by Professor James Kritzeck*

No one seems to be able to establish conclusively an etymology for the word dervish, which is exactly as it should be, since dervishes have always cloaked themselves with mystery. Dervishes are Sufis (pronounced soo-fees): the Persian and Turkish adherents of a form of contemplative life called Sufism (after suf, the woolen garments they wore), which has dominated Islamic spirituality since the twelfth century. They have their confreres in the Arab and Indian fakirs and the African Marabouts. Included among their numbers, over the centuries, have been some of the most learned and respected scholars of Islam as well as many of its greatest charlatans, madmen, wits, and wags.

The Sufis started out as disaffected and high-minded ascetics, according to our best information. They were men (and quite a few women) who found it impossible to discover God in the triumphant caliphate, the Draconian law, the impenetrably complacent pax islamica, or even the literal words of the Koran. They set out on their own, availing themselves of “ancient wisdom” from the Greeks, the Hindus, and the Chinese, and some of them became saints and mystics. Their mediocre students became theorists and, over the centuries, organized themselves into religious orders that ultimately took the form of lodges, having little or nothing to do with the original spiritual ideals. That was the point at which they started to take drugs, pierce their flesh, and whirl. That was also the point at which they got their bad reputation and first became known in the West.

One thing common to Sufis, as a rule, was a form of teaching—as old as the human spirit-in parables. It mattered not at all where the basic stories came from. Sufis always had a lot to hide anyway, and as the generations went on, the wisdom locked in their parables grew more and more esoteric. Yet it would be silly to underestimate the educational value of the “illuminations” that these parables gave to centuries of dedicated Sufis They are indeed our best way of discovering what Sufism is all about.

Idries Shah, an inveterate story chaser, has put together eighty-two stories from this inexhaustible treasury in Tales of the Dervishes (1970). It is really too bad that he did not provide an introductory essay to the collection; as the author of several good popular books on the subject, he could certainly have done that very well.

Perhaps the reader would not have to know a great deal about Sufi tales to enjoy them, but he would certainly enjoy them more if he understood them better in terms of origin, structure, and context.

When approaching these tales the reader should be forewarned that he is not going into the orderly realm of Zen paradox, It would be truer to say that he is going into a messy rooming house, where people specialize in forgetting and remembering, snooping and tattling, looking askance and stealing from closets. It is not a realm in which it is wise to seek, still less to pretend to, too much accuracy. For example, how can a story concerning Dhu-al-Nun be passed on by the Caliph Abu-Bakr and brought into Europe by Pope Sylvester II? The answer is simple: none of those people had anything to do with it. Idries Shah asserts that “Sufi tales passed into folklore.” Oftener it was the other way around. They come from everywhere, including man’s dimmest and darkest past, now “The Past Thousand Years.” They come from wordplay and proverbs, from fairy tales, tall tales, Greek plays, Hindu epics, Tibetan jokes, infancy gospels, the Desert Fathers, and even common sense.

At any rate, there they are: the Magic Mirror, the Fountain of Life, the Insane Uncle, the Head of the World, and Snow White—the belly laughs of the bazaar and the anguished fictions of bedeviled monks. “They are full of wonders and strange ideas.” Even the greatest Sufi compilers, al-Ghazzali, Attar, and Rumi, did more or less the same thing with the same stones. Their deft touches are still apparent in the present volume, which is beautifully translated.

If the great saints themselves did not disdain the vulgar jokes of “Mulla Nasreddin,” why should we? It is, first and foremost, the use to which this material was put by the Sufi dervishes that makes it all so very fascinating. Every one of the stories, some more poignantly than others, can be and has been made to illustrate various points of Sufi doctrine. The clearest thing that comes through is that, by discipline and initiation, the many hidden meanings in everything can be discovered and passed along. Surely that qualifies for mysticism.

If this particular collection is too mixed a bag, and some of its exercises too literal-minded, remember that Sufism has equipped and still equips men and women to make good use of their lives. In some eclectic Sufi circles, such as the Naqshbandis, stories like Idries Shah’s are supposed to be ingested in a certain order, like a special diet. In this book they are in no “literary” order, and they seem almost embarrassed that no Scheherazade has found a way of pulling them together.

Perhaps one should simply try one out and see what it teaches. This one is from a book called Asrar-i-Khilwatia (Secrets of Recluses) by Sheikh Qalandar Shah, of the Suhrawardi Order, who died in Lahore in 1832. It is called “The Founding of a Tradition.”

Once upon a time there was a town composed of two parallel streets. A dervish passed through one street into the other, and as he reached the second one, the people there noticed that his eyes were streaming with tears. “Someone has died in the other street!” one cried, and soon all the children in the neighbourhood had taken up the cry.

What had really happened was that the dervish had been peeling onions.

Within a short space of time the cry had reached the first street; and the adults of both streets were so distressed and fearful (for each community was related to the other) that they dared not make complete inquiries as to the cause of the furore.

A wise man tried to reason with the people of both streets, asking why they did not question each other. Too confused to know what they meant, some said: “For all we know there is a deadly plague in the other street.”

This rumour, too, spread like wildfire, until each street’s populace thought that the other was doomed.

When some measure of order was restored, it was only enough for the two communities to decide to emigrate to save themselves. Thus it was that, from different sides of the town, both streets entirely evacuated their people.

Now centuries later, the town is still deserted; and not so far away are two villages. Each village has its own tradition of how it began as a settlement from a doomed town, through a fortunate flight, in remote times, from a nameless evil.

In several ways this tale is an unusual one. It is much shorter than usual; it is singularly lacking in geographic or folkloric anchors; it spills its secret right after the first paragraph, and as a comic line at that; and it toys around with what most Sufi tales avoid like the plague; an expressed moral. However, it enshrines a typically impacted Sufi technique. In the first paragraph alone it calls attention to the “parallel streets” implying orthodoxy and heterodoxy; it puts a dizzy dervish in the role of go-between; it connects tears, as a sign, with death, the ultimate; and it seriously indicts the opinions of children, i.e., neophytes.

In their psychological teaching, Sufis claim that ordinary transmission of knowledge is subject to so much deformation through editing and false memory that it cannot be taken as a substitute for direct perception of fact. This story, I take it, illustrates the subjectivity of the human brain. As a parable, it has its universal applicability. Think, for instance, of the hot line. After all, it remains a possibility that the United States and the Soviet Union, by misreading some dervish’s tears and yielding to increasingly built-up mutual fears, might desert the town.

*James Kritzeck PH.D was Professor of Oriental Languages and History at the University of Notre Dame. He was formerly at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton and a Professor at Princeton University.