Learning How to Learn contains more than a hundred tales and extracts, ranging from the 8th century Hasan of Basra to today’s Ustad Khalilullah Khalili. These tales are woven into Shah’s narratives of how and why the Sufis learn, what they learn, and how spiritual understanding may be developed, as well as how it inevitably deteriorates in all societies.
Shah draws from more than 70,000 questions, from Afghanistan, California, Delhi and Strasbourg, asked by housewives, cabinet ministers, philosophy professors and assembly-line workers, on current human, social and spiritual problems.
He quotes Eastern parables of Jesus, the ancient Sufi classics, contemporary encounters with teachers and students, the Mulla Nasrudin teaching-figure, Omar Khayyam and Western mass-circulation journals.
Many of the concepts which Shah introduced – including: the vital role of the right time, place and company of higher studies, the very concept of ‘Learning How to Learn’ and the instrumental, specialised function of ordinarily performed exercises and rituals – have recently been widely copied by psychologists.
‘Beginning to Begin’
Until only a few years ago, as literary people, psychologists
and the increasing number of those engaged in studying
human consciousness now so often remind us, Sufism was a
closed book for the ordinary person. Its language, in the form
found in its classical and technical writings, seemed almost
impenetrable. Orientalists (now more correctly renamed
Specialists in the Human Sciences in Asia and Africa)
maintained a near-monopoly of information on the subject
and yet could be found extensively disagreeing as to what
Sufism was, how and where it started, and what its teachings
meant. Some Islamic workers were against it; others claimed
it as the true essence of Islam. Some non-Muslim observers
were powerfully attracted to it, others found it too culturebound
for their liking.
The publication of Sufi stories stripped of didactic
overlay and much verbiage, together with studies of Sufi
psychological work and perhaps, above all, the observed
analogies with current social and cultural concerns, has
changed this picture quite dramatically. It is now generally
accepted that Sufi research and experience during the past
thousand years has been one of the most promising areas
of development in the direction of understanding man and
indicating his perceptions of extradimensional reality. But
it was not until people, mainly in the West, began to note
the congruence of religious and psychological, esoteric and
cultural thinking that a more holistic approach to the subject
Meanwhile, of course, laggards in science still regard
Sufism as mysterious esotericism; cultists still want to preserve
this aura; a few scholars wish to produce a monopoly by
claiming that their interpretations alone are authoritative;
the latter sometimes presenting a spectacle resembling that
of the alchemist opposing chemistry because he does not
The work of displaying the many-sidedness and current
relevance of Sufism has not been difficult, given two prerequisites:
freedom to publish and a growing dissatisfaction,
in many cultures, with hidebound and ignorant authority.
All that has been needed has been to quote, from legitimate
Sufi sources, including documents, teachings which
show the scientific, as well as the religious, interest; to
demonstrate, from the same sources, that the psychological
insights of the Sufis have proved a source of continuing
knowledge which is not inferior to the achievements of
modern workers in the field of the mind. In addition, the
‘discovery’ of the Sufis by several such workers of undeniable
importance, and the existence of a living Sufi tradition
aside from repetitious cultism and the other deteriorated
elements made it rapidly possible – within the span of a
decade – for several workers to provide materials which
have verified much of the true nature of the Sufi heritage
and to confirm its continuing operation.
It has been objected, of course, that the ‘popularisation’ of
Sufi materials might alienate many people from the ancient
traditions and values which it is held by some to represent.
In actual fact, the reverse has been true. In one publication
after another, even traditionalist and formal scholars, as well
as many others – in East and West – have eagerly accepted
the recent reclaiming of the meaning of the materials: and
the number of people interested has enormously increased.
