Sufism and Idries Shah

Sufism: The Classical Masters

The Classical Masters
Peter Brent
It is impossible to be clear about beginnings – a tradition
winds back through the centuries; one says, ‘Here it
commenced’ or ‘That was the man who spoke the first word’,
but however firm one’s tone of voice, however dogmatic
one’s assertion, one cannot lay bare the earliest, the primal
root. This is the more true the more imprecise the tradition;
it is absolutely true of a tradition in which from Master to
disciple there has been handed down through the generations
something as nebulous as an awareness, a manner of being,
a process of learning, an alteration of perception, the
development of an inner conviction, an imprecisely defined
method for achieving an incommunicable experience. Even
the word we have chosen to describe the tradition (not

one picked for that purpose by those whose tradition it
naturally was) is surrounded by a haze of discussion, even of
acrimonious argument.
What is the derivation of ‘Sufi’? It comes, say some,
from ashabi-sufa, ‘sitters in the shrine’, mendicants who
made their home in the porch of the temple and whom
the Prophet, Mohammed, used at times to feed. But even
those who accept this derivation dispute its meaning:
the ashabi-sufa, they say, were those who sat on benches
outside the mosques and debated matters theological with
the orthodox. Others choose a different root for the word,
settling on safa, ‘purity’ or ‘sincerity’, to mark the special
characteristic of those who set out upon the Sufi way. Some
believe that the Greek sophia, ‘wisdom’ or ‘knowledge’,
lies near the root of the matter. Many think suf, ‘wool’,
to be the relevant word for those who took to the selfdisciplined
life of the ascetic, wore long robes of wool,
cowled, distinctive and practical for a wanderer forced
often to sleep on the hard earth. But for others again, the
word needs no derivation, being simply itself: the sound
soof, they say, has its own power, a value based on the
universe’s hidden currents of meaning.
The debate over the name, however, is no more than a
surface indication of the more important dispute about the
origins of the Sufi teaching itself. This in turn concerns the
qualifications considered necessary in those wishing to learn
the Sufi way to self-development. Many commentators, indeed
most, insist that the tariqah, the Spiritual Path, is open only
to those who come to it by way of the shari’ah, the holy law
of Islam, based on the Koran and dependent upon theological
exegesis. Thus to be a Sufi you have first to be a Moslem.
The reason for this, they say, is that the origins of Sufism and
those of Islam are inextricably intertwined, and the Prophet

himself, as his profound mystic experiences prove, was not
merely a Sufi, but the first and greatest of Sufis.
If this were truly the case, then the ideas and practices
of Sufism would be, even in part, inaccessible to all those
who have not first adopted Islam. Yet writers and teachers
have for years busily spread the news of precisely these
ideas and practices throughout the West. Has their interest
been a purely scholarly one or, when it has not, have they
been either misguided or fraudulent in their endeavours?
J. Spencer Trimingham in his The Sufi Orders in Islam
writes that Sufis ‘differed considerably in their inner beliefs,
but their link with orthodoxy was guaranteed by their
acceptance of the law and ritual practices of Islam. All the
same they formed inner coteries in Islam and introduced
a hierarchal structure and modes of spiritual outlook and
worship foreign to its essential genius.’ It is a view that
suggests that an approach to the Sufi structure and modes of
action might not after all have to pass by way of orthodox
Islamic law. (One may not, on the other hand, have to go as
far as some and see the origins of Sufism, not in Islam at all,
but in such mystic traditions as those of the Zoroastrian
magi of Persia.)
What do the great names of Sufi tradition say? Jalaluddin
Rumi is still called, seven centuries after his death, Mowlana,
Our Master, by the Sufis, and not only the Sufis, of today.
He is, above all others perhaps, the essential voice of
Sufism, positive, unconventional, at times sardonic, at
times admonitory or anecdotal, his verse impregnated with
an awareness of profound love – but a love that makes it
sinewy, not sugary – and of the exaltation of transcendental
experience. He casts aside the trammels of theology when he
deals with the central, inescapable issue, the relation between
humanity and the divine:

I adore not the Cross nor the Crescent, I am not
Christian nor Jew...
Not from Eden and Paradise I fell, not from Adam
my lineage I drew.
In a place beyond uttermost place, in a tract without
shadow or trace,
Soul and body transcending I live in the soul of my
loved one anew.
The loved one here is both the Sufi guide and the divine
itself. And a contemporary of his, the Sufi Master Nafasi,
wrote of God’s proximity to mankind, ‘The beautiful truth
is that He is ever near to those who seek Him, regardless of
their creed or belief.’
Scholars argue that Rumi, and the other great thinkers
and teachers through whom Sufism developed, can only be
considered in the Islamic context within which they grew and
worked. It was that religion which they practised, its tenets
and rituals that they drew from and illuminated. And in a
broad sense this must be true, since we are all the products
of the cultures from which we spring. But to say that Sufism,
an approach to the Absolute by way of self-discipline,
heightened perception, retrained intelligence and profound
emotion, must be restricted to those who come to it through
the gateway of Islam’s shari’ah seems on the face of it almost
perversely narrow. When, in the mid-14th century, the ruler
of Fars decreed in an excess of puritan zeal that all the inns of
the town must close, Hafiz, among the greatest of Sufi poets,
and one who understood better than most the metaphor
‘God-intoxicated’, wrote:
They have closed the doors of the wine taverns;
O God suffer not

