Idries Shah: Bridge between East and West Humor, Philosophy, and Orientation

by  Mir S. Basri

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


     In the year 799, Imam Musa al-Kazim, « The Patient, » died in Baghdad. Over eleven centuries later, several books by Idries Shah were published, and they rapidly became known in the West. What is the relationship between these events, widely spaced in time and place? There is indeed more than one connection between them.

     Firstly, Saiyid Idries Shah is a direct descendant of the Imam, who is buried at Kadhimain near Baghdad, and who was himself seventh in descent from the Prophet Mohammed through his daughter, the Lady Fatima al-Zahra. And this blood connection is not the only one between Baghdad and the West—the East represented by Idries and the West that reads his books with such interest. Kipling’s « Never the twain shall meet » notwithstanding, the two have met, and have continually met many times during their long history.

     To help illuminate the continuous meeting and interchange, we may recall the spread of Arabic through the Abbasid Empire, with ruled the Middle East and North Africa for centuries in the Middle Ages. This language formed the lingua franca of a territory centered on Basra and Baghdad, and was in use from Spain to India, from Samarkand to the Yemen. Latin was in use as the tongue of culture in Europe, and similarly, Arabic was the language of science and literature, including philosophy and metaphysics, among the multitude of peoples, sects, and nations that lived in peace under the aegis of Islam.

     Within this enormous territory, and beyond it to China and inner Africa, there was considerable cultural interchange and a great catalysis of ideas. The amount of travel and study carried out is not even exceeded today. An example is the life of the Moroccan traveler Ibn Batuta. He was born in Tangier and journeyed in Africa, Syria, Arabia, Iraq, Persia, Yemen, the lands of the Tatars, and Transoxania, reaching India, China, and Java.

     Such men were polymaths, studying and teaching a vast number of sciences, absorbing and contributing, comparing and excelling in a multitude of fields. Ibn Batuta was appointed a judge in Delhi and was an ambassador to the Emperor of China. During the rule of al-Mamun (in the ninth century) Greek works in the fields of medicine, astronomy, mathematics, and many other sciences and arts were translated extensively into Arabic. In this way the Greek culture, which had itself earlier absorbed from the Babylonian, Egyptian, and other ancient Oriental cultures, returned to the East. The Arabs and people of other nations that joined them advanced literature and science in a way that is a matter of record, and has not yet been outshone. At the time of the European Renaissance the Eastern current returned to Europe, and many of the works and thoughts of the Easterners were translated and communicated to the new society of Europe.

     Throughout these processes, Islamic Sufism was an effective instrument of human development, of science, and of thought. It was especially marked in the lives and teachings of ascetics and anchorites, such as Hasan of Basra, Wassel ibn Atta, and the woman Sufi Rabia al-Adawia. Parallels and equivalences in experience in other systems known to the ancient world were discerned; and effective work in the field was associated with Bayazid of Bistam, al-Hallaj, Ibn al-Arabi, Farid al-Din Attar, and Jalaluddin Rumi. Noteworthy organizations and formulations became apparent with the characteristic Sufi organizations known to the public: takias and zawiyas (centers of study), groups and tarikas (« orders »), ceremonies, and litanies. There were Sufi guides, known as Murshids, followed by disciples, Murids; Pirs (Sages, Elders) and Sheikhs, ancients.

     In our century the prominent French professor Louis Massignon has been one of the most indefatigable students of Hallaj in particular. Through his work and interpretations many Western readers have become aware of this area of Sufism. He visited Baghdad several times and met its erudite and learned men. One day I was present in the convent of Father Anastase-Marie the Carmelite when Dr. Massignon was there, continuing, as was his custom, his interaction with the learned, the nobles, and the writers of the capital.
Massignon was praising Hallaj excessively; suddenly our friend the historian and lawyer Professor Abbas al-Azzawi shouted out: « If I were asked, today after a thousand years, to judge the case of Hallaj, I would not hesitate to shed his blood, again! »

     There is still a clear division between the literal mind and that of the poetic, the Sufi and the conventional scholar. The best of researchers into the affairs of the Dervishes in our time may well be our friend Ahmad Hamid al-Sarraf. He has translated Omar al-Khayyam, and has written introductory studies about the Dervishes and their states, beliefs, and ceremonies.

     Sufi poetry has had a tremendous influence upon Arabian thought and upon Eastern life. Only a few in the Middle East are unaware, for instance, of the Sultan of Lovers, the Knower of God, the Sheikh Ibn al-Faridh, whose poetry is still sung from the Atlantic to the lands of the Persians, inebriating souls with holy wine and making eyes weep with longing and desire.

