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Sufi Wisdom: Idries Shah Interview

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As militant Islam does its level best to discredit the religion, it's important to remember that there are other voices within the faith. One such is the Sufis, the Islamic mystics who live islam (submission), iman (faith) and ishan (awareness of G-d, "to act beautifully"). For instance, this article discusses the history and role of the Sufis in the Indian subcontinent.

Idries Shah (1924-1996) may well be the leading exponent of Sufiism in the modern age. A remarkable man in all respects, not some phony guru but the real deal. Elisabeth Hall's July 1975 interview with Idries Shah in Psychology Today offers both an introduction to the Sufi approach, and an example of how their multi-layered stories are used in practice:

EH: Before we go any farther, we'd better get down to basics and ask the obvious question. What is Sufism?

IS: The most obvious question of all is for us the most difficult question. But I'll try to answer. Sufism is experience of life through a method of dealing with life and human relations. This method is based on an understanding of man, which places at one's disposal the means to organize one's relationships and one's learning systems. So instead of saying that Sufism is a body of thought in which you believe certain things and don't believe other things, we say that the Sufi experience has to be provoked in a person. Once provoked, it becomes his own property, rather as a person masters an art.

EH: So ideally, for four million readers, you would have four million different explanations.

IS: In fact, it wouldn't work out like that. We progress by means of Nashr, an Arabic word than means scatter technique. For example, I've published quite a number of miscellaneous books, articles, tapes and so on, which scatter many forms of this Sufi material. These 2,000 different stories cover many different tendencies in many people, and they are able to attach themselves to some aspect of it.

EH: I noticed as I read that the same point would be made over and over again in a different way in a different story. In all my reading, I think the story that made the most profound impression on me was "The Water of Paradise." Afterward, I found the same point in other stories, but had I not read "The Water of Paradise" first, I might not have picked it up.

IS: That is the way the process tends to work. Suppose we get a group of 20 people past the stage where they no longer expect us to give them miracles and stimulation and attention. We sit them down in a room and give them 20 or 30 stories, asking them to tell us what they see in the stories, what they like, and what the don't like. The stories first operate as a sorting out process. They sort out both the very clever people who need psychotherapy and who have come only to put you down, and the people who have come to worship.

One day Nasrudin lent his cooking pots to a neighbor, who was giving a feast. The neighbor returned them, together with one extra one - a very tiny pot. "What is this?" asked Nasrudin. "According to law, I have given you the offspring of your property which was born when the pots were in my care," said the joker. Shortly afterwards Nasrudin borrowed his neighbor's pots, but did not return them. The man came round to get them back. "Alas!" said Nasrudin, "they are dead. We have established, have we not, that pots are mortal?"
IS: In responsible Sufi circles, no one attempts to handle either the sneerers or the worshippers, and they are very politely detached from the others.

EH: They are not fertile ground?


IS: They have something else to do first. And what they need is offered abundantly elsewhere.

People ran to tell the Mulla [Nasruddin] that his mother-in-law had fallen into the river. "She will be swept out to sea, for the torrent is very fast here," they cried. Without a moment's hesitation Nasrudin dived into the river and started to swim upstream. "No!" they cried, "DOWNSTREAM! That is the only way a person can be carried away from here." "Listen!" panted the Mulla, "I know my wife's mother. If everyone else is swept downstream, the place to look for HER is upstream."
IS: There's no reason for them to bother us. Next we begin to work with people who are left. In order to do this, we must cool it. We must not have any spooky atmosphere, any strange robes or gongs or intonations. The new students generally react to the stories either as they think you would like them to react or as their background tells them they should react. Once they realize that no prizes are being given for correct answers, they begin to see that their previous conditioning determines the way they are seeing the material in the stories.

So, the second use of the stories is to provide a protected situation in which people can realize the extent of the conditionings in their ordinary lives. The third use comes later, rather like when you get the oil to the surface of a well after you burn of the gases. After we have burnt off the conditioning, we start getting completely new interpretations and reactions to stories. At last, as the student becomes less emotional, we can begin to deal with the real person, not the artifact that society has made him.

EH: Is this a very long process?

IS: You can't predict it at all. With some people it is an instant process; with others, it takes weeks or months. Still others get fed up and quit because, like good children of the consumer society, they crave something to consume and we're not giving it to them.

EH: You say that conditioning gets in the way of responses to Sufi material. But everyone is conditioned from birth, so how does one ever escape from his conditioning?

IS: We can't live in the world without being conditioned. Even the control of one's bladder is conditioned. It is absurd to talk, as some do, of deconditioned or nonconditioned people. But it is possible to see why conditioning has taken place and why a person's beliefs become oversimplified.

Nobody is trying to abolish conditioning, merely to describe it, to make it possible to change it, and also to see where it needs to operate, and where it does not. Some sort of secondary ity, which we call the "commanding self" takes over man when his mentation is not correctly balanced. This self, which he takes for his real one, is in fact a mixture of emotional impulses and various pieces of conditioning. As a consequence of Sufi experience, people - instead of seeing things through a filter of conditioning plus emotional reactions, a filter which constantly discards certain stimuli - can see things through some part of themselves that can only be described as not conditioned.

EH: Are you saying that when one comes to an awareness that he is conditioned, that he can operate aside from it? He can say, "Why do I believe this? Well, perhaps it is because..."

IS: Exactly. Then he is halfway toward being liberated from his conditioning - or at least toward keeping it under control. People who say that we must smash conditioning are themselves oversimplifying things.

EH: A number of years ago an American psychologist carried out an interesting experiment. He had a device that supplied two images, one to each eye. One image was a baseball player, the other was a matador. He had a group of American and Mexican schoolteachers look thru this device. Most of the Americans saw a baseball player and most of the Mexicans saw the matador. From what you have said, I gather that Sufism might enable an American to see the matador and a Mexican to see the baseball player.

IS: That is what many of the Sufi stories try to do. As a reader, you tend to identify with one of the people in the story. When he behaves unexpectedly, it gives you a bit of a jolt and forces you to see him with different eyes.

1 Comment

Dear friends

I come from Indonesia, I am one of who very admire and very surprised by Shah's work even just read a few book.
I very thanks for Idries because of his work, my life better,very enjoy,founding new perspective.

Unfortunetly at my country the books of Idries shah are very rarely and very expensive. So with this I hope someone of the fans will send me some of those. I really thanks to those who will help to get Shah's work,then I will translate it to Indonesian language,so many Indonesian people can enjoy for more brightly life & be better world.

Sincerely Yours,

Ita Masitoh

Member of An-Nahl Tranlator Yogyakarta Course

Jl.Gedongkuning Selatan 140 C,Pilahan Rejowinangun Kotagede Yogyakarta (komplek masjid An-Nahl)
Tlp:0274-7409515; e-mail:

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