A Beacon of Sanity in Our Age of Polarity

On Contemporary Sufism and the Works of Idries Shah

Idries Shah, author of The Sufis.With the Internet and social media offering everyone an instant voice and platform, it sometimes feels as if we’ve all become standard bearers of a cause, or a medley of them. The determination to air our viewpoints everyday, even many times a day, has created a ruckus of opposing perspectives unseen in human history. We are exposed to many different ideas and points of view, which is a good thing. But what we fail to see in all the exciting rabble-rousing is that we’re also engendering a toxic culture of disputation that is seeping into all areas of life.

For all its often informative and sometimes humorous fits and spurts, Twitter, for example, has also become a forum for emotionality and opinion-mongering. A place where the digital free radicals of doctrine – “trolls” – ply their special form of harassment, and where any of us reacting angrily or cynically to what we deem wrong or ridiculous, can and do become members of a virtual mob. It’s reminiscent of the blood sport of the Roman coliseum, but where we the audience can also be participants – and vice versa – reveling in the thrill of the fight, all in the safety and relative anonymity of ‘the virtual world’.

To be sure, our lust for debate in Western culture is nothing new. Linguist Deborah Tannen describes Western society, particularly North America, as an “argument culture” – one conditioned to its core by notions of dichotomy, dispute and ritualistic opposition. Even the quickest glance at our media, politics and legal systems reveals them to be hobbled by approaches that are black-and-white and deeply adversarial. Think: Super Bowl, filibusters, the lawsuit industry, and Jerry Springer.

Part of the issue is we’ve inherited a mode of thinking deeply rooted in analysis and criticism. Indeed, what saved us from the magical and superstitious mind of the Middle Ages, critical thinking, may have become our worst enemy. It has instilled in us either/or thinking and an obsession with argument and criticism coming at the expense of cooperation and problem solving – a less automatic and thus more difficult modes of thinking. The blinders of high emotion and cult-thinking further confines us to the two-toned worlds of ‘Right vs. Wrong’ and ‘Us vs. Them.’ It is a simple and therefore easy way to see the world, quite attractive in an age of high complexity.

Social media activity can deepen these ruts, sometimes elevating our pet peeves and paradigms, our concerns and cares, to compulsive fetishes. The result is all around us, a cacophonous Tower of Babel airing of our fixations about everything under the sun: race, religion, politics, gender, identity, the environment, science, Donald Trump, conspiracy theory – anything will do. Everyone is vying to out-shout and out-clever the other. And if you get a million “likes” in the process, then all the better.

Irrespective of what else may define our current epoch, we are without doubt living in what we might describe as an “Age of Polarity.”

But here’s the nub – people don’t see what the worst of our zealous positions and cares can often be: dogma. We tend to associate fanatical, ideological or dogmatic thinking with the most boorish and extreme postures on the political spectrum: the communism of North Korea, the death cult of ISIS, or white supremacy of the KKK. The reality is that any idea can become narrow, all encompassing and tyrannical over its holder – and thus over others. And it needn’t manifest in threats or acts of physical violence. Valuable perspectives stemming from a desire to do good or redress injustice sometimes morph into inviolable laws that are applied indiscriminately – creating those black-and-white worlds of right and wrong that fragment reality into overly simplistic fault lines. Democratic and rights-based perspectives come to mind. As do those declaring everything to be cultural appropriation, white privilege, colonialism or anti-Semitism. In the minds of the determined, even the apparently virtuous can become dogma .

The common denominators are an inability to simultaneously hold and acknowledge multiple points of view, to see exceptions to the rule, and to more than periodically shift our attention away from our fixations.

If being blinkered in this way isn’t problematic enough – a form a cultural madness perhaps – we can also be manipulated from these positions towards even more extreme thoughts and acts. Violence and authoritarianism often springs from this type of soil.

And therein lies the danger.

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In 1964 an unusual work appeared on bookstore shelves in the West – one whose topic, structure and spirit runs counter to the machinations of this fixated mind.

Entitled The Sufis, it was the first authoritative work on the subject of Sufism: an ancient philosophy and way of life popularly associated with Islam and the East. Its author, the Anglo-Afghan thinker Idries Shah, wrote it for a western audience caught in a vogue of Oriental spirituality cults, or an overly academic approach to Sufism. The book was meant to highlight the sober and practical purpose of genuine mysticism, and to provide a sense of Sufism’s universality, which according to Shah, went far beyond its role in Islam.

