Idries Shah left a large body of literary work in the areas of Sufi thought and Eastern philosophy, and has been regarded as a cultural bridge between East and West. The Idries Shah Foundation exists to make sure that the work of Idries Shah remains available.
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Idries Shah Biography
Idries Shah was born in Simla, India, in 1924, of an aristocratic Afghan family, the Saadat of Paghman. He devoted much of his life to explaining the East to the West, and made a wide body of scholarship of Eastern traditional teachings available in the Western world.
A foremost authority on Sufism, Shah presented key Sufi concepts, stripped of cultural and religious accretions, to a Western audience. He maintained that much of the work of Western psychology was pioneered, centuries ago, by Sufis.
His books have sold more than fifteen million copies in twenty languages worldwide, and covered numerous genres, including psychology, Islamic thought, belles-lettres, humour and problem-solving.
An extraordinary aspect of Shah’s work is the wide spectrum of readers his books attract. They are used as core course material in universities worldwide, but are not reserved for academia alone. They are read by novelists and artists, by physicists and social workers, and by psychologists, lawyers and homemakers.
A great many of Shah’s books use teaching stories to pass on ideas and information. Like the delicious flesh of a peach, the tales allow the object of real value, the stone, to be passed on.
Idries Shah died in London in November 1996. You can read obituaries for Idries Shah :
Idries Shah, 72, Indian-Born Writer Of Books on Sufism
Published: December 2, 1996
Idries Shah, an India-born author whose books about the varieties of Islamic mysticism known as Sufism have been widely published in the West, died on Nov. 23 in London. He was 72. He moved to Britain in the mid-1950’s but traveled widely.
The Daily Telegraph, in reporting his death on Saturday, said he had had heart trouble.
His book ”The Sufis” (1964, Doubleday) has won wide praise. The British author Doris Lessing, writing in The New York Times Book Review in 1977, called it ”comprehensively informative.”
For his part, Idries Shah observed not long ago, ”I was merely at the right place at the right time,” and ”freeing Sufism from cultish accretions, weirdness and oriental quaintness has taken 25 years.”
He was born in Simla, India. His father, Sirdar Ikbal Ali Shah, who was also an author, was an Indian Muslim of high-born Afghan origin who traced his descent from the Prophet Mohammed. His mother, the former Elizabeth Louise MacKenzie, was a Scot.
Idries Shah studied briefly at Oxford. As the journal ”Current Biography” has put it, he ”succeeded to formal leadership in the Sufi community on the death of his father in 1969.”
He wrote more than two dozen other books, including ”The Way of the Sufi” (1968) and ”Neglected Aspects of Sufi Study” (1977).
He married Kashfi Kabraji in 1958, and they had a son and two daughters.
Grand Sheikh of the Sufis whose inspirational books enlightened the West about the moderate face of Islam
IDRIES SHAH, who has died aged 72, was Grand Sheikh of the Sufis, and through his books and example the greatest living propagator of their spiritual insights.
The Arabic term Sufi, or mystic, derives from suf, meaning wool, probably in reference to the woollen garments worn by early Islamic ascetics. The movement, which has its origins in the 7th century, has aimed to achieve direct union with God, and has often been at odds with the technicalities of Islamic law.
Shah’s book The Sufis (1964), slightly ahead of the surge of interest in metaphysical ideas, pronounced the Sufi tradition alive and well, and invited readers to test its ideas. The evident sense, and common sense, which most readers discovered made a welcome contrast to much of the mystical gobbledygook of the 1960s. By the end of his life Shah had published 20 titles on Sufism, which have sold 15 million copies in 12 languages.
At the same time he was Director of Studies for the Institute of Cultural Research, an educational charity which published material on cross-cultural patterns of human thought and behaviour. He was also Governor of the Royal Humane Society and of the Royal Hospital and Home for Incurables; he was a founder member of the Club of Rome. And, not least, he was a family man.
Though in speech and bearing Shah appeared as the epitome of Englishness, he was born at Simla on June 16 1924, into a Hashemite family which traces its ancestry and titles back to the prophet Mohammed.
His Scottish mother met his father, the writer and savant Sirdir Ikbal Ali Shah, when he was a medical student in Edinburgh. Afterwards they lived together in the Afghan highlands in Paghman, the stronghold and fiefdom of the family.
By inheritance, therefore, Idries Shah was at home in both East and West; he was educated by private tutors in Europe and the Middle East. He was briefly at St Catherine’s College, Oxford.
Shah could be angry in the face of negativity or wilful foolishness, but more usually was warm and approachable, whether by the celebrated or the humble. His vast range of knowledge enabled him to point even specialists in new and fruitful directions.
