“Neo-Sufism: The Case of Idries Shah” Reprint

“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 fine 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 Sayed (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 ‘Naqshbandi Paghmani.’ The Naqshabandiyya were an important central Asian Sunni tariqa, associated with the name of Baha’ud-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-à-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 practicing 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 any thing 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.

Marketing Sufism

The opening of the 1960s found Shah veering towards occultism, and acting as secretary-companion to Dr. Gerald Gardner, Director of the Museum of Magic and Witchcraft in the Isle of Man. However, a nouvelle orientalism was in the air (articulated amongst others by Daisetz Suzuki, Pak Subuh, and the Maharishi); and the Sufi niche was temptingly unfilled. ‘People must have labels,’ Shah concluded. ‘The scramble is to get the right one and then hold on to it…’ A scramble certainly — for the assiduous revisionism which yielded him his ‘Grand Sheikh’ label generated a corpus of pseudonymous literature, unparalleled in our century for its magnitude, coherence, and ignobility.

Shah has conceded his own recourse to pen names (v. “Reflections,” p. 88), without divulging details; many of his disciples emulate him, Given this obfuscation, it is problematic which of the score or more queerly named authors stylistically and thematically assignable to the ‘Shah-School’ (e.g. Omar Michael Burke Ph. D., Arkon Daraul, Rafael Lefort, Hadrat B.M. Dervish and so on) have independent physical existence? Pending investigation, it perhaps suffices that none show a scintilla of independent philosophical existence. Shah- School productions date from May 1960, and throughout them Shah receives — ostensibly from disinterested third parties — intemperate praise: he is ‘Tariqa Grand Sheikh Idries Shah Saheb’; he is ‘Prince Idries Shah’; ‘King Enoch’; ‘The Presence’; ‘The Studious King’; the ‘Incarnation of Ah’; and even the Qutb or ‘Axis.’

Someone deeply impressed by the idealized Shah was the former Marxist Doris May Lessing (b. 1919) who, while writing “The Golden Notebook” underwent a sort of Damascene conversion. For 20 years she has remained the spearhead of Shah’s defence, again and again pitting ‘half-truth, irrelevancy, double think, misquotation and invention’ against the scholarship and deadly fairness of Shah’s redoubtable critic Laurence Elwell-Sutton, Reader in Persian at Edinburgh University. Innocent of any oriental tongue, she has plunged deep into debates which turn on a command of mediaeval Persian; lacking any indigenous Sufic experience, she has set her judgment against that of profound Sufi thinkers like Professor Sayed Hossein Nasr. Beyond all exasperation, it is impossible not to feel for the loyal Quixotic Mrs. Lessing something akin to regard. Gurdjieffians Wanted

No single element in Shah’s whole life has proved more materially advantageous — or psychologically revealing than his stratagem concerning the philosopher-savant George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff (c. 1866-1949). Hardly had Shah-School productions appeared, than they began to belittle Gurdjieff — adding in coded language the preposterous rider that Shah (who never even met him) had assumed his mantle. This campaign reached apogee in 1966. First came the distasteful fabrication “The Teachers of Gurdjieff” by Rafael Lefort (a botched anagram of ‘A Real Effort’). Here young ‘Lefort’ pretends to have sought out Gurdjieff ‘s teachers in Asia (a chronological absurdity), who demeaned their former pupil and pointed towards Shah. Next, extrapolating from Gurdjieff’s references to a certain ‘Sarmoung Brotherhood,’ Shah-School productions impudently claimed that the Sarmoung were extant and had one emissary in Europe – – a figure strangely redolent of Shah himself. At last, in “Special Problems in the Study of Sufi Ideas,” the reborn ‘Naqshbandi’ ventured an explicit and attributable statement:

“G. I. Gurdjieff left abundant clues to the Sufi origins of virtually every point in his ‘system’; though it obviously belongs more specifically to the Khwajaghan (Naqshbandi) form of dervish teaching.”

But why Gurdjieff and why 1966? To explore this we must briefly advance the singular figure of J. G. Bennett.