That they should open the doors of the house of
deceit and hypocrisy.
If they have closed them for the sake of the selfish
Be of good cheer, for they will reopen them for God’s
And what is one to make of this short tale from Rumi’s
Discourses? ‘I spoke one day to a group of people, among
whom were some non-Moslems. In the midst of my speech
they wept and experienced ecstasy. Only one out of a
thousand Moslems understood why they wept. The master
then declared: “Although they do not understand the inner
spirit of these words they comprehend the underlying feeling,
the real root of the matter.”’ If we who are not Moslems
listen carefully, may we too not comprehend ‘the root of the
It seems likely that certain elements in the Sufi tradition are
indeed older than Islam itself. It is hard to believe that a mystic
tradition should have had a sudden untrammelled beginning
in the 7th century, without being heavily influenced by existing
ideas, especially when one remembers that Islam itself is a selfaware
continuation of the monotheism already long developed
in Judaism and Christianity. There is also the discomfort with
which, as Trimingham and others have suggested, Sufism
seems at times to sit within Islam, a consequence perhaps
of the incompatibility between the religion of revelation and
the religion of continuing mystical experience. A once-for-all
appearance on the human plane of the divine, as postulated
by Christians, for example, tends to be codified in precepts,
transfixed by tradition and animated only by ritual; on the
whole, later generations are not permitted to obscure it by
their own directly personal experience of the Absolute. Yet

in Islam, both traditions co-exist, suggesting that some part
of the mystical convention may have its beginnings not in
the primary prophetic Message, but elsewhere. For that
convention supplies legitimacy to its adherents, equivalent
to that supplied by revelation to the theologians, through
a continuing chain of inductor and inducted, linked always
by the relation between an unforced authority and a willing
submission, and stretching back across the centuries. It is
this chain of Master and disciple, known in Sufism as the
silsilah, that itself provides the necessary authority for the
latest neophyte desiring to add his link to it.
The Master personifies that authority, as he does the inner
experience which is both the basis and the purpose for that
authority’s existence. Again, such systems of tuition, where
they exist elsewhere in the world, in Hinduism’s Guru-shishya
parampara, for instance, have their roots in a pre-literate
world where all instruction had to be oral, and those who
taught were therefore the living embodiment of the culture
they transmitted. There are many other reasons, of course,
why tuition in mysticism should be by means of a similar
direct transmission, and yet one wonders whether its very
structures do not reveal how very deep and ancient the roots
of Sufism are.
The argument, however, has centred on what the exclusive
origins of Sufism might be. One profound lesson that the
philosophies of Asia can teach is that many desperate
disagreements based on the disruptive ‘either–or’ of which
scholastic thinkers are so fond can be resolved by a reconciling
‘both’. This is probably such a case. If historical Islam itself
has its roots in monotheism already well known in Arabia, so
may Sufism have arisen out of already established mystical
schools. Yet the story of Mohammed and his mission, of his
relation with the divine and the transmission of the Koran,
is, of course, one in which profound mystical certainties

are both implicit and explicitly described. Nor is there any
question that the images and metaphors, the philosophical
concepts and cultural counters of the Sufi sages have always
been those of Islam. It seems probable that, like so much
else, the beginnings of Sufism are multiple, complex: as Idries
Shah writes in his The Sufis, ‘That is why, in Sufi tradition,
the “Chain of Transmission” of Sufi schools may reach back
to the Prophet by one line, and to Elias by another.’ Nor need
there be any conflict between the mystics and the orthodox:
‘Because the Sufis recognised Islam as a manifestation of the
essential upsurge of transcendental teaching, there could be
no interior conflict between Islam and Sufism. Sufism was
taken to correspond to the inner reality of Islam, as with
the equivalent aspect of every other religion and genuine
Like all mystical doctrines, Sufism (a term, incidentally,
unknown until recent decades – it was coined by a German in
the 1820s – and thus never used by the famous Sufi poets and
philosophers of the past) postulates an Absolute and goes on
to assert that we can attain an awareness of it. This Absolute
has been defined in terms both secular and religious. It has
been called the Reality of Existence, the Reality of Being.
Being is of its nature singular, since nothing that exists does
so to a greater degree than anything else: it either is or it is
not. This singularity is the Divine. Set within the ideologies of
Islam, it becomes specific. Personified, it becomes the object
of a transcendent love. Yet one may ask, how can there be an
object when the devotee, too, is necessarily part of and one
with the cosmic unity?
It seems, therefore, that we face a paradox: God is separate
from the worshipper, and at the same time is the worshipper
himself; the passionate element in Sufism (like that of the
Hindu bakhtis) can only come from a perceived duality
that acts as a barrier between God and the worshipper. It

is the barrier itself, however, that resolves this paradox: its
resistance sets up precisely the intense devotional energy
which the worshipper must develop in order to burst through
it. Beyond lies that in which no paradox survives: the intense
awareness of oneness, of the magnificent unity of the cosmos,
absolute and indivisible. This perceived singularity, in which
at one level one remains oneself, at another one totally loses
oneself, is the Real, and it is with this Reality that Sufism is
concerned. To reach it, to understand it, to see it clearly – in
different words, to reach and understand God – is the object
of its disciplines.
At the end of the Sufi path, therefore, as at the far limit of
other spiritual or mystical processes, there seems to lie an alldevouring
blaze in which duality and self both vanish. And
the pathway is marked, both in general terms and with the
special signposts of Sufism. Professor A. M. A. Shushtery in
his Outlines of Islamic Culture tells us, ‘A Sufi believes that it
is by purifying his heart and not by observances of religious
rituals, or prayer or fast, one can realise the truth... It is through
self-discipline, devotion, virtue and intention that one can
know his God. This stage is called fana-fil-lah or annihilation
in God...’ The route is by way of maqam, translated as
‘stations’, each of which corresponds to a particular spiritual
attainment. Also on the way are experiences of ecstasy – hal
or ahwal, meaning ‘state’ or ‘states’ – which, like the stations,
have finally to be transcended. The stations are reached by
a series of exercises prescribed by one’s Teacher, but for the
experience of hal there is no prescription. ‘Hal,’ wrote Ali
al-Hujwiri in the 11th century, ‘is something that descends
into a man, without his being able to repel it when it comes,
or to attract it when it goes...’
Yet in Sufism one often comes across mistrust not only of
the stations as ends in themselves, but also of the ecstatic
states. It is not that they are considered spurious; on the

