What is Sufism?

Elephant and men

Idries Shah often approached the question What is Sufism? by answering with Jalaludin Rumi’s story, the Elephant in the Dark, represented above

'To be a Sufi is to detach from fixed
ideas and from preconceptions; and
not to try to avoid what is your lot.'

Abu-Said, son of Abi-Khair

'Sufism is truth without form.'

Ibn el-Jalali

‘Idries Shah did some revolutionary things’ by Saira Shah

A classical Persian dictionary, said to have been compiled by a Sufi, defined the undefinable with an elegant verse:

Sufi chist? Sufi, sufist.
What is a Sufi? A Sufi is a Sufi.

Non-Sufis, struggling for a definition of what a Sufi is or what is Sufism exactly, have described it variously as an ecstatic mystical cult, a way of looking at and relating to the world, a system of thought, a method of human development…but there is an uneasy sense that it is more than all of these.

My father, Idries Shah, often approached the question ‘what is Sufism?’ by answering with a traditional story by possibly the most famous Sufi, the thirteenth century mystic Jalaludin Rumi:

A group of blind men made their way into a tent in which there is an elephant, an animal which none of them had ever encountered before.
Each person took hold of some part of the beast.
The one who had felt the ear, said: ‘an elephant is a large flat thing like a rug.’
The one who had felt the trunk said: ‘It is like a hollow pipe.’
The one who had felt its feet and legs said: ‘It is like a pillar.’
Each had felt just one part - but each of them thought that he had perceived the entire animal.

He who tastes knows

Sufis say that we are being constantly bombarded by the ‘spiritual impulse’, the ‘source of being’ – that without this permeating us, we would simply not exist. It is an influence on all our lives, part of the fabric of existence, and it may be recognized by everybody at times as ‘something other’.

Sufism is concerned with the attunement of the individual to perceive this impulse.

To hear this subtle whisper, they say, we need to still the babble of what Sufis term our secondary selves, the bundle of conditioned impulses and instilled beliefs that we think of as our personalities, but are very far from being so.

According to Shah: ‘Sufism has two main technical objectives 1) to show the man himself as he really is; and 2) to help him develop his real, inner self, his permanent part.’ (Thinkers of the East)

Idries Shah sketchIn his writing about Sufism, Idries Shah did some revolutionary things. Critically, and almost alone, he said that it was possible to divorce the essence of Sufi philosophy from what he insisted were secondary accretions of Islamic culture and religion. Moreover, he said, in making this material available to the West, you not only could do this, you must do it. This is because, he believed, you can only absorb materials that are designed for your own time and place. Sufism as an essence may be ‘truth without form’ but, in order to penetrate into the human mind, it must be delivered in a package shaped to fit the receiving culture.

Sufism, he said, has existed over the millennia within a number of hosts. It originally resided within all religions and great philosophical systems. But it is so delicate and indefinable that it invariably becomes fossilised – mere mimetic ritual. Its worn out accretions litter the world: the whirling dervishes of Turkey, traditionalist Sufi schools, and so on. This is the point when somebody who has made the Sufi journey must excavate it and present it to a new generation. In a secular age, some aspects of Sufism may slot better into psychology than religion.

Shah’s insistence that ‘he who tastes knows’, and that therefore Sufism may only really be studied from within, earned him the enmity of many.

His approach also brought him followers yet these over-excited devotees appeared not to have read his warnings that people often claim they want spiritual learning when they really only want emotional stimulus, attention or reassurance.

He argued that most human beings, while capable of the most sublime capacities, choose to live on a plane far below their potential. Chained by the commanding self – a mixture of laziness, greed, fear and prejudice – they are driven on, harnessed and shackled by their own lower nature, fleeing from truth, from the exaltation and beauty that should be theirs.

Yet, his was no gloom-ridden moralising. He held an optimistic message that it is possible for humans to develop, to reach our destiny. He turned morality on its head; vices, he argued, are not morally loaded, but are veils that conceal our potential. Virtues are not remote wonders to be aspired to, but practical prescriptions for human progress.

The virtues he emphasised were: generosity, humour, kindness, clear-thinking and common sense, to name but a few. While insisting that the human tendency to emote, to feel special, to yearn for ritual or hierarchy has nothing to do with Sufism, he did not demand an obsessive denial of any of these things. They are necessary for the smooth running of society, and anybody wishing to approach Sufism should get them elsewhere.

