Tribute to Idries Shah
Idries Shah, Sayed Idries el-Hashimi
The following tribute to Idries Shah was written after his death on 23rd November, 1996.
List the accomplishments and achievements of Idries Shah, and they begin to seem the work of many men - probably because in our 'pessimistic society', as he often described it, we do not expect such prodigious capabilities in a single individual.
One of his lives, as it were, was as the author of more than 35 books and over a hundred academic monographs. The books included 20 best-selling titles on Sufism - of which he was the great living exemplar - which so far have sold 15 million copies in 12 languages. That would have been enough for most single lifetimes. But he was also Director of Studies for the Institute for Cultural Research , an educational charity which researched and published materials on cross-cultural patterns of human thought and behaviour.
He was advisor, too, to a number of monarchs and Heads of State. He was actively involved in a cluster of other enterprises, academic, humanitarian, scientific and commercial. He was a founder member of the Club of Rome, a Governor of the Royal Humane Society and the Royal Hospital and Home for Incurables. And, not least, he was a family man and father.
Though he seemed the epitome of Englishness in speech and bearing, belonged to the Atheneum and Garrick Clubs, and lived for many years in a large Regency house near Tunbridge Wells, Shah was in fact born in Simla, India, in 1924, into a distinguished Hashemite family, which traces its ancestry and titles, confirmed and attested by Doctors of Islamic Law in 1970, back to the prophet Mohammed. His inalienable titles included Badshah (sovereign), Emir, Sirdar (general). Then there was Sharif, translatable as prince of the blood, and Hadrat, which means holy, presence.
His Scottish mother met his father, the writer and savant Sirdar Ikbal Ali Shah, when he was a medical student in Edinburgh, and went to live with him in the Afghan highlands in Paghman, the stronghold and fiefdom of the family. From the start, the young Shah was at home in both East and West: educated, as his father before him, by private tutors in Europe and the Middle East, and through wide-ranging travel and personal encounters -- the series of journeys, in fact, that characterise Sufi education and development. He was briefly at St. Catherine's College, Oxford, and though he discontinued the course of study there, he was always amused that that university, like so many others around the world, incorporated his books into their essential curricula.
In keeping with Sufi tradition, his life was essentially one of service. His friends and associates included soldiers, scientists, artists, writers, thinkers, businessmen; the high-achieving, the famous, the royal. But equally they included as many, if not more, of the obscure and humble. And in everything he did he exemplified the way of the Sufi. It was his contention that people educated as he was, and as he attempted to educate others, could become multi-faceted, high-achieving, dedicated to the service of others, and also be funny, entertaining, and in the best sense 'ordinary'. He was, for instance, an unparalleled storyteller, and also an excellent cook. People lucky enough to get an invitation to one of his fabled parties would fly in from all over the world. He was also frequently to be found combing through boot fairs and junk shops, even in the last months of his life, looking for (and given his vast knowledge of such things, frequently finding) rare and valuable antiques of both East and West.
His knowledge and interests seemed limitless. He could rage in the face of negativity and wilful foolishness, but was more usually warm, approachable and encouraging. People who benefited professionally from his knowledge have described a range of capacities he himself would never have bothered to draw attention to. A musicologist, for example, says he helped her decipher ancient Egyptian songs unheard for 3,500 years (and subsequently broadcast on the BBC); a scientist honoured during World War II for his inventions in naval radar claims that years ago Shah helped him in the research and development of his pioneer patents in air ionisation; one of Britain's leading architects says that a nudge from Shah sent him in a completely unexpected direction in his career, dramatically improving the quality and usefulness of his work. This was characteristic: when it was appropriate Shah would nudge and hint; throw some ball from his huge storehouse of knowledge, and see who could catch it.