contrary, it is precisely the genuineness of the divine energy
that makes Sufi writers doubt the fitness of those minds that so
abruptly and sometimes so catastrophically receive it. It is as
though the Sufi path had on either side of it pleasant bowers,
shady places, welcoming groves, and in each of these there
was a group of people murmuring to each other, ‘See? We
have arrived.’ Some repeat certain exercises, convinced that
to continue in this way is the object of their journey. Others
again stand with eyes rolled up, or whirl with widespread
arms, or roll on the ground, a light froth upon their lips; they
cry out the names of God and feel themselves filled with a
divine response. Yet, faintly, perhaps through difficult country,
perhaps up an ever-increasing slope, the path winds on and
the traveller truly concerned to reach its end must leave these
others behind, each of them comforted by apparent certainty,
each of them deceived. It is he, stubborn in his quest and
not disturbed by the passage of the years or the hardships
of the journey, who has the only chance of reaching the true
goal. Writing in his Revelation of the Veiled, Ali al-Hujwiri
tells us, ‘All the Sheikhs of the Path are agreed that when a
man has escaped from the captivity of the “stations” and gets
rid of the impurity of the “states” and is liberated from the
abode of change and decay and becomes endowed with all
praiseworthy qualities, he is disjoined from all qualities.’ In
other words, beyond maqam, beyond hal, there is another
state, the condition of peace, of self-realisation, partaking
of the cosmic unity; that final state he calls tamkin. Seen by
one in that stable condition, doubtless the followers of the
exercises seem little better than apprentices, while those in
the grip of ecstasy must appear simply unprepared, unready
for the force that has entered them. Thus what in many other
traditions would be taken as proof of a spiritual journey
properly undertaken and joyfully completed, indicates to
Sufis little more than that the journey is under way.

A bewildering array of sages, saints and self-styled masters
moves towards us from the recesses of Asia, and we may be
forgiven when in our minds their several doctrines begin to
merge into one ill-defined, if attractive, mish-mash of reachme-
down exoticism. Yet we should be careful: each tradition
has been moulded by its own centuries, and by the society
from which it has sprung. If we are to deal with the Hindu
guru, for example, we must remember that reincarnation
and the concept of karma are of the essence of his teaching.
With the Sufis, as we have seen, it is Islam that provides
the terminology and much of the ritual. The Buddhists of
Tibet and those of the discipline we know as Zen wrap their
teachings in the preconceptions and vocabulary of the lands
where those teachings developed. Each tradition appeals in a
different way, demands a different kind of discipline, suggests
its goals in different terms. There is in the end, it seems, no
‘Eastern philosophy’, no ‘Asiatic religion’.
The difference between one and another discipline may
be crucial, either for an individual’s own development or,
possibly, for the development of the West as a whole. If it
is true that the people of Europe, and those whose cultures
stem from that of Europe, are now in a new condition of
bewilderment and doubt; if it is true that Christianity, a
religion of ethics and of revelation, cannot become again
what it was before scientific materialism routed it; if it is
true that more and more Westerners are embarked upon the
search for an individual experience of the transcendent, and
upon the self-discovery that must both precede and follow
that experience; if all this is true, then the attitude that we
take up now to this or that particular teaching may well
have repercussions over many years. Our Western culture
is changing and, threatened or excited by that possibility,
we have begun to look beyond the borders of the West for
guidance. It is necessary that we look clearly and learn to

distinguish between the various solutions suggested by the
cultures and traditions which we may examine.
Mircea Eliade in his essay Experiences of the Mystic
Light* writes, ‘In the course of human history there have
been a thousand different ways of conceiving and evaluating
the Spirit... For all conceptualisation is irremediably linked
with language, and consequently with culture and history.
One can say that the meaning of the supernatural light is
directly conveyed to the soul of the man who experiences it –
and yet its meaning can only come fully to his consciousness
clothed in a pre-existent ideology.’ It is the present dilemma
of the West that it has no such pre-existent ideology; the
politics of ecclesiastical domination and the essential dualism
of Christianity have reduced the cultural impact of the
monistic experience of the mystics to relative insignificance.
The separation made by religion between Mankind and God,
and by science between Mankind and Nature, has denied us
a framework for any notion of cosmic unity, even for any real
conception of an inner self not couched in the arid terms of
psycho-analytical theory. If we are to pursue such a notion,
such a conception, it seems to me we had better try to do so
through disciplines that fit in as nearly as possible with those
ideas, about society, about culture, about the spirit and about
the cosmos, that we have developed.
It may be that an implication of the greatest significance
to the West is contained in one of the names by which Sufis
are known: Ahl al ishara, ‘Those who learn by allusion’. For
Sufi preceptors it is the effect of their teaching, and not the
teaching itself, which is of the first importance. Not what
is said or done, but what happens to the listener as a result
of what is said or done, is the Teacher’s primary concern.

* Published in The Two and the One, London 1965.

