The aim of the Islamic Translations Project is to return some of the ideas Idries Shah borrowed and developed back to the culture from which he drew them.
In the process, we hope to inspire and inform Muslims that there is a centuries-old tradition within Islam that teaches people how to think for themselves, to ignore externals and treat the things of the world with a certain irreverence – applying humour, generosity, kindness, intelligence and common sense almost as a default – in the process helping to achieve an inner balance that will guide their steps not only through the material world, but towards a divine impulse.
The first phase of this project has been an immense task. It has involved the sourcing of much of Shah’s material back to the original Classical Persian literature from which he drew heavily.
Persian literature of around the 11th to 13th centuries is unique in that virtually all of the great poets and literary masters were also Sufi teachers, or heavily influenced by Sufi ideas. This literature is canonical – akin to the works of Shakespeare in English. The Masnavi of Jalaludin Rumi, for example, is often referred to as ‘The Quran in Persian’.
It is considered practically heretical to tamper with a syllable of these works. And yet, the classical Sufi writers themselves did exactly that – and indeed it seems likely that they were all drawing to some extent from a common well of oral dervish lore. For instance, many of the tales in the Masnavi appear in different guises in the almost equally esteemed Gulistan of Sa’adi of Shiraz.
Because Shah was, as he always maintained, a working teacher, writer and thinker – not a scholar – he felt free to use these classical works as tools and teaching materials. Most of these literary works contain, as their basic units, stories. Shah was himself a master storyteller and believed in the dictum ‘time, place and people’. Therefore, at times he adapted the tales to suit his audience or the point he was making.
He saw himself as introducing new ideas to the West. In the East, the picture is more confusing.
Much of the source material has been lost, neglected or driven underground. However, the material itself was designed, a little like an internet meme, to maintain and propagate itself within a culture.
Even today, the culture of most Islamic countries maintains versions of much of this material, not only in the canonical classical literature, but also in the form of snippets of history, biographies of saintly figures, proverbs, jokes and folktales.
We have often had to go back to the originals and make a judgement based on the very criteria that Shah so often stressed: maintaining the teaching element, using common sense, avoiding the ‘petrification’ of material.
Throughout, we have cross-checked again and again to try to prevent distortions that come merely from the literary aspirations and misunderstandings of translators and editors.
The process of examining how he used his source material – rather like a basket weaver pulling strands of willow out from a broken object and weaving them into a new receptacle – has often felt like looking at a map of Shah’s mind.
This first – and we hope hardest – phase of our project has almost come to an end. We are currently finishing the last of ten titles by Shah chosen to appeal to the cultures of the East. We have prepared these in both Farsi (Iranian Persian) and Dari (Afghan Persian) editions.
Over the next five years, we plan to concentrate on two further fronts:
- We will gradually extend translations into three other Islamic languages: Turkish, Arabic and Urdu;
- At the same time, we will concentrate on effectively distributing the translations we have already created.
Both tasks contain challenges.
As with Persian, extending the translations into new languages will not be an easy job. Every country within the Islamic world has its own relationship with the concepts behind Shah’s work.
The texts require careful selection and some cultural translation.
The political and religious climates in some of the countries in which we hope to find readers make the nature of the materials themselves very sensitive.
This leads into our second task: of distribution. Because, of course, you can have the best translation in the world, but if nobody reads and makes use of it, it is useless.
Shah himself told his family: ‘Take my work to the young.’ This we have taken literally with the children’s books projects. However, it also applies to his adult works.
He believed that it is young adults who have the greatest power to change: both in terms of their own individual development as the habits of a lifetime are formed, and also to bring about transformation within their societies and cultural environments.
We will build on the knowledge we have amassed on publication via online platforms to reach younger readers and readerships living in climates of censorship, or in countries where infrastructure militates against physical book distribution.
We will seek out cultural groups, libraries and centres of further education where these ideas may reach young adults and soon-to-be adults at a time when they can have most beneficial impact on lives.
Subject to funding, we will seek to form distribution partnerships with suitable agencies, publishers and booksellers.
We will concentrate on the masses of displaced people from Islamic backgrounds who have lost contact with their cultural roots through war, economic hardship and persecution. We believe that, where people are suffering, these ideas are needed on an individual level, to help people retain their inner balance and dignity, and to provide them with a compass to help navigate difficulties. We also believe that these communities are especially vulnerable to messages of anger and extremism, to which these concepts are antitheses and possible antidotes.
As such, refugees, diasporic communities and displaced people should be a particular priority for distribution.
Again, subject to funding, we would like to target women and women’s groups as an area of particular interest – noting the very strong message of female equality running through Shah’s writings. That he took this message of female empowerment seriously is proved by how he brought up his own daughters, of whom I am one.
He made sure his daughters received the best education he could provide, and he expected us to have careers and ambitions of our own, to make independent choices and to forge our own place in wider society. I remember him saying to me: ‘Any society that only makes use of half of its reserve of talent will always struggle.’
He believed that women’s education, along with women’s economic independence, is one of the prerequisites for true social equality – and that the social equality of women, in its turn, is vital for every individual, family, community and society to express and develop itself fully.