Shah's knowledge and activities took place in so many different areas of specialisation and in so many countries, that friends and sometimes even family were aware of what he was doing purely on a 'need to know' basis. So an account such as this inevitably refracts a very limited - and Western - view. The concealment was in part a mixture of modesty, discretion, and an unwillingness to waste time; and part a refusal to indulge anything that smacked even faintly of gossip of self-serving. Shah himself, and those round him, were masters of disinformation. For example, when in 1967 Robert Graves, a long-time friend, published his new translation of the Rubayyat of Omar Khayyam and declared Khayyam a Sufi, a group of academic Orientalists who felt their territory undermined by the fresh air Shah was bringing to the subject, attacked him by association, and even travelled to Afghanistan to collect ammunition against him and his family. Unaware of the tradition there of protecting the Hashemite family from idle curiosity. they were fed all kinds of tall and ridiculous tales, which they gave unchecked to the press, in an attempt to discredit him. But such attacks were neutralised by the warmth and weight of other scholars, far more eminent than the critics, who sprang to Shah's defence.
His public and formal work, as Director of Studies of the Institute for Cultural Research, began when Shah was in his thirties. Such scholarly criticism as there was in the early years climaxed in the Omar Khayyam affair, and then dwindled, as Shah himself was invited to lecture at various seats of learning, including Stanford University in America, and Geneva University, where he was a visiting professor. The Sufis, published by Jonathan Cape in 1964, slightly ahead of the surge of interest in metaphysical ideas, pronounced that tradition alive and well, and more or less invited readers to approach its ideas and test them out. The evident sense, and common sense, most readers found made it clear that here was a sane, authoritative voice in the wilderness of the gobbledegookish mysticism of the sixties.
In all the books that followed, whatever he made available always linked realistically into the culture to which it was offered. Through Octagon Press , the publishing company he founded to keep these books in print after mainstream publishers might drop them from their lists, he also established a broad historical and cultural context for Sufi thought and action. Through Octagon he also disseminated, in a range of books, an enormous amount of little known information about Afghanistan, forseeing that such documentation would provide a crucial record in the aftermath of that country's tragic devastation.
During the Afghan-Russian war he risked his life more than once on missions inside Afghanistan and with the Mujahuddin. Already in his sixties, he entered the country secretly - had he been betrayed to the Russians, it would have been an enormous propaganda coup. In the event, his best-selling novel, Kara Kush, was based on fact, incorporating his first-hand knowledge of the stupendous courage of the Afghan people, and the appalling atrocities inflicted upon them. And he was not above tweaking the Russian bear's tail by embedding titbits of secret intelligence in his fiction which nobody was supposed to know, such as the telephone number of the KGB.
About a year after his last visit to Afghanistan, in the late spring of 1987, Shah suffered two successive and massive heart attacks. Sick as he was, his hilarious and hair-raising analysis of the behaviour of the medical profession, and his capacity to conserve himself and still work, was an eye-opener to those around him. His physicians told him he had only eight per cent heart function remaining, and could not expect to survive. But over the next nine years, in between bouts of weakness, pain, further illness and frequent hospitalisation, he produced further books and worked with characteristic dedication, seriousness, humour and light-heartedness, teaching and advising the now necessarily depleted but still large number of people who approached him, as well as actively directing his enterprises and preparing those who would succeed him. He showed, as he had done all his life, how much it is possible for a single individual to achieve in the face of towering obstacles.
By their nature, newspaper obituaries focus on public record. But it is necessary to say that Idries Shah's visible achievements, however profound and wide-ranging, may really have been the very least of his impact. His purpose and knowledge, his kindness, his seemingly limitless patience and generosity; the warmth of his companionship; the perceptive, zany humour in a range of wickedly accurate accents which could send serious-minded adults rolling on the floor in laughter; his sheer understanding and sanity, also operated invisibly in the realm of the human heart. The thousands of people who were his students and friends, and others who encountered him however briefly, were probably all affected in a degree and dimension for which it is hard to find words. It is impossible to assess his influence, and his legacy is incalculable. The Poet Laureate, Ted Hughes, once wrote that the Sufis must be 'the biggest society of sensible men there has ever been on earth'. Idries Shah was indeed a sensible man. He was also, it is said, the Sufi Teacher of the Age.
Idries Shah, writer and savant, born Simla, India, June 16, 1924; married Cynthia (Kashfi) Kabraji, 1958; one son, two daughters; died London, November 23, 1996.
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