John Godolphin Bennett (1897-1974) was a complex, gifted, sincere, and indefatigable eclectic searcher strangely deficient in common sense. Having been successively the pupil of P. D. Ouspensky, Gurdjieff himself, Jeanne de Salzmann, H. H. Lannes. Emin Chikou, Abdullah Daghestani, Pak Subuh, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and the Shivapuri Baba, and even received into the Roman Catholic Church, he wondered at age 69 if he was making sufficient headway. His predicament was compounded because he himself had accumulated a numerous and serious following and a prestigious house at Coombe Springs. Bennett, with his Messianic and millenarian promptings was that ‘rara avis,’ a guru in search of a guru; and from 1962, when the Shah-School began propagating its Gurdjieffian allusions, the hook had been temptingly baited for him.

How Bennett took that bait; how the older man became persuaded that Shah had come direct from Gurdjieff’s ‘Sarmoung Monastery’ with a ‘Declaration of the People of The Tradition’; how Shah pressed Bennett (‘The caravan is about to set out’) to give him Coombe Springs outright; how Bennett agonized, and in January 1966 complied; how Shah promptly repudiated Bennett, and sold the establishment for 100,000 [British pounds]; how Coombe Springs with its sub-Goetheanum Djamichunatra passed under the bulldozers; how Shah with the proceeds founded the Society for Organising Unified Research in Cultural Education (SOURCE) and the Society for the Understanding of the Foundation of Ideas (SUFI) and established himself at Langton House, Langton Green, near Tunbridge Wells — all this defies both précis and belief, but is indelibly recorded in Bennett’s autobiography “Witness.”

Robert Graves Stung

Within two years ‘The People of the Tradition’ had claimed an even older, more vulnerable, more eminent victim: the poet Robert Graves. His ill-fated work “The Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayyam — A New Translation” with critical commentaries (Cassell, 1967) was written with, and at the instigation of, General Omar Ali Shah, but in aid of Idries Shah’s highly tendentious thesis that Khayyam’s was ‘the Sufi voice.’ Entering the spirit of the thing, Ikbal, who had dismissed Khayyam in 1928 as ‘the Bacchus with the mind of a Rabelais,’ now felt happy to endorse his piety. As for poor Graves, his book was exposed by academics as a nullity cubed; a ‘translation’ (which was not a translation but a copy of a Victorian commentary); of the twelfth century ‘Jan Fishan Khan MS’ (which did not exist); of a composite stanzaic poem by Khayyam (which he did not write). As Graves laboured hopelessly to defend himself, Idries twice promised to produce the elusive MS ‘from Afghanistan,’ only to renege finally on 30 October 1970. No MS, no photocopy, no detail of format or location, no substantive text, no colophon ever transpired — and Graves like Bennett reaped the harvest of his credulity.

Summing Up

With Shah now over 60 it is not too early to take stock.

Yes he has made a contribution of sorts in popularising his invertebrate, humanistic ‘Sufism,’ and in pleasing the Mrs. Lessings of this world. It is not nothing. But consider the cost: the rearing of an unsavoury pseudonymous literature; the clouding of Graves’s reputation; and the injection into the world’s biographical dictionaries of a false prospectus of Gurdjieff. Yes Shah is affluent and famous now and a member of the Athenaeum: but Baha’ud-Din Naqshband sought only spiritual riches, and forbade his followers to record the least word about him. Yes, Shah has brought energy and resource to his self-aggrandizement; but where is the evidence of conscience or real ‘dasein’? Then is not Shah’s life — all in all — as opaque in terms of genuine Sufism, as it is transparent in terms of Adlerian psychology?

Beyond this ad hominem critique, inescapable as an antidote to Shah’s personality cult, what of his work? Many people will enjoy his dervish anecdotes and Mullah Nasruddin stories unaware how cavalierly they lean on unacknowledged and out-of copyright sources). But their spiritualising action on middlebrow European readers is surely nil. Plucked from their true cultural, linguistic, and didactic contexts, and from the rich oral tradition which gave them life, they have been ignobly reduced to the level of ‘The Hundred Best After-Dinner Stories.’ And if they are truly exemplary tales, they are marvellously at variance with Shah’s own example.