A musicologist, for example, recorded Shah’s help in helping to decipher ancient Egyptian songs unheard for 3,500 years. A scientist honoured during the Second World War for his inventions in naval radar acknowledged Shah’s help in the development of patents in air ionisation.
In 1967, Robert Graves, a long-time friend of Shah, published a translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám, declaring Khayyám a Sufi. Shah had no part in this but was drawn in by association when a group of academic orientalists attacked both the book and Shah, and even travelled to Afghanistan to collect ammunition against him.
The Afghans, anxious to protect Shah, fed the dons with all manner of ridiculous tales, which were subsequently passed unchecked to the press. But the more eminent critics sprang to Shah’s defence.
In his books, Shah was making available Sufi ideas which he considered useful and relevant to western culture. Through the Octagon Press, the publishing company he founded, he established the historical and cultural context for these ideas. With Octagon he released much information about Afghanistan, aware of the value of such documentation in the aftermath of the country’s devastation.
During the Afghan-Soviet war, Shah risked his life more than once, secretly entering Afghanistan to work with the Mujahideen. His novel Kara Kush (1986) was based on the stories he had heard and the atrocities he had witnessed. He was not above tweaking the Russian bear’s tail by embedding secret “intelligence” in the text; for instance the telephone number of the KGB.
In the spring of 1987 Shah suffered two successive heart attacks. Sick as he was, his hilarious and hair-raising analysis of the medical profession was an eye-opener to those around him.
His physicians told him he had only eight per cent of his heart functioning, and that he could not expect to survive.
But, over the succeeding nine years, despite bouts of pain and illness, he produced further books, while working with characteristic dedication, seriousness, and light-heartedness, to advise those in need, and to prepare those who would succeed him.
Idries Shah married, in 1958, Cynthia (Kashfi) Kabraji; they had a son and two daughters.
Doris Lessing writes: I met Idries Shah because of The Sufis, which seemed to me the most surprising book I had read, and yet it was as if I had been waiting to read just that book all my life. It is a cliché to say that such and such a book changed one’s life, but that book changed mine. That was in 1964. It is a book that gives up more of itself every time you read it, and this is true of his other books, which all together make up a phenomenon like nothing else in our time, a map of Sufi living, learning, thinking. If I emphasise the books, it is because they are the evident legacy of this man’s life, and available to anyone. He used to say he had never been asked a question whose answer is not in his books.
He was a good friend to me, and my teacher. It is not easy to sum up 30 odd years of learning under a Sufi teacher, for it has been a journey with surprises all the way, a process of shedding illusions and preconceptions. One way of putting it could be that it brings to life the familiar words, the set phrases, the “labels” used by all the mystics. Shah remarked that “God is Love” can be words scrawled on a placard carried by an old tramp in the street, or the revelation of the greatest truth, with a thousand changes of meaning in between, and it is the thousand changes that are the experience of the learner.
In one aspect of his life he was a bridge between cultures, like his father the Sirdar Ikbal Ali Shah, at home in the East and the West. Shah was brought up as a Sunni Moslem. Not the least of his contributions to our culture has been to let us hear in this time of wild Moslem extremism, the voice of moderate and liberal Islam.
He was a many-sided man, knowing a great deal about a variety of subjects, and that meant that listening to him was an education in more ways than one. He was the wittiest person I expect ever to meet. He was kind. He was generous. He would not like these encomiums, for he was a modest man, saying, in the Sufi phrase, “Don’t look so much at my face, but take what is in my hand.” He meant, “I am offering you something unique, take advantage of it.”
He did not admire the sometimes tricky and flashy ways of our culture. “I am an old-fashioned man” he might say, linking himself with more honourable times. I can think of no other person of whom I could say, simply, he was honourable, and be understood, by people who knew him, exactly in the sense I mean it: here was someone whose standards and values were far from what we are used to now.
To teach the way of the Sufi
IDRIES Shah, who has died aged 72, wrote some 35 books and countless monographs. Much of his writing was meant to present the thought and teaching of Sufism — the mystical and pantheistic Muslim philosophy — to a late 20th century audience, but he also wrote on travel and anthropology, and produced a best-selling novel, Kara Kush, on the war against the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan, his ancestral homeland. Well into his sixties and at great risk, Shah went into Afghanistan twice to collect material for the book (he called it a Moses basket — in which something of the nation could be saved for the future).
Besides his writing, Shah was also for many years director of studies for the Institute for Cultural Research, a member of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, a founder member of the Club of Rome, and a company director.
