by John Glubb K.C.B, D.S.O., C.M.G., O.B.E., M.C. 

(1897-1986), who lived for thirty-six years in the Middle East, was the founder of the Arab Legion and the author of numerous well regarded histories of the region. He was badly injured in WW1 and went on to serve in Iraq and Jordan with desert trained troops that would eventually form the Jordanian Army. A soldier with an interest in religion and psychology he was known as a modest man who never lost his temper with subordinates.

His wikipedia page, here.

We owe a great debt to Idries Shah, both in the external and in the internal fields. Let us first consider the external world, tor which his writings regarding the Sufis seem to provide some relevant advice on modern trends.

One of the chief obstacles to the general comprehension of Sufism is the principle that no-one can understand it except a Sufi and that the would-be Sufi can only learn about it from a genuine teacher. To put this statement in another form, Sufism cannot be defined in words, nor can it be comprehended by the human intellect. It can only be imperceptibly “caught” or imbibed by association with a Sufi master. Moreover the master will not teach it like a school subject, in a given number of lessons, definitions, or propositions, for much of the training consists of absorbing the spirit of the master.

These ideas are diametrically opposed to the trend of modern education, derived in itself, directly or indirectly, from the basic idea that nothing exists except that of which we obtain cognition through the human senses of sight, touch, smell, or hearing. By the use of these human senses, physical science has greatly expanded our knowledge of the material world, but we are not warranted in assuming that this world is the only one that exists. Great scientists are usually ready enough to admit that all the achievements of modern science are little more than a match struck at midnight in a dark forest.

In spite of all the, to us, miraculous discoveries of science, the universe and the mystery of life in it still completely baffle us. Indeed, as the first enthusiasm of scientific discovery tends to wane, the mystery becomes more, rather than less, insoluble. But although the limitations of physical science are now becoming gradually clearer there is always a time lag in popular appreciation of new trends. The public in general is still under the influence of the impression, now superseded, that physical science can solve all human problems and that the human intellect can shape the future of mankind. Perhaps the simplest refutation of this optimism lies in the conceptions of time and space. We can-not grasp the idea of endless time, yet if time were to end, we cannot understand what would replace it. It would seem that this is one of the innumerable problems that the human mind is incapable of grasping.

In spite of the growing realization of the limitations of physical science, our teaching methods seem increasingly to reflect the belief that physical science is the only subject of any importance. The corollary is the belief that the acquisition of “facts,” or information, is the object of education. The imparting of facts to the pupil more and more assumes the character of mass production, increasingly dehumanized. “Facts,” for example, can be acquired almost without an instructor, by reading, by lectures delivered to classes so large as to be impersonal, by tape recorder, or by television. Whether or not the student has memorized these facts can he tested by public examination, or even by a quiz. This process of “cramming” facts into the human mind, it is to be noted, can be carried out without producing any effect on the “personality” or character of the student.

It is scarcely surprising, in view of these methods, that the Western democracies no longer produce leaders. Indeed the very idea of outstanding personalities is deprecated. The object of the system seems to be to produce as many human beings as possible who are exactly similar to one another. All children must be sent to similar schools, all must use the same syllabus and the same textbooks, under teachers who are themselves the products of the same standardized, mass-production system.

Yet, while we continuously expand standardized education of this kind, we cannot but be aware that “facts” are not the important things in life. Love, joy, peace, courage, loyalty, unselfishness, self-control, generosity—these are the considerations that make for healthy, happy, and peaceful living conditions. Yet we make little or no effort to inculcate them, nor can their existence be easily ascertained by public examinations, on which the subsequent career of the student largely depends. These false standards tend to undermine all our existing Western civilization and, if not rectified, will bring it down in ruins.

In view of these considerations, the Sufi methods, as explained by Idries Shah, assume urgent importance. First, that real education must be absorbed by the student from his teacher. The number of students to each teacher must be limited to a small group with whom he can live in intimacy, who can know him well and “catch” his spirit by infection, rather than by books, lessons, or precept. We must appreciate that words can never fully express human feelings or character, which consist of spirit. Physical science tends to disregard spirit, though we are all aware that it exists. We all say that we like this school or this community because it is inspired by such a wonderful spirit. We cannot exactly define what this spirit is. although we can sense it.

A second and no less important principle to which Idries Shah refers is that experience is as valid a part of knowledge as is academic learning. In some countries there are chairs for professors of government, which are filled by intellectuals who qualified for their positions by themselves passing examinations on the subject of government. Neither the professors nor the students has ever governed anyone. The same tendency is perceptible in every field. The old nanny who has looked after children for forty years is replaced by a young girl, who has passed academic examinations in child psychology. The gardener with fifty years experience is looked down upon by the young botanist with a university degree.

It is not intended to suggest that academic knowledge is unnecessary, for it has transformed our lives, but the sole reliance on academic qualifications is apt to lead us astray. We are increasingly influenced by intellectuals, who produce theories that prove unsuccessful in their application to everyday life. The tendency of the academic mind, then, is to demand a modification of the facts of human life to fit the theory, rather than the reverse. A sentence employed by Idries Shah about Sufism might well be taken to apply to any subject affecting human life. “No investigation into the reality of Sufism can be made entirely from the outside because Sufism includes participation, training, and experience.” This principle could well be more frequently applied to academic interventions in politics. To understand the government of men, go down into the fields, the streets, and the factories. It is necessary to participate in order to understand. A phenomenon that we have experienced in our own persons carries a complete conviction which cannot be acquired from academic studies.

