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Shah introduces his book to the general reader by observing that it is "designed to present Sufi ideas, actions and report: not for the microscope or museum-pieces, but in their relevance to a current community - what we call the contemporary world" (p9). This somewhat cryptic statement gives us the best clue to understanding how The Way of the Sufi (hereinafter, "The Sufi") is to be read. Whatever Shah's precise intentions are, he does not seek to present a methodical, analytical treatment of the history and major characteristics of what is commonly referred to as "Sufism" in the West. Following Shah's stated design, The Sufi is comprised of two distinct sections. The first is an introduction to the history of the West's contact with what it has called "Sufism" - Part 1, 35 pages; the second is a carefully selected anthology of classical pieces of Sufi literature, the earliest of which date from the end of the first millennium CE -Parts II to IX, 236 pages. Throughout, Shah avoids any simple "explanation" of what Sufism is. He explains his reticence by observing that “[t]he correct study of Sufi ideas depends upon the supply and right use of the literature and also the contact with the Sufi instructor" (p33). At the heart of this attitude is Shah's belief that the special form of knowledge Sufism deals with can only be indirectly communicated from the pages of a book and that Sufi study occurs primarily in the context of direct, personal interaction between a Sufi teacher and his or her(?) student. This stance is explained by the traditional Sufi "doctrine" that the particular "form" within which the essence of Sufism is presented by a teacher or "Master of the Way" depends entirely upon the particular "time, place and person" involved. Given the above constraints, the reader may rightly wonder what sort of understanding of Sufism he or she can possibly gain from reading the contents of The Sufi. If this reader is patient and earnest enough, the answer seems to suggest itself from within the anthology of poetry, anecdotes, stories, jokes, parables, proverbs, sayings, letters, addresses, hagiography, legends, fables, mythology and dialogues: the reader can hope to get a taste or feel of the spirit of Sufism As Shah leaves it largely up to his readers to make whatever they like of Sufism from his anthology of Sufic literature, a high degree of subjectivity necessarily enters into the equation on the side of the book reviewer - and this effect is quite intentional. Therefore, in addition to an examination and commentary on Part I, this review seeks to make a genuine attempt to give an overview of the major themes and teachings found within the anthology.
at one point. Zen. literary circle. Shah explains that these words in fact have no etymology but are derived from the sound of the pronunciation of three Arabic letters. each with copious endnotes. he does allow certain descriptions of Sufism to stand. thereby leading to an imprecise if not entirely erroneous interpretation of what Sufism is. Sikhism. because of the suggestion that wise men in woollen garb fit a Western picture of "the poor. This higher working of the mind leads the subject into a special state of knowledge which normally lies beyond the experience of "ordinary" people. Hindu Vedantist teaching.2 PART 1 . such areas including: religion. and even a military system. That is. humble. has had the greatest and broadest influence upon the life and thought of both Eastern and Western civilisations. there may be a burning curiosity about what sort of enigmatic . In addition. the works of St John of the Cross and St Teresa of Avila."The Study of Sufism in the West" Shah begins his presentation by setting the record straight on various current Western misconceptions about Sufism. Gurdjieff and Ouspenski. in that every word should have an etymology. more than any other system or body of ideas. an esoteric system of knowledge within Islam. the West has tried to understand Sufism according to its own categories of thought. the Western reader should be in a position to approach the rest of The Sufi without any firmly held misconceptions about Sufism. medieval Jewish Mysticism. Among numerous examples. Shah explains that the widespread understanding that these words derive from the Arabic word for “wool” is the product of scholastic and romantic obsessions: scholastic. At the end of Part I. and in psychotherapy. secret society. he allows Sufi ideas to be described as a "psychology" or "wisdom" (p20) which utilises certain methods of mental activity to produce a higher working of the mind. The first area he tackles is how the West has understood the words “Sufi” and “Sufism”. albeit in a qualified manner. Yoga. Despite Shah's criticism of Western misconceptions of Sufism and his additional desire to clearly separate true Sufism from the vast majority of the so-called Sufic societies which have sprung up in the West. Thus. Perhaps the most striking feature of Part I is Shah's extraordinary claim that Sufism. Shah proposes Sufic influence in: the emergence of Chivalry. and romantic. Shakespeare. Shah's other observations about Western conceptions of Sufism follow this basic theme. the works of Chaucer. philosophy. Shah illustrates this by listing those areas of thought and activity in which Sufism has had a direct influence but under which Sufism cannot be placed for the purposes of definition. mystic". an occult training system. Western alchemy. Aligheri. by and large. shamanic cult.
