… in the Quest of Man

by Professor Rom Landau *

Sufism is probably the most difficult subject to write about, and I feel that it is virtually impertinent of me to write about one of its exponents. If a man has lived through genuine Sufi experiences, it would amount to a sin against his innermost spirit to claim to be a Sufi. Sufism is a state of holiness, for it deals only and alone with a man’s approach to, and identification with, the divine, and the exclusion of all other experiences, whether physical, emotional, or intellectual.

Idries Shah has written a good deal about Sufism, and I believe he strives to bring readers or pupils closer to it. If he succeeds in this, he will merit our fullest recognition. If he is a Sufi himself, such recognition will have as little meaning to him as if we were to present him with a gown of rough wool (suf). He cannot, of course, “prescribe” a Sufi path—al-Ghazzali did not succeed in that, and even Ibn al-Arabi could do it only in philosophical terms, that is, in terms of rationality, a discipline fundamentally alien to Sufism—but he passes on Sufi truisms, and this merits consideration and approval.

Idries Shah opposes the creation of cults, whether of a personality (including himself) or any Sufi or other methodology or order. This is a very sound opposition, for the “cult” of a teacher or a doctrine inevitably sterilizes that doctrine. In that opposition Idries Shah does not stand alone. Almost half a century ago Krishnamurti opposed himself to cults of people or doctrines with an ardor amounting to passion. Treating a teacher or a doctrine as a cult easily suggests sheep running after the fashionable “ism” of the moment, be it Fascism, Expressionism, Zen-ism, or present-day Hippieism. In that shape, even Suf-ism becomes meaningless, for genuine Sufism is an intensely individual experience.

Idries Shah also warns against the prevailing tendency of raising a teacher to the status of a “true” teacher. This is salutary advice, for even during the present century we have seen the adulation of scores of teachers, whether in Europe, Asia, or Africa, most of whom were forgotten a few years later, like yesteryear’s morning mist.

He is equally right in warning against the fashion of “instant illumination,” against “magical powers of techniques without preparation,” and “of all knowledge coming from the East.” In plain English this seems to imply a warning against the fashionable would-be Zen, especially as practiced, in the fifties and early sixties, in California, before it found itself replaced by the equally Californian Hippieism. Though Los Angeles and Big Sur bore some responsibility for the practice of these gospels, their real progenitor and center was the otherwise far more sensible city of San Francisco.

For several years I had the enlightening experience of teaching (Islamics) quite close to one of the relevant decisive centers. So day in and day out, I watched how men and women with a modicum of intellectual experience would plunge headlong into the Zen-revelation. Their “study” of Zen required no previous academic degrees or proofs of intellectual capacity it called for no form of self-discipline; and preached plunging into the experience of the moment, identifying oneself with it, regardless of whether in the ordinarily accepted codes of morality the “experience of the moment” was acceptable or not. “Spontaneity” implied giving in to any impulses or urges, however good or evil these might be. Inevitably most “study” days ended in drunkenness, preceded as they were by a day of chain-smoking, and descending to behavior that even present-day would-be liberals would consider reprehensible. “Instant illumination” meant “do as you like.” It was hardly surprising when one of the students, originally a nice, football-addicted American in his mid-twenties, went mad, and had to be removed to an asylum where he suffered, among other things, from “folie de grandeur.”

Idries Shah would no doubt agree that self-discipline and the acquisition of the relevant technique are preconditions for any spiritual progress. Without these, no art can be mastered, whether it be music, poetry, painting, science, or Sufism. On one occasion, Michelangelo said that he must “have a perfect knowledge of anatomy,” so as to be able to forget it in his work. Without self-discipline and “technique,” life easily degenerates into immorality. Some Persian would-be Sufis of the eleventh century were indifferent to the commands of Islam, were in the habit of getting drunk, overeating, and leading preposterous lives. When reprimanded by their fellow Iranians, they would reply that to a “Sufi” these worldly indulgences were meaningless, for the only reality in a Sufi’s life was his spiritual relationship with the divine. Less than a hundred years ago, there lived a very famous Sharif in northern Morocco,’ venerated by thousands as a saint He had provided himself with an admirable English wife, but also liked to indulge in every type of wine and spirit. When questioned by his followers, he would reply that, as he was a saint, the whiskey or champagne, once inside his mouth, would become as innocuous as spring water.

