The original review of Idries Shah’s The Sufis, written by Nobel Prize winning author Doris Lessing¹.
By Doris Lessing
Citizens of a certain town, mad with curiosity, sneaked a preview of a beast strange to them, an elephant. For safety’s sake it was kept in the dark, and they had to rely on their sense of touch. One, finding its trunk, said it was a hosepipe. Another, that it was a fan: he had touched its ear. A third said it was a kind of pillar, while a fourth reported it must be a living throne. Each was sure he was right; yet none had formed a complete picture; and of the part he had felt, could only talk in terms of things he knew.
This, a Sufi story, is used by Idries Shah to illustrate his thesis that Sufism has been partially understood by scholars and the religious. ‘According to one Persian scholar, Sufism is a Christian aberration. A professor at Oxford thinks that it is influenced by the Hindu Vedanta. An Arab-American professor speaks of it as a reaction against the intellectualism in Islam. A professor of Semitic literature claims traces of Central Asian shamanism. Two very great English orientalists put their money on a strong Neoplatonic influence. . . .’ And so on, to the profit of the scholars in question, for Idries Shah is Grand Sheik of the Sufis and their Orders, and no one interested in the East can afford to miss his book.
What, then, is a Sufi? Not, as the Oxford Dictionary claims, ‘One of a sect of the Mahom-Medan ascetic mystics.’ A Sufi, the Sufis, ‘cannot be defined by any single set of words or ideas’ and ‘Sufism is known by means of itself,’ says Idries Shah — who is master of the difficult arts of deliberate provocation, slight dislocation of an expected sense, use of the apparently banal — to make one read a thing again, and more carefully.
Numberless waves lapping and momentarily reflecting the sun — all from — the same sea, is Sufism, says a Sufi poet: among them Sa’adi Fariduddin Attar, Hafiz and, so it turns out, old Omar Kayyam.
Sufism is the inner secret teaching that is concealed within every religion.
Humanity is evolving to a certain destiny, we are all taking part in that evolution. Organs come into being as a result of the need for specific organs. The human being’s organism is producing a new complex of organs in response to such a need. In this age of transcending of time and space, the complex of organs is concerned with the transcending of time and space….
To find out what Sufism is, or rather, to contact ways of thinking, perceiving, which may be called Sufism, this book should be read as it is, organised, for it illustrates as well as gives facts, Idries Shah challenges in deed as well as words: we are prisoners of thought patterns which make us compare anything new with stereotypes of content, arrangement, emphasis.
The way to read it is to ask: What effect is this having on me? ‘A book like this designs itself in a Sufistic manner,’ he says, and, describing his own as well as a twelfth-century Sufi classic: ‘Like all works, Rumi’s Mathnawi will vary in its effect upon the listener in accordance with the conditions under which it is studied. It contains jokes, fables, conversations, references to former teachers and to ecstatogenic methods—a phenomenal example of the method of scatter, whereby a picture is built up by multiple impact to infuse into the mind the Sufi message.’
Habits of minds which must let truth escape, such as ‘If a is a it cannot be b,’ cause ignorance: but at confusion’s heart is a reason more easily grasped: the Sufi way of enclosing messages in cipher. This code is here laid bare for the benefit of orientalists. Central points: Arabic was the speech of the priestly class, a holy tongue long before it was used for the Koran…. Most precise and primitive of the Semitic languages, it shows signs of being originally a constructed language, built upon mathematical principles…. Sufic analysis of its basic concept groupings shows that especially initiatory or religious, as well as psychological ideas are collectively associated around a stem in a seemingly logical and deliberate manner which could hardly be fortuitous. . . . The secret language, although it has expression in the familiar world, is considered to be in a special relationship with the extra-familiar one. Hence it is in its literary expression both an art form and, also a lead-in to the reaches where there is no ‘known tongue.’
The title The Thousand and One Nights, for instance, rearranges itself through the cipher to ‘Source of Records,’ which is its disguised title. ‘A study of the stories themselves, and their decoding according to the rules of the secret language, gives us the intention or concealed meaning and use of the stories. Many of them are encoded Sufi teaching stories, descriptions of psychological processes, or enciphered lore of one kind or another.’
