The Sirdar Ikbal Ali Shah


by Professor L.F. Rushbrook Williams*

Sirdar Ikbal Ali Shah, the father of Idries Shah, belonged to a family of Muswi Saiyids directly descended from Ali Musa Raza, the eighth Imam, and thus from the Prophet Mohammed himself. For centuries, this family has provided scholars, soldiers, and statesmen-including kinsmen of the Sassanid dynasty of Iran—who have played a prominent part in the history of Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and India.[1]

The connection of this family with Britain began as recently —considered in the light of their long preceding history—as 1839, at the time of the First Afghan War, when the head of the house was a great landholder and Sufi Murshid in Afghanistan That intrepid and formidable Englishwoman, Lady Sale, who kept a detailed diary of the tragic events following the British attempt to set Shah Shuja on the Afghan throne, refers to him as “the Laird of Paghman.” He was known by his title of Nawab Saiyid Mohammed Jan-Fishan Khan. When the revolt against Shah Shuja began, Jan-Fishan Khan, as Lady Sale says:

has had his forts and property destroyed; his wives and children, he hopes, may have been saved, but as yet he only knows the fate of one young boy who was burned alive. He had one wife with him in Cabul (sic) when the insurrection broke out and urged her to fly to Pughman (sic) for safety; the old chief told me, her reply was worth a lakh of rupees, “I will not leave you; if you fall, we die together: and if you are victorious, we will rejoice together.”[2]

Paghman and Kohistan remained—and continue to this day -inhabited by local clansmen of the family. The Saiyid established himself on a great estate-some twenty-eight square miles in extent—at Sardhana, near Meerut, in Uttar Pradesh, India.[3]

The Great Nawab’s tomb towers over the Sardhana landscape of Kamra-i-Nawaban (“the Princes’ Abode”). It follows the domed pattern of the Sufi masters’ mausoleums, which are found everywhere in the Islamic world. Mis gravestone is made of white marble; on it is inscribed in graceful nastaliq script the verses in tribute to him written by the Nawab (Prince) Basharat Ali Khan, a famous poet, whose pen-name was Sidq. The chronogram embodied in the poem, to date it, is in the penultimate line:

Ikbal Ali Shah

Sidq-i-sukhan-sanj—Sidq, Weigher of Words:

The Stately Prince, exalted and full of virtue

By the perfume of whose presence Paghman swelled with pride:

He was of the children of Ali Musa Raza [the Eighth Imam].

He came to see India from Kabul

His footsteps turned Sardhana into the garden of Paradise.

When the desire for a return to Heaven took him

He left this abode of mortality, throwing away his outer garment.

For the date: “O Sidq-Weigher of Words!”

Say: Saiyid, Mohammed JAN-FISHAN Khan.


He was succeeded by his son, Nawab Saiyid Muhammad Ali Shah; he in turn by Nawab Saiyid Amjad Ali Shah, who was the grandfather of Saiyid Idries Shah. These descendants of a great family, although prominent in local affairs, took little part in political life They maintained great state and at the beginning of the present century, when through their generosity some financial difficulties beset them, the government paid their debts and managed the Sardhana lands for them until a loan was paid off.

Nawab Saiyid Amjad Ali Shah’s son, Sirdar Saiyid Ikbal Ali Shah (the father of our Saiyid Idries Shah) at quite an early age initiated what was in fact a new line for the family. For centuries, as we have seen, these descendants of the Prophet had been rulers, statesmen, and soldiers. Saiyid Ikbal Ali Shah was the first of them to become known in the West as a man of letters, as well as the first to travel to Britain to complete an education, which began in the famous Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College—now the University—at Aligarh. He went to Edinburgh for further studies; and from that time onward, although he never became “Anglicized” and never lost in any way his link with his own great cultural heritage, he formed a deep attachment to the United Kingdom where he made his home, so far as so great a traveler could be said to have a home at all, for many years. This attachment has gone even deeper in the case of his son, Saiyid Idries, who always returns to England, even after traveling,’as did his father, in many parts of the world.

Sirdar (as he was generally known) Ikbal Ali Shah was a remarkable man, I delighted in his friendship for more than half a century. I first came to know him at the time of the “Kaiser’s War,” when I myself had only been in India for a few years. As a student of Muslim history—I held a professorship at Allahabad until I was taken into the Government of India—I appreciated Sirdar Ikbal Ali Shah’s long descent; and I expected to find, when I first met him, an aristocrat of conservative, almost reactionary views, wedded to a conviction that the world owed him a living because of his distinguished ancestry. Not a bit of it; I found him a man of most enlightened outlook, of vast reading, and of interests, if anything, wider than my own. Although the family wealth was considerable by any standards, he seemed determined to make his own way in the world, and to take advantage of his privileges of birth only for the purpose of gaining access to persons and places that, because of these privileges, became accessible to him. He had already begun to present a considerable puzzle to the local British officials. That the son of a wealthy United Provinces dignitary of ancient family should choose to go to Europe to undertake higher studies was strange enough; but odder still, m their eyes, was his deep interest in things of the mind and the spirit, which made the comfortable life on the Sardhana estate, of which he was the Nawab’s only son and heir, too narrow and limited to satisfy him. Even those British officials who, like myself, were cognizant of his noble ancestry were perplexed by him, if perhaps for a different reason. Why should a Saiyid, of the true Fatimite line, born, as it were, to be a leader of Islam, display this strange interest in the Sufi philosophy? It seemed to us almost as though a cardinal archbishop, in the days of the Holy Roman Empire, were too busy himself with the doctrines and practices of the Albigensian heretics.