I am not sure that I agree with Idries Shah in his objection to training by “emotional or intellectual means.” To narrate “stones and sayings” (as is so often done by Zen teachers) might be quite useful. But man is rooted in emotional experiences and is incapable of not pursuing some sort of intellectual research. Neither of these can be eliminated by an act of will—unless he has really become a Sufi. In the latter case, emotional or intellectual pursuits might completely disappear in a “substratum,” as has breathing or the digesting of food. In the ordinary person, even the desire for “enlightenment” will be preceded by an emotional impetus and by some sort of intellectual contemplation. If the latter is completely absent, the aspirant will probably land in the arms of some “occult” charlatan or spurious teacher’.

Idries Shah is certainly right in maintaining that no one “may be transformed into something greater or higher than the ordinary man by any act of will from a teacher.” Teachers are all very well, but they possess neither the power nor the many-sidedness of life itself. It is obviously life and the conditions with which it surrounds us that shape our progress and our attainment of a goal. No teacher can replace a man’s inmost reaction to the death of his child, to financial disaster, or to incurable cancer. He might possibly modify these reactions, but only in a very slight manner and would be incapable of bringing about a radical change in them.

Idries Shah seems equally right in claiming that “practical activity is preferable to quietism.” Quietism is an admirable “dynamo-charging” during an active life, but it cannot replace it. The ideal type of life is obviously one of activity in a given number of material areas, and intercessions of quietism or contemplation, not of material things but of what might be called spiritual verities. It is these last that ultimately matter, but they will be just a froth upon the imagination unless they are nourished by material landmarks. Life without quietism turns a man into a robot. For few of the average man’s material activities bear any spiritual significance or point toward spiritual aims. Most lives, unfortunately, are divided into a spiritual and a material sphere, and the two only seldom intertwine.

Evidently we all have to follow activities that will provide the material necessities of life. I should doubt, however, whether such activities in themselves are essential to a life genuinely aiming at the “spiritual.” For the true Sufi, activities or no activities might seem equally important or nonimportant. Strangely enough, the further we advance on a spiritual path, the more easily physical problems solve themselves and the less important they become to us.

Idries Shah’s opposition to “over-scholasticism” seems sound. Anything that is “over-” is wrong. But it would be dangerous to dismiss real learning from a would-be Sufi’s curriculum.

Teachers may be of little use; yet they might be eminently helpful. Whether a Gurdjieff was really a helpful teacher is not for me to say. I know that he has had, and still has, shoals of devoted followers; but my personal contacts with him invariably left me in real doubt. His spiritual or “occult” knowledge, however genuinely founded and however profound, seemed to exist somehow apart from him. The two were not identical; in fact they existed on two very separate planes. His everyday technique with regard to his pupils, however revolutionary, however startling, often used to leave behind a sense of bewilderment, not to say, fear. I doubt whether the “technique” of any true Sufi ever provokes such a sense. Sound scholasticism is indispensable in a teacher. But if that scholasticism does not infuse his entire being, if a gap exists between it and the teacher’s character, behavior, or intercourse with his followers, much of the value of the scholarship is lost. Ouspensky, on the other hand, was first and foremost a scholar, completely apersonal, completely manifesting his doctrine, and thus eminently helpful to his pupils. worked with him for a considerable time and never had the faintest suspicion of charlatanism or striving for effect among his motives. A Rudolf Steiner, too, seemed to identify himself completely with the “doctrine” he propounded. Hence his enormous effectiveness and the sense of gratitude, sincerity, and devotion he inspired in his pupils.

Whom then might we consider as the ideal type of teacher. Obviously the person whose character and daily conduct constantly manifest the “superiority” of his doctrine. Teaching merely by words will hardly produce Sufis. Teaching that emanates from the teacher’s character and his way of living has enormously persuasive powers. Krishnamurti could hardly be called an intellectually impressive teacher. He repeated himself again and again, and used a language that was neither very comprehensive nor very accurate. And yet he seldom failed to leave a profound impression upon his hearers. When, well over forty years ago, I first went to meet him (in the late Lady de la Warr’s house), I was strongly prejudiced against him, and was ready to criticize whatever he might say. Yet after an hour’s conversation, I left him with a sense of very profound sympathy and even affection. And throughout the following years these sentiments never altered. What then was the secret of his influence? It was his complete identification with his “doctrine,” expressed as an almost overwhelming human warmth, absolute honesty, and a touching lovableness. You simply could not help loving him no matter how critical you might be of his words.

That quality should certainly not be missing from a Sufi teacher’s inner armory. For while his aim can be nothing but the recognition of, and the contact with, God, one of the faces with which God confronts us throughout our life is . . . man.


* Professor Rom Landau (1899-1974) was a prolific author, a sculptor, educator and expert on Morocco. He was acquainted with many of the leading thinkers and writers of the 20th century including T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Rudolf Steiner and E.M. Forster.

Taken from his wikipedia page.