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Idries Shah

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-reflection in the reader. Like Shah's other books on the topic, The Sufis was conspicuous for avoiding terminology that might have identified his interpretation of Sufism with traditional Islam. The book chronicles the impact of Sufism on the development of Western civilisation and traditions from the seventh century onward through the work of such figures as Roger Bacon, John of the Cross, Raymond Lully, and Chaucer and such institutions as the Masons.

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.

Early writings

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-written by Shah, who was Gardner's secretary at the time of writing. While starting his publishing, Shah received support from John G. Bennett, a noted Gurdjieff student who was impressed enough with Shah to give his Coombe Springs house and the care of his body of pupils to him.

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-Soviet war, a Director of Studies for the Institute for Cultural Research and a Governor of the Royal Humane Society and the Royal Hospital and Home for Incurables. He was also a member of the Athenaeum Club. At the time of his death, Shah's books had sold over 15 million copies in a dozen languages worldwide, and had been reviewed in numerous international journals and newspapers.


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-Badawi. As a result, Shah displayed a general disregard for academic descriptions of Sufism, believing that an obsession with its traditional forms might actually prevent people from recognising the real thing. This thought is expressed succinctly in one of his books: "Show a man too many camels' bones, or show them to him too often, and he will not be able to recognise a camel when he comes across a live one."

Shah, deemphasised religious or spiritual trappings and portrayed Sufism as a psychological technology, a method or science that could be used to achieve self-realisation. In doing so, his approach seemed to be especially addressed to followers of Gurdjieff, students of the Human Potential Movement, and intellectuals acquainted with modern psychology. For example, he wrote, "Sufism ... states that man may become objective, and that objectivity enables the individual to grasp 'higher' facts. Man is therefore invited to push his evolution ahead towards what is sometimes called in Sufism 'real intellect'." Shah taught that the human being could acquire new subtle sense organs in response to need.

“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.

Teaching stories

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-work, in line with the traditional adoption by Sufis of ordinary professions, through which they earned their livelihoods and "worked" on themselves.


Arthur J. Deikman, a professor of psychiatry and long-time researcher in the area of meditation and change of consciousness who began his study of Sufi teaching stories in the early seventies, expressed the view that Western psychotherapists could benefit from the perspective provided by Sufism and its universal essence, provided suitable materials were studied in the correct manner and sequence. Given that Shah's writings and translations of Sufi teaching stories were designed with that purpose in mind, he recommended them to those interested in assessing the matter for themselves, and noted that many authorities had accepted Shah's position as a spokesman for contemporary Sufism.

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."

Selected Works

• Magic:

o Oriental Magic ISBN 0-86304-017-9

o The Secret Lore of Magic ISBN 0-80650-004-2

• Sufism/Philosophy:

o The Sufis ISBN 0-385-07966-4

o The Commanding Self ISBN 0-86304-066-7

o Learning How to Learn: Psychology and Spirituality in the Sufi Way ISBN 0-900860-59-6