Idries Shah was born in India, the first son of Sirdar Ikbal Ali Shah and a Scotswoman whom his father had met while studying medicine in Edinburgh. He was reared in the Sufi tradition of personal development, which was obligatory in the House of Hashim from which he was descended. In the early 1950s, the heads of all the major Sufi orders met in Turkey and (according to stories circulating in both east and west) chose the young Idries for a mission to the west. It was believed that western science had now made psychological discoveries which matched Sufi understanding, and so the west was in a position — for the first time — to incorporate Sufi knowledge into western science.
After completing his “journeys”, the series of travels which characterises Sufi development. Shah settled in England and attracted a small band of students. In Destination Mecca, one of his early books, he predicted the Islamic fundamentalist upsurge of the last two decades; but it was not until he wrote The Sufis, which implied that biological and cultural evolution were not fortuitous but providential, that he made a significant impact. The exposition involved analysis of important texts and uncovered meanings which had not been recognised by orientalists. This created an almost hysterical academic reaction.
One characteristic of The Sufis, as with the work on Sufis.n which followed, was its rejection of the beads-and-bangles western yearning for the east mysticism of the 1960s and 1970s. The audience which Shah’s work attracted was a level-headed cross-section of everyday society.
Idries Shah’s English, like many of the other languages he spoke, was that of a native speaker. He was immensely articulate and caustic, gentle and funny. His range of information on so many subjects was prodigious and he was an excellent raconteur who used humour to challenge his listeners’ assumptions. His circle of friends was vast and often colourful; his generosity legendary — but as Sufis require, he never spoke of it. He was a great exemplar of the tradition he represented.
He is survived by his wife, Kashfi, a son and two daughters.
David Wade and Edward Campbell
Sayed Idries Shah, thinker, born June 16, 1924; died November 23, 1996
Shah was born in British India in 1924, the son and heir of Sirdar Ikbal Ali Shah of Sardhana, and belonged to a distinguished Hashemite family. Their best-known 19th-century forbear was Jan Fishan Khan, a notable warrior and Sufi sage.
As a young man Shah often accompanied his father on his many diplomatic missions, thus acquiring the grasp of cultural divergencies needed for application of the Sufi maxim, “Right place, right people”.
In 1955 Shah decided to make his home in England, though he continued to travel widely both in the East and in the United States. The Sufis, published in 1964 with an introduction by Robert Graves, was not his first book in English, but it was the first to attract critical acclaim. It was followed by a series of books, including The Way of the Sufi (1968) and Neglected Aspects of Sufi Study (1977), making Sufi classical masters accessible to Western readers and bringing to their attention the teaching story as an instrument of self-development. This initiative offended some traditional Orientalists, who persisted in regarding Sufis as belonging to an Islamic sect rooted in the past and having little contemporary relevance.
When in 1967 Graves published his new translation of Omar Khayym, challenging Edward Fitzgerald’s refusal to treat the Persian Khayym as a Sufi poet, critics saw a chance to attack Shah, despite the fact that he had had no hand in Graves’s version. Those interested in Sufism as a force in the modern world rallied to Shah’s support and 24 of them, drawn from both East and West, compiled a Festschrift in his honour, Sufi Studies, East and West (1973).
In three of his books of tales, The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin (1966), Tales of the Dervishes (1967) and The Subtleties of the Inimitable Mulla Nasrudin (1973), Shah resurrected the Eastern joke figure Mulla Nasrudin, “the Mulla who is no Mulla, the fool who is no fool.”
Shah founded the Octagon Press, which published much of his later work, including two books, Darkest England (1987) and The Natives are Restless (1988), in which he traced affinities between the English and Afghan peoples. In all, he was author of more than 30 books, translated into 12 languages, including Russian. His enthusiasm for cross-cultural studies led in 1965 to the establishment of an educational charity, the Institute for Cultural Research in London, where he became Director of Studies.
Shah’s many activities in the West were never pursued at the expense of his contacts with the East and especially with the Indian sub-continent and Afghanistan. These ties came to the fore with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and he set up Afghan Relief to provide medical and other aid to refugees. No consideration of danger or ill-health could dissuade him from entering occupied Afghanistan, as well as working in the refugee camps. His experiences gave lively colour to his novel Kara Kush (1986).
Sayed Idries Shah, writer: born 16 June 1924; married 1958 Kashfi Kabraji (one son, two daughters); died London 23 November 1996.