What a Sufi says or writes need not be factually true; it is an
instrument intended to work upon the minds of those who
come across it. Metaphor, hyperbole, joke or boredom, all
these are tools that the Sufi Master may use to harmonise
with his disciples. For this reason, quite apart from the
prevailing priorities of Islamic and especially Persian culture,
many of the great Sufi luminaries of the past have been poets.
So often active at levels more numerous and deeper than we
are conscious of, able at times to yield layer after layer of
meaning to our fascinated scrutiny, lingering in the mind
with an echoing after-impact that sometimes lasts as long as
memory itself, poetry is the ideal medium for those who want
to move us as it were obliquely, through allusion.
As a result, those who follow the Sufi path soon begin to
learn in a manner new to them. The process of learning itself,
rather than anything factually learned, begins to alter them,
to alter the way they think and the way they perceive the
world. Long before the Sufi way turns into a purely mystical
discipline therefore, it works at the level of the intellect and
the imagination. Its first stages are intended to prepare one
for the later experiences, in order that one should not mistake
their nature. Properly directed by a teacher who understands
his individual needs, the disciple will achieve the sought-after
ecstasy central to mysticism only when completely ready for
it. Then, far from overwhelming him, it will complete him.
It is not for nothing that Sufis, therefore, equate the
Absolute with Reality. The process of learning is the process
of discovering what really exists. In order to do this, the
neophyte upon the path must be persuaded to use his senses,
his intelligence and his imagination in a new fashion. He
must be helped towards a new kind, as well as a new level,
of consciousness. Here Sufism, like certain other similar
disciplines, begins to link with present developments in
psychology. As Professor Robert Ornstein has written in

his The Psychology of Consciousness, ‘We know... that our
“normal” consciousness is not complete, but is an exquisitely
evolved, selective personal construction whose primary
purpose is to ensure biological survival. But this mode,
although necessary for survival, is not necessarily the only
one in which consciousness can operate... The automatisation
of ordinary consciousness is a trade-off: for the sake of
survival, we lose much of the richness of experience... The
deautomatisation of consciousness is the key. It enables us
personally to note factors which had previously escaped
attention. It is here that the work of the esoteric traditions is
most fruitfully incorporated into Western science.’ The many
automatic responses we make to our environment, although
necessary for sanity and efficiency, stand between us and the
world’s reality. To reach the real, we have to learn to respond
to it; we have, in other words, to become real ourselves.
A way in which one may differentiate between various
mystical traditions is to see what attitude they take to reality –
the hard, intractable reality of the physical and social world
we all inhabit. One view is that of Hinduism, which conceives
of the undifferentiated unity glimpsed during the ecstatic
experience as the only true reality; it therefore insists upon
the illusory nature of the differentiated world available to
ordinary sense-experience. The disciples of the spiritual guru
are enjoined, as are in the course of time all orthodox Hindus,
to withdraw from that illusory world and to base themselves
upon the cosmic unity that is Brahman. If everything is finally
one, then family attachments, relationships, activity in the
world, all of which reflect subject–object dependencies, must
be fundamentally misguided. The disciple therefore casts them
off, removes himself to an ashram, and there attempts to match
the singularity of the cosmos with his own. Withdrawal of a
similar nature, to hermitage and cloister, marks the history
of Christian mysticism; for reasons practical and political,

as well as philosophical, it has largely been the preserve of
the enclosed orders – or else, by definition of the Church, of
The whole burden of what such disciplines teach is that the
serious person, the person dedicated to the search for ultimate
reality, must turn away from the illusion of differentiated
‘normality’, as a Hindu might say, or from the temptations of
the world, as a Christian might put it. Yet such withdrawal
is not necessary in other traditions. Zen Buddhists, for
example, while seeking samadhi, or the ecstatic annihilation
of self, do not make this the end of their endeavours. On
the contrary, writes Katsuki Sekida in Zen Training, ‘if you
want to attain genuine enlightenment and emancipation, you
must go completely through this condition...’ In his maturity
the student of Zen ‘goes out into the actual world of routine
and lets his mind work with no hindrance... If we accept that
there is an object in Zen practice, then it is this freedom of the
mind in actual living.’ This is the fourth category of samadhi,
the one that lies beyond mere ecstasy and, as we have seen,
Sufi beliefs too accommodate such a condition in that level of
consciousness called by Hujwiri tamkin, and elsewhere baga.
Although both Zen and Sufi teachings have led to the
formation of monastic orders, within which those devoted
to the ascetic life tend to their own spiritual development
and, perhaps, learn in time to help others through the same
process, many of the followers have always been laymen. The
Sufi orders have through the centuries of their existence been
surrounded by the non-monastics who were tied to them by
vows and ceremonies of initiation. In Islam above all there
can surely be no incompatibility between the secular and
the mystical life, when the Prophet upon whose Message it
stands was himself a merchant, a politician and a military
leader as well as a religious philosopher and a mystic. Indeed
the impact of Mohammed’s life depends upon the contrast

between his outer ordinariness and the blazing light of divinity
with which he was filled. Thus it comes as no surprise to find
a Sufi thinker, Abu Nasr Sarraj, pointing out as early as the
10th century that extreme asceticism could be as debilitating
to the spirit as luxury, and doubting the value of the hermit’s
seclusion for the good reason that the sources of evil lie within
the self. Human beings, whatever their spiritual condition,
ought, he considered, to fulfil their obligations in the world;
self-illumination would make them even better able to do so.
From the beginning, therefore, a large proportion of Sufis
have maintained their connection with the ‘ordinary’ world,
and in the list of Sufism’s great men there stand many who by
no stretch of the imagination could be considered ascetic or
monastic. For them, the effects of what they knew, had seen
and understood were brought into play in their dealings with
the world about them. What they believed shone through
what they wrote and did. They had prepared their minds for
the mystical experience, and when it came, when it had filled
them, they became, not frenzied, but infinitely richer. That
wealth they then brought to bear on those around them, those
who came to them, those who heard and read their treatises.
It was yet another 10th century Sufi sage, Abu Bakr
al-Kalabadhi, who wrote, ‘If a man’s ecstasy is weak, he
exhibits ecstasy... If, however, his ecstasy is strong, he controls
himself and is passive.’ In that state of controlled ecstasy,
calmed inwardly by the certainty that only enlightenment can
bring, the Sufi is free to move about the world, to act in it, to
take his place in it, and often to excel in it. He has achieved a
new level of perception, a new kind of understanding, a new
breadth of consciousness, he has experienced the cosmos as
unity and so has understood his own significance: he is the
enlightened man.
It is no wonder that the great luminaries of Islam, whose
works no passing of the generations seems able to diminish,

