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Saturday 7 December 1996
Issue 563

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Idries Shah


Idries Shah

Grand Sheikh of the Sufis whose inspirational books enlightened the West about the moderate face of Islam

IDRIES SHAH, who has died aged 72, was Grand Sheikh of the Sufis, and through his books and example the greatest living propagator of their spiritual insights.

The Arabic term Sufi, or mystic, derives from suf, meaning wool, probably in reference to the woollen garments worn by early Islamic ascetics. The movement, which has its origins in the 7th century, has aimed to achieve direct union with God, and has often been at odds with the technicalities of Islamic law.

Shah's book The Sufis (1964), slightly ahead of the surge of interest in metaphysical ideas, pronounced the Sufi tradition alive and well, and invited readers to test its ideas. The evident sense, and common sense, which most readers discovered made a welcome contrast to much of the mystical gobbledygook of the 1960s. By the end of his life Shah had published 20 titles on Sufism, which have sold 15 million copies in 12 languages.

At the same time he was Director of Studies for the Institute of Cultural Research, an educational charity which published material on cross-cultural patterns of human thought and behaviour. He was also Governor of the Royal Humane Society and of the Royal Hospital and Home for Incurables; he was a founder member of the Club of Rome. And, not least, he was a family man.

Though in speech and bearing Shah appeared as the epitome of Englishness, he was born at Simla on June 16 1924, into a Hashemite family which traces its ancestry and titles back to the prophet Mohammed.

His Scottish mother met his father, the writer and savant Sirdir Ikbal Ali Shah, when he was a medical student in Edinburgh. Afterwards they lived together in the Afghan highlands in Paghman, the stronghold and fiefdom of the family.

By inheritance, therefore, Idries Shah was at home in both East and West; he was educated by private tutors in Europe and the Middle East. He was briefly at St Catherine's College, Oxford.

Shah could be angry in the face of negativity or wilful foolishness, but more usually was warm and approachable, whether by the celebrated or the humble. His vast range of knowledge enabled him to point even specialists in new and fruitful directions.

A musicologist, for example, recorded Shah's help in helping to decipher ancient Egyptian songs unheard for 3,500 years. A scientist honoured during the Second World War for his inventions in naval radar acknowledged Shah's help in the development of patents in air ionisation.

In 1967, Robert Graves, a long-time friend of Shah, published a translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyám, declaring Khayyám a Sufi. Shah had no part in this but was drawn in by association when a group of academic orientalists attacked both the book and Shah, and even travelled to Afghanistan to collect ammunition against him.

The Afghans, anxious to protect Shah, fed the dons with all manner of ridiculous tales, which were subsequently passed unchecked to the press. But the more eminent critics sprang to Shah's defence.

In his books, Shah was making available Sufi ideas which he considered useful and relevant to western culture. Through the Octagon Press, the publishing company he founded, he established the historical and cultural context for these ideas. With Octagon he released much information about Afghanistan, aware of the value of such documentation in the aftermath of the country's devastation.

During the Afghan-Soviet war, Shah risked his life more than once, secretly entering Afghanistan to work with the Mujahideen. His novel Kara Kush (1986) was based on the stories he had heard and the atrocities he had witnessed. He was not above tweaking the Russian bear's tail by embedding secret "intelligence" in the text; for instance the telephone number of the KGB.

In the spring of 1987 Shah suffered two successive heart attacks. Sick as he was, his hilarious and hair-raising analysis of the medical profession was an eye-opener to those around him.

His physicians told him he had only eight per cent of his heart functioning, and that he could not expect to survive.

But, over the succeeding nine years, despite bouts of pain and illness, he produced further books, while working with characteristic dedication, seriousness, and light-heartedness, to advise those in need, and to prepare those who would succeed him.

Idries Shah married, in 1958, Cynthia (Kashfi) Kabraji; they had a son and two daughters.

  • Doris Lessing writes: I met Idries Shah because of The Sufis, which seemed to me the most surprising book I had read, and yet it was as if I had been waiting to read just that book all my life. It is a cliché to say that such and such a book changed one's life, but that book changed mine. That was in 1964. It is a book that gives up more of itself every time you read it, and this is true of his other books, which all together make up a phenomenon like nothing else in our time, a map of Sufi living, learning, thinking. If I emphasise the books, it is because they are the evident legacy of this man's life, and available to anyone. He used to say he had never been asked a question whose answer is not in his books.

    He was a good friend to me, and my teacher. It is not easy to sum up 30 odd years of learning under a Sufi teacher, for it has been a journey with surprises all the way, a process of shedding illusions and preconceptions. One way of putting it could be that it brings to life the familiar words, the set phrases, the "labels" used by all the mystics. Shah remarked that "God is Love" can be words scrawled on a placard carried by an old tramp in the street, or the revelation of the greatest truth, with a thousand changes of meaning in between, and it is the thousand changes that are the experience of the learner.

    In one aspect of his life he was a bridge between cultures, like his father the Sirdar Ikbal Ali Shah, at home in the East and the West. Shah was brought up as a Sunni Moslem. Not the least of his contributions to our culture has been to let us hear in this time of wild Moslem extremism, the voice of moderate and liberal Islam.

    He was a many-sided man, knowing a great deal about a variety of subjects, and that meant that listening to him was an education in more ways than one. He was the wittiest person I expect ever to meet. He was kind. He was generous. He would not like these encomiums, for he was a modest man, saying, in the Sufi phrase, "Don't look so much at my face, but take what is in my hand." He meant, "I am offering you something unique, take advantage of it."

    He did not admire the sometimes tricky and flashy ways of our culture. "I am an old-fashioned man" he might say, linking himself with more honourable times. I can think of no other person of whom I could say, simply, he was honourable, and be understood, by people who knew him, exactly in the sense I mean it: here was someone whose standards and values were far from what we are used to now.

  • Next Story: Esther Simpson

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