Traditional Psychology

Idries Shah believed that Sufi ideas are the common property of all human beings. They have survived throughout history by being adapted to fit in with the general preoccupations of the cultures in which they were disseminated. For instance, in the eleventh to thirteenth centuries, they were considered a branch of religious philosophy. In the West of today, they may be better understood in psychological terms. He claimed that the corpus of Sufi stories taken as a whole constitutes an entire system of traditional, practical psychology. The Introduction to his seminal 1978 book Learning How to Learn, in which he explains this concept further, is reproduced below.

Traditional Psychology

Learning How to Learn by Idries Shah

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 culture-bound 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 could develop.

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 understand it.

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 to them.

Traditional Psychology - thinking head

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 cross- disciplinary 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 eating-places? I suggest that you put on it “RESTAURANT: FINEST FOOD”.’

When the sign was painted and put up, another enquirer asked: ‘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.

Traditional Psychology - joined head

Presently a further curious member of the public wanted to know: ‘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 food here.’

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.

From Learning How to Learn by Idries Shah, with permission of The Estate of Idries Shah.

Copyright © The Estate of Idries Shah.