concludes the book.IX: An Anthology of Classical Sufi Literature As the reader discovers almost at the end of the anthology. . "truth without form". the most direct of which is given in Part IX. this is also the same Order which Gurdjieff claimed taught him the basics of what was to become his esoteric teaching about the powers inherent in human consciousness. and contains specific answers by two eminent Sufi teachers to various questions regarding Sufism. less specifically tied to any particular author or school. "What is Sufism?" varies. The most enigmatic response in the anthology was that the reply to the question. There being no concluding remarks by Shah. whatever its name. Sufism is identified as "conduct". perhaps encouraging the interested reader to further explore the mysteries of Sufism. Sufis can teach in any vehicle. continue very much in the same manner. what is Sufism? The question which Shah so masterfully side-steps is given many answers in the anthology. Part IX. "the teaching as well as the fraternity of the Sufis". with a view to helping the community or individual "find their way" (p280).3 wisdom or psychology Sufism could be if the claim that it has so pervasively influenced so many fields of thought within the West is true. "Among the Masters" and Part V. place people” doctrine. Parts VII and VIII are selections intended for the solitary student and group settings respectively. being.The Naqshbandi Order . according to the capacity of the inquirer to accept whatever answer is given.has special prominence since a Sufi master from this order can initiate a disciple into any of the other three orders. in the reply of Rais Tchaqmaqzade to the question: "[i]s Sufism the interior meaning of Islam. Religious vehicles have throughout history taken various names" (p286). PARTS II . (Incidentally. Part III consists of selections from each of the four Sufi or "Dervish" schools which exist in the Middle-East. So. if anything. advises the teacher to adapt the selection to the specific needs and culture of the audience. Elsewhere. the book ends somewhat abruptly. the fourth of which . "Teaching Stories”. or does it have wider application?" He answered: "Sufism is the knowledge whereby [humankind] can realize [itself] and attain permanency. a literal interpretation will rarely be the preferred one.) Part IV. Part II is a presentation of snippets from the works of eight of the greatest Sufi teachers. including Omar Khayyam. there is actually a Sufic tradition on how to present selections of Sufi literature! The piece "Readings in Sufi Philosophy" following the "time. We are also informed in Part 1 that Sufi literature is intended to be understood on many levels and therefore we are warned to expect "manipulated and enciphered material" in Sufic literature (p27). Thus.
a good analogy appears to exist between Sufism and the Old Testament "Wisdom" tradition. The present state of humanity is described in "The Seven Brothers" story (pp121-122) in terms of members of a family who had been separated from each other and who had subsequently had such different experiences of life that they could no longer recognise . drawing. Both seem to share a worldview characterised by an emphasis upon the perception of the inner realities of life as derived from the everyday. "beyond the boundaries of thought and sense" (p78). cannot be described.religion at best helps the process of the reintegration of the garden. Insofar as this essence has been pointed to.among them. occasional. Sufic teaching emphasises the unity of reality within which all people and things participate. but only pointed to. For a Westerner brought up in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The widespread use of various methods employed in the “practice” of Sufism . and only tending it for immediate results rather than out of a genuine love and care that the garden should be a healthy. taking their portion of the garden to be the whole.each other as family. listening to music. Knowledge of Reality enables a person to perceive what is right and true. . dancing. the anthology presents Sufism pre-eminently as a superior way of being or a higher state of perceiving reality. system of life.from external appearances . and the "knowledge of states".4 From the anthology as a whole. The Reality that lies beyond Religion From the anthology. Here. reading. here-and-now experience of humans.are only the outward. Thus we find the profound story of "The Garden" (pp117-119) in which the essential unity created by the master-gardener is allowed to deteriorate because people don't really know any better. effort and action are made possible only through real knowledge" (p278). is clearly distinguished from other forms of knowledge such as "intellectual knowledge". vibrant. and accidental "forms" in which the "substance" of Sufism manifests itself. This "Knowledge of Reality". as of so many other spiritual paths. which is described as those emotional sensations which lead to nowhere in particular. True Knowledge Sufism places its greatest emphasis on the particular form of knowledge which characterises the whole Sufic way of being: “real love. it appears that the essence of Sufism. Sufism seems to reveal its most enigmatic character in its interaction with religion. or wisdom. To use the metaphor of the garden . praying and working . which is described as the collection of information.and elsewhere the rose garden carries specific Sufic significance .
