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THE HERALD, December 1996


The Prince of Parable

Idries“The universe is made of stories, not atoms.” I would not have fully understood the meaning of this saying had I not read the books of Idries Shah. No other modern master has done more to demonstrate that virtually the entire body of mystic wisdom may be transmitted through simple stories. It is not surprising, then, that one can find avid readers of Idries Shah  among many different kinds, categories and classes of people. 

On November 23, 1996, Shah died of heart trouble in London. He was 72. His death is untimely, not because he was too young to die but because he died before we could find someone else with the promise to replace him.

Shah was born in 1924, in Simla, India. His father, Sirdar Iqbal Ali Shah, was an Indian Muslim of high-born Afghan origin, and belonged to a family which claimed to possess one of the most thoroughly recorded lineages in modern times. His ancestry could be traced to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) on the one hand and the Sassanian emperors of Persia on the other, and in fact went far beyond that, to the year 122 BC.

The wife of Sirdar Iqbal was the former Elizabeth Louise Mackenzie, a Scotswoman. Was it purely coincidental, then, that Idries devoted a lifetime to interpreting the meaning of the primordial wisdom of the East, for the benefit of the modern reader of the West?

Idries “succeeded” to formal leadership of the Sufi community when Sirdar Iqbal died in 1969. By that time, the younger Shah had already moved to Britain (he went there in the mid-1950s), had studied briefly at Oxford and had several books published, including two of his finest works, The Sufis (1964) and The Way of the Sufi (1968). Other books followed, covering diverse genres including travel, bibliography, literature, humour, fiction, philosophy and history. Yet his claim to fame remained those writings which dealt with Sufi thought as it applies to the cultures of both East and West. Among the most prominent books in this category are Thinkers of the East, Caravan of Dreams and The Magic Monastery. On the surface, at least, these books appear to be collections of simple and entertaining stories, often humours, never originally written by the author himself and rarely (if ever) acknowledging the proper sources. Beneath this thin veil of humour, piracy and chaos, however, lay the radical philosophy of Idries Shah, aimed at nothing less than changing the epistemology of the time.

Orientalists of the nineteenth century evolved a type of scholarship which attempted to organize the wisdom of the Eastern sages into “systems”. In our part of the world, Shibli and Iqbal would perhaps serve as the best examples of this kind of scholarship. However, this form of learned endeavour contained treacherous pitfalls. For instance, Iqbal’s doctorate thesis, titled “The Development of Metaphysics in Persia”, suffers from desperate comparisons and classifications which would have been laughed at by the very sages whose thoughts are described in the work. It was left to Idries Shah to initiate a dramatic departure from this epistemology, and to prove that the lust of modern writers for the “organization” of knowledge was incompatible with the wisdom of the East.

“The highly articulate of both the east and west have generally been in the grip of the belief that only a certain kind of organized thought can be used for learning”, Shah wrote in one of his prefaces. “The fact is, however, that all the precedents, all the books, all the traditions which have produced the great thinkers of the past in the Orient show almost no trace of what is today believed to be organization. If you were to ask a traditional Eastern sage for his “system”, he would look at you as a modern physician would if you asked for his “panacea for all ills”.

The desire for the organization of that knowledge whose very nature defies organization resulted in scholarly books on such Muslim philosophers and Sufis as Ibne Arabi, Ghazali and Rumi, but these books failed to ‘guide’ the reader. Rumi’s primary motive, for instance, was to move his readers through his parables and lead them to reflect upon themselves and their world, thus transforming them spiritually. Unfortunately, a typical ‘specialist’ treatise on the thought of Rumi would break down his ideas into smaller units, classify them, compare them with other philosophers of east and west, and end up losing the appeal, Rumi’s own primary motive, somewhere along the way.

It is perhaps understandable, then, that by the 1950s there was  already an aversion to these types of books, considered useless for those who wished to become acquainted with the old masters for any practical reason. For those with scholarly intentions, meanwhile, these tracts were rather too tedious and almost unreadable. It was said that “scholars desire to study mystics, but mystics never need to study scholars.” The pendulum was already beginning to swing back and the scene was set for a radical change in epistemology.

This new wave, however, could not have come from the direction of the modern ‘specialists’. It had toemerge from traditional Sufi circles, where it had long been realized that the essential need was to seek, preserve and transmit knowledge. Idries Shah belonged to one such circle, and he took the opportunity. “I was merely at the right place at the right time,” he later said.

By the time that Shah appeared on the horizon, scholasticism had underservedly acquired a bad odour, and the mess had to be cleaned up. Accordingly, Shah came up with collections of stories, anthologies which contained nothing but parables, saying and the hikayat of the masters. These had long been used in Sufi circles for the purpose of teaching, where the only methodology maintained with regard to their organization had been “ the manner of prescribing studies for individuals and groupings in accordance with teaching requirements…”

Accordingly, this was the only criterion which Shah observed while arranging stories for publication. His message was simple: the wisdom of the eastern sages is contained in stories, and these stories are meant to be studied carefully for reflection on their inner meanings. Any other way of manipulation would be a violence to the nature of Sufi thought.

The Way of the Sufi was first presented as a book “designed to present Sufi ideas, actions and report: not for the microscope or as museum-pieces, but in their relevance to a current community – what we call the contemporary world.” One only has to browse through its pages to realize that even in chapters with such titles as “El-Ghazali” or “The Chishti Order”, the subjects are represented mostly by teaching stories, through a first-hand  encounter.

In the early eighties, Shah was awarded the Dictionary of International Biography’s Certificate of Merit for Distinguished Service to Human Thought. Among his admirers were such luminaries of our age as Dorris Lessing (five years his senior by age and 14 years by the virtue of first publication.)

Idries Shah’s point about Sufi epistemology was well taken, and had a great impact on the ideas of his time. One hopes that his thought will weild equal influence on generations to come. By way of consolation, here is one happy thought for his mourners, taken from “A Disciple of Haider”, a story in Thinkers of the East:

Haider heard a disciple say: ‘I am glad I did not buy such-and-such a book, for now that I have arrived at the source of its knowledge I have saved myself pain and needless expense’.

After a year Haider handed him a book, saying:

‘You have served me for twelve months. The value of your labour has been a hundred dirhams. That is the cost of this book.

‘You would not have paid a hundred silver pieces for such an inanimate object as a book, and few people would do so. But you have been made to pay for it, by me, and here it is.

‘A camel is dear at a penny if you do not need a camel.

‘A single word is cheap at a thousand gold pieces, if it is essential to you.

‘If you wish to return to the source of being, you will always have to take the first step, even though you may be demanding to be allowed to take the hundredth step.

Beneath its thin veil of humour, piracy and chaos, Idries Shah’s radical philosophy was aimed at nothing less than changing the epistemology of the times.

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