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

Sufis, irrespective of their religious, cultural or professional affiliations, are engaged in a task best described in our terms as psychological: to sharpen perception and coax into operation a nascent organ of intuition. Articulating the idea of evolution centuries before Darwin, they viewed the human tendency to see things narrowly, and in fragments, as something to be superseded. It’s the most pressing of our human obligations, they tell us.

The better known Sufi luminaries from Middle Eastern and Central Asian history – figures like Jalaludin Rumi, Omar Khayyam, Hafez, Ibn al-Arabi, Saadi – espoused these ideas through their poetry, philosophical treatises and actions. They were just a tiny fraction of the countless and in many cases anonymous personages who included in their ranks, Westerners. Many Occidental notables including Cervantes, the person or people known as “Shakespeare,” Sir Richard Burton, St Francis of Assisi, and Robert Graves were all influenced by Sufi thought. It is partly through the achievements of the former bunch that the idea of Sufis as strictly Islamic mystics is perpetuated.

Shah writes that the works of people like Rumi were designed, in part, to bring the reader:

“into an understanding of the fact that he is temporarily out of contact with complete reality, even though ordinary life seems to be the totality of reality itself. What we see, feel and experience in ordinary, unfulfilled life according to Sufic thinking, is only a part of the greater whole. There are dimensions which we can reach only through effort. Like the submerged portion of the iceberg, they are there, though unperceived under ordinary conditions. Also like the iceberg, they are far greater than could be suspected by superficial study.”

Idries Shah, who passed away in 1996, went on to write over 30 titles, which have sold 15 million copies in roughly 20 languages. The Idries Shah Foundations is re-releasing new editions of the books to ensure that Shah’s works remain available in both the East and West.

Many of his writings include “teaching stories” – fictional tales and jokes that Sufis have used from time immemorial to help people to think more flexibly. Shah spent the better part of his life collecting those, as well as a wealth of sayings, proverbs and aphorisms from the East. For example:

What is known to be tyranny to the superior man may appear to be justice to the ordinary one.

Whoever has not first dug a well, should not steal a minaret.

When you realize the difference between the container and the content you will have knowlede.

Shah also employed illustrative situations culled from the letters, the media and his own experiences, where they were similarly rich with implications on how we think.

Considering the polemics of our age, Shah’s books may be even more relevant today than when he first published them. Sufi anecdotes and stories work in the opposite direction of dogma and fanaticism – emotional commitment to a narrow, fixed and otherwise obsessive position.

Sufi tales, rich in characters and plot eschew both analysis and a “moral.” They embody numerous metaphorical patterns that are meant to seep slowly into the reader by way of multiple readings and rumination. The constellation of possible meanings and applications contained within stories encourage a receptive mental posture that is loose, nimble and fluid to help illuminate what is living whole – a metaphor, Sufis say, of our wider interconnected reality.

Idries Shah the book of the book.As such, it is not odd or unusual for Sufis to hold contradictory ideas together in the mind. Or to consider multiple points of view, even if they appear incongruous. Nuanced thinking, if it is to exist and thrive, requires it. “Things which are seemingly opposed may in fact be working together,” Shah writes in The Sufis. But this is not to say that Sufis are fence-sitters or are unwilling to take a firm position when required – as their crucial involvement in battling the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan described in Louis Palmer’s Adventures in Afghanistan, so well illustrates.

Their seemingly inconsistent postures and insights have earned Sufis the hostile, mocking epithets of “idiots,” “madmen” and “fools” (which they’ve good-humouredly taken in stride and coopted into nicknames for themselves). For their truthful and piquant observations, whether nuanced or blunt, they’ve drawn the ire of those who’d rather cling slovenly to the convenience of falsehoods. Many a Sufi – including the medieval savants Mansur al-Hallaj and Farid ud-Din Attar of Nishapur – fell afoul of ideologues, paying with their lives for holding up a mirror to society and offering escape routes from what the late Nobel prize-winning writer Doris Lessing (also influenced by Sufis), described as “the prisons we choose to live inside.”

