Saiyid Mohammed Shah used to call this artificial behavior « changing the air, » altering the atmosphere, and making things different from how they really should be. It is a common practice among certain Saiyids to dress like the people they are seeing; known as « putting on the local clothes. »

     This kind of deliberate and measured action, based upon insight and experience, is a far cry from the hit-or-miss methods employed by gurus. It is equally remote from the dogmatic approach of the externalist theologian or religious leader working through insistence, indoctrination, and the inculcation of a particular belief. It posits a third manner of operating: from knowledge.

     It is interesting to compare the behavior and capacity of the Afghan sage of a century ago with the current adaptation of the same tendency and ability in his great-grandson Idries Shah. It sheds light, too, on the nature of the observer when we turn to the pages of one of Britain’s major literary journals, The Spectator, where a man of letters is seeking to account for Shah’s remarkable experiences and power to enter any circle in the East:

A nobly born Moslem… speaking a kind of Esperanto of sophistication, and able to meet on personal–not journalistic–terms almost anyone he cares to call on in the Middle East, describes a journey there… An intensely interesting book, both for its unusual subject and for the author’s outlook–worldly, astringent, high-spirited. 3

     In the colonialist period, from which much of the East has only very recently emerged, such men as Shah were regarded by some as a potential threat, to the temporarily ruling power, to a degree that those who did not live through such times might now find it hard to believe. The existence of an alternative system of thought, of an intact society within the imperial domains of the West, a society with its own hierarchies and chains of command, which transcended national and colonial borders, these were obvious drawbacks from the administering power’s point of view.

     For this reason, just as much as because of the recurrent cycles of local coercive societies, the work of the Saiyids has for generations been carried out with considerable discretion. Traveling as students, practicing the military arts, carrying on international trade, and fufilling religious obligations were the main fields that were open to them; and consequently we find them working in these fields, often in a more or less uneasy relationship with the administering elements, throughout the Eastern world, from the confines of China in the east to North Africa in the west.

     The need was always to help to maintain the structures of thought and social organization in which certain objectives could be reached; to keep abreast of the current developments in the expanding world, and to adapt the methods of teaching to changing situations. This could only be done by knowing the inner meaning of the thought in which they dealt, and sometimes only at the risk of their motives being seriously misunderstood.

     When it was necessary, they showed themselves; when it was necessary, they remained in obscurity. Often nominees of various kinds represented the outward face of the movement, which was designed to preserve and maintain the essential capacity for teaching.

     Saiyid Ikbal Ali Shah, the father of Saiyid Idries, is a remakable example of this process. Since his death in 1969, it has been possible to trace some of his many activities in the light of the program outlined above. It is possible only to record some of the highlights for which he was known in this present work. When the Third Afghan War was in progress, he was working in Britain, appealing for the restoration of the rights of the Afghan nation, and publishing his demands in such prestigious journals as The Edinburgh Review 4 and the Journal of the Royal Central Asian Society. Although still in his twenties, he was a member of the Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Asiatic Society of London, and an acknowledged authority on Afghanistan and Central Asia.

     In the 1920s when the independence of Afghanistan was attained, Saiyid Ikbal traveled, in the guise of a newspaper representative, to the Grand Moslem Conference in Mecca, as the representative of his community, to take part in the planning of the postwar Islamic strategy. In the 1930s he was to be found in Geneva working in collaboration with the League of Nations, supporting disarmament and struggling for the expansion of the ideals of Islamic unity.

     More than sixteen works are listed under his name dealing with the problems and needs, as well as the background, of Afghanistan. King Nadir Shah rewarded him, and Ikbal Ali Shah’s name is now a part of the history of the independence struggle of Aghanistan.

     When Afghan independence was assured, he turned to the problems of India, where the family was established as Nawabs of Sardhana. He knew all the major figures or the period following World War I and leading to Indian independence. In the 1930s he worked closely with the late Agha Khan, who wrote a preface for one of his books on Oriental culture in 1937. Saiyid Ikbal also wrote a life of the Agha Kahn (Sultan Mohammed Shah), The Prince Aga Khan, An Authentic Biography, which was published in London in 1933. Saiyid Idries was associated with his father’s work, and became a favorite of the old Agha Khan.

     These interests in the constitutional progress of India involved Ikbal Ali Shah to such an extent that after the achievement of independence, at the special request of the President, Dr. Zakir Hussain, he was appointed India’s cultural representative in all of West Asia–responsible for a population of more than one hundred million people.

     During the Indian national struggle, Ikbal Ali Shah had pointed out the value of an independent state for the Muslims, and this, too, came into being as Pakistan. The foresight of this most unusual man, kinsman of Saiyid Jamaluddin Afghani, inspirer of nationalism in the East, as reflected in the above facts, is amazing. Although Pakistan and Afghanistan were to have their differences, Ikbal Ali Shah contributed toward the basic welfare of both of them. Although Pakistan and India were unfriendly from time to time, Ikbal Ali Shah was able to benefit both of them. Although he had supported the call for the establishment of Pakistan, he was a man of such caliber that the Indian government, seeking a man to represent Indian culture in the Western Moslem world, chose–Ikbal Ali Shah.

     Very little has yet been written about Saiyid Ikbal Ali Shah, probably because so little time has elapsed since his death. But historians are already collecting information. Not all of them have been able to descry the underlying unity, the service of the community, and the view of the ultimate good that was found in him. V. Gregorian, for instance, in The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan 5 has frequently mentioned the important work of Saiyid Ikbal Ali Shah. But he has not determined the thread of unity that underlies his service to the Afghan nation.

     Such was the significance of the man that, years after the national abolition of titles of honor in India, Ikbal Ali Shah was still referred to in official documents and on his Indian republican passport by his titles, including his royal appellation. And documents issued by internationally recognized Islamic authorities acknowledge that his family possesses sovereignty and that its titles cannot be removed by any existing power, which is a unique situation.

     Many observers have confessed themselves bewildered by two things about the Saiyids of this family. In the first place, they seem to be able to go anywhere and to do almost anything. In the second place, it is hard, at the time certainly, to know why they should have chosen to carry out a certain course of action.

     But this pattern, according to those who realize that an internal logic lies behind such activities, is by definition hard to understand, because the perspective is not there for the observer to employ. It might be said that only in retrospect can the motivation be seen; and even then it is not always clear, because not all the facts are known. The activities of Idries Shah himself, though many of them are known to a wide public, undoubtedly cover a far wider scheme of things than can be captured in such an article as this, even if he should make the information availlable. And, in addition, too much information may prejudice an operation.

     There is a tradition that the teaching of the Saadat, the Saiyids, is like shoots on a bush. Violent disputation and activity may dislodge these burgeoning beginnings, as does a tempest. At other times, it is said, if there has been enough serene quite–as well as purposeful activity–leaves, flowers, and ripe fruit emerge.


1 Times (London), March 9, 1964, p. 12.
2 Evening News (London), July 22, 1970, commenting upon Idries Shah’s The Dermis Probe.
3 The Spectator, April 5, 1957, p. 450, review of first edition of Idries Shah’s Destination Mecca.
4 Ikbal Ali Shah, « The Claims of Afghanistan, » The Edinburgh Review, VII, No. 75293 (1920), pp. 3-18.
5 Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1969.



     Educated in Syria and Lebanon, Dr. Tamer is an authority on Islamic culture, as well as a poet, novelist, and historian. He has published twenty full-lengh works, among which are included scholarly historical and literary studies. A member of serveral learned societies in the East and West, including the Royal Asiatic Society of London, he is the son of the Emir Tamer El-Ali, head of the Ismailia Community in Syria.