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Neo-Sufism: The Case of Idries Shah
by James Moore

The backwater where modern sensibilities are impinged on by a refurbished Sufism is a vexed and peculiar one: erudition sits uneasily with popularisation; spiritual leaders of a stature almost forgotten in the West are jostled by impudent careerists; and the erratic pattern of translation lends a disproportionate influence to the towering minds of Ibn Arabi (AD 1165–1240) and Jalaluddin Rumi (AD 1207–1273). Our contemporary British scene affords few more successful figures than Idries Abutahir Shah—and few more pitiful.

For twenty-five years Shah [Shah died in 1996—ed. note] has been lit, as by St. Elmo's fire, with a nimbus of exorbitant adulation: an adulation he himself has fanned, an adulation which has not failed to arouse—in quieter Islamic, literary, academic, and Gurdjieffian circles—a largely unheeded contradiction. The coterie of serviceable journalists, editors, critics, animators, broadcasters, and travel writers, which gamely choruses Shah's praise, is entitled to enjoy undisturbed its special value judgment. Where, however, more eminent apologists have made debatable assertions of 'fact,' and where the traditional orientation of Sufism and indeed the canon of truth have suffered distortion, certain caveats concerning Shah must be refreshed.

In 1975 Doris Lessing brought to a climax her long years of enthusiasm in a Guardian article of reckless ardour, appropriately entitled, 'If you knew Sufi....' In this hagiography—no other noun will serve—Shah was advertised as a saintly but genial polymath, who had attended several Western and Eastern universities; commanded 60 million adherents; and quite disinterestedly dispensed the 'Secret Wisdom':

Idries Shah is one of these (great Sufi Masters), and from his birth has been prepared for the specific task of establishing this teaching here in the West.

An elitist spiritual education is one of Shah's two main planks: the second—echoed below by Robert Graves—adduces silsila the Sufic initiatic chain:

Idries Shah Sayed happens to be in the senior male line of descent from the prophet Mohammed, and to have inherited the secret mysteries from the Caliphs, his ancestors. He is, in fact, a Grand Sheikh of the Sufi Tariqa...

Such claims by such claimants deserve the compliment of attentive scrutiny, and necessarily invite discreet interrogation of Shah's antecedents.

Shah's Origins

Idries Shah's pretension to be a Sayyid (in common incidentally with a million or more putative descendants of Muhammad's younger grandson Husain) may be conceded grosso modo, without its conferring on him the spiritual authority he implies. But the wilder boasts of his posterity—that he springs from Abraham's loins and from the last Sasanid kings—belong to the melancholy area of creative genealogy; and indeed in so far as they rely on his vaunted place in the 'senior male line of descent from... Mohammed,' they labour under the unconsidered difficulty that all three sons of the Prophet died in infancy.

Shah's traceable paternity places him within an obscure Afghan clan from Paghman, a resort fifty miles from Kabul. Ironically enough, his great-great-grandfather Muhammad Shah was awarded the title 'Jan Fishan Khan' (The Zealot) in 1840, for supporting British interests against his Muslim co-religionists. If it is over-censorious to call him (as I. P. Elwell-Sutton has) a 'ruffian,' it is preposterous to call him (as Idries has) 'chief of the Hindu Kush Sufis.' The specific Sufic link claimed by Idries is first defined and rendered remotely plausible in the person of his grandfather Amjed Ali Shah, the self-styled 'Nawab of Sardhana' and 'Naqshbundi Pugmani.' The Naqshabandiyya were an important central Asian Sunni tariqa, associated with the name of Baha´ ad-Din Naqshband (AD 1318–1389). Yet Amjed Ali's religious dedication is less well attested than his dissipation of the family's estates at Sardhana near Delhi.

Ikbal Ali Shah (1894–1969), the son of Amjed Ali and father of Idries, settled in Britain before the First World War, only to meet rebuffs. Behind his compensatory inventions of private conversations with King George V lay his failure at Edinburgh Medical School and—equally predictable—his ignominious treatment as a son-in-law. Charming and personable, Ikbal was a lifelong sufferer from Munchhausen's syndrome—a condition first diagnosed in 1929, when he tried to compromise the P. M. Ramsay MacDonald, and Foreign Office investigation revealed there 'was hardly a word of truth in his writings.' Towards Sufism, Ikbal's stance was ambivalent. He did write one innocuous popularisation, Islamic Sufism (Rider & Co., 1933). However, he dipped his pen in the inkpot of Voltaire when alluding to the Rifa´i, Mevlevi, and Ansariyya tariqas; and he positively applauded Mustafa Kemal's abolition of the fez and the Turkish dervish orders on 2 September 1925. As to orthodox Islam, Ikbal's conduct over the notorious halal meat scandal in Buenos Aires in 1946, provoked the British Ambassador to describe him as 'a swindler.'

However powerful and unusual were the influences to which Idries Shah was innocently exposed in his formative years, they were hardly Sufic.

A Youthful Tourist

Idries Abutahir Shah was born in Simla on 16 June 1924. Before long, he was brought to England where he grew up—a timid child—at 'Northdene,' Brighton Road, Belmont, Sutton. His boyhood with his brother Omar Ali Shah was uneventful—though, even in Belmont, not entirely insulated from pockets of inexcusable prejudice against Anglo-Indians. In August 1940, when German bombing began in earnest, the family evacuated from London to Oxford, where Idries's two or three academically undistinguished years at the City of Oxford High School, in New Inn Hall Street, evidently crowned and concluded his formal education. To the decade 1945 to 1955 Idries assigns his Wanderjahre, assiduously cultivating the impression of far-flung and audacious travels in Asia as a 'student of Traditional Sufi sheikhs.' He may indeed have used his father's oriental contacts. Incongruously enough however, it was to Uruguay that he went in winter 1945, as secretary of his father's halal meat mission, and to England that he returned in October 1946. All that is certain apropos this period is that Shah has made portentous and inherently improbable claims, without elucidating (and indeed largely clouding) the biographical record.

Our subject emerges somewhat from the shadows with the publication of his first books, which are important in indicating the voltage and orientation of his mind, before he gained support from literary agents and research assistants, and, crucially important in situating him vis-a-vis Islam and Sufism, before he had furbished his 'Sufic' persona. Shah's first book Oriental Magic (Rider, 1956) will survive, if at all, as the prototype of his recourse to antecedent writing, and of his pretensions as a mystery figure. It finds him, at 32, primarily concerned with matters like 'Mungo' the ectoplasmic force, garters for distances, and Himalayan leopard powder. Only chapter 7, 'The Fakirs and their Doctrines,' approaches the Sufic theme, and it is replete with errors. His ensuing travel memoir Destination Mecca (Rider, 1957), although intrinsically slight, is certainly more important for its unconscious self-depiction.

What do we find?

Regrettably, we find a tourist who (Shah's own words) 'had lived for years in the West'; a mind embarrassingly superficial and banal, lacking the least resonance of religious feeling; a photographer obsessed with his Robot f/2.8 rapid action camera, exultant at his furtive and sacrilegious snapshots of the Kaaba; a materialist repelled by the 'unhygienic bodies' of the Muslim Brethren but intrigued by Mecca United football team; a man meeting his first practising Sufis around the age of 30, only to find their sacred books unfamiliar:

These were the actual Dancing Dervishes—of the Bektashi Order—in action! I would have given anything to have had my camera with me.

Alike in his conflation of the Bektashi and Mevlevi tariqas and in his voyeuristic reaction—the real Idries Shah exposes himself.