Idries ShahIn 1991, during my second year at University and during the months following my conversion to Islam, I discovered the works of Idries Shah. It was not an easy time in my life– I was being yarked between MSA Wahhabis on the one hand and a devotee of Ghulam Parwez on the other, at the same time as trying to figure out why my first attempts at salah led to sexual arousal. In the midst of this surreal confusion, Shah’s works were simultaneously a respite and a brick to the head. My third year dissertation attempted to analyse the wider cultural significance of Shah’s writings, an intention hinted at by Shah and implicit in the widespread popularity and availability of his writings.
Shah is a writer who rarely inspires lukewarm, cautious opinion. To some, Shah was a populist and a fake, an academic non-entity who not only regurgitated readily available Sufi texts for new age hippies and human potential capitalists, but also cynically ingratiated himself on the good and the great, sometimes – in the case of poet Robert Graves, to their detriment. To his devotees, who still hang on his every written word, Shah was the teacher of the age, a guru of monumental proportions. Perhaps the most sensible assessment of him comes from the British ethnologist Ron Geaves, who acknowledges Shah as a Sufi who ‘epitomised the Malamati tradition’ (Geaves, 2000, p.169) in his rejection of all esotericism and outward shows of religion.
Speaking as someone who sees the Sufi traditions as encapsulating the greatest spiritual truth, I would argue Shah’s spiritual validity and legacy can only be understood by those ‘from the inside’; scholars and journalists are not Sufis. But even here, distinguishing the genuine article from the wannabes and cult leaders is no mean feat - so who do you ask? Surely Shah’s body of work is too elaborate and articulate to be entirely bogus. In the end, I can only report what impact Shah and his associates have had on my own sensibilities and leave others to read his work and make their own judgements.
On my first reading of Idries Shah’s writings, I think it’s fair to say my response simply reflected my state of mind at the time. Thus, insanity and rubbish thinking prevailed! Somehow, from something Shah said – perhaps in his book which seems to deliberately target weak-minded emotionalists (People of the Secret) – I came to fear that Sufis might be lurking anywhere, indistinguishable from ordinary people, but able to read my mind (and thus see my darkest secrets). I therefore began to treat every passing stranger as a potential Sufi and a trespasser on my feeble psyche. I even wrote to Shah but got no reply – though I’m sure my correspondence must have been a source of considerable humour to his secretary.
I date my second reading of Shah as A.J. (Anno Joel), that is, after my son was diagnosed as having autism. I had embarked on a career as his teacher and carer, and then as a teacher-proper, so that for the first time in my life, my focus was wholly on something other than myself. In retrospect, I now realise age 18-32 represents an era when I was utterly wrapped up in me me me. In this post-self-obsession context, Shah became an illusion-stripper, a bullshit detector par excellence. It is no surprise to me that his works pop up on reading lists for business courses – if nothing else Idries Shah was an astute social psychologist.
It’s odd that Shah’s profile isn’t more visible in progressive Muslim discourse, which seems as comfortable with Western culture (if not the Pax Americana) as Shah was. The close links between Western academia and progressive Islam is probably one reason why Shah’s name rarely crops up - in Western universities, Shah largely remains a persona non grata, his name to be mentioned only in a tone of extreme caution. But I also suspect his low profile in progressive circles is down to Shah’s acknowledgement that Malamati Sufism and the traditional Islam of the five schools of law (four plus Shi’i) are all roads to the same destination.
Indeed, I date my third and most recent reading of Shah to just before the turn of the millennium, when I experienced a regrettably brief foray into traditional Hanafi Islam. To understand why, I am forced to step beyond Shah’s own literary astringents and into the works of writers published by Octagon Press, which Shah established. There - in the writings of psychologist Robert Ornstein - is a concept of consciousness which subsequently became central to my whole understanding of Muslim praxis.
Ornstein wrote about the brain, merging neuropsychological modular theory with role theory from social psychology, in order to suggest that people are rarely holistic units, but function instead as a distinct set of selves, each bound to a particular protocol of behaviours and attitudes. In one example, Ornstein cites the true story of a man standing on the edge of a mountain road surrounded by a crowd, about to jump to his death. A traffic cop pulls up, indifferent to the bustle, and loudly demands an illegally parked car be moved immediately. The man about to jump unthinkingly returns to move it, where he is arrested by police already on the scene.
Ornstein suggests that humans also possess a ‘central operator’ which is able to control the multitude of selves, but this capacity is weak in most people. The development of this central operator is part of the ‘evolution of consciousness’ which is also the title of one of Ornstein’s books. Surely, I thought, this ‘central operator’ is the tool for realising taqwa, or God-consciousness, and thereby ensuring every aspect of life is subject to God’s will. But how was this to be realised in practice? Simply claiming to be doing something in God’s name, or to be acting in the ‘spirit of Islam’, have never been sufficient for me to ensure Yakoub the teacher and Yakoub the father and Yakoub the neighbour were all Yakoub the Muslim.
It seemed to me, and it still seems to me, that the only way to ensure Yakoub the person who is conscious of Allah and submitting to The One, and Yakoub the central controller, are one and the same, is to practice Shariah Islam, with every aspect of the Sunnah in situ. In my hanafi phase, I particular focused on the prayers of the Prophet (aws), which include du’a for every event from travel to sex, as a way of tying remembrance of God to action in every part of my life. Every act was begun and ended with a prayer or a bismillah, and where time was ‘spare’, I remembered Allah through dhikr. The impact on my life was incredible. For the first time in my life, I began to experience a genuine sense of peace.
It didn’t last, of course. There was a personal calamity, in that I had to temporarily leave teaching and educate my son at home again, but the true fragility of my faith-based approach stemmed from unresolved issues and hidden demons: I was never comfortable with what I understood to be Islam’s teachings on homosexuality; I was also troubled by traditional Muslim apologetics posing as a commitment to gender justice. Moreover, I felt I had not fully explored the philosophical teachings of Islam, to the extent that I found my faith frequently open to doubt. And there were also negative aspects of my life that conveniently remained untouched by Mr. Central-Controller Taqwa.
The philosopher Shabbir Akhtar once urged Muslims “to leave, if temporarily, the House of Islam, to venture through the alien world of rejection and rival patterns of religious conviction; to venture beyond dogma and unargued assumptions, in the larger attempt to become acquainted not only with the a prior theologies of scripture but also with the sometimes recalcitrant realities of a world and human nature under their usual tuition." This, I hope, is what I have been doing and what I am doing now, trying hard not to get lost on the way.
The time for return, insha Allah, is coming.