Idries Abutahir Shah and his Sufism await judgments immeasurably beyond the competence of ‘Religion Today’: the judgment of history, if not the judgment foretold in Surah LXXVIII. But some provisional comment may be ventured without malice: that his is a ‘Sufism’ which Baha’ud-Din Naqshband would find unrecognisable and repugnant; that his is a ‘Sufism’ without self-sacrifice, without self-transcendence, without the aspiration of gnosis, without tradition, without the Prophet, without the Quran, without Islam, and without God. Merely that.

-James Moore

[This article first appeared in Religion Today. Moore is the author of “Gurdjieff — A Biography,” “Gurdjieff and Mansfield,” and is currently working on his memoirs. Email: james.moore@g…]

Author’s Note

This article constitutes a footnote to L. P. Elwell-Sutton’s magisterial ‘Sufism & Pseudo-Sufism’ (Encounter Vol. XLIV No. 5, May 1975, pp. 9-17). which in certain sectors it augments and corrects. My 25-year-plus interest in Idries Shah has been enlivened by correspondence with Elwell-Sutton, Elizabeth Bennett, Edward Campbell, Martin Seymour-Smith, K. E. Steffens, Richard Thomas, and Colin Wilson; by contact with Professors James Vickie (Yak Sake), Sayed Hossein Nasr, and Anne Marie Scheme; and by collaboration from the PRO, the Doris Lessing Society and the Society of Genealogists. Of Shah’s apologists I have listened most attentively to Ahmed R. Bullock. I am especially grateful to J. I. Somers, archivist of The Gurdjieff Society and director of Fine Books Oriental. For reasons of typography and disparate provenance respectively, I make no attempt here at scholarly or consistent transliteration from Arabic or Persian.


Contemporary British scene. Contemporary neo-Sufism presents three ideological backcloths — Sunni, Shiite, and ‘Gnostic. ‘The traditions of Alawiyya, Chisti, Halveti-Jerrahi, Mevlevi, and Nimatullahi dervishes are variously articulated by strongly contrasted figures like Hasan-Lutfi Shushud, Frithjof Schuon, (‘Isa Nuruddin’), Suleiman Hyati Dede, Dr. Sufi Aziz Balouch, Sheikh Muhammad Muzaffer-eddin Ashki, Pir Vilayat Khan, Dr. Javad Nurbaksh, and Bulent Rauf.

Coterie of serviceable journalists…. Among the more notable are Edward Campbell, Geoffrey Grigson, Desmond Morris, Isabel Quigley, Ted Hughes, Pat Williams, and Richard Williams.

Brought to a climax. Doris Lessing’s admiration of Shah first emerged on 18 September 1964 with her review ‘An Elephant in the Dark,’ Spectator 213:373. The personal context is briefly evoked in her interview by Nissa Torrents for the Spanish journal La Calle (No. 106 April 1-7,1980)pp.42-44.

‘Secret Wisdom. ‘Doris Lessing, ‘If you knew Sufi…’ The Guardian 8 Jan. 1975, p. 12.

His ancestors. Robert Graves, Introduction to The Sufis by Idries Shah (New York: Doubleday 1964).

Sons died in infancy. Muhammad’s line of course descends through his daughter Fatima and son-in-law Ali; of his two grandsons the elder was Hasan (whose progeny bear the title shatif) not Husain (whose progeny bear the title sayed). See Philip K. Hitti, History of the Arabs (Macmillan & Co. 1953) p. 440 n. 8.

Ruffian. L. R Elwell-Sutton, Letter, ‘Sufism and Pseudo-Sufism’ Encounter, Dec. 1972, p. 92. For the basis of this condemnation, see inter alia Sir John William Kave. History of the Indian Mutiny 1857- 58 (Vol.11), p. 145.

Chief of Hindu Kush Sufis. Idries Shah, The Sufis, p. 168.

The Naqshabandiyya. Shah’s claim to lead the Naqshbandi Order is baseless. For the historical background see J. Spencer-Trimingham, The Sufi Orders in Islam (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971). For some cryptic pointers towards the authentic modem silsila, see ‘The Naqshbandi Order — A Preliminary Survey of its History and Significance’ (Berkeley, California, 1977) pp. 123-52 by Hamid Algar, the world authority on this tariqa. For Naqshbandi encroachment into certain contemporary political arenas, see for example Turkish literature surrounding the National Salvation Party led by Mr. Erbakan.

