Saturday, October 08, 2005

My Ramadan Mentor

This Ramadan, there are three things I hope to achieve. The first is to fast all the days when Joel is not at home, with the intention insha Allah of fasting the rest during the year; the second, which has now become something of an imperative given it is 15 years since I said my shahadah, is to learn to read Quranic script; and the third is to begin re-reading the trio of works concerned with the preliminary basics prior to learning tassawuf, written by Idries Shah: Learning How to Learn, Knowing How to Know, and The Commanding Self.

I first discovered Shah at aged 27 - I was an undergrad at the University of Leeds. I became obsessed with him when my interest in the local branch of the Wahhabi cult began to wane; and no less an emotionalist, I engaged with Shah’s writings with the same greed for excitement and wonder. My favourite book from Octagon Press was People of the Secret, which includes a preface by Colin Wilson (say no more). I suspect it was written deliberately to appeal to people – and reveal to them – the self-deception of mistaking thrills for genuine spiritual teaching.

My bubble burst when I began to read criticisms of Shah, which seemed outrageous and damning at the time, but on later sober reflection amount to no more than mud slinging and academic insularity. The darker controversies can be found in Robert Graves’ dairies, for those with an appetite for such things. Shah is still viewed with a degree of disdain by many, but by no means all, Islamic Studies academics. In spite of his critics, an impressive array of highly esteemed academics and writers published on Octagon press, which Shah founded.

Despite the let-down, I wrote my dissertation on Shah, still half in love with him, exploring the cultural relevance of my primitive understanding of his ideas. His controversial status led to a stand-up row with my supervisor. I barely recall what I wrote, but it was probably rubbish and I got a lower second for my bad temper. Yet I have continued to return to Shah’s writings over the years, each time taking something new from them, and each time with a greater belief in Shah as a Sufi teacher. But don’t take my word for it. Real Sufis don’t need a sales pitch.

But what the heck! Shah is the only writer I am aware of who details such a comprehensive psychology of learning as well as a psychology of the false self (nafs-i-ammara or an-nafs al-‘ammāra), in a way which is pertinent to my cultural understandings and which seem a potentially valid preliminary study to serving as a Murid. The fact I am still trying to study his works 15 years after first discovering them is not so much evidence of their power, but of the after effects of a youth spent taking LSD, speed and hash. Young readers be warned!

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