     And all this brings us back to the Saiyid, Idries Shah, worthy scion of the Imam Musa al-Kazim, and a new connecting link between East and West. Idries has studied deeply the knowledge of the East, and he has conveyed it to the West by means of his works, astonishing and delighting Western as well as Eastern literary men and critics. His writings and treatment of Sufism have succeeded in simplifying, through artistry, those principles that Sufi authors have perennially employed to reach and transmit ever-renewing spiritual experience.

     Now, Shah has also written about Mulla Nasreddin, a strange Eastern character, who combined wit and simplicity and is known by many different names, including that of Joha al-Rumi. His tales are found all over the world. He usually takes on the habit of fools—but in truth he represents human wisdom. More than thirty years ago I read a book by a Swedish author, called Philosophy of Mulla Nasrudin. And, in one of my poems, addressing Joha, or Nasreddin, I said :

O Joha al-Rumi, idiocy or wit
Saying this and doing that
Concealing wisdom in the garb of foolishness —
As gaiety so often hides tears.
You have garbed Truth in a comic dress
As if pulling a tail of seashells and trinkets.
Is it really that you feared the Age of Destruction
And so fashioned foolishness to shield you from woe and ill-will?

     Wit not only penetrates where other things will not go, it ensures the preservation and transmission of the essential material.

     Saiyid Idries Shah is well prepared in every sense to deliver his message and to see its effect, in transferring, as it were, the East alive to the West, combining a deep understanding of both worlds. And, as an Afghan of Sharifia blood, he at once calls to mind a kinsman who preceded him and who struggled, too, on the frontiers to awaken the East and to tell the West about our revival.

     This man, whose name is constantly mentioned and blessed throughout Islam and beyond, is Saiyid Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-1897) who left his native land and visited India, Turkey, Egypt, and Persia, leaving in every country through which he passed the call for awakening from slumber, and a band of active teaching students. He established an Arabic newspaper (Al-Urwat al-Wuthqa, the « Everlasting Bond ») in Paris, and lived for some years in St. Petersburg, capital of Tsarist Russia. He fought reactionary thought and imperial domination, and called for freedom and the struggle against tyranny. He returned to Istanbul to die there after his long wanderings, and his remains were taken, not long ago, the greatest honors, back to his noble land.

     The struggles of Jamal al-Din the Afghan had a powerful effect upon the awakening of the East and on its capacity to accept modern ideas. It might be said that there is a great contrast between his method and objectives and those of this contemporary countrymen. But the fact that the resemblance is so often invoked indicates how, in the East at any rate, the theme of awakening and development, of combining separated elements, can readily be seen as integral activities, whatever the plane upon which they are pursued. Saiyid Idries Shah and Saiyid Jamal al-Din are links in the chain between Europe and the East.

     The supposed hostility between the East and West does not exist at fundamental levels. A most honored learned man, Mustafa Abdul-Razeq, Sheikh of al-Azhar at Cairo, was among those who believed firmly in this idea. He said, in an introductory article to Islam and the West (Paris, 1947):

    I see no real reason for any objection from the Islamic point of view to the West; for Islam in its essence has nothing which contradicts the West in its essence. And also, the ideas of the West contain nothing contrary to the ideas of Islam.

In this contemporary world of ours, with its atomic reactors, visits to the Moon, and psychiatric, natural, and philosophical sciences, there is still a place for spiritual Sufism and for Mulla Nasreddin. The works of Saiyid Idries Shah will be important in the fields of human knowledge as long as the human spirit seeks the unknown and yearns for wider horizons and new worlds.



     Educated at the Alliance School at Baghdad, Mir Basri has carried out studies in Sufism and Hebrew mysticism. He is a poet and the author of many books and articles in the cultural field. As a scholar he has represented his country at numerous world gatherings, including two Orientalist congresses. He has been a Chief of Section and Head of Protocol at the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs. His major works include poetry sharing the versification of the Taiyyab of Ibn al-Faridh (A.D. 1181-1235), the major Arabian mystical poet. His Precursors of the Iraqi Cultural Renaissance, studies of thirty eminent personages, has been published recently by the government of Iraq. He has been a member of the Royal Asiatic Society for over twenty years. Mir Basri is also a celebrated economist. He has been Director of the Baghdad Chamber of Commerce, and is the author of books and papers on economics.