Failure at Edinburgh Medical School. During World War I, Ikbal avoided military service by attaching himself as a volunteer to the Indian General Hospital at Brighton. In 1933 his frustrated medical and social aspirations dominated his unintentionally hilarious novel Afridi Gold, whose hero Colonel Francis Challenger of the Indian Medical Service, would ‘devote the same remitting (sic) care and attention to a black body as a white’ (p. 9).

Ignominious treatment. Ikbal Ali Shah’s wife (mother of Idries and Omar) assumed on marriage the tide Sharifa Saira Khanum, her maiden name being usually cited as ‘Elizabeth Louis MacKenzie.’ Questionable rumours — which Idries appears neither to confirm nor deny — have circulated that Ikbal in fact married into Scotland’s premier family the ‘haughty Hamiltons ‘the bride, to Ikbal’s chagrin, feeling obliged to register pseudonymously to circumvent parental obstruction. Suggestions that her father was actually ‘Chief of Clan Hamilton’ seems particularly extravagant: neither the 12th nor l3th Dukes of Hamilton had daughters available to Ikbal; nor is such a liaison mentioned by Lt. Col. George Hamilton in A History of the House of Hamilton (Edinburgh, 1933). The connection, if any, was more plausibly through the eccentric Sir Abdullah Archibald Hamilton, formerly Sir Charles Edward Archibald Watkins Hamilton, who embraced Islam on 20 December 1923. Incongruous Scottish allusions permeate Shah-School productions e.g. in Destination Mecca Idries appears as ‘Laird… of the Fatimite Family’ returning to his ,native Afghan glens. ‘He himself is married to Bibi Kashri Khanum (nee Kabraji) by whom he has a son, Tahir, and two daughters.

Hardly a word of truth. ‘Notes on Sirdar Ikbal Ali Khan.’ (PRO, FO 37 1, 129, N.3024/2824/97): a detailed and condemnatory report on Ikbal’s integrity and veracity. (Damaging material on Ikbal abounds throughout FO, 371 and FO 395 from 1926 to 1950).

A swindler. Gordon Vereker (British Ambassador Montevideo) letter of 17 July 1946 to Victor Perowne. (PRO, FO 371, 1946, AS/4439/46). For the basis of this condemnation see FO, 371 Piece 52194.

Undistinguished years. Although its headmaster was entitled to attend The Headmasters’ Conference, the School was evidently in decline by Shah’s day; and is now defunct. Its most famous old boy, decades earlier, was T. E. Lawrence — a powerful allusion ironically denied Shah, because his English childhood sat so uneasily with Sufic and Sarmoung Brotherhood allusions.

Returned to England. Sailing on the SS DARRO out of Buenos Aires on 26 September 1946.

Lived in the West. Idries Shah, “Destination Mecca” (Rider, 1957) p. 48.

Dancing Dervishes. Ibid. p. 177.

Scramble. Ibid. p. 11.

‘Shah-School’ productions. A thematically and stylistically, homogeneous literary oeuvre, eulogizing Shah and/or his ‘Sufism’ — promulgated by Shah’s Octagon Press. Four categories emerge:

1) Overt writing by Shah e.g. The Sufis (New York: Doubleday,


2) Pseudonymous writing reasonably ascribable to Shah himself e.g. work by ‘Arkon Daraul'(see. Note 20) and by ‘Rafael Lefort’ (see Note 25);

3) Overt writing by Shah’s admirers e.g. Doris Lessing’s ‘If you knew Sufi…’ (The Guardian 8 Jan. 1975) p. 121;

4) Pseudonymous writing by Shah’s admirers e.g. The People of the Secret (Octagon Press, 193 1) by ‘Ernest Scott’ (reputedly Edward Campbell, former literary editor of The Evening News). Given the peculiar motivation for this genre, there seems a persuasive case for detailed investigative and stylometric research, to extend firm knowledge. of authorship beyond Shah, his literary agent, and The Registrar of Public Lending Right.

