Fifty years ago this autumn, Idries Shah published The Sufis, with an introduction by Robert Graves. The Washington Post declared it “a seminal book of the century”, while writers such as Doris Lessing, JD Salinger and Geoffrey Grigson were all drawn to it. Ted Hughes described it as “astonishing”. “The Sufis must be the biggest society of sensible men on Earth,” he wrote.
Now, the Idries Shah Foundation is bringing out new editions in English and commissioning translations of his work into Persian, Arabic and Urdu – the very cultures where much of his material originated.
So what is Sufism? Though dictionaries usually define it as the mystical current in Islam, Sufis themselves will tell you that it is an ancient organisation that has embraced free thinkers and people concerned with human development from many cultures throughout history. People from all walks of life – including poets, scientists and politicians – have been Sufis.
Classical Sufis in the Islamic world include Rumi, Omar Khayyam, Fariduddin Attar – whose stories were later used by Chaucer – and the Spaniard Avërroes, the “great commentator” on Aristotle. And many of their ideas passed to Europe through contacts between the Islamic and Christian worlds in the crusader states, Norman Sicily and the Iberian peninsula. From the outset, Sufism has been concerned with building bridges, not least between communities whose contact can be of mutual benefit. In the west, people as diverse as Dag Hammarskjöld, St Francis of Assisi, Sir Richard Burton, Cervantes and Winston Churchill have all been influenced by Sufism.
Though there had been previous studies of Sufism in western languages, they had taken a largely academic approach. Shah, who died in 1996, broke new ground by explaining it in a more accessible way, often employing psychological terminology to do so. He went on to write more than 30 books on Sufism, selling over 15m copies in more than three dozen languages. Many are compilations of tales and jokes – “teaching stories” – that Sufis often employ to help people to think more clearly about things.His work was less about passing on facts, he would say, than imparting a skill. “One is immediately forced to use one’s mind in a new way,” Lessing said after reading The Sufis.
Half a century on, the foundation’s mission to promote Shah’s ideas in the Middle East fits with the ancient Sufi concern of passing knowledge between different cultures, particularly at times of greatest need. To a certain degree, the classics – what Shah drew on to bring Sufism to the west – are being overlooked by younger generations.
There could not be a more important time for Sufi ideas to be reintroduced. With its concentration, among other things, on awareness and psychological balance – “mindfulness”, if you like – Sufism is a natural antidote to fanaticism. And while Sufis have at times been persecuted within Islam (Al-Hallaj was publicly executed in 922 for his mystical statements) it is, on the whole, respected as part of Islamic culture.
The west, too, needs to become aware once more of this “other face” of Islam. Those who would espouse a black-and‑ white view of the world might do well to read some of the jokes centred around the Mulla Nasrudin, the wise fool of the Sufis, translated and retold by Shah. When a king insisted that his subjects tell the truth on pain of death, the Mulla was at the front of the queue the following morning to get inside the city gates. There, the captain of the guard, standing in front of a gallows, asked him a question, to which he had to give the true answer – or be hanged.
“Where are you going?” he asked Nasrudin.
“I am going,” said the Mulla, “to be hanged on those gallows.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Very well, then. If I have told a lie, hang me!”
“But that would make it the truth,” spluttered the captain
“That’s right,” said Nasrudin. “Your truth.”
Sufism does not claim to present the panaceas or comforting worldviews that so many ideologies, religious or political, peddle. Yet the complex and moderate thinking it does provide may be precisely what is needed right now.
“In one aspect of his life,” Lessing wrote of Shah after he died, “he was a bridge between cultures … at home in the east and the west … Not the least of his contributions to our culture has been to let us hear in this time of the wild Muslim extremism, the voice of moderate and liberal Islam.”
Despite having a powerful influence on many people, Shah refused to be a guru. “Do not look at my outward shape,” he would say, repeating Rumi’s phrase, “but take what is in my hand.”