Projecting Sufi Thought in an Appropriate Context

by Professor Ishtiaq Husain Qureshi

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

 Sufi thought, seen through the great variety of material assembled by Shah, proves to be extremely diverse and manifested in very many forms. The agreement of Sufis themselves upon who constitutes a Sufi is the only test of Sufihood. This is because, as Rumi and others have tirelessly pointed out, Sufism is grounded not on theology but on experience. Manifestations of Sufi teaching may even appear absurd at a given time; for example, local authorities could not comprehend Ibn al-Arabi’s Tarjuman al-Ashwaq, until he himself wrote a commentary for them.1  The same is true of such artifacts as Fusus al-Hikam. 2

Shah has often illustrated the allegorical use of tales and « illustrative encounters. » It is important to realize that one must regard the latter as word-artifacts, constructed for teaching purposes, and not necessarily as historical facts. Many Western students regularly go astray in stating that « such-and-such an event could not have happened at such-and-such a time, because of chronological problems. » Yet it is more than seven hundred years since such thinkers as Rumi pointed out that, for example, « Moses and Pharaoh » may not mean the historical Moses and Pharaoh, but can also stand for opposing tendencies between thoughts in an individual’s mind.

Today it is fashionable to try to trace Sufism to its roots and to define what influences may have played upon its development and upon the personalities of its outstanding men and women. This approach, admirable though it is likely to be in the tracing of social history or political development, is extremely unlikely to be of value in the study of Sufism itself, and its continued employment may well indicate that « a cobbler is trying to use a watchmaker’s tools. »

It is most important to not that Shah has taken a good deal of his material from extant traditional oral teaching. Many of the stories and teachings that he has published would be regarded by the folklorist as an outstanding contribution to the preservation of a tradition in the manner of the Brothers Grimm or other important collectors of « people’s wisdom. » This role of Shah in the literary preservation of important material can hardly be exaggerated. He has traveled in all the Arab countries, in Africa, Turkey, and Central Asia, collecting, tape-recording, and ascertaining the interpretations of these tales. In some cases at least they may well represent true traditions handed down from remote antiquity from some of the great teachers of the past who are named in them.

Shah’s originality finds expression in his interpretations of passages from Sufi classics and his reconciling of what many people regard as « different traditions » within Sufism. For instance, he has shown that the « Mulla Nasreddin » corpus of tales is susceptible of inner interpretations, while many people have assumed them to be mere buffoonery. Another original contribution lies in Shah’s careful collection of stories from some of the Sufi Tariqas, which are less well known for their instructional value. A point must be made that the subtlety and spiritual merit of the stories used by Shah have been often noted and acclaimed by Western reviewers, who have contrasted them very favorably with the dry and uninteresting didactic and moralistic tales that belong to the lowest level of human instruction. Of the highest form is the tale of Moses and Khidr from the Koran, which inspired Parnell’s The Hermit. Shah was the first to show that this tale originated in the Koran, and to use it as an illustration of the most advanced and effective type of story, far removed from the stories of folklore.3

There is and increasing tendency in the Western world to adopt extravagant religious beliefs from Oriental sources, generally called « guru-ism, » because such beliefs are usually ascribed to some « Master. » Thousands of people now follow these cults, and their proliferation and absurdities have given rise to real concern among genuinely thinking people. It is thus of the greatest importance to realize that Idries Shah is selecting and publishing materials of real authenticity and high literacy merit, and that he has been struggling against the fantasies and absurdities of « guru-ism » for years. It is a good thing to have an active representative of Eastern thought in the West whose mind is free of such absurdities, and who possesses sufficient intellectual caliber to be able to communicate with, and to command the respect of, scholars, literati, and other persons of serious intent. As the false coin can drive out the true, so cheap imitations can debase true spirituality. Shah’s obvious task is to make available standard and important materials for those who are willing to take note of them, so that eventually the jewels of Eastern thought in the Sufi tradition come to be recognized and appreciated.

Occult and metaphysical speculation and moralistic training alike are incomplete without a sound basis of genuine material from this tradition. Shah has started by making available, in Western languages, materials that will eventually enable Western students to understand Islamic culture and philosophy. He has done this largely by introducing Western people to the materials in a manner suited to them and to some extend by reconciling these materials with Western thought patterns and traditions.


1. Reynold A. Nicholson, Tarjuman al-Ashwaq (by Muhiyuddin Ibn al-Arabi), Vol. XX, New Series (London: Royal Asiatic Society, 1911).
2. Muhiyuddin Ibn al-Arabi, Fusus al-Hikam.
3. Idries Shah, Tales of the Dervishes (London: Jonathan Cape, 1967; New York: Dutton Paperbacks, 1970), pp.198 ff, note on p. 200. Traduction française : Contes Derviches, Le Courrier du Livre, 2011 (nouvelle édition).



Vice-Chancellor, University of Karachi, President of the Institute of Central and West Asian Studies, Professor Qureshi has studied and taught in Asia, Europe, and the United States. He has been Chairman of the International World University Service at Geneva, a professor at Columbia University, and Dean of the Faculty of Arts at Delhi University. As a major Orientalist and historian, with degrees in Persian and history, he has been Director of the Central Institute of Islamic Research. He is a member of the Council of the Pakistan Institute of International Affairs, University Professor of History, President of the Historical Society, and a member of the Advisory Council on Islamic Ideology. He has held three ministerial appointments and three professorships.

During the past forty years he has been responsible for a dozen standard works on Eastern thought and history. In 1964, he was decorated, in recognition of these and other services, with the Star of Pakistan (S.Pk.). He has made a deep study of Sufi thought with special reference to its historical, philosophical, and practical aspects.