As a student of Indian history, I knew something of the Sufis in India. Their name, it was said, derived from their habit of wearing garments of white, undyed wool. Their origin, it was believed, stemmed from Iran, where their zeal for the tics of common humanity and their freedom from doctrinal rigidity made them beloved by the humble folk among whom they worked. They must have been among the earliest students of comparative religion, for they examined Buddhism and Christianity; they studied the philosophies of Greece and India. Against this background, they reexamined the faith of Islam, with the object of extracting, as it were, the timeless and essential elements of the Prophet’s message to mankind, as recorded in the Koran and the Traditions. Like the Franciscan and Dominican Friars in thirteenth century Europe, they set great store on poverty and detachment from the shackles of material possessions; but unlike the mendicant orders, they had no uniformity of doctrine. Their purpose was to achieve nearness to God, and to pass on to others the message of the everlasting mercy and compassion that marked His dealings with mankind. Their constant endeavor was to develop the possibilities of “nearness” to Him wherever and whenever they could. They experimented with many varieties of religious experience: among these the ritual repetition of the attributes of God until the worshiper’s sense of subjective personality vanished; and the use of calculated music and dancing as aids to the sense of exaltation that facilitated an approach to the threshold of Truth. Inevitably, they came to be regarded as miracle-workers, possessed of magic powers, although many of their practices, in our own times, appear to us to conform with the results of our modern studies in such fields as education and the training of the mind.

As propagandists for Islam as they interpreted it, they were superb; in India they won many more converts by love and understanding than were ever turned to the creed of the Prophet by indoctrination. They destroyed no temples; they slew no infidels. They welcomed converts as friends and equals; they accepted intermarriage with them. As their numbers increased, so did particular leaders—many of them ranked as true saints by both Muslims and Hindus—emerge. Their followers began to constitute themselves into something like the separate orders of the Christian Church, some pursuing particular practices that their leader had found locally effective: but all characterized by the single basic attitude of seeking God, honoring true learning, and teaching—by methods that our modern investigations are beginning to rediscover and approve-how knowledge should be applied to the needs of mankind. Among the Sufi orders, those which have played the greatest part in the history of India were the Chishtis, the Qadiris, the Suhrawardis, and the Naqshbandis. All have given to the country saints to whose tombs the multitude still flocks-men like Moinuddin Chishti of Ajmer, Nizamuddin Auliya of Delhi, Mian Mir of Lahore, and Shaikh Salim Chisti, who was the great Mughal Akbar’s spiritual counselor. Such saints exercised great influence during their lives; after their deaths, poor Muslims who could not perform the hajj to Mecca made pilgrimage to their shrines instead. That distinguished historian of the Sikhs, Khushwant Singh, who is among the most prominent of contemporary Indian men of letters, has testified to the formative influence of the Sufis in the foundation of the Sikh religion. The two faiths have, indeed, a good deal in common; Mian Mir of the Qadiri Order, who was a close friend of the fifth of the Sikh Gurus, Arjun Singh, laid the foundation of the Golden Temple at Amritsar, greatest and most famous of all the Sikh shrines.

A student of Indian history, like myself, could not avoid having some knowledge of the Sufis and of their work in India; but what I had failed to realize, until Sirdar Ikbal Ali Shah explained the point to me, was that their influence was strong in almost every country in the Middle East, Africa, South and Central Asia. He told me that his ambition was to devote his life to a study of these widely dispersed communities, and of the message that they inculcated everywhere they were to be found. He was convinced, he said, that this message might form a bridge between the Western and the Eastern ways of thinking; and that the methods that they were using to convey it-methods well tested by centuries of successful practice-would certainly be of interest, and might be of value, to the Western world in the quest for the best ways of promoting independent thought and the reexamination of accepted values to test their suitability to the needs of modern social organization. These ideas, which Sirdar Ikbal Ali Shah expounded, were quite new to me at the time, but I saw how fruitful they might be, and I did what I could to encourage him in his pursuit of them.