Inelasticity of thought—for instance, to complain that this book has no index is to miss an essential point : ignorance of the code systems: there is another reason for Western cloudiness about the East which Idries Shah, too polite to say, suggests by a certain tartness of tone. In the Observer of August 16, three Eastern classics were reviewed together, under the heading: ‘Filthistan.’ One, Sa’adi’s Gulistan, read in India, Pakistan, Persia, Afghanistan, Central Asia, is a children’s book, read by millions of ordinary people, and also a Sufi teaching book. For eight centuries it has been a keystone of a culture certainly as admirable as ours. ‘If the prose is a bit of a bore, the poetry does often come across. Is it sexy items that are intended to push this classic? . . . They are still in demand, these anthropological studies of what beachcomber used to call “Filthistan.”‘ Is there another country where a leading newspaper could lump together three unrelated foreign classics, review them in this smart knowing provincial tone, and dismiss them with a schoolboy’s snigger?
Our Western tradition is as much Saracen as it is Latin or Greek. Ways of thought, of scholarship, areas of our culture not usually associated with Islam, have been influenced by the Arabs through Spain, Sicily, Italy, and, through them, by the Sufis, who, during Islam’s classical period (the book only deals with this period of Sufi history) were its part-hidden core. Examples: Roger Bacon was Sufi-taught, and through him our science was affected; through Paracelsus, Sufi-influenced, our medicine. Our traditions of romantic love (admirers of Denis de Rougemont will find his ideas illuminated here) had Sufi springs. Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious is expounded by the Spaniard Ibn Rushd, was often referred to by Rumi, and ‘its meaning and force are subjects of Sufi specialisation.’ Freud’s sexual arguments are noted by the Sufi Sheikh Ghazali in his Alchemy of Happiness (900 years old) as being standard among Moslem theologians. Some others: Avicenna, Albertus Magnus, St. John of the Cross, Raymond Lully, Thomas Aquinas. And Chaucer, Hans Andersen, Cervantes, borrowed Sufi stories; Dante, Sufi ideas.
When the Arab, and with it, Sufi influence, retreated, ‘everything Saracen, “paynim” or Arab, was heretical, diabolical, dangerous.’ On this side of a closed door were left—and for many this will be the most fascinating part of a fascinating book (I can’t remember being more provoked and stimulated)—organisations, ideas, once. Sufi by origin. These (disguised because of fear of the East, the Inquisition, and secular scholastic hostility, further distorted by Western ignorance of the cipher) changed, dwindled, became fleshless husks. Among them: Alchemy, which bore the stamp of Gebir, Jabir-el Hayyan, the Sufi. The. Carbonari of Italy. The Order of the Garter. Witches, many of whose symbols, rituals, derive from the Anisa tribe of Bedouins, and their cult of the Revelers. The Tarot pack of cards—now inaccurate. The Franciscan Order: St. Francis was a Sufi. The rosary. The Rosicrucians. The Masons—their rituals reflect those of a Sufi Order, the Builders. The Knights Templar. Sufi-connected, or influenced are: The Quabbalah; Zen Buddhism; Yoga; esoteric. Christianity.
Over, then, to the scholars—but ‘it is inherent in scholastic thinking that something written down has a greater validity than something said or experienced; and it is thus more than likely that the living representatives of Sufism have been but rarely consulted on these points by academicians.’ My guess is that artists will profit most by this book, or those who have learned— through their trades, perhaps? —that truth is to be gathered through the pores of one’s skin, from the air, at any rate, with one’s whole being and not just part of it. No accident that Robert Graves the poet writes a long introduction.
Graves, praise being no substitute for understandings, has been a victim of the ‘a must be a’ type of mind. Are his poems addressed to women, or to the White Goddess? Which? Suppose they are addressed to both, and also to c, d, e–and so through the rest of the alphabet, to Z itself?
He concludes: ‘This book will at least be available to a great number of people who share this peculiar way of thinking with one’ or two intimate friends, and whom it will doubtless surprise as much as it has surprised me.’
¹ Appeared in the Spectator 18th September 1964