TWENTY YEARS AGO Idries Shah's The Sufis appeared and deeply impressed those whom it did impress. Yet in spite of the influence it has had among the informed in various disciplines, it deserves to be more widely known. I think The Sufis will come to be seen as a seminal book of the century, even a watershed.
The Sufis (the word is not important, they have been known in many cultures under many names) have influenced the world for centuries, creating literatures (Persian), systems of law and medicine, molding whole societies. But what is "Sufism," are Sufis? Sufism is a Path, a Way, one of the mystical traditions. In our reference books Sufis are likely to be described as Islamic mystics; at best as "the inner truth of Islam." But this book explains that Sufism predates both Islam and Christianity, and that it is a mistake to equate it with any particular culture or phase of a culture. We tend to see mysticism, mystics, as private, even secret. Not so, say the Sufis; to withdraw from the world is an aberration: before you can study with a Sufi you must be established as a functioning member of society. Sufis claim to be servants of society; to study with Sufis is to study service.
Perhaps it is easier to say what Sufis are not: not bigots, not claimers of exclusive relations with God; not quietists; not religious in a narrow sense, though all religions are respected as the outer form of an inner truth; not political, while respecting people who genuinely believe in the efficacy of political faith; not to be defined in terms of any one country, race, culture, class. What Sufis are is what you learn while studying with a Sufi: this is a definition of the Sufi Way. But then it is a definition of any Way based on study with an Exemplar, a Guide.
The Sufis is composed of material taken from Western scholarship, old and new, together with accounts of Westerners who were Sufis or influenced by Sufism; fresh material from the Sufi source gives the book its life and coherence. History, literature, the study of religions --that these subjects are illuminated is hardly surprising; but how much more is suggested, how many signposts point into regions that seem, at first, improbable. More than once I've seen a field of scholarship transformed because of a simple suggestion from Shah to look in a new way at some old source: once it was The Jewish Encyclopedia and the field was Portuguese literature.
But the influence of The Sufis is far from being narrowly scholastic. As Robert Graves said in his introduction, "This book is not addressed to intellectuals or other orthodox thinkers or to anyone who will fail to recognize it at once as addressed to himself." It is rather the Sufi approach, in my opinion, that attracts people; the flexibility, the generosity, the characteristic of being able to find in apparently different or even hostile things some common element. As I write I have before me a sheet taken at random from a filing cabinet full of them, listing papers and books, by scholars and scientists, about how Sufis have influenced: business management; romance literature; scientific thought; Indian thought; psychiatry; the study of brain function; medicine.
While The Sufis' impact on scholarship is visible and acknowledged, it is not easy to discuss the less apparent developments of Sufi teaching. The book said clearly, at least to some people, though not in so many words, that a new Sufi Exemplar was with us, and that a "school" was being evolved. This has not happened openly in the West for many centuries (though Sufis have always been at work here); and because of this, the West lacks a central mental set, the idea of "teacher" or "exemplar," which has always been familiar in the East, and in many different cultures. (It does help, in approaching Sufis now to recognize that the West is not necessarily the most advantaged area of the world from all points of view: for one thing there is our cultural provincialism, for another, our obsession with material accumulation, "the good life".) But in spite of these and other handicaps, people approached Idries Shah from all over the world as hopeful students, contributing to the development of Sufi "schools," centered currently in England. I have put "teacher" and "school" in quotation marks because of our associations with these words. It may take years to learn what a Sufi school really is, what a teacher is. Certainly not a building, a place, a guru, a father-figure, or some sort of weirdo who stimulates by bizarre behavior.
The Sufis, then, can be seen partly as a deconditioning instrument. Reading it can be the start both of the long preparatory process of "giving up" which the Sufis claim is essential before a pupil can learn--"You cannot put water into a full pot"--and, too, an exercise in using the mind in a different way. You cannot adequately read The Sufis without beginning to develop the relaxed watchfulness and readiness to absorb what you can--the Sufi way of study; and without beginning to shed the habit of looking for familiar points to fit into already existing patterns--the academic way.
I remember how amazed I felt, when ideas I had despaired of ever being able to share with others appeared as part of this ancient tradition, one which insists that it must be lived in a contemporary world or it is nothing: a relic, a museum piece, a historical curiosity. For years I had been like the child saying of the emperor: "But he has no clothes!" Since then I have been learning, among many other things, to look at our institutions from an acute angle.
This fresh introduction to a spiritual inheritance which disowns narrow religiosity, to a study which is unlike anything you imagine when you start, which regards sectarianism and cultism as aberrations, has given birth to a host of imitators calling themselves Sufi who are religionists, bigots, cultists, father-figures, sometimes just plain crazy. One of the uses of The Sufis is to give genuine students who may be afraid of falling into the hands of the phoney, the self-deluded or the cynical, a touchstone with which to judge the false.
How can I begin to say what this book has meant to me? And to the people of all religions, creeds, classes, countries and types of experience who learn with Shah? But there is the book itself, The Sufis, which is where I and some of these others began. May it reach new people in a new generation.