have in so many cases been Sufis. As we have seen, it is claimed
even by the most orthodox doctors of religious law that the
first Sufi was the Prophet himself. But the long line of the
distinguished winds down the centuries of Islam as though
by their brightness to mark out the path of their tradition.
That is not to say that with each of them the tradition made
a greater or lesser degree of ‘progress’, but rather that each
lights that segment of the path where his illumination will be
of the greatest use.
Nevertheless, Abu Hamid Mohammed el-Ghazali
must stand as the figure, reconciliatory, scholarly, deeply
philosophical and profoundly religious, with whom Sufism
made a new beginning. It was he who gathered together
the doctrines and ideas of his Sufi predecessors, selected,
synthesised, and finally reconciled his conclusions with the
orthodoxies of Islam. But underlying his patient and creative
scholasticism there burned a constant, mystic fire, and the life
that he breathed into the academic clay, once he had gathered
it and kneaded it into shape, was that of the Sufi certainties.
Born in north-eastern Persia in 1058, he was brought up
and educated by a Sufi master. Before he was thirty-five he
had been appointed to the Chair of Philosophy and Theology
at Nizamiyya University, one of the great establishments
that made Baghdad the centre of Islamic culture. Although
el-Ghazali, the youngest of the university’s professors, was
instantly acclaimed, he turned his back on fame and success
after only five years. It was not that he disliked praise, indeed,
he confessed that he liked it too well, but rather that he had
come to the end of what he might usefully arrive at through
the techniques of scholasticism, had reached the limits, both
as student and as teacher, of what in the academic world had
value for him.
As he wrote later, ‘I next turned with set purpose to the
method of Sufism. I knew that the Sufi way includes both

intellectual belief and practical activity... The intellectual
belief was easier. But it became clear to me, however, that
what is most distinctive of mysticism is something which
cannot be apprehended by study, but only by immediate
experience, by ecstasy and by moral change. I apprehended
clearly that the mystics were men who had real experience,
not men of words, and that I had already progressed as far as
was possible by way of intellectual apprehension...’
In the work he was yet to do there would be, within the
academic integument that gave it both form and legitimacy,
an elusive other certainty baffling to scholars, a hint of secrets
which, although by their nature no words can communicate
them, he was taken wilfully to have left unrevealed.
Nevertheless he was to write and speak a great deal, his works
finally becoming among the most influential ever published.
After wandering for twelve years (the classical period of
dervish training), during which he ‘had no other objective
than that of seeking solitariness, overcoming selfishness,
fighting passions, trying to make clear my soul, to complete my
character’, he returned, changed but active, to the world. The
work he did during his lifetime earned him the amazing title
of The Authority of Islam; but after his death his work spread
even wider than the religion’s boundaries. He had woven
into his philosophy the ideas of both Jewish and Christian
mysticism, had adapted the transcendental world-scheme
of Plotinus and the neo-Platonists; now his new synthesis,
fruitfully translated, returned these theories and certainties,
embellished and increased, to the cultures from which he had
drawn them. In Hebrew and Latin his books spread through
the academies and among the churchmen of Europe. That
13th century imperial genius, the Hohenstaufen Frederick
II, as Holy Roman Emperor the ruler of Sicily (and happily
engaged there in creating his own synthesis between Europe
and the Middle East), had el-Ghazali’s books translated into

Latin. St Thomas Aquinas, another great synthesiser, drew
on his theories, as he did on those of the pagan Plotinus.
El-Ghazali, known to the Schoolmen of the West as Algazel,
became a figure central to the work of the universities of
Padua and Bologna, and later of other Italian centres of
learning. A few years on, Occam, whose ‘razor’ logicians
still like to flourish, was basing much of his anti-scholastic
views on el-Ghazali’s treatises. The ascetic struggling in the
arid depths of Syria with the problems of self-development
had become, posthumously and perhaps despite his wishes,
a world figure, and paradoxically one often beloved of the
very academics who by their training were perhaps among
the least able to understand him.
El-Ghazali’s was a liberating effect upon Islamic thought.
The increasingly narrow orthodoxies of the doctors of law
were challenged and, indeed, superseded by the refreshing
speculation he pioneered and endorsed. His attitude to
philosophy opened new approaches to religion, as well as to
other facets of human spiritual and psychological existence.
His belief that thought was natural and right was reinforced
by his conviction that human will was free and that human
beings had the God-given ability to choose between
alternatives. However, he went beyond both philosophy and
active choice in his certainty that the ultimate perceptions
take place in the condition of ecstasy, and that the reality then
perceived takes precedence over anything else mankind may
know. For this reason, both theology and philosophy had
to be finally subordinated to personal experience, through
which a person may achieve revelations more piercing and
direct than any truth arrived at by mere ratiocination. But
in the end, like all great spiritual teachers, he was not his
doctrines, but was in himself the truth he taught. What he
knew with the very centre of himself no words could describe
or pass to anyone else. In his Revival of Religious Sciences he