To disdain these newcomers because they are not always
professional orientalists or cultists (still too many people are
both) is to fail to observe that many of them are at least as
intelligent, well-informed and potentially useful in human
research as the ‘specialists’. One of the saddest things, in fact,
about the reaction in some quarters against the revelation
of fresh insights into the essential Sufism has been the
displaying of almost primitive and quite stupefying bigotry
and small-mindedness in circles where these characteristics
are prejudicial to the honour of the learned calling and
dangerous to the likelihood that such people will continue
to be taken seriously by those whose respect means so much
In brief, Sufism has ‘arrived’ in the minds of people
in the more flexible and increasingly interesting areas of
contemporary thought. It has also become a part of the
experience and interest of some of today’s more distinguished
people throughout the world. It is operating widely, in crossdisciplinary
and general areas, as a factor whose value and
contribution can neither be denied nor arrested. What has
happened is that more people are prepared to study perennial
truth apart from local manifestations and derivative
sociological forms of mainly anthropological value.
Traditionally, Sufi understanding has relied heavily upon
question-and-answer. The following pages, extracted to give
a cross-section of materials elicited during hundreds of hours
of talks, relate to many of the subjects which interest such a
very large number of people today. The hundred conversations
also represent answers to questions which have been asked
again and again in a postbag of more than forty thousand
letters, from all over the world.
In spite of the enormous demand for Sufi thought to be
presented only in terms of familiar attitudes and local cultural
expression, it would be unfair, both to the Sufis and those
who might learn from them, to attempt putting this quart
into a pint pot.
Sufi thought and action requires its own formats in which
to manifest and operate; it is for this reason that it has
always, in the past and in its several areas of expression,
established and maintained its own institutions and teaching
centres. But the modern Western atmosphere, however
much it may have neglected to develop such formats for
itself, is nowadays much more than formerly prepared to
accept the hypothesis that there might be a form of learning
which is presented, concentrated and disseminated through
characteristic and specialised institutions. It is only where
we get people imagining that the outward form of such
institutions, suited to one place or age, is both suitable for
here and now, and also representative of the thing itself, that
the onus is on us to point out the fact that such opinions are
limited and limiting. They disable those who hold them from
understanding in the same way that the yokel in the Sufi tale
could not benefit from his bowl of liquid soup because ‘all
soup has lumps in it’.
There was once a man who opened a restaurant, with a
good kitchen, attractive tables and an excellent menu.
One of his friends came along soon afterwards, and said:
‘Why have you not got a sign, like all the other eatingplaces?
I suggest that you put on it “RESTAURANT: FINEST
When the sign was painted and put up, another enquirer
‘You have to be more specific – you might mean any old
restaurant. Add the words “SERVED HERE” and your sign
will be complete.’
The owner thought that this was a good idea, and he had
the signboard duly altered.
Not long afterwards, someone else came along and said:
‘Why do you put “HERE”? Surely anyone can see where
the place is?’
So the restaurateur had the sign changed.
Presently a further curious member of the public wanted
‘Do you not know that the word “SERVED” is redundant?
All restaurants and shops serve. Why not take it out?’
So that word was taken out.
Now another visitor said:
‘If you continue to use the phrase “FINEST FOOD”, some
people will be sure to wonder whether it really is the finest,
and some will not agree. To guard against criticism and
contention, please do remove the word “Finest”.’
And so he did. Now, just the word “FOOD” was to be
seen on the notice, and a sixth inquisitive individual put his
head through the doorway. ‘Why have you got the word
“FOOD” on your restaurant: anyone can see that you serve
So the restaurateur took down the sign. As he did so, he
could not help wondering when somebody who was hungry,
rather than curious or intellectual, would come along…
In this tale, of course, the restaurateur is plagued by the
literal-mindedness of the ‘people of reason’; for whom, as
for all of us, intellect plays a valuable part. The food which
our man is trying to provide, however, is the ‘food of the
heart’; where the heart stands in Sufi parlance for the higher
perceptive faculties of humankind.
Our contemporary Sufi poet, Professor Khalilullah Khalili,
my most illustrious compatriot, puts it like this:
In every state, the Heart is my support:
In this kingdom of existence it is my sovereign.
When I tire of the treachery of Reason –
God knows I am grateful to my heart…*
* Persian Quatrains of Ustad Khalilullah Khalili, trilingual, Baghdad:
Al-Maarif Press, 1975, 22/23.