Shah spent much of his time trying to help people ‘learn how to learn’: how to put away the part of themselves that prevents them from learning. For instance, he pointed out that most approaches to spirituality are actually disguised consumerism, like the man who wrote to the mail order fitness programme: ‘I’ve done the exercises, now send me the muscles!’

An Extract from The Sufis by Idries Shah, addressing the question, What is Sufism?

The Islanders. Sufi illustrative calligraphy, in the hand of ‘Mohamed son of Shafiq, 1291’, of the Mevlevi (‘Dancing’) Dervishes.

A Sufi, the Sufis, cannot be defined by any single set of words or ideas.  Rumi, one of the greatest mystical masters, tells us in a famous passage that the Sufi is:

Drunk without wine; sated without food; distraught; foodless and sleepless; a king beneath a humble cloak; a treasure within a ruin; not of air and earth; not of fire and water; a sea without bounds. He has a hundred moons and skies and suns. He is wise through universal truth – not a scholar from a book.

Is he a man of religion? No, he is far, far more: ‘He is beyond atheism and faith alike – what are merit and sin to him? He is hidden – seek him!’

read more


The Sufi, as we are told in these most famous words from the thirteenth-century Diwan of Shams of Tabriz, is hidden; hidden more deeply than the practitioner of any secret school. Yet individual Sufis are known in their thousands, throughout the East. Settlements of Sufis are found in the lands of the Arabs, the Turks, the Persians, Afghans, Indians, Malays.

The more the dogged searchers of the Western world have tried to dig out the secrets of the Sufi, the more hopelessly complex the task has seemed to be. Their work thus litters the fields of mysticism, Arabism, Orientalism, history, philosophy and even general literature. ‘The secret,’ in the Sufi phrase, ‘protects itself. It is found only in the spirit and the practice of the Work.’

No investigation into the reality of Sufism can be made entirely from the outside, because Sufism includes participation, training and experience.

In ordinary life, certain forms of understanding become possible because of experience. The human mind is what it is partly because of the impacts to which it has been exposed, and its ability to use those impacts. The interaction between impact and mind determines the quality of the personality. In Sufism this normal physical and mental process is engaged in consciously. The result is felt to be more efficient; and ‘wisdom’, instead of being a matter of time, age and accident, is regarded as inevitable. Sufis liken this process to the analogy between a savage who eats everything and a discriminating man who eats what is good for him as well as tasty.

Metaphysically-minded people, and especially those who feel that they are comfortable in the domain of mysticism or ‘inner perception’, have no greater start on the generality of humanity where the acceptance of Sufism is concerned. Their subjectivity, especially where it is linked with a strong sense of personal uniqueness ‘caught’ from other people, can in fact be a serious disability.

Anyone who says, ‘It is all so indescribable, but I just feel what you mean,’ is unlikely to be able to profit by Sufism. For Sufis are working, are carrying out an effort to awaken a certain field of consciousness by means of an approach which is specialized, not fortuitous. Sufism does not trade in airy-fairiness, mutual admiration, or lukewarm generalities. When the ‘bite’ disappears, so, too, does the Sufic element from a situation.

Sufism is not directed to a section of the community – for no such section exists – but to a certain faculty within individuals. Where this faculty is not activated, there is no Sufism. It contains ‘hard’ as well as ‘soft’ realities, discord as well as harmony, the sharp brightness of awakening as well as the gentle dark of a lulling to sleep.

There are imitation Sufis, who try to benefit from the prestige which attaches to the name. Some of them have written books, which only add to a general perplexity among outsiders.

Much of the Sufic spirit may be transmitted in writing. However, if one accepts the fact that Sufism has to be experienced, it does not depend upon the impact only of artistic forms, but of life upon life.

Sufism, in one definition, is human life. It is axiomatic that the attempt to become a Sufi through a desire for personal power will not succeed. Only the search for truth is valid, the desire for wisdom the motive. The method is assimilation, not study…

The Sufic way of thinking is particularly appropriate in a world of mass communication, when every effort is directed toward making people believe that they want or need certain things; that they should believe certain things; that they should as a consequence do certain things that their manipulators want them to do.

The Sufis often start from a non-religious viewpoint. The answer, they say, is within the mind of mankind. It has to be liberated, so that by self-knowledge the intuition becomes the guide to human fulfilment. The other way, the way of training, suppresses and stills the intuition. Humanity is turned into a conditioned animal by non-Sufi systems, while being told that it is free and creative, has a choice of thought and action.

