Until 1964, when “The Sufis” was published, Sufism was mostly the preserve of scholars, at least in the West. “The Sufis” began a new era, opening a window on Sufi activity, history and influence. Shah presents new information in an accessible way, and many readers feel that it’s a book they’ve been looking for. Stories, history, unusually lucid perspectives on human nature and spirituality, and challenges to assumptions and established ways of thinking, are intertwined throughout, eventually combining to produce a special kind of reading experience.
“The Sufis” begins with the story of “The Islanders.” This is a “teaching story;” Shah’s name for a form of literature whose internal structure and dynamics can support and provoke experience in the reader (a Sufi speciality). Sometimes the learning happens at the time of reading, when the story helps us make sense of perceptions and experiences. Often, as Desmond Morris, author of “The Naked Ape” and ”The Human Zoo” observed, it’s a delayed effect that happens when we encounter situations in life that evoke a story. Morris is one of the leading observers of human nature who has commented on Shah’s work; others include author Doris Lessing, psychiatrist and author Arthur Deikman, and psychologist and author Robert Ornstein.
After “The Islanders” sets the stage, “The Travelers and the Grapes”—another teaching story—opens a discussion of the contextual background. Here we start to look at the history of interaction of cultures; often concealed because spiritual practices not sanctioned by the authorities could have brought severe penalties over the last thousand years or so. Here we also begin to see the Sufi approach to spiritual development; which I’ve found to be unparalleled in lucidity about human nature.
The chapter on “The Elephant in the Dark,” based on Rumi’s story, continues the intertwining of narrative, perspectives on human nature, and intercultural history. Then we meet the joke-figure Mulla Nasrudin, “one of the strangest achievements in the history of metaphysics,” whose antics illustrate “situations in which certain states of mind are made clear;” usually when he’s acting the idiot. Subsequent chapters introduce classical Sufis, including Rumi, Attar, Omar Khayyam, ibn el-Arabi, and el-Ghazzali, and trace the influence of Sufi thought and action on Western figures (such as Chaucer and St. Francis) and groups. We also meet the work of Western Sufis, such as Richard Burton (whose “Kasidah,” a remarkable poem of great depth, is reviewed), and are introduced to The Dervish Orders, The Creed of Love, Magic and Miracles, and more.
Of course, over the five decades since its publication, some things have changed. In his discussion of Sufi orders, which do not need traditional buildings and grounds except as required by local economic and political conditions, Shah mentions that “one Arabic publishing company is a Sufi organization. In some areas all the industrial and agricultural workers are Sufis.” This might have changed in the political, economic and military upheavals of the past fifty years, but the principle remains the same; the “order” is in the hearts and networks of people. The “beautiful tomb,” of the great teacher Data Ganj Bakhsh (Ali el-Hujwiri), in Lahore, “venerated by people of all creeds,” was bombed by terrorists in 2010. The Idries Shah Foundation print and Kindle editions of “The Sufis” omit the original Introduction by Robert Graves (I like Grave’s commentary but “The Sufis” is complete without it).
Still, five decades after its publication, “The Sufis” continues to be relevant. At first reading, and later re-readings after intervals, “The Sufis” continues to pack advanced spiritual psychology, eye-opening history, and impacts that both confirm and extend perceptions, and highlight and disconfirm prejudices and assumptions, into a special reading experience.
reviewed by Jay Einhorn, PhD, LCPC, www.psychatlarge.com