by Sir Razik Fareed *
The works of Idries Shah have accomplished the difficult task of serving readers from both the Eastern and Western worlds. This scholar has shown unusual capacity in treating some of the most difficult subjects in a manner easily understood by the layman, providing that he is prepared to approach them with the minimum of preconceptions. Shah has opened up realms of knowledge that ignorance and lack of effective communicators have mistaken for “black magic,” since really advanced thinking tends to fill those who are too far behind it with something akin to horror. Thus the communications-gap, which allowed such misconceptions to flourish, has now to a very great extent been filled.
No informed reader should imagine from the foregoing that there have been no writers in the West working on the exposition of Islamic mysticism, which is generally culled Sufism. Reputable workers in this field have included Redhouse, Nicholson, and Arberry; bur most of their material can only be termed secondary, and this for a variety of reasons. In the first place, not being Sufis themselves, they could not be expected to know how much, and what kinds, of Sufi materials are currently relevant. Again, a curious ambivalence hovers around their writings, as though they preferred some aspects of the subject to others. Many of these Western writers tend to concentrate upon one or more Sufi exponents to the exclusion of the rest. The result has always been that one would gather from them, unless informed to the contrary by Sufis themselves, that Sufis do not constitute a whole body of people, each accepted by the others.
Idries Shah, especially in such of his books as The Sufis (1964), The Way of the Sufi (1968), and Tales of the Dervishes (1970), points out the true characteristics and objects of Sufism, illustrating these by stones, parables, and other writings from the Sufi masters. His illustrative technique takes careful note, in the Sufi manner, of the value of portraying Sufis and their doings in the light of the requirements of his major audience. These requirements govern his selective treatment of the originators or the Sufi techniques.
Now, what really is Sufism? This is probably the first question asked by those who have been attracted to some kind of study of this path of Truth. Answers to this question, as to many others, are readily found in Shah’s works; and the different definitions are seen to correspond with what the questioner has in mind when he asks the question.
Some will say that it is an attitude to life, others say that it is a state of soul, yet others consider it a relationship with God. Sufism has three important features: it accepts poverty, it is generous without thought of gain, it is uninterfering and subject to the will of God. Sufism, in other words, can mean sacrifice, an empty hand, self-discipline, loss of the greed of self and of self-will, and finally attaining Divine Love, the love of God and love for one’s fellow beings. For a Sufi, the love of God is placed first in the steps on the ladder of this mystic Way. According to Sufis, love alone can pass the flaming barriers and unsurmountable obstacles that obstruct man in his search for the Truth.
In the strife-ridden world of today, Sufi thought in such a form, put into practice by individuals and nations, could bring to man most urgently needed peace, friendship, and help; for one can clearly see that Sufi thought embraces generosity without any idea of personal gain. If each individual and nation were to help another in this way, their needs could be fulfilled without much difficulty. Again, if one individual or nation does not unnecessarily interfere in the affairs of another, many complications, wars even, could be avoided. Last, though not least, if the creed – the love of God and of his fellow beings – were practiced by man, the world would be a happier place to live in.
Parables have often been said to be earthly stories with heavenly meanings, and fables teach us morals. The writings of the Sufis are allegorical and symbolical, in general; and some Sufis even explain the meanings, the spiritual significance, of their stories.
Idries Shah’s Reflections (1969), while not conforming to one of these categories, yet prompts one to reflect. The story about “The Donkey and the Cactus” appeals to me as one that gives an insight into the suitability of what one relishes. What is delicious to one is abhorred by another. Why is this so? When one reflects upon this, varieties of modes come into one’s ken. The next step is the selection of one of these. The analytical assessment, empowered by intuitive spiritual wisdom, helps one to discern the Truth, which alone leads to Reality. So many features of Sufism are so clearly illustrated by Shah in his works that we should honor him as one of the great modern contributors to a better understanding of Sufism.
* Sir Razik Fareed K.T. O.B.E. J.P. was a Sri Lankan educator and parliamentarian. He was a member of the Senate and the State Council.