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

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.


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