The Sufi is an individual who believes that by practising alternate detachment and identification with life, he becomes free. He is a mystic because he believes that he can become attuned to the purpose of all life. He is a practical man because he believes that this process must take place within normal society. And he must serve humanity because he is a part of it.

The Sufi life can be lived at any time, in any place. It does not require withdrawal from the world, or organized movements, or dogma. It is coterminous with the experience of humanity. It cannot, therefore, accurately be termed an Eastern system. It has profoundly influenced both the East and the very bases of the Western civilization in which many of us live – the mixture of Christian, Jewish, Moslem and Near Eastern or Mediterranean heritage commonly called ‘Western’.

Mankind, according to the Sufis, is infinitely perfectible. The perfection comes about through attunement with the whole of existence. Physical and spiritual life meet, but only when there is a complete balance between them. Systems which teach withdrawal from the world are regarded as unbalanced.

Abridged from The Sufis by Idries Shah, with permission of The Estate of Idries Shah
Copyright © The Estate of Idries Shah

Doris Lessing - answers What is Sufism

Doris Lessing, who regarded Idries Shah as her ‘good friend and teacher’

In the World, Not Of It

Sufism believes itself to be the substance of that current which can develop man to a higher stage in his evolution.  Sufis claim that Sufism, in its reality, not necessarily under the name, is continuously in operation in every culture.  But the inability to believe in the combination of the mystic and the practical is not only of our time.

During well over 1,000 years of connected literary and psychological tradition, embracing Spain, North Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East, Sufis have almost invariably clashed with narrow thinkers.

Some past patterns are unfamiliar to us; others can still be instructive, for in one form or another they repeat themselves.

Hallaj was dismembered in Baghdad, AD 922, for blasphemy. The evidence against him included the dread indictment that he was the grandson of a Zoroastrian, and that he was ‘ignorant of the Koran and its ancillary sciences of jurisprudence, traditions, etc. and of poetry and Arabic philology’. Searches of the houses of some of his followers showed that they actually possessed books inscribed in gold on Chinese paper. In case you didn’t know it, this was taken to suggest that the writings must be heretical, since Manichees used gold ink and Chinese paper...[1] Suhrawardi was killed in 1191, the charge including ‘atheism, heresy and believing in ancient philosophers’.

Ibn El Arabi of Spain was hauled before an inquisition of scholars in the 12th century, for immodesty in pretending that love-poetry could be spiritual, when it was pornographic.

Jalal ad-Din Rumi (1207-1273)
Jalal ad-Din Rumi (1207-1273)

Jalaluddin Rumi was accused of publishing trivial folktales in the guise of spiritual writings.

There were sometimes difficulties in attacking the Sufis, once they had established a name for literature, or could not be shown to be vicious. One such case is the frame-up of Nasimi. Unable to fault Nasimi in argument, certain scholars sent him a pair of shoes as a gift, from another country. Into the sole they had sewn a chapter from the Koran. Then they sent word to the Governor of Aleppo that Nasimi was defiling the Koran. The Governor had his shoe slit open. On the production of the paper Nasimi made no answer to the charge, knowing that he was going to be killed. He was flayed alive, reciting verses.

Sufis Are Known to Provoke

Most of these Sufis were literary men, and all were marked by their inability to accept the dogmas of their current establishments. Once safely dead, they could be unofficially canonised; but during their lifetimes many suffered grievously.

But perhaps this treatment was not surprising: people persecute or ignore what they do not understand. And there was something particularly provoking about the Sufis. What, for instance, could a medieval theologian make of a man who called himself a mystic, was interested in man’s evolution to a higher level, was associated with scientific work?

It is against this sort of historical background that it can be useful to view Sufi literature, which exists on many levels, from simple entertainment to truths that ‘lie under the poet’s tongue’. Codes and the cryptic had their practical, as well as their spiritual, uses.

Sufism is not contemptuous of the world

The career of Idries Shah, who is the main current exponent of Sufi literature and teaching, has in the past few years shown a resemblance to some of the classical Sufis. The same signs and symptoms of opposition have been seen; but there has also been support, and from the highest levels.

The need for this type of active support can be encapsulated in a tale from the Mulla Nasrudin corpus:

Nasrudin found a falcon sitting on his windowsill. He had never seen a bird of this kind before. ‘You poor thing,’ he said, ‘how were you ever allowed to get into such a state?’ He clipped the falcon’s talons, cut its beak straight, and trimmed its feathers. ‘Now you look more like a bird,’ said Nasrudin.