Arkon Daraul. Arkon Daraul, “Secret Societies Yesterday and Today” (Frederick Muller Ltd., 196 1). Material from Chapter 5 “Me Path of the Sufi’ (giving a risible account of initiation into a ‘Naqshbandi Lodge’ in a country house in Sussex, all too identifiable by the ‘Arms of the Princes of Paghman’ p. 72) is excerpted in Davidson’s ‘Symposium’ promulgated by Shah (see Note 2 1).

Date from May 1960. W. Foster, ‘The Family of Ilashim,’ Contemporary Review Vol. 197. No. 1132, May 1960) pp. 269-7 1. A convenient anthology of ensuing Shah-School productions in the vigorously expansionist period Jan. 1961-Dec. 1965 is Documents on Contemporary Dervish Communities, ed. Roy Weaver Davidson (SOURCE, 1966). A more recent and unintentionally piquant production is “The Diffusion of Sufi Ideas in the West” (more accurately subtitled “An Anthology New Writings by and about Idries Shah”) ed. L. Lewin (Boulder, Colorado, Keysign Press, 1972).

Spearhead of Shah’s defence. See Paul Schlueter. ‘Lessing and Sufism’ a checklist compiled for the Doris Lessing Society: English Dept., Old Dominion University. Norfolk, VA 23508, USA.

‘Half-truth, irrelevancies…’ L. Elwell Sutton. Letter ‘Sufism and Pseudo-Sufism, ‘Encounter (Dec. 1972) p. 9 1.

Against that of profound Sufi thinkers. See for example Nasr’s review of Shah’s “The Sufis in Islamic Studies” (1964). For their part Shah and his School display a patronizing, even dismissive, attitude towards scholars like Arberry, Corbin, Massignon, Nicholson, and Rice — while simultaneously leaning on their work.

Distasteful fabrication. The persistent rumour (and reasonable inference) that Shah himself is ‘Rafael Lefort’ was first publicly bruited by Nicholas Saunders in Alternative London (Nicholas Saunders, 1970) p. 109.

Sarmoung Brotherhood. Space precludes consideration of the complex literary, historical, geographical, and etymological questions posed by Gurdjieff’s purported contact with a ‘Sarmoung Brotherhood’ in Central Asia c. 1899. Independent and trustworthy corroboration of the Order’s existence is thus far lacking, and the self-serving exploitation of the name, both by the Shah-School and Irv Garv B. Chicoine, the egregiously self-styled ‘Chief Sarmouni,’ hinders serious investigation.

Khwajaghan (Naqshbandi) form of dervish teaching. The 11th-13th century Khwajaghan Masters were protagonists both of the Naqshbandi and Yesevi tariqas. See Trimingham op. cit. p. 62ff. and Algar loc. cit. pp. 131-134. For more problematical formulations see the work of Hasan Lutfi Shushud, e.g. “Masters of Wisdom in Central Asia” Systematics Vol. VI p. 310 (Coombe Springs Press); and J. G. Bennett, “Gurdjieff — Making a New World” (Turnstone Books, 1973) Chap 27 “The Masters of Wisdom”; and J. G. Bennett “The Masters of Wisdom” (Turnstone Books, 1977).

Bennett. J. G. Bennett was fluent in 10 languages: his mathematical paper (written with R. L. Brown and M. W. Thring) ‘Unified Field Theory in a Curvature-Free Five-Dimensional Manifold’ was published in The Proceedings of the Royal Society in July 1949: his major opus “The Dramatic Universe” conveys, despite its opacity, his colossal intellect.

Shah pressed Bennett. Idries Shah q. J. G. Bennett, “Witness” (Turnstone, rev. ed. 1975) p.361.