wrote, ‘The question of divine knowledge is so deep that it is
really known only to those who have it. A child has no real
knowledge of the attainments of an adult. An ordinary adult
cannot understand the attainments of a learned man. In the
same way, a learned man cannot understand the experiences
of enlightened saints or Sufis.’ One can only write what can
be written; for the rest, one either is it – or one is not.
Jalaluddin Rumi, whom Sufis call ‘The Master’ and
Professor Fatemi entitles ‘The Light of Sufism’, was born in
Balkh, now in Afghanistan, in 1207. His father was a famous
scholar and theologian, so that Rumi’s early training was
in the rigorously classical and logical modes. When he was
twelve his family left Balkh and, after some time spent in
travelling about the Middle East, finally settled in Konia,
anciently Iconium, in what is now Turkey. Rumi married, was
left a widower, married again; from both marriages he had
children. He early became a teacher, but soon he was himself
wandering through western Asia in the company of a Sufi
master named Burhan al-Din, his task now self-development.
When after some years he returned to Konia, he resumed
the teaching of theology, but added to it a new spiritual
resonance through the guidance he was able to give. As a
result, he quickly achieved a position of great religious – and
thus, in Islam, social and even secular – importance. When he
was at the height of this relatively conventional fame, he met
the Sufi teacher, Shamsuddin of Tabriz.
This strange and powerful man, who seemed to some no
more than a noisy, arrogant blusterer, at once dislocated
Rumi’s life. In the esoteric traditions of Asia, relying as they
do on the transmission of a mystic essence from a teacher to a
disciple, there occurs again and again that moment of recognition
in which Master and student understand – wordlessly,
at once – that they are destined to work together. Such a
moment evidently occurred between Rumi and Shamsuddin;

the revered theologian, seized with an intoxication that
expressed itself at times in solitary dance, placed himself
without reservation among the wandering Sufi’s pupils. As
his son wrote, ‘The great professor became a beginner in selfperfection.’
The orthodox criticised, bewailed the loss of their
teacher or decided simply that Rumi was mad. Shamsuddin
after fifteen months left Konia, but Rumi continued his
inward, intensely devoted progress. Perhaps then, perhaps a
little later, in 1248, Shamsuddin died, apparently in violence
caused by the jealousies and antagonisms Rumi’s ‘strange’
behaviour had provoked. Eventually, however, Rumi, who
was no longer to be deflected, reconciled the increasing pressures
of his inward search with the social demands of the
people of Konia, or, more accurately, reconciled the people of
Konia to the demands of his inward search, in part by guiding
them in their own.
To understand the role that Shamsuddin – internalised
by his pupil, his religious essence transferred – played
thenceforth in the life of Rumi, one must understand the
nature of the feeling that exists, in living mystical traditions,
between murshid and murid, guru and shishya, between
teacher and taught. The Master becomes a living metaphor
for the perfection of the Absolute. He seems for the disciple
at once the stepping-stone to divinity and, as a self-realised
man, divinity made flesh. At the same time there exists in
both the conviction that between them the transmission of a
quality, indefinable yet unmistakable, can take place, through
which the disciple will be permanently altered. When this
transmission has occurred, the disciple is in no doubt about
what he has gained, nor will the departure or death of the
Master diminish one iota of it: he has been flooded by a
perception of the Absolute so clear that almost nothing he
can do will make him lose it, especially since all he does is
done only in its light. In him, therefore, the fact of the teacher

and the fact of the divine merge into an inextricable whole,
fusing with his own essence to produce a new level of being.
Thus Rumi could write:
When I go into the mine he is the carnelian and
When I go into the sea he is the pearl.
When I am on the plains he is the garden rose; when
I come to the heavens he is the star...
My master and my sheikh, my pain and my remedy;
I declare these words openly, my Shams and my God.
I have reached truth because of you, O my soul of
These lines come from his Divani Shamsi Tabriz; he was
now in the condition that Professor Arasteh has described in
his Rumi the Persian. ‘He was all love, all joy, all happiness.
He had no grief, no anxiety. He was totally born, totally
Rumi now felt able to set up a school of devotees of his
own, and in it to guide others towards that state to which
the fact of Shams had guided him. It was now, too, that he
probably began to work on that six-volume compilation
of fables, poems, tales, examples and speculations, the
Mathnavi, through which, perhaps more than anywhere else
in his work, he attempted to induce in the reader something
of his own state of mind; as Idries Shah puts it, ‘a picture is
built up by multiple impact to infuse into the mind the Sufi
message’. In the ‘Mevlevi Order’ was later codified what had
at times been his own practice of dancing, developing the
steady whirling which is at one level a mechanical aid to the
induction of trance, but is at another (I quote Shah again)
‘designed to bring the Seeker into affinity with the mystical
current, in order to be transformed by it’.

But for Rumi trance was, as it must be for a Sufi, no more
than a stage in the process of self-development. Again and
again, in the Mathnavi, in his Fihi ma Fihi and elsewhere, he
refers to the condition beyond trance, beyond belief, beyond
mere creed or doctrine.
Cross and the churches, from end to end
I surveyed; He was not on the cross.
I went to the idol temple, to the ancient pagoda,
No trace was visible there.
I bent the reins of search to the Ka’ba,
He was not in the resort of old and young.
I gazed into my own heart;
There I saw Him, He was nowhere else.
And, as he stated explicitly in the Divani Shamsi Tabriz, ‘I
have put duality away... One I seek, One I know, One I see,
One I call.’ This monism Rumi experienced directly, and he
interpreted the experience as love. He is above all the poet
of transcendent love; he saw it clearly and never made it an
excuse for rhetoric, imprecise although exciting. He had very
definite ideas about the nature of the human being, and the
struggle needed to transcend the polarity between reason and
instinct in order to reach, once again, the state of peaceful
certainty beyond. In that final condition, an individual was
able to integrate instinct and reason with intuitive perception
and the love that would both keep him whole and permit him
direct involvement with every aspect of the cosmos. Love, in
other words, became at this level a medium for perceptions
otherwise impossible to human beings. It is this vision of
the person evolved that remains immediate and full of
meaning. As we struggle earnestly to understand ourselves in
a world where we seem, at precisely the same time and with
precisely the same dedication, to be building endless barriers