The way of training, without the opportunity to acquire experience, suppresses and stills the intuition, says’ Idries Shah. “Humanity is turned into a conditioned animal by non-Sufi systems, while being told that he is free.” So much for the external applications of the methods of the Sufis.

The second angle from which we can view their teaching is that of the interior life. Only a man who has been trained as a Sufi can understand Sufic thought, Idries Shah tells us. Evelyn Underhill, in the same manner, uses the simile of a man visiting a Gothic cathedral. From the outside, the windows look dull, gray and dusty; but people inside the building find themselves bathed in brilliant colors projected by the sun shining through the colored glass. The difficulty about religion is that those who view it from the outside, without in any way participating in it, cannot acquire any conception of it.

Forming any idea of Sufism is rendered particularly difficult by the fact that it was originally passed down by a secret code. In the earliest period of Islam, from a.d. 630 to, perhaps, a.d. 900, there was no persecution in Muslim countries, and there was considerable latitude of belief. But in later, Turkish, times, Sufis or batinis—interior livers—came under suspicion. They were not, indeed, orthodox Muslims but tended to believe that there was something of truth in all religions. Although Sufism flourished from the seventh century onward in a Muslim environment, it was in reality as near to Christianity as to Islam. Sufis, indeed, were sometimes accused of being secret Christians.

Sufism was able to respect various religions that many people would believe to be irreconcilable. It did so by its belief (1) that there was something good and true in all the great religions, and (2) that the outward and superficial aspects of religion are of little or no importance. The majority of the human race regard religion as a matter of rules, dogma,’ and ritual that do, to some extent, differentiate between one religion and another, and even between one sect and another. These superficialities are to the Sufi of little importance, though admittedly useful to the general public.

To reach a higher understanding of the “real” world, the Sufi was required, first of all, to “renounce” the world or at least to realize the small degree of importance to be attached to passing daily events. The next step, perhaps almost an automatic one, was humility. The more a man or woman appreciated the futility of mundane affairs and the vastness of creation, the more did he appreciate his own smallness, insignificance, and unworthiness.

Once the pupil had made some progress in detachment from the world, he began to realize that the motive force of Sufism was love. The achievement of these three qualities-detachment from the world, a realization of our own insignificance, and the adoption of love as the dynamic of living—cannot be taught in external scholastic lessons. A man may indeed listen to a mathematical lesson proving his own smallness in relation to the universe, the world, or the total number of the human race, but his character will not thereby be affected. World renunciation, humility, and love can only be “caught” by living in a group of people who themselves practice these qualities. “He who tastes, knows,” as Idries Shah tells us. These considerations show the reason for the previous statement that a man can only become a Sufi by living in contact with a Sufi master. The necessary qualities cannot be acquired by means of the intellect.

One of the most interesting aspects of these Sufi principles is that they are almost identical with those laid down by Christian mystics. Renunciation of the world, humility, and love are the basic preliminaries of Christian mysticism. Sufis and Christians alike believe that proficiency in these three can lead to the spiritual experience variously called ecstasy, the Vision of God or the Divine Union.

In one passage, if I understand it rightly, Idries Shah seems to say that, whereas other mystics are satisfied if they reach the stage of ecstasy, the Sufi knows that the ultimate objective is work. I venture to suggest, however, that Christian mystics were equally aware of this fact. A period of partial seclusion might be needed until renunciation of the world had been achieved and consolidated, but the final objective must be to return to the world to work. “To be in the world but not of the world,” was the final objective, as a study of the lives of many of the great Christian mystics will show.

In his book The Sufis Idries Shah gives many interesting details regarding the secret Sufi codes, which were founded on the numerical values allotted to the letters of the alphabet, and on the similarity of sound between Arabic words. The manner in which he traces the Order of the Garter back to the Sufi source will interest most English people.

That numerous Arab customs and ways of thought entered Western Europe from Muslim Spain, Sicily, or southern Italy cannot be denied. We know that Dante, Thomas Aquinas, and other Christian writers derived many of their ideas from Sufi sources. Albertus Magnus” (b.1193), Idries Shah tells us, “was well versed m Saracenic and Sufi literature and philosophy. As Professor Browne notes, he exceeded the usual custom of Western Orientalists, for, ‘dressed as an Arab, he expounded at Paris the teachings of Aristotle from the works of al-Farabi, ibn Sina (Avicenna) and al-Ghazzali.’”

We cannot understand how Sufis and Christian mystics could cooperate or learn from each other’s works if we visualize religion as a system of commands and prohibitions, dogma and ritual, fixed by authority. But both the Sufis and the Christian mystics had transcended this rigid conception of religion by using humility and love as their watchwords.

There are so many ideas in the books of Idries Shah that it would be easy to fill another book in commenting on them. For the present, however, we must limit ourselves to the repetition of the first sentence of this brief essay. “We owe a great debt to Idries Shah.”