Djamichunatra. The nine-sided Djamichunatra (or Djameechoonatra) at Coombe Springs was designed and built by J. G. Bennett and his pupils, notably a dozen architects led by Robert Whiffen; the building was begun on 23 March 1956, completed on 29 October 1957, and demolished by ‘developers’ in 1966. For its inspiration see G. I. Gurdjieff “Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson” (RKP, 1950) p. 1160; for Bennett’s vision of it see his “Witness” (Hodder and Stoughton, 1962) p. 323f and 348f, for further technical details see A.G. E. Blake “A History of the Institute for the Comparative Study of History, Philosophy and the Sciences Ltd and the Influences upon it” (Daglingworth: privately circulated, 198 1) p. 5; for Frank Lloyd Wright’s aesthetic criticism see Anthony Bright Paul “Stairway to Subud” (Coombe Springs Press, 1965) p. 116; and for its wanton destruction see Witness (rev. ed. 1975) p. 362.

All this defies belief. J. G. Bennett, Witness (Turnstone, rev. ed. 1975) pp. 355-62. Bennett’s introduction to his limited edition of “Witness” (Coombe Springs Press, 1971) had enthusiastically announced a forthcoming Bennett-Shah paper elaborating both men’s motivation. This eludes researchers.

Khayyam. Idries Shah, The Sufis (New York: Doubleday, 1964).

‘The Bacchus with the mind of a Rabelais.’ Ikbal Ali Shah, Westward to Mecca (H. R & G. Witherby, 1928) Chap IX ‘Omar and Shakespeare,’ 181. Cf p. 184.

Exposed by academics. Between 1968 and 1973 virtually every eminent Persicologist in Britain, America. and Iran pronounced against the ‘Jan Fishan Khan MS’ and the Graves-Shah ‘translation’: none for it. Credit for first exposing the hoax goes to L. P, Elwell-Sutton for his ‘The Omar Khayyam Puzzle'(RCAJ Lv/2, June 1968. pp. 167-79); credit for burying it to J. C. E. Bowen for his ‘The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: A Critical Assessment of Robert Graves’ and Omar Ali Shah’s ‘translation'(Iran: Journal of Persian Studies Vol. XI 1973, pp. 63-73). Idries Shah went to ground throughout the debacle but his major role became apparent with the publication of “Between Moon and Moon: Selected Letters of Robert Graves 1941-1972,” ed. Paul O’Prey (Hutchinson, 1984) pp. 281-83.

Renege finally. See O’Prey op. cit. p. 281ff.

False prospectus of Gurdjieff. Thanks to Shah and Bennett, the misconception of the preponderantly Sufic provenance of Gurdjieff’s ideas has now a tenacious hold in works of reference e.g. Encyclopaedia Britannica 15th ed. (1985) Vol. 5 of Micropaedia. For a more balanced — though somewhat superficial — analysis, see James Webb, “The Harmonious Circle” (Thames and Hudson, 1980) Part 3, Chap. I ‘The Sources of the System’ pp. 499-543. It needs emphasis that Shah did not, as mistakenly conveyed by Elwell-Sutton, fall heir to the mainstream Gurdjieff movement in Britain, which in fact under H. H. Lannes held fastidiously aloof.

Mulla Nasruddin stories. In “Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson” (RKP, 1950) G. I. Gurdjieff gave high significance to the ‘incomparable Mullah Nassr Eddin, ‘the mediaeval wise fool of Turkish folklore. Shah, in the expansionist year 1966 (see text), almost predictably published “The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin” (Jonathan Cape); this was shortly followed by “Nasrudin’s Pleasantries” (1968), both books evidently aimed at capturing a specifically Gurdjieffian readership and allegiance. In this Shah failed. By 1973, with publication of “Nasrudin’s Subtleties” and the incorporation of Mulla Nasrudin Enterprises Ltd., proselytism had become secondary to normal commercial motive. Although, characteristically, Shah fails to specify the origin of his Nasrudin stories, their provenance is transparent to scholars familiar with the enormous out of copyright Nassr Eddin literature (dating back to 1937 in Turkish and 1857 in European languages). For an authoritative review of this literature and of Nassr Eddin’s historicity, see Fehim Bairaktare — vic’s entry in “Enyclopaedia of Islam” Vol. 3, pp. 875-78.

[Reprinted from “Telos”, Volume 6, Number 4, Autumn]

One thought on ““Neo-Sufism: The Case of Idries Shah” Reprint

  1. Pingback: Sufism the Gnostic chameleon – muscle and brain of Islam | stOttilien

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s