and creating endless pressures, Rumi’s insights and oblique
admonitions are more relevant than they have ever been.
Born into a Sufi family almost exactly a hundred years
after El-Ghazali, almost exactly forty years before Rumi, Ibn
el-Arabi, like them, displayed great gifts even in childhood.
Brought up in the heyday of Arabic Spain (paradoxically, one
of the most civilised societies in European history) he studied
in Lisbon, Seville and Cordoba. All his life he wrote poetry;
in it, he often returned to the theme of human love – deeply
felt and magnificently described – used as a metaphor for the
transcendent emotion that lies glittering at the core of all his
work. Yet ‘metaphor’ does inadequate justice to the reality
he evidently experienced at both levels; either reading, the
sensual and the mystical, is a true reading. He was, indeed,
frequently attacked for being no more than a writer of erotic
poetry who sought to cover his indulgence by claiming a
spiritual meaning for it. The fact is that among the various
levels of perception and feeling experienced by the developed
person some are not less real than others, nor does the last
stage cancel all those that have gone before. Each is true in its
own way. The error is to imagine any one of them the total
reality. The divine is the only total reality, and that includes
all aspects, all levels.
Thus for Ibn el-Arabi his sensual response to feminine
beauty was real, not imagined; yet, precisely because of its
reality, he saw that beauty as a metaphor for the world’s
beauty, the beauty of nature, just as he saw in the relation
between men and women a metaphor for that between
humanity and God. For if Genesis is true, then woman is
made in man’s image as man is in God’s; thus, as God stands,
in love and concern, to his creation, Nature, so man stands
to woman. The feeling is real in its own terms, yet only
becomes complete in the metaphysical dimension. Today we
may reject Genesis and thus the metaphor may lose some of

its particular force, but it is at our peril that we reject this
awareness of the multiplicity of the real.
Ibn el-Arabi made such ideas explicit in his prose treatises,
for he was a scholar more complete even than his doctorial
critics. His explanatory notes to his love poetry seem to
have satisfied the most puritanical and rigorously orthodox
theologians that he had nowhere deviated from the approved
path of righteousness. Thus his encyclopaedic survey of Sufi
ideas, Futuhat-al-Makkiyya and his dissertation on various
aspects of Sufism, Fusus-al-hikam, like his other books of
theory and speculation, passed to succeeding generations not
as the outpourings of a heedless poet, but as the considered
works of a scholar acknowledged to be among the greatest
of his time.
As Rumi and other Sufis have, Ibn el-Arabi emphasised
(for example in Chapter XXII of Fusus-al-hikam) that
beyond fana, the mystical annihilation of self, there exists
another state in which that experience is, as it were, stabilised,
made permanent. It was because of his awareness of this
ultimate condition that he was able to accept the structures
of orthodoxy. He realised that within every such structure,
perhaps almost snuffed out by its weight but certainly once
ablaze, there could be found the flame of mysticism. All
great teachers – Moses, Jesus, Mohammed and others – had
embodied that flame, and though human perversity might
distort faith in the divine, as in the case of self-punishing
ascetics, yet any true religion might be the mystic’s startingpoint.
It is no wonder that throughout his life doctrinaire
scholars and theologians, like men in narrow valleys which
they believe to be the world, condemned his breadth of
understanding as the dangerous deviations of a heretic.
A near contemporary of Rumi, and as widely known
wherever Persian poetry is remembered and recited, is Saadi
of Shiraz. Born in 1184, he like el-Ghazali was educated at the

Nizamiyya University in Baghdad, studying there under the
Sufi sage, Jilani. Thereafter he spent many years wandering,
in the prescribed poverty of the dervish, through the Middle
East, North Africa, Ethiopia and Asia Minor. It was typical
of his troubled period that at one point he was captured
by Crusaders, and had to be ransomed. The price paid for
this incomparable poet, employed while captive as a trenchdigger,
was ten dinars.
Saadi’s most famous works, his Gulistan and Bustan,
‘Rose Garden’ and ‘Orchard’, are rich mixtures of aphorisms,
proverbs, love lyrics, erotic stories, descriptions of great
rulers and, above all, pronouncements in prose and verse on
morality and ethics, on the right role of rulers and the proper
attitudes of their advisers, on tyranny and its consequences, on
human cruelty, human frailty and human potential. All this he
did in a style apparently straightforward, easily assimilable;
the uncluttered affection that informs his writings has made
them for seven centuries a source from which ordinary
people have drawn advice, information and enjoyment. Yet
in his lifetime the Mongols came crashing out of Central
Asia, dismembering Persia and bringing to an end the great
centuries of Baghdad’s cultural supremacy. Seen against the
circumstances of history, Saadi’s urbanity, his humanity and,
not least, his lightness of touch, seem superhuman.
Yet Saadi, too, for all his ease of manner, saw the truth
as complex and many-layered. In him, this often expressed
itself through paradox and contradiction. There is no facile
consistency in the surface of his works; those wishing to refute
him can often find the arguments they need elsewhere in his
own writings. As a result of this, and of his word-play and
wit, those who read or hear his works are constantly forced
to become aware of the very act of understanding, and thus
both of the works themselves and of their own responses.
One cannot surrender to passive delight for long before some