Shah’s work can be similarly jolting, like a cold shower, bringing us face to face with our prejudices. Some yarns, slightly more explicitly than others, address our perceptual problems head on. One tale known as The Old Woman and the Eagle tells the story of a elderly lady who had never before seen an eagle:

One day an eagle alighted upon this woman’s balcony. “Oh my! What a funny looking pigeon you are!” the woman said in astonishment.

The eagle protested, telling her it wasn’t a pigeon at all – let alone a funny looking pigeon. But the old woman wouldn’t be swayed. “Nonsense,” she said. “I know a pigeon when I see one. Your beak is just a little bent, your claws are too long, and the feathers on your head are too messy. But we’ll fix that!”

She grabbed the eagle, took it inside, and clipped its claws, combed its feathers, and straightened its beak.

“There, now you look more like a pigeon,” the woman, said smiling ear-to-ear. “That’s so much better!”

A tale like this, told orally in the East for millennia, can reveal many meanings, acting as a pattern or template illuminating situations in our everyday lives. On one level this story speaks to the human tendency to easily mistake one thing for another. It can also illustrate our biases and reflex to bend something that is discomfortingly unfamiliar – information or an event – to better fit into how we prefer to see things (our world view). For example, any writer who has submitted a manuscript to a publisher will see another dimension in this story.

Those with ties to Turkey, Iran or Afghanistan, may recognize the name “Mulla Nasrudin” – the whimsical joker and bumbling goofball featured in Sufi humour for centuries. Known by different names from Morocco to China, Nasrudin and his anecdotal encounters are another tool in the rich Sufi repertoire of instructional literature. On one obvious level the jokes are meant to entertain. Sufis contend that humour and the mental requirements to appreciate it are inimical to the blinkered mind (choose any demagogue and see how impervious they are to lighthearted fun). But like all teaching stories, the tales contain deeper patterns. This is aided partly by the fact that the character of Nasrudin can at times play both a fool and a wise man – mimicking our thought patterns and the obtuse behaviour that can arise from them, as well as our potential.

Shah collected, translated and published three separate anthologies of Nasrudin stories for westerners. One book called The Pleasantries of the Incredible Mulla Nasrudin contains a story entitled “Fixed Thinking” which, in part illustrates the danger of clinging to rigid doctrines.

– “How old are you, Mulla?”

– “Forty.”

– “But you said the same last time I asked you, two years ago!”

– “Yes, I always stand by what I have said.”

An anecdote entitled “Moment in Time” in The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin speaks to the subject of causation. Here Nasrudin plays a more sober sage, in part alerting us to ineffectual tendency to think in linear and either/or terms:

“What is Fate,” Nasrudin was asked by a scholar.

“An endless succession of intertwined events, each influencing the other.”

“That is hardly a satisfactory answer. I believe in cause and effect.”

“Very well,” said the Mulla, “look at that.” He pointed to a procession passing in the street. “That man is being taken to be hanged. Is that because someone gave him a silver piece and enabled him to buy the knife with which he committed the murder; or because someone saw him do it; or because nobody stopped him?”

We might replace the question about the cause of the crime in Nasrudin’s tale with that of how ISIS arose, or how Donald Trump was elected – the source of much vituperative head-bashing between those employing simplistic blame in service of their biases and narrow agendas. A chronic appetite for argument can only make cause with the ‘parts’ – in a world obsessed by parts – never the whole.

ONE OF OURS

A theologian found himself at the entrance to the Gardens of Paradise. He had a pious look, and the angel on duty asked him a nominal question or two and then said:

“Pass, friend, enter the Garden.”

“Not so fast, my boy,” said the cleric. “I am a noted Believer, impeccable in faith and renowned for my intellect, accustomed to making up my own mind, and not to people making up their minds about me. How can you prove that this is Paradise and not a snare and a delusion: think carefully before you answer.”

The angel rang a bell and angelic guards appeared.

“Take this one inside, will you? He’s one of ours, alright.”

The moderate and flexible thinking of genuine Sufism, ever mindful of nuance and context, makes it an antidote to fanaticism in all its forms. It can be likened to a beacon of sanity that is needed more than ever if we are to avoid sinking deeper into the miasma of polemics – and their dangerous consequences.

A version of this article appeared on February 28, 2017 in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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