Tuesday, 14 October 2014

The prodigious Work of the Sufis: Book review

The Sufis (2014) by Idries Shah
The Sufis by Idries Shah offers a wide overview of the historical development of the Sufi Way, through the works of individual masters (many of whom were highly successful polymaths), schools and orders, and through a whole host of fields in which they were engaged or through which their work was projected, such as religion, ethics, learning, science, the arts, traditional psychology and (not least) humour. Though it came to maturity in the classical Islamic era, the Sufi Way (which may be thought of in part as the esoteric heart of [exoteric] religion), it is said to have been a vital "yeast" or leaven in societies since time immemorial.

The Sufis shows the extraordinary and largely unknown or unsuspected influence and shaping of society, of what some term the "Ancient Teachings" or the "Secret Doctrine", not only in the East but also gradually diffusing throughout Medieval Christondom, a process which continues to this day, being re-presented as ever in accordance with the needs of time, place and people.

There's little point in reading out a list of the many topics covered by the chapters in the book, but suffice it to say that the Sufis influenced or were behind a great many of our institutions, or that these institutions are relics of previously dynamic Sufic operations. At random, then, we can see this Sufic influence in our poetry; literature; mythology; magic; alchemy; freemasonry; and in the Troubadour movement (with the concept of chivalry, romantic love and hence much modern music that has come along in its wake).

However, this book is no mere historical or academic exposition. If The Sufis appears scholarly, then that is only really of secondary importance. It comes over not only as an authoritative work but it clearly shows that the author is thoroughly familiar with the Sufi Way itself, having trodden that Path like Sufi mystics and action-philosophers before him, and having returned to help others along the Way. The work offers a detailed explanation of Sufi thought and action, scattered throughout the book, and together these points not only slowly build up a more-and-more coherent picture in the reader's mind but form a constellation of minor impacts designed to bypass the mind's censors, and "loosen up" prejudices and fixed thinking patterns.

As well as providing information, which has its place in preparatory studies, Shah's many books are primarily works designed to provoke and bring about change in the reader, initially perhaps at the level of opinion and belief, intellect and emotion (not least through the use of specialist teaching stories). But ultimately – if the studies are followed with sufficient dedication, and ideally with the help of a teacher – the studies bring about a succession of real and lasting changes in his or her actual being, through the activation of latent, subtle organs of higher perception. First, however, much groundwork and seed-planting has to be accomplished, what the Sufis call "learning how to learn" (which, it has to be said, also involves a lot of un-learning), before the real "self work" can begin in earnest.

Re-reading the work, I felt deeply saddened about the vicissitudes that the various genuine mystical traditions, their teachers, their followers (and folk in general) have gone through over the years; and about how different things could have been for future generations, not least here in the West, "if only ..." Over the years, we appear to have lost, squandered, misappropriated, twisted, discounted or rejected so much of inestimable worth and ended up in an almighty jam (with rampant materialism in the West and zealous extremism in the East). And at the same time, I'm thinking: "Hey, without Grace and without the folk in the traditions or favourably disposed to the traditions, and the struggles and sacrifice that they have been through, things could have been a whole lot worse." And for that, I will be eternally grateful.

In the end, I'm compelled to concede that I still can't find the words to do this work, The Sufis, anything like the justice that it so richly deserves, and can offer no better advice than to read (and re-read) the book yourself, and other books in the corpus. As Shah's son, Tahir has noted in his own book In Arabian Nights: A Caravan of Moroccan Dreams, shortly before he died Shah stated that his books form a complete course that could fulfil the function he had fulfilled while alive. As such, The Sufis can be read as part of a whole course of study.

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