There is also the problem that we are used to thinking of Eastern philosophies and their representatives through our Indian spectacles.

‘Gurus’ are teachers, are respected by the religious and scholarly establishments, are interviewed plentifully by journalists fascinated by their bizarre and obviously holy practices, are considered the more authentic the more they claim the things of this world are of no account.

But Sufism does not resemble in any way what it considers to be a degeneration of a real tradition, and says that you cannot approach Sufism until you are able to think that a person quite ordinary in appearance and in life can experience higher states of mind. Sufism is not contemptuous of the world. ‘Be in the world, but not of it’, is the aim.

Right then, what is Sufism?

The first of Idries Shah’s books, The Sufis, was accepted for review by the conventional literary establishment for the most part because of pressure from poets and other literary people; it was overlooked by academics in the field.

This is a small example of the multi-sidedness of every Sufi activity and artefact. ‘We are economical in our functioning,’ say the Sufis. ‘If you like, even parsimonious: everything we say, each thing we do, has many different functions and results.’ A newer book, The Magic Monastery, [2] continues a theme. People who may ask: ‘Right then, what is Sufism?’ will find Sufism’s ‘taste’ here. But it is also a textbook for students, if the word textbook is an appropriate word for activity which is not like anything that we have been taught to regard as study.

Sufism is a study which is not scholastic. Its materials are taken from almost every form of human experience. Its books and pens are in the environment and resemble nothing that the scholastic or the enthusiast even dream about.

Jan Fishan
Jan Fishan Khan

As, for instance, this: a famous 19th century Sufi Teacher, Jan Fishan Khan, of Afghanistan, heard that a certain scholar was viciously attacking a neighbour. He invited both men to a feast, and, having asked the neighbour to react to nothing that might happen, when the feast was at its height he began to berate him as the scholar had done for iniquities and shortcomings of all sorts. The man kept silent, until the scholar cried, ‘Please stop. I saw my own behaviour in you, and I cannot bear the sight.’

Jan Fishan Khan said: ‘In being here tonight we all took a chance. You that our friend here would not sit patiently but would attack you, I that you might be further inflamed by my vituperation instead of being shamed by it, and he that he might start to believe that I was really against him. Now we have solved the problem. The risk remains that the account of this interchange, passed from mouth to ear by those who do not know what we are doing, will represent our friend as weak, you as easily influenced, and me as easily angered.’

Make yourself a pair of shoes

Such stuff is designed for, if you like, self-improvement; at least for self-observation. You don’t have to be a formal student to make use of it. Nasrudin again: ‘You have leather? You have thread and nails and dye and tools? Then why don’t you make yourself a pair of shoes?’

A difficulty is that some people expect this material to be more sensational than it is; a Sufi would reply that our palates have been blunted; that we do not give gentle impacts a chance to operate; that people can put themselves at a remove from the Sufi operation by calling it ‘banal’.

The necessity for a social or emotional ingredient in a teaching situation is denied by the Sufis, in sharp contradiction of other persuasions, whose advocates invariably, in theory or in reality, strive to include as many subjective and community ingredients as possible in ‘teaching’ contracts. An astonishing parallel to the Sufi insistence on the relatively greater power of subtle communication to affect man, is found in scientific work which shows that all living things, including man, are ‘incredibly sensitive’ to waves of extraordinarily weak energy – when more robust influences are excluded.

Finally a piece from The Magic Monastery which illustrates the first approach of many people to what is Sufism:

There is a story about a man who went to a dictionary-compiler and asked him why he was interested in money. The lexicographer was surprised and said: ‘Wherever did you get that idea?’ ‘From your own writings,’ said the visitor. ‘But I have only written that one dictionary,’ said the author. ‘I know, and that is the book which I have read,’ said the other man. ‘But the book contains a hundred thousand words! And out of those I don’t suppose that more than twenty or thirty are about money.’ ‘What are you talking about all the other words for,’ said the visitor, ‘when I was asking you about the words for money?’

Condensed from The World of the Sufi. Idries Shah addresses the question, What is Sufism?, in the Introduction.

[1] E. G. Browne, Literary History of Persia (1964).
[2] Idries Shah, The Magic Monastery, Jonathan Cape, London; ISF Publishing,
London, 2017.

Doris Lessing, novelist and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, addresses the question What is Sufism? in this essay

The Mulla Nasrudin Corpus