Guest blogger

Robert Twigger: 50 Years after Idries Shah’s The Sufis

Robert Twigger is an acclaimed travel writer who has written on Japan and the Nile. Here, as a guest blogger for the Asian Affairs Weblog, he hails the 50th anniversary of the publication of Idries Shah’s The Sufis:

It is 50 years since the publication of Idries’ Shah’s ground-breaking The Sufis, with its introduction by Robert Graves, who, thanks to Goodbye to All That and I, Claudius was popular enough to get the book noticed. The reading public was already familiar with Zen and Vedanta but Sufism was something new. Ted Hughes wrote, “The Sufis must be the biggest society of sensible people ever to have been on earth”. Stanford Professor, Robert Ornstein, a pioneer of work on the bilateral specialization of the brain stated, “[Sufi stories] offer a working blueprint of the mind.” But it was Doris Lessing who became the most ardent of the many famous supporters of the book. In 2002 when she and I contributed to the same poetry collection she told me that Sufism “was the only element within Islam that westerners could connect to- and connect they must if we are to save this world from splitting apart”.

A year later I was living in Egypt. I was surprised to find that Sufism in the East was a part of the very fabric for resistance to the growing polarisation in Islam.  Saudi influenced Wahabism and Muslim Brotherhood backed fundamentalism – bearded Islam if you like – has so hijacked the Western image of the religion that the very existence of moderate and moderating influences are overlooked, even suspected not to exist. But they do.

In 2011, during the strange times of the Egyptian revolution, between the looting of the Carrefour supermarket and the significant (for me) moment when thugs hotwired and stole my battered but much loved landcruiser, I started going to an upmarket Cairo coffee shop which remained steadfastly open despite the growing cacophony of rifle fire. On one occasion I saw a puzzling group of men deep in earnest discussion: one or two in the expensive casual clothes of the Egyptian wealthy, three in suits and three dressed in traditional gelibeyas – and by their faces and deportment I could tell they were fairly humble workers. Such a gathering is very unusual in Egypt where the wealthy and poor remain very much apart. When I told my wife (who is Egyptian) she said in an offhand way, “Oh, they’re Sufis”. Groups where people who look superficially different and yet get on, work together, are rather rare in any place, and getting rarer. But Sufi groups are widespread from Morocco to Sudan, from Turkey to India.

Sufism, is, broadly speaking, the mystical branch of Islam. But unlike Christian mysticism, which has never been organised, Sufi groups, or Tariqas, are an inalienable part of the Islamic world. Between 5 and 15 million people (depending on your source) are affiliated with Sufi groups in Egypt alone. Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz was a member of one- which he only revealed late in life, in his Shadows of an Autobiography. Sufism is a reticent thing, it is aware that fanatics do not appreciate its many merits. Sufis have usually remained apolitical, and out of the news. But since the rise of Salafi attacks on the shrines of Sufi saints they have attracted attention. Behind the scenes they have moved to back General Sisi- no saint himself but the man who has pulled Egypt away from its flirtation with the Muslim Brotherhood and a steady descent into chaos. Though Egypt remains sick it is at last healing.

But what of Sufism in the West? Is it helping here? It certainly allows a way in for Western liberals to better understand Islam – and that cannot be a bad thing. There have been Jewish Sufis (Abraham Maimonides, son of Saladin’s doctor, Moses. Now that’s a thought – hard to imagine a Taliban leader with a Jewish doctor) and Christians very influenced by Sufism- the medieval scholar Raymond Lull and most famously, St. Francis of Assisi. It is this inclusive heritage that Idries Shah was able to build on.

Shah was of Afghan descent, like many of the most famous Sufis – Rumi, for example, (surprisingly America’s best selling poet in the 21st century according to the BBC’s Jane Ciabattari in a recent program). With a background of travel in both Asia and Europe, Shah was admirably placed to let the West know in 1964 that the East contained a unsuspected network of enlightened people. Principally the public teachings of Sufism are represented by classical Arab and Persian poets and writers – Hafez, Sa’adi, Ibn Tufail and of course Rumi. These poetically expressed truths and tales were tailored for a different time and place. Shah saw himself as a re-presenter in a more modern way of these immutable truths. Like Rumi he was fond of quoting, “Look not at my outward form but take what is in my hand.”

