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Born in India , the descendant of a family of Afghan nobles, Shah grew up mainly in England. His early writings centred on magic and witchcraft. In his writings, Shah presented Sufism as a universal form of wisdom that predated Islam. Emphasizing that Sufism was not static but always adapted itself to the current time, place and people, he framed his teaching in Western psychological terms. Shah made extensive use of traditional teaching stories and parables , texts that contained multiple layers of meaning designed to trigger insight and self-reflection in the reader.
He is perhaps best known for his collections of humorous Mulla Nasrudin stories. Shah was at times criticized by orientalists who questioned his credentials and background. His role in the controversy surrounding a new translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam , published by his friend Robert Graves and his older brother Omar Ali-Shah , came in for particular scrutiny. However, he also had many notable defenders, chief among them the novelist Doris Lessing.
Shah came to be recognized as a spokesman for Sufism in the West and lectured as a visiting professor at a number of Western universities. His works have played a significant part in presenting Sufism as a form of spiritual wisdom approachable by individuals and not necessarily attached to any specific religion. His family on the paternal side were Musavi Sayyids. Their ancestral home was near the Paghman Gardens of Kabul.
Shah mainly grew up in the vicinity of London. Rushbrook Williams , Shah began accompanying his father in his travels from a very young age, and although they both travelled widely and often, they always returned to England where the family made their home for many years.
Through these travels, which were often part of Ikbal Ali Shah's Sufi work, Shah was able to meet and spend time with prominent statesmen and distinguished personalities in both East and West. Williams writes,. Such an upbringing presented to a young man of marked intelligence, such as Idries Shah soon proved himself to possess, many opportunities to acquire a truly international outlook, a broad vision, and an acquaintance with people and places that any professional diplomat of more advanced age and longer experience might well envy.
But a career of diplomacy did not attract Idries Shah He described how his father and his extended family and friends always tried to expose the children to a "multiplicity of impacts" and a wide range of contacts and experiences with the intention of producing a well-rounded person. Shah described this as "the Sufi approach" to education.
He returned to England in October , following allegations of