change of direction, some unexpected profundity, joke or
reversal jolts one into intellectual activity. What this suggests
is that the consistency in what Saadi wrote lies at another
level and perhaps in another place, not in the works but in
those who receive them. In their complexity they are, it seems,
primers for self-development, instruments for the dynamic
alteration of consciousness. He was a Sufi in his sense of the
universality of religion, in his humanity, in his understanding
of the links between flesh and spirit, but above all perhaps in
this, that he knew that the value of what is taught lies in the
minds of those whom it reaches.
The work of Hafiz, too, has its unsuspected levels, its
complexities. Born some hundred years after Rumi, in Shiraz,
he was during his early manhood installed in a school of his
own, where he taught theology and expounded his theories of
religion. He lost his father when a young child, and later both
his wife and son. His poetry appears in the main a celebration
of romantic love, modified by his awareness of himself as
too old for such emotion. From this it has been inferred that
the bulk of it was written when he was aged. Whether that
is so or not, he was so acutely aware of the value of love
that he detested those who, as it were, clouded its brightness:
the censorious, the hypocritical, the sanctimonious, the
pedantically orthodox. He believed in the liberty of the
intellect and of the senses; no wonder that there were those
who thought him both profligate and heretic.
He, too, in his works ran the gamut of modes and feelings,
for his poems were licentious, mystical, humorous, satirical or
epigrammatic by turns. At the centre of his writings, however,
lie his cool, affectionate humanity marked by a dislike for
fanaticism, for the trappings of power and wealth – and his
mystical certainties. Addressing a man of property who had
attempted to add to his secular riches the acclaim proper to
one returning from pilgrimage to Mecca, Hafiz wrote, ‘Boast

not rashly of thy fortune. Thou hast visited the Temple – and
I have seen the Lord of the Temple.’ This is the nub of the
matter, and the certainty which that conviction gave to Hafiz
sustained him in a world where, in the wake of the Mongol
assault, social and political structures were collapsing, religion
had been coarsened and civilisation weakened, apparently
forever. It is the certainty of the mystic, and Hafiz shared it
with all the great names of Sufism.
In that list there are many more, stretching from the
10th century ecstatic Hallaj, crucified by the orthodox,
and the founders of Sufism in the centuries before, by way
of philosophers and poets – the chemist Fariduddin Attar,
the polymath Omar Khayyam and many others – solitary
saints, men in humble occupations hiding the secrets of
their serenity, great leaders, heads of dervish orders, to the
adepts of today. Yet for each neophyte setting forth on this
difficult path, the only important person, eclipsing all the
great, will be his chosen Teacher. It is the Teacher he must
trust, the Teacher who must know the right sequence of his
development, through the Teacher that he will discover the
intellectual and emotional adjustments necessary to prepare
him for the knowledge to come.
At first the knowledge will be short-lived, entering the
student at will, and leaving even if bidden to stay. ‘I staggered
to my feet and looked about me and tried to remember what
had until that instant been crowded in my brain and it was
all gone, all the details, covered over by the present and my
humanity as a flash-flood will cover the pebbles lying in the
dry bottom of an ancient creek. It was all there, or at least
some of it was there, for I could sense it lying there beneath
the flash-flood of my humanity. And I wondered, vaguely, as
I stood there, if this burial of the matters transmitted by my
friend might not be for my own protection, if my mind, in a
protective reflex action, had covered it and blanked it out in

a fight for sanity.’ But in the end, the altered self emerges into
the sought-for state of readiness, and the ultimate certainty
responds: ‘It was all there again – all that I had known and
felt, all that I had tried to recapture since and could not find
again. All the glory and the wonder and some terror too,
for in understanding there must be a certain terror... There
were many universes and many sentient levels and at certain
time–space intervals they became apparent and each of them
was real, as real as the many geologic levels that a geologist
could count. Except that this was not a matter of counting;
it was seeing and sensing and knowing they were there. Not
knowing how, but filled with mystic faith, we... took the step
out into the infinite knowing and were there.’
The quotations come from no mystic’s reminiscences, but
from a science-fiction novel, Destiny Doll, by Clifford Simak.
Those who think this inappropriate have understood very
little of what has gone before.

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Objectivity from The Pleasantries of the Incredible Mulla Nasrudin

Objectivity from The Pleasantries of the Incredible Mulla Nasrudin

Objectivity from The Pleasantries of the Incredible Mulla Nasrudin

From Idries Shah's The Mulla Nasrudin Corpus

The appeal of Nasrudin is as universal and timeless as the truths he illustrates. His stories are read, enjoyed and shared by children, scientists, scholars and followers of philosophy the world over. Idries Shah assembled perhaps the largest collection of Nasrudin’s trials and tribulations from sources across North Africa, Turkey, the Middle East and Central Asia. Gradually, these are being absorbed into Western culture. Some are no longer identified as Nasrudin stories at all!

Today’s story is taken from one of Shah’s four collections of infectious Nasrudin stories. ‘The Sufis, who believe that deep intuition is the only real guide to knowledge, use these stories almost like exercises,’ wrote Shah. ‘But [they] concur… that everyone can do with the Nasrudin tales what people have done through the centuries – enjoy them.’

Our Impact

Books for Afghanistan

Books for Afghanistan

In March 2020, 3,000 copies of the Dari Persian translation of Speak First and Lose by Idries Shah were distributed to schools and libraries across Afghanistan through our partner Hoopoe Books. Another 5,000 copies are being printed.

UNESCO Collaboration

UNESCO Collaboration

Around 5,000 children between the ages of 12 and 18 participated in ISF-UNESCO’s first short story competition. The theme ‘Once Upon a Time In My Future…’ drew entries from as far afield as Chile, Iran and Mongolia.

Taking Sufi Literature ‘Home’

Taking Sufi Literature ‘Home’

ISF is making Idries Shah’s books available to readers in Asia and the Middle East, thereby ‘returning’ them to the societies that birthed much of the material he drew from. They are reaching refugees from Afghanistan and Iran – and now Turkish readers.

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Some of the organisations with which we collaborate and whose work is important in the fields of Literacy, Imagination, and the Humanities