Wednesday, June 26, 2013

'The Sufis' by Idries Shah

Years ago, while living in Cairo, I was invited by some friends to a poor corner of the city to watch a weekly performance of “Sufi musicians”. The no-frills, nighttime shows were set in a dusty, open-air courtyard deep in a maze-like neighbourhood and were frequented mostly by Egyptians.

At that time I held the all-too-conventional notion of the Sufis as the reveler-mystics of Islam. Previously, I'd visited the much-touted (and touristed) "whirling dervishes" across from Khan al-Khalili bazaar who entrance visitors by drumming and spinning their conical skirts about like tilt-a-whirl rides at an amusement park (their Turkish counterparts have achieved global fame with their own version of the same show). I’d also read about other permutations of the sect worldwide defying nature by eating glass, walking on hot coals and piercing their cheeks with shish-kebab skewers. 

These exotic stunts were doable, its performers said, by virtue of sheer faith and the divinely inspired powers, which were its fruits.

As it turned out, the show in the dusty courtyard was in much the same vein as the others, replete with pendular motions, gyrations and rolling eyeballs. Though mildly entertaining (the music was good), it didn’t do much to add to, or dispel from the idea that Sufis were soft religionists expressing their love of God through frenetic personal rapture.

Later that same year, I stumbled across a book which was written, in part, to shatter those prevailing notions and to set the record straight about what Sufism is – and isn’t. 

In the appropriately titled, The Sufis, author Idries Shah argues that the West, lacking information known in the East for centuries, has cultivated an incomplete and distorted picture of Sufism - and of spirituality and mysticism in general. What we tend to call Sufism, he says, are the outdated forms of that movement, or amalgams of those forms, repackaged to appeal to our emotions. 

Genuine Sufis, the booked asserts, are followers of an age-old tradition of experiential knowledge, that is flexible and ever evolving, and which aims to bring its adherents to a true understanding of the nature of reality – which the biological brain, operating in a certain mode, cannot ascertain on its own. Sufis, Shah says, far from necessarily being members of an Islamic sect, have always existed within different faiths and cultures, including those of early antiquity that predated Islam. 

If we find it hard to resist the reflex to associate Sufism with anything other than Islam, it’s because it was in those Muslim regions, during the Middle Ages, that Sufism saw its most rapid flowering. The artistic and intellectual achievements of that period are not only too numerous to catalogue (encompassing every known discipline from chemistry to cartography to psychiatry), but are also difficult to overstate in terms of their importance for humanity. Those high pinnacles of achievement that was Sufi knowledge constituted the very foundations upon which succesive civilizations would rest. Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dante, Troubadours, the Knights Templar and Freemasonry are just a few of the numerous examples of Sufic influence upon the West.

Shah, who was part of a long lineage of savants (he died in 1996), also tried to emphasize in The Sufis that the West still had a great to learn about the process of learning higher things. 

For one thing, many people still tend to confuse emotionalism (feeling) with real spirituality (higher perception). It's partly because of this that people continue to be drawn to the more colourful trappings of traditional eastern religions (and their cultic offshoots), with their chants, costumes, gurus, symbols, and feel-good rituals.  Excessive emotion, like that seen among the Sufi musicians in Cairo, for instance, rather than being a true refining quality as is generally still believed, can instead be a blunting instrument.

There is a real path of inner development, say the Sufis, but it does not appeal to or feed that part of the self that seeks the lower gratifications on offer from cults. Real knowledge is said to come experientially, and in a prescribed fashion. Much of that process involves taming our blinding animal nature – an entity described by the Sufis as “The Commanding Self” - whose fundamental purpose is its own unrelenting aggrandizement and survival.

These, plus many other fascinating revelations abound in The Sufis, helping to propel the book into a classic; one which has been described as “a seminal book of the century.”


James Souttar said...

This is a very nice review, but it does rather perpetuate the idea that there is a 'better class' of Sufism that doesn't involve pendular motions, gyrations and rolling eyeballs. However, as Shah's witty parody of the football match in 'The Sufis' (written in the style of Western orientalists) shows, there is a more fundamental question of how we understand what we are looking at. Pendular motions, gyrations and rolling eyeballs *are* a feature of the practices of many Sufi schools, as Arnaud Desjardins wonderful films of the Sufis of Afghanistan from the 1970s show. However they are not necessarily always evidence of 'frenetic personal rapture' and degenerate emotionalism. (In 'Among the Dervishes', a book now generally considered to have been authored pseudonymously by Shah, such a practice in Tunisia is described in very different terms.)

Shah wrote in 'Learning How To Learn': "Some people may say that they will not seek illumination or other-worldly truths if it involves their capering about. This is like saying that you will drive your car, provided that nobody is allowed to fill the fuel tank."

The distinction between someone who is working themselves up into a frenzy of emotion and someone who is 'filling the fuel tank' may not be obvious to us, if we are unfamiliar with the theory or practice of the latter. And it may be easier for us to dismiss, if it is carried out by exotic looking orientals in dusty courtyards rather than serious Westerners in a clean, ventilated modern building! :-)

Hector said...

Wise and very well said, James.
It could perhaps be added, that it takes practice and guidance from a 'perceptive' one to distinguish between sheer emotionalism and the attunement of the heart that is at the core of Sufi development. The rational discourse is at a loss in there, it craves help from above.

cjm said...

Good article. I think you're right on target.