Robert Cecil died 28 February 1994
Doris Lessing pays tribute to a great exponent of Sufism
Thirty years ago there appeared The Sufis, a book which at once announced itself as unlike any other. Hundreds of books by non-Sufis appear every year, disappear without trace or wash up on obscure shelves in academic libraries. This book was at once “recognised” — a Sufi term which may be summed up by “like calls to like” — by a remarkable range of people, many of them poets. The Sufis is a classic, and was by Idries Shah, who represents a genuine mystic tradition — there are many imitators.
Since then he has written or compiled over 30 books, providing a comprehensive experience of the Sufi view of life. The whole body of work, together with his reissuing of still relevant Sufi classics, adds up to a many-faceted whole. There are people who have taken part in this process, book by book. Others have found this or that book useful or entertaining. The Commanding Self is both a summing up of a third of a century’s work, and a development. People who have stayed the course will find similar ideas here, but put into a new context or taken a step further, sometimes unexpectedly.
“The commanding self” is a Sufi term for the false personality. Their contention is that we are all products of ideas put into us by our parents, by our culture, by the time we live in, and that what is real in us is very small (and precious). It is this part the Sufis aim to reach and teach. Some people, hearing that nearly everything they seem to be is only a mask made by conditioning, will say, “Well, of course!” — and want more information, while others may feel threatened. The picture on the cover is a photograph of an ancient figurine, a representation of the commanding self, like a savage dog. “Do you want to live an angry biting life?”
A very old philosophy or way of looking at life has been openly introduced into a culture — the West — that has had little contact with it. Which is not to say that Sufism has not been at work in every country, this one too, sometimes secretly. What the Sufis offer is seen by them as a kind of yeast, or energising stream.
All our associations with the word mysticism are wrong or limited. For instance, the word “Sufism” is a recent German coinage, and not used by Sufis. “Isms” are foreign to the nature of something felt as a process or a development. Ignorance causes bafflement. Highly educated people, hearing the word “mysticism,” may say they have no time for table- turning, seances, gurus, whirling dervishes, ESP, encounter groups and so on. A familiarity with the ancient ideas behind mysticism has not been part of our curriculum. People who have had 20 years of our kind of education may suddenly fall victim to a charlatan or a cult: they are highly developed in one area but left ignorant and defenceless in others. Sufis say it took 800 years of preparatory work to get Islam to accept them: they take a long-term view of the human condition. Then Islam claimed the Sufis as its property, and in our reference books Sufism is defined as a mystical Islamic sect.
This philosophy, or Way, antedates Islam; claims to be the inner part or essence of every religion, is not interested in labels or definitions, and is continually reappearing, openly or in a disguised form, in every culture. A new Sufi appearance is always within the terms of the host culture, is never an exotic, thrives, does its work, and dies, leaving behind “husks.” It is these dead forms that litter every culture and they are what most people see first. Shah has said often that a main difficulty in teaching is to prevent the material from being made into a system, yet another rigid framework of ideas, or a cult. This will happen in due course: it always does. Meanwhile here is the real thing, alive and full of juice and energy.
People tempted to sample this pretty astonishing phenomenon could not do better than try this book. They will find the word mysticism has lost its bizarre associations, and that the Way of the Sufi (the title of one of Shah’s books) reveals itself as a sophisticated view of life, embodied in people who through the centuries have always been in advance of their time. Sufis claim that all kinds of notions we think of as Western achievements were part of Sufi knowledge long ago: evolution, for instance, or the power locked in the atom. Their sociological and psychological insights are far in advance of our current ideas. These are most skilled and versatile servants. I have been a student for three decades, and am continually being surprised by what I learn. I have found nothing as informed, subtle, comprehensive, perceptive, anywhere else.
Sufi uses of literature are certainly full of surprises. For thousands of years the teaching story has been a Sufi instrument. “Their effects on the innermost part of the human mind is direct and certain.” Teaching stories are not didactic, not parables — a form some of us at least are still familiar with. Parables are open to a simple interpretation: this tale means this or means that. Being introduced to the great treasurehouse of Sufi literature taught this writer, at least, a realistic view of her talents.
There are wonderful tales here, some long, some very short. An elephant and a mouse fell in love. On the wedding night the elephant keeled over and died. The mouse said, “Oh Fate! I have unknowingly bartered one moment of pleasure and tons of imagination for a life time of digging a grave.”
There is not a grain of sentimentality in this view of life. A tortoise carries a stranded scorpion across a river. The scorpion stings the tortoise who demands indignantly: “My nature is to be helpful. I have helped you and now you sting me.” “My friend,” says the scorpion, “your nature is to be helpful. Mine is to sting. Why do you seek to transform your nature into a virtue and mine into villainy?”