Writer and thinker Idries Shah has skilfully woven a wide and rich tapestry throughout his entire corpus, thus transforming literature into an invaluable source of material about the Sufi mystical tradition, their schools, teachings, poetry, and not least their specially-designed teaching stories. He has perhaps distilled the essence of Islamic Philosophy, thus making it palatable to the Western reader, assuming that we accept Sufism (according to one of the many definitions offered by Shah) as the ultimate reflection and be-all and end-all of every true religion that still exists today in this world.
He also re-defines, for a Western audience, the meaning of the word “Sufis” and “Sufism” in his ground-breaking book The Sufis. Furthermore, he clarifies many controversial topics such as FitzGerald’s rendition of the Rubaiyat written by the poet Omar Khayyam; insofar as pristinely showing the essential influence that Sufism has had on the Persian polymath, and how this was lost to the English poet and writer. Omar Khayyam was blasphemous only because he defied the crystallised state in which part of Islam had become during his life – and Sufism, the real part, was the “wine”, the alchemy, the means through which humanity could (and can) reach unsuspected heights of evolution. He was indeed a true exponent of Islamic poetry, because he sipped the wine of knowledge, the essence of all religion.
Just like the great Persian Omar Khayyam, a true poet, did in his immortal Rubaiyat, Shah distils the essence of thousands of years of a knowledge that, despite having been present in the “West” for as long as it can be called civilisation (and probably earlier as well), had never been presented in such a way to the logical and rational “mind of the educated Occident”, helping to unlock and disarm the usual structures which reign over our uncontrolled consciousness.
As this amazing Persian poet, Sufi and true exponent of real Islamic poetry once wrote: “O ignorant ones – the Road is neither this nor that!
A sweet, and perhaps inebriating, challenge for the mind… and the heart yearning for the true wine.”
Omar Khayyam writes: “If wine is the enemy of religion, I shall devour the enemy of religion.”
How many Sufis (irrespective of how true that label is) are today being repressed and hunted down and killed by religious fanatics?
The name of Omar Khayyam also appears in Caravan of Dreams, where we can find Thoughts from the great author of the Rubaiyat; which in turn provide an outline of the Islamic Philosophy that today has been hijacked by many who are oblivious of Islam’s rich and complex history.
As Rumi said: “we gave them (the religionist of any persuasion) the husk, we kept the kernel.”
And because in a way Sufism IS the essence of, at least, all monotheistic religions (or reflects and shed its light on them), we can say that most of Shah’s books revolve around unearthing an Islamic Philosophy that was buried into a sort of oblivion. Shah wrote:
“Sufism, they say, is that which enables one to understand religion, irrespective of its current outward form.”
“Religion is often confused with religiosity, just as it is confused with emotionality and obsession. Spirituality is the essence of religion. And there is, again, an essence of spirituality; Sufism is the essence of essences.”
This is why we can apply the label Islamic Philosophy to his words: “The Sufis themselves say that their religion has no history, because it is not culture bound.”
Islamic, simply because that religion allowed many sages and masters to teach and reach Europe during the classical period of Islam.
Yet, Shah’s prowess and widespread literary capacity did show a hint of what was to come during his beginnings behind the writer as he produced two treasures: Oriental Magic and The Secret Lore of Magic, in which he delves into the secrets of ancient magical books and their links to the evolution of culture and the human psyche; as well as finding the origin of many rituals which are present today in the main religions of the world.
Nothing escapes the young Shah’s gaze: dark magic books are dissected and explained with illustrations and charts and amulets; all of the East, and especially the magic of India is revealed to the reader who might be eager to explore a topic that, despite being en-vogue during the 50’s and 60’s, still carries relevance as an anthropological and psychological document of our ancestors, and perhaps ourselves.
Oriental Magic and The Secret Lore of Magic are recognized as a brilliant study of how, what and why people think, in territories extending from North Africa to Japan; they also give space to the taboo topic of dark magic and its secret books.
Profusely illustrated, the book is the product of years of research and field-work, and the study of ancient magical books in a dozen different cultural regions, focusing at length on the magic of India, origin of old perennial magical traditions which have made its presence known almost in every society on earth.
Their scholarly accuracy and genuine contribution to cultural understanding have made it a key text for anyone interested in informal beliefs, and esoteric practices.
Oriental Magic and The Secret Lore of Magic both display a vast number of ancient amulets, jewelry that was used as amulets, and all sorts of magic amulets belonging to every culture on earth.
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.