Idries Shah and Rumi: the value of quotes and poetry in Sufi teaching

Shah’s work, while aimed at a pan-religious audience, preserves and recycles jewels of wisdom that found a place to develop themselves under the protection which the Islamic expansion that lasted for seven centuries could (and did) offer; without being an Islamic corpus, we can find in several of his books Islamic quotations that help define and provide a context to the “Sufi” work developed at that time, and closer to the present time as well.

Of course, his work is vast and it is impossible to cover its extensions and scope in just a few paragraphs, but certain echoes of his Reflections can be found in the words of Eckhart Tolle in some of his books, and his quasi-minimalist approach to one of the possible paths towards truth; the argument that can give light to this comment is that the truth, in this world, is reflected in different ways so that it can be seen, at least by the seekers.

Here, an example:

If, from time to time, you give up expectation, you will be able to perceive what it is you are getting.

His most “religious” book, without a doubt, is The Elephant in the Dark, in which he sheds some light on the interreligious dialogue and highlights the enormous similarities and the number of bridges between at least two of the creeds that are predominant in the current world. But, in order to clarify and stress the motto “in not of”, we quote Shah’s own words, pronounced in a rich interview during the 70’s:

There are many ways to talk about the religious aspects of Sufism. I’ll just choose one and see where it leads. The Sufis themselves say that their religion has not history, because it is not culture bound. Although Sufism has been productive in Islam, according to Sufi tradition and scripture, Sufis existed in pre-Islamic times. The Sufis say that all religion is evolution, otherwise it would not survive. They also say that all religion is capable of development up to the same point. In historical times, Sufis have worked with all recognized religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Vedanta, Buddhism and so on. Sufis are in religion but not of it.

On the same path is the great Omar Khayyam and his quatrains that inspired so many, such as Goethe, and the perennial wisdom of his Rubaiyat. To reinforce the concept of Sufism as an organic path that has operated within religion without being of it, we quote the words of Khayyam and Shah in The Way of the Sufi:

The study of Sufism can not be approached, for instance, from the standpoint that it is a mystical system designed to produce ecstasy and based on theological concepts. As a Sufi poem by Omar Khayyam states:

In cell and cloister, in monastery and synagogue,

Here one fears hell, another dreams of paradise.

But he who knows the true secrets of his God

You have planted no such seeds within his heart.

Of course, Omar Khayyam is not the only luminary that gave Sufi poetry its unstoppable impetus; Rumi also figures prominently in Shah’s corpus. From the immortal phrase of the Afghan linked to Konya (which also adorns the gravestone of Idries Shah):

Do not look at my outward shape,

But take what is in my hand.

To the wisdom of Maulana (our teacher) Rumi, found in The Sufis, taken from his Fihi Ma Fihi:

A man, never having seen water, is thrown blindfolded into it, and feels it. When the band is removed, he knows what it is.

Until then I only knew it by its effect.

Shah not only dedicates a volume exclusively to Jalaluddin Rumi, but he cites it frequently in almost all of his books. Here we have another of those jewels, as a preamble to Shah’s book on Sufism and humour, Special Illumination:

If you want special illumination, look upon the human face:

See clearly within the laughter the Essence of Ultimate Truth.

The key to unlock Rumi’s essence, lies here

Perhaps the classic vehicle for much of that wisdom, regardless of how it is called, has been presented in the form of poetry. Lyric medium par excellence, it has allowed great poets – Sufis in this case – to express by means of analogies the issues that escape the sequential and rational mind which is always hungry for hard evidence. Here is a Sufi poem, specifically Persian, that speaks of it:

The Sufi way is through knowledge and practice, not through intellect and talk. As Prince Dara Shikoh says, in a Persian poem: Do you wish to be included with the Lords of Sight? From speech (then) pass on to experience. By saying ‘Unity’, you do not become a monotheist; The mouth does not become sweet from the word ‘Sugar’.

While it is true that the early Shah titles have little to do with what he produced from The Sufis in 1964 and onwards, they all carry a glimpse of what his literary future would bring; aside from the obvious chapter dedicated to the Sufis in Oriental Magic, of course.

Between references to the Grand Grimoire in Oriental Magic and The Secret Lore of Magic, and the numerous occult books that have provided endless spells and conjures and amulets to wizards and sorcerers of the past and present, Shah has always left a drop of perfume that leads to a possibility of understanding life and the world in a more constructive way.

In those magic books you’ll find what you’re looking for, whether it’s witches’ spells, wicca spells, or Witchcraft books to practice your skills as a sorceress or magician…or the story about the use of powerful amulets to break spells or attract a loved one. It is a very extensive guide of conjures and spells of magic that will satisfy the curiosity of the amateur magician. All are narrated from an impartial (albeit passionate) point of view, devoid of fanaticisms.

Naturally, such books, conceived towards the middle of the 20th century, responded to a certain vibration that existed both in that England and in other large cities, including Buenos Aires.

Know thyself better… by reading this book

Mohamed el-Ghazali, one of the biggest Sufi luminaries, not only saved the theologians from the attack of the recently translated Greek philosophy, but he also established, with his unique and powerful intellect, that there was a limit in its use, and that indeed there was a far greater knowledge embodied by Sufism.

Ghazali was many centuries ahead of his time, by illustrating the concept of conditioning through many parables and fables.

This beautiful aphorism of his shows how timeless his wisdom (like any true wisdom) is:


People oppose things because they are ignorant of them.