Sirdar Ikbal and his son, both in writing and in other ways, were ultimately to show how Sufi thought and action, educational and adaptive as they are, could be of service to contemporary thinking. As a historian, it was of particular interest to me that they discovered, and utilized in no uncertain manner, a key to those perplexities of Sufi history that have indeed rendered so much previous research on the subject largely unfruitful. This key, chiefly shaped by symbolism, levels of understanding, and adaptation, explains why so many people at different places and times, came to form such varying impressions of the Sufis and their origins and intentions. The Sufis are, in fact, themselves the living parable of “The Elephant in the Dark,”[4] half-understood by simple folk, least understood by many eager specialists, even in the East—and that even today. But the very coherence of the doctrine expounded by the Shahs establishes its authenticity. For the first time, it explains Sufism without forcing meanings, without “proof by selected instances.”

Sirdar Ikbal Ali Shah was quite the most brilliant of the Asian scholars with whom I worked. He was a master of Urdu, Persian, and Arabic. His reading was wide as well as profound. He had a beautiful English style and enormous facility of expression. He was a remarkably rapid writer, and could turn in his calligraphic “copy” long before the deadline was ever reached.[5] We worked together long enough to lay the foundations of a friendship that endured right up to his death in a motor accident in Tangier in 1969.[6]

By the time that his son Idries Shah was born in 1924, the Sirdar had begun to travel widely. He had reestablished the family links with Afghanistan, where his mastery of Pushtu and Persian, his status as a Saiyid, and his diplomatic gifts made him a most honored visitor. Very sensibly, the Afghan authorities—who were at that time, and indeed up to the recently established reforms in the administration, all members of the royal family-sought his advice and help quite frequently, not only in Kabul itself but also in their embassy in London, to which’ the Sirdar for long remained attached in various capacities. This did not prevent him from traveling widely through the Middle East, where he became the close and trusted friend of his Hashimite kinsmen, the Sharif of Mecca, King Abdullah of Jordan, the Emir Abdulillah of Iraq, and other prominent statesmen. Purely because of his descent and personality—I can think of no other reasons-he seemed equally trusted by leaders of orthodoxy like the Rector of Azhar University in Cairo and by reformers like Kemal Ataturk.[7]

In addition to his other qualities, Sirdar Ikbal Ali Shah was a born writer with an almost dangerous facility with his pen in English, Arabic, Persian, and Urdu. I say “almost dangerous” because his output was so great, the sphere of his interests was so wide, and his access to persons and places quite inaccessible to other people so remarkable that a certain skepticism grew up, particularly in Britain, about whether he had really been everywhere he claimed to have been. This attitude annoyed me very much, for the Sirdar was the soul of honor, and it would have been beneath his dignity, as well as inconsistent with the great traditions of his house, to put forward any statement that was not strictly in accordance with the facts. I did my best to confute his critics, and I think that to some extent at least, I succeeded. Moreover I knew well, even if other people did not, that his excellent travel books,[8] and his biographies of figures like Kemal Ataturk and the late Aga Khan[9] were—in spite of the fact that he wrote about twenty books in English in the course of his lifetime -merely by-products of his determination to study the contemporary manifestations of Sufism and to seek in the doctrines and practices of the various Sufi communities the link between Eastern and Western thought of which, he was convinced, the world stood in such need. He gradually became recognized as the great living authority on Sufi doctrine and the instructional methods by which this doctrine could be applied to the requirements of modern social organization. Further, he employed his mastery of Arabic and Persian to study and translate the writings of the great exponents of Sufi philosophy in the past, thus bringing to the notice of the Western world hitherto ignored treasures of thought and practice.[10] He lectured in many of the universities of the Middle East and South Asia as well as of the West, and even in Latin America. For some time he headed a research group in England to which students of Sufism flocked; he held a professorship (covering West Asia) in the Council for Cultural Relations set up by independent India in Delhi, and up to the very day of his death he was active in intercultural work in North Africa.

There can be little doubt that his profound knowledge of the teachings and methods of Sufism, his deep study of the Sufi masters, and his interest in the great mass of proverbial wisdom associated with such figures—real or legendary—as Mulla Nasred-din, Mullah Do-Piyaza, and the anonymous heroes of Dervish tradition opened up to his son, Saiyid Idries Shah, a well-nigh untapped source—so far as the English-speaking world is concerned —of Sufi wit, humor, and acute penetration beneath the surface appearance of conventional human intercourse.