Jew. Everyone must undergo an evolution in consciousness: the saying. the assertion: " 'Being' is absolutely good. However. it is not Being" (p224). Other streams within the anthology suggest that the highest form of Sufi knowledge can be described in terms of the realisation of the uniqueness of one's own being and consciousness. Other Aspects of the Anthology There is much in the anthology that has been skimmed over due to this review's primary focus of only its major themes. All is He. Brothers in a secret sense . The story of . Good examples of this occur whenever a "madman" appears on the scene. hence the references to Sufism as a Way or Path. is strongly associated with the notion of "being". Hindu. the worship of God and finally neither the worship of God nor the non-worship of God. and. "Worship" (p189) describes three stages of faith the worship of anything.. referred to on some occasions as "God" or "Deepest Consciousness".yet who knows it internally? . the leader of prayer confesses he started to think about buying an ox at the same time the madman bellowed. for example. In "The Perception of the Madman" story (pp69-70) a madman bellows like an ox at a certain place in the prayers at the mosque. The Journey of Humankind Following the above. it is understood that every person can only move at their own pace and in their own time ("My Lady Fatima and the Animals". Paradoxically. "The Mystery of the Sufis" (p125): "Muslim. in a spectacular way. If it contains any evil. This is seen. the ultimate. Later. ALL is HE!" "God" and Being In harmony with the "unity of reality" emphasis. this review would be incomplete if no comment was made about the immensely interesting and entertaining character of the literature. Thus.. in the poem. in Part VI. “No human mind can attain an understanding of the form of being which is called God". "I am" (p228). my friends. These "holy fools” bring to the surface.5 One example of the specific linkage of religion to the unity of reality is found in the following lines from the Urdu song. in Part IV. companions. Christian. This is especially seen in the stories of everyday situations in which the common weaknesses of humans are brought to the fore. pp202-204 is a good illustration of this). we find the short sentence. many of the otherwise hidden agendas of apparently normal or pious people. significant selections within the anthology discuss the journey that can only be undertaken with real knowledge. Other examples within this diverse collection include many humorous stories of people tying themselves up in knots because of their inferior ways of thinking and because of their slavery to certain base desires. absolute and indescribable reality. Sikh.
and legends. Shah has. however slightly. but to enable them. At the end of the book. sayings. a specific Sufic cosmology and various statements about the nature of humankind. Shah has directed his work to those who have ears to listen and eyes to see . In his own subtle and unexplained way. each piece offering the reader a teaching about the inner meaning of everyday reality. rather than simply a "Sufi watcher". and the spirit of practical compassion which marks the way of the Sufi. . There are numerous other pithy statements. to all intents and purposes. In places. Much material is of an "in-house" nature. A Concluding Comment Given Shah's specific design. advising followers about how to teach and practice Sufism in such a way that they help rather than repel those who do not comprehend their way.not to give them an instantaneous grasp of Sufism. Other themes within the literature centre upon the nature of love. all based on observations of the everyday behaviour of humans and animals. I suspected that Shah himself was a Sufi master. Sufism is seen to exhibit a remarkably non-sexist attitude in its practice of allowing women to participate in the learning and practice of Sufism. There are also references to martyrdoms. and what we know from within the anthology about how to present Sufic literature.6 "The Horrid Dib Dib" (pp129-132) is an ingeniously hilarious example of this centring on the sound of a dripping tap. and considering the delicate balance of the materials he has placed together. achieved what he set out to do. proverbs. to enter into the spirit which characterises all who participate in the knowledge of undivided reality.