And partly thanks to Idries Shah, the West knows a lot more about Sufi activity than it did fifty years ago. William Dalrymple, who has spoken widely about Sufism in recent years, has admitted his debt to the work of Idries Shah. In a recent Guardian column so did self-help writer Oliver Burkman. On the Today program John Humphries talked about letting the camel’s nose into the tent. This is a traditional tale popularised by Shah but well known enough to have usefully lost the deadweight of authorship. Shah was concerned only that the concepts and stories that had survived for so long in East should remain in an understandable form. For his own life to be recorded he cared little- turning down several offers of biography. He remains, like Rumi, less well known personally than his words.

Shah died in 1996 but the Idries Shah Foundation works on to translate Shah’s work into Arabic, Farsi and Urdu, as, ironically, the original material Shah brought from the Oriental world has been persecuted to extinction in many regions of the East. The shock troops of ISIS will one day depart and folk will need re-introducing to their cultural inheritance.

The Jewel of the Nile- remember that movie? With Danny de Vito and Michael Douglas it was a kind of modern day Indiana Jones . It turned out that the Jewel was an unpretentious holy man- a Sufi- the first representation of a Sufi by Hollywood that I know of- and, indirectly I suspect, inspired by Shah’s work. The holy man saves the day, with a little help from the stars. “Sufi’s rule,” as Danny Devito put it.


Afghanistan, RSAA member

Afghan Marble Trade – interview

Matthew Leeming is an RSAA member who works in Afghanistan with Milio International to develop Afghan marble mines and the country’s capacity to process and export the stone. He is also co-author of the Odyssey Companion and Guide to Afghanistan. Here, he answers questions from the Asian Affairs Weblog: 

  1. What is the state of trade for marble in Afghanistan? Is there the infrastructure and capacity to mine it, and if so, can it actually be processed in Afghanistan?

Well, there is now a factory in Herat which was recently sold for $20 million. It is equipped with Italian machinery and can apparently cut to western standards.

  1. Herat is well known for tile-work (we only have to think of the Friday Mosque and Gazergah). What has it got to do with marble?

Nothing (at the moment). My only knowledge of Herati marble was a carved pillar I saw in the Art Institute in Chicago years ago, a beautiful floor in the Herat Transport Department and a piece of carved white marble at Gohar Shad’s mausoleum which could have been originally the same piece as the Chicago carving that I assumed was a grave marker. It was presumably broken in 1885 when the British blew up the madrassah and minarets at Herat to give a better line of sight against invading Russians – who never came. There certainly was a tradition of stone carving in Herat – the mausoleum of Gohar Shad contains five stunning calligraphy panels which someone tried to steal that were originally used at the bottom of the minarets, according to Jolyon Leslie.

  1. What is so special about the marble coming out of Afghanistan? Are there any special artistic or craft traditions on top of the quality of the marble itself to be aware of?

It is very high quality. The stone for the Taj Mahal was apparently quarried near Jalalabad and we have just had two 25 tonne blocks quarried there that we are getting cut in the Gulf.

  1. What are the challenges facing people in the trade? Is it really worth the bother of trying to excavate and export it, when one might just stick to somewhere safe like Italy?

The major problem is getting orders in a foreign market. I am going to Baku in Azerbaijan in the New Year to look at a processing plant there that Milio may invest in. The figures for the Azeri economy are mind-boggling: there was 35% economic growth in one single year; they have loads of money from oil (even down to a crude price of $50 per barrel); they are building on an Old Testament scale including a new Tower of Babel 3,500 feet tall; and are decorating the buildings in onyx and marble. I am currently in Dubai trying to sell marble for four hotels and a palace and we are just about to take on a salesman to do this properly.

  1. What’s the export market for Afghan marble? Who wants it outside the country? Can it compete?

The economics are driven by the cost of transport which can cost as much as the stone itself. So you want to be selling it near Afghanistan which means central Asia and the Gulf is the best market. Plus marble is very heavy and you lose 20% of it in cutting so you want to cut near the quarry. To begin with, at least and despite its high quality, Afghan stone is going to have to compete on price.