From the time when Saiyid Idries Shah was old enough to travel with his father, he accompanied him on many of his journeys, and at quite an early age was brought into contact with many distinguished personalities to whom the high birth and long lineage of the two Saiyids were the principal—and in some cases the only—passports to real confidence and intimacy. Such an upbringing presented to a young man of marked intelligence, such as Idries Shah soon proved himself to possess, many opportunities to acquire a truly international outlook, a broad vision, and an acquaintance with people and places that any professional diplomat of more advanced age and longer experience might well envy. But a career of diplomacy did not attract Idries Shah; he had witnessed some of the frustrations and disappointments that from time to time beset Sirdar Ikbal Ali Shah in this field of activity, and he decided that life in an embassy was not for him. And just as Sirdar Ikbal Ali Shah, as I have already related, had struck out for himself in a career that was something new in the long history of his house, so has his son, Saiyid Idries, continued and enlarged the investigations originally commenced by his father. I first came into contact with the son when Saiyid Idries Shah was quite young, but I remember being impressed by the attention that he paid to the talks between his father and myself, which covered a wide ground in world affairs affecting the ‘Middle East and South and Southeast Asia. Even then, he was plainly a deeply reflective youth; but he had, I thought, a very practical streak that might serve him well in his later career. Time has certainly shown that this impression was justified.

It may well be, I think, that Idries Shah early realized the extent to which his father had suffered from a certain otherworldliness. Sirdar Ikbal Ali Shah was a most lovable man; but he did not understand business affairs very well. He never derived much profit from his excellent books; ‘and he scorned to utilize for personal advantage his innumerable intimate contacts with men in high position. The Sufi philosophy is nothing if not highly practical; yet it is practical in a particular way—spiritually and intellectually rather than economically and financially; and the Sirdar retained in his way of life the ancient Sufi tradition of brushing aside the ties of worldly possessions. From time to time, this trait caused considerable complications: as when he suddenly discovered that because he had not taken the precaution of acquiring British domicile, the tightening-up of residence regulations obliged him to leave the study center for Sufism that he had made significant in England and find a new home in Morocco. This uprooting was quite serious for a man of his age; it could have been avoided if the proper precautions had been taken. Unluckily I heard about it too late to be of any help—which again was characteristic of Sirdar Ikbal Ali Shah, who hated to inflict his personal difficulties upon his friends. Could this episode have inspired Saiyid Idries to include in The Dermis Probe [11]the instructive fable of the ichthyologist who, devoting his life to the study of goldfish, discovered too late that he had broken the law for luck of the necessary certificates under the Cruelty to Animals Regulations?

Idries Shah has never fallen into this kind of trap. He combines shrewdness and business acumen with the inquiring mind and deep philosophical insight that distinguished his father. Moreover, whereas Sirdar Ikbal Ali Shah, who pioneered the effective study of Sufi philosophy in the West, found that the time was not quite ripe for his message to be appreciated at its true value, Idries Shah has discovered that, in this age of spiritual uncertainty and a dawning reaction against the prevalent materialism, the outlook and practices of Sufism are meeting exactly the needs that so many people are now experiencing. I am reminded of the Persian saying, quoted in Saiyid Idries Shah’s The Pleasantries of The Incredible Mulla Nasrudin: “If the Father cannot, the Son may bring it to its conclusion.”[12]


[1] Foster, W., “The Family of Hashim,” in Contemporary Review (May 1960), deals with the special distinction of this (Paghman-Sardhana) branch of the family.

[2] Lady Sale, The First Afghan War, ed. Patrick Macrory (London, 1969), p. 61.

[3] C. E. Buckland, C.I.E., Dictionary of Indian Biography (London, 1906), p. 374, cols. 1 and 2.

[4] (dries Shah, Tales of the Dervishes (London: Jonathan Cape, 1967; New York; Dutton Paperbacks, 1970), pp. 25 ff quote this famous story.

[5] See The Sirdar Ikbal Ali Shah, The Spirit of the East (London, 1939); The Oriental Caravan (London, 1933).

[6] Obituary, The Times (London), November 8, 1969.

[7] The Sirdar Ikbal Ali Shah, Kemal—Maker of Modern Turkey (London, 1934); and also his The Controlling Minds of Asia (London, 1937).

[8] Such as Eastward to Persia (London: Wright & Brown, 1930), Westward to Mecca (London: Witherby, 1928), The Golden East (London: John Long, 1931), Arabia (London: A. & C. Black, 1931).

[9] The Prince Aga Khan (London, 1933).

[10] See The Sirdar Ikbal Ali Shah, Islamic Sufism (London, 1933).

[11] Idries Shah, The Dennis Probe (London: Jonathan Cape, 1970; New York: Dutton Paperbacks, 1971), p. 9.

[12] London: Jonathan Cape, 1968, p. 9. Nasrudin tales are also found in The Sufis (1964); The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin (1966), Caravan of Dreams (1968), and The Subtleties of the Inimitable Mulla Nasrudin (1973).


* Professor L.F. Rushbrook Williams C.B.E., M.A., B.LITT. F.R.S.A., was a Quondam Fellow of All Souls’ College Oxford, Eastern Services Director of the B.B.C. and a Professor of Modern Indian History at Allahabad University.