Extracted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Idries Shah was an author and teacher in the Sufi tradition who wrote over three dozen critically acclaimed books on topics ranging from psychology and spirituality to travelogues and culture studies.
His seminal work The Sufis, appeared in 1964 and was well received internationally.
In his writings, Shah presented Sufism as a universal form of wisdom that predated
Islam. Emphasising that Sufism was not static but always adapted itself to the current
time, place and people, he framed his teaching in Western psychological terms. Shah
made extensive use of traditional teaching stories and parables, texts that contained
multiple layers of meaning designed to trigger insight and self-
Learning How to Learn, a collection of interviews, talks and short writings, is one of Shah's best works, providing a solid orientation to his "psychological" approach to Sufi work. This provides insights that inoculate students against much of the nonsense in the spiritual marketplace.
Shah published his first book Oriental Magic in 1956, after having been employed for some time at Gerald Gardner's magic and witchcraft museum on the Isle of Man. He followed this in 1957 with The Secret Lore of Magic: Book of the Sorcerers and the travelogue Destination Mecca. Two other books on similar subjects by Akron Daraul “Witches and Sorcerers’ and ‘A History of Secret Societies’ have also been attributed to Shah.
In 1960, Shah founded a publishing house, Octagon Press Limited. One of its first
titles was the biographical work, Gerald Gardner: Witch; attributed to Jack L. Bracelin,
it was in fact ghost-
Shah wrote around two dozen more books over the following decades, many of them drawing on classical Sufi sources. By translating Sufi teachings into contemporary psychological language, he presented them in vernacular and hence accessible terms.
Idries Shah died in London on November 23, 1996, at the age of 72. According to
his obituary in The Daily Telegraph, Idries Shah was a collaborator with Mujahideen
in the Afghan-
Sufism as a form of universal wisdom
Shah claimed that Sufism was a form of universal wisdom and that it was not Islamic,
but predated Islam. According to Shah, the nature of Sufism was alive, not static,
and could not be grasped by studying its past manifestations, or the methods of its
old masters. Instead, Sufism needed to be constantly redefined and adapted, to fit
new circumstances and environments. "Sufi schools are like waves which break upon
rocks: [they are] from the same sea, in different forms, for the same purpose," he
wrote, quoting Ahmad al-
Shah, deemphasised religious or spiritual trappings and portrayed Sufism as a psychological
technology, a method or science that could be used to achieve self-
“Sufis believe that, expressed in one way, humanity is evolving towards a certain destiny. We are all taking part in that evolution. Organs come into being as a result of the need for specific organs (Rumi). The human being's organism is producing a new complex of organs in response to such a need. In this age of transcending of time and space, the complex of organs is concerned with the transcending of time and space. What ordinary people regard as sporadic and occasional outbursts of telepathic or prophetic power are seen by the Sufi as nothing less than the first stirrings of these same organs. The difference between all evolution up to date and the present need for evolution is that for the past ten thousand years or so we have been given the possibility of a conscious evolution. So essential is this more rarefied evolution that our future depends upon it.”
– Idries Shah, The Sufis
Shah dismissed other Eastern and Western projections of Sufism as "watered down, generalised or partial"; including the overtly Muslim forms of Sufism found in most Islamic countries. He portrayed himself as representing the "People of the Tradition", a remote top echelon of Sufis supposedly located in the inaccessible Hindukush of Afghanistan.
In his work, Shah used teaching stories and humour to great effect. Shah emphasised the therapeutic function of surprising anecdotes, and the fresh perspectives these tales revealed. The reading and discussion of such tales in a group setting became a significant part of the activities in which the members of Shah's study circles engaged.
In their original historical and cultural setting, Sufi teaching stories of the kind popularised by Shah were considered suitable for people of all ages, including children, as they contained multiple layers of meaning. Shah likened the Sufi story to a peach: "A person may be emotionally stirred by the exterior as if the peach were lent to you. You can eat the peach and taste a further delight ... You can throw away the stone – or crack it and find a delicious kernel within. This is the hidden depth." It was in this manner that Shah invited his audience to receive the Sufi story. By failing to uncover the kernel, and regarding the story as merely amusing or superficial, a person would accomplish nothing more than looking at the peach, while others internalised the tale and allowed themselves to be touched by it.
Views on culture and practical life
Shah's concern was to reveal essentials underlying all cultures, and the hidden factors determining individual behaviour. He discounted the Western focus on appearances and superficialities, which often reflected mere fashion and habit, and drew attention to the origins of culture and the unconscious and mixed motivations of people and the groups formed by them.
Shah did not advocate the abandonment of worldly duties. He considered practical
work the means through which a seeker could do self-
Arthur J. Deikman, a professor of psychiatry and long-
According to Olav Hammer, writing in Sufism in Europe and North America (2004), Shah's books introduced Sufism as a type of religious insight that had only a peripheral connection to the social formations and ritualised activities generally studied by scholars of Sufism. Instead, his books – such as Thinkers of the East and The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin – presented the core of Sufism as "a form of spiritual wisdom subtly encoded in humorous anecdotes." As an example, Hammer cites a story telling of a man who has lost his key, and is desperately looking for it on the ground. Asked by a sympathetic neighbour if this is where he lost the key, the man says, "No, I lost it at home, but there is more light here than in my own house." Rightly read, this story can be understood as a parable for a spiritual quest.
When Elizabeth Hall interviewed Shah for Psychology Today in July 1975, she asked him: "For the sake of humanity, what would you like to see happen?" Shah replied: "What I would really want, in case anybody is listening, is for the products of the last 50 years of psychological research to be studied by the public, by everybody, so that the findings become part of their way of thinking (...) they have this great body of psychological information and refuse to use it."
o Oriental Magic ISBN 0-
o The Secret Lore of Magic ISBN 0-
o The Sufis ISBN 0-
o The Commanding Self ISBN 0-
o Learning How to Learn: Psychology and Spirituality in the Sufi Way ISBN 0-