The obvious export market is Turkmenistan which is very close to Herat and is building new ‘white cities’ from white marble to honour the former President, Turkmen-Bashi. Afghanistan did one shipment but did something so depressingly familiar to anyone who works with Afghan export industries that it has its own name: the Idar-Oberstein trick. Idar-Oberstein is a town in Germany which is the centre of the European emerald trade. The Afghans got an order for emeralds from the Panjshir and shipped them. The first lot were excellent but the subsequent ones complete rubbish, so bad that the Germans now refuse to look at any stones from Afghanistan.

  1. How are you going to prevent a repetition of the Idar-Oberstein trick?

By rigorous scrutiny of the process at every step. We are not just supplying Italian Fantini chain saws to improve the rate of extraction but also cutting the blocks into slabs with Italian machines and rejecting anything sub-standard. That is the only way that we can establish Afghan stone in foreign markets.

  1. What impact is the trade having on Afghanistan and/or Herat?

According to Melissa Skorka, an ISAF counterinsurgency adviser, it is having a beneficial effect already: Afghans in and around Herat are now so usefully employed making money that they are not interested in blowing up themselves and ISAF convoys. This is apparently such a major new discovery that they are trying to repeat it in other places. We just did two 25 tonne loads of onyx from Lashkar Gah to Verona and Lash is of course one of the Taliban hotbeds in Helmand and I haven’t heard of any insurgent attacks there since, but correlation is not the same as causation.

Afghanistan, RSAA member

Afghan Boundary Commission 1885 – quest for photographs

During the work of the Anglo-Russian commission, which, with the agreement of the Amir, settled Afghanistan’s north-western border with the Russian Empire in 1885-6, a series of photographs were taken. Paul Bucherer, the Director of the Afghanistan Institute in Switzerland, has compiled a catalogue of these photographs, with copies displayed on the Institute’s Phototheca Afghanica website: A printed volume of them has been donated to the Society’s library. In spite of extensive searches, such as in the British Library archives, some of the 167 photographs, that are known to have been taken, are missing.  He would like to hear from anyone who has knowledge of the existence of any complete copy of the album of photographs from that Afghan Boundary Commission:  / Afghanistan-Institut, Brühlstrasse 2, CH-4416 Bubendorf, Switzerland.

Afghanistan, Pakistan, RSAA member

The Peshawar School Attack

Dr Robin Edward Poulton, an RSAA member who has lived amongst Afghan villagers, offers a heartfelt response to the recent Taliban attack on the Peshawar Army Public School in Pakistan:

Taliban butchers are Pashtun cowards

by Robin Edward Poulton[i]

If you sit of an evening beside a fire in the Pashtun heartlands, you will hear tales of bravery, honour and generosity. You will hear stories about how the Pashtuns were never defeated: not by Alexander the Great, nor by Genghis Khan the Mongol, nor by the British Empire, nor even recently by the Soviet and American imperial armies despite their fighter bombers and their helicopter gunships. All these great military conquerors passed through the Khyber Pass from Afghanistan into Pakistan, but they never ruled the mountain passes where the Durrani and the Ghilzai Pashtuns herd their goats and fight their blood feuds. Just as NATO forces are pulling out in 2014, so too the Soviets pulled out in 1989 and the British pulled out in 1842, and in 1880 and in 1919: the 1st and 2nd and 3rd Anglo-Afghan wars all ended with retreat by the exhausted invading army, like the Anglo-American invasion we have been watching since 2001.

In the Pashtun evening light, you will drink your tea flavoured with cardamom and suck sugared almonds, while lounging on your tushak thick mattresses or lying on your charpoy wooden bed on the veranda of the guest house: for the first rule of Pashtun life is hospitality, melmastia. If you listen under the silence of the stars, you may hear young girls singling inside their qala, the fortified house inside which no stranger can ever venture. They will sing ballads about the bravery of their young warriors, recite poems calling their heroes home for a wedding with their sweet and loving bride, or to see their first-born son who will one day take the place of his valiant father to defend his family’s honour, nang. Like their ancestors before them, young boys take their turn in the watchtower built above the qala, watching for enemies and strangers: in these wild mountain passes that have seen so many aggressors, the assumption is always that a stranger may be an enemy. Hindus came in the 1700s and decapitated Pashtun warriors; conquering Persian armies came from the West; and countless Turco-Mongol hordes swept down from the Steppes of Central Asia.

But after the Taliban attack of December 16th 2014 on a school in Peshawar, what will the Ghilzai ladies be singing this New Year inside their fortified qala? Will they be singing glorious bravery of the men who slaughtered 7 and 8 and 9-year-olds in their classrooms – or will they keep silent in face of this cowardly butchery of innocent infants?  Will they compose ballads to praise the honour of the Taliban Ghilzai who shot unarmed and elderly teachers in front of their students – or will the Ghilzai women feel shame?  Pashtun women remember those brave warriors who defeated the British armies of the 19th century, but how can they compare battles in the mountains to the butchery of 100 children in a school in Peshawar?

Ah! How are the Ghilzai fallen!  Most Taliban are Pashtuns – and many, like Mullah Omar, are Ghilzai jealous of the Durrani presidents Hamid Karzai and Abdul Ghani. How did Pashtun warriors shrink to become the butchers of small children? What Pashtun maiden will compose poems for the coward who shot an unarmed, 15-year old called Malala Youssoufzai, and her friends in a school bus? Aiyee! Alas! The noble Pashtun have crumbled into a state of dishonour! While Malala (now 17) has been elevated to the status of Nobel Peace Laureate.

The Pashtun tribes have been Muslims for twelve centuries. The Arab expansion reached Afghanistan within 50 years of the death of Mohamed the Prophet (Peace be upon Him and upon all the Prophets). Afghanistan and Pakistan are 99% Muslim. If you sit for hours – or indeed for months, as I have done – in an Afghan village, talking through the evenings with your village neighbours, you can pretty well know that 40% of the conversation will concern the economy (the price of wheat, the value of sheep, the quality of karakul Persian lamb skins); 10% will be gossip about the village or about stuff that someone heard in the weekly market; and 50% of the conversation will be related to religion. Village life is dominated by Islam. Not that Afghan villagers are very knowledgeable about their religion: most of the rules that govern Pashtun life come from the ancient Pashtun Code of Honour, the Pashtunwali, and have nothing whatever to do with Islam: but villagers will assure you that these are the rules that the Prophet (PbuH) followed.

And where, you may well ask, did the Prophet recommend that Muslims should kill school children? Indeed, He did not. One of the Prophet’s most famous – and most profound – sayings was this: “The pen is mightier than the sword.”  The Prophet was in favour of education, including education for women. Most Taliban do not know this, because they are profoundly ignorant of the meaning of Islam, Very few of them can read or write, and most of them have no idea of the meaning of the Arabic sentences they recite in their prayers.

If you remind the Taliban about surats from the Holy Koran that tell Muslims never to kill another Muslim, how will your brave Pashtun slaughterer-of-children reply? He will get angry, because he has no answer. He will tell you that the people he killed were infidels. But he is wrong: it is the Taliban who are infidels, for they no longer respect the religion they profess to practice.

And if you remind them that a brave Pashtun warrior is committed to defend children and not to slaughter them? Then your Taliban will become angry again, because they know that they have violated the sacred Pashtun Code of Honour, the Pashtunwali.

They will try to justify their attack on a military school in Peshawar, by calling on the rules of blood feud and vengeance: for badal is a sacred Pashtun duty, to avenge any insult to your family’s honour. But their speech will be weak, for they know that there is no badal in the slaughter of school children – they will speak lies, and they will know it.

The Taliban have sunk so low on the scale of humanity, that they are no longer Pashtuns: for a Pashtun respects the the Pashtunwali and will die for the honour it implies. The Taliban have no honour.

Worse, the Taliban are no longer Muslims. Everything they do is so alien to the religion of the Prophet Mohamed (PbuH), that these are men without religion. The Taliban have brought the Pashtun lands back in time to the jahiliya, the pagan days when tribal elders worshipped idols and there was no One God in their lives. The Taliban have no God. They worship only idols: their Kalashnikovs and their RPG rocket launchers, and the religion of Violence. Never in the history of this great warrior people, have Pashtun men sunk so low. They and their Arab and Chechen fellow-jihadis have become ignorant  butchers who know neither honour, nor God.

[i] Dr Poulton is President of V-Peace, the Virginia Institute for Peace and Islamic Studies, and an Affiliate Professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. He co-Chaired a peace conference at VCU in September 2013

Dr Poulton wrote his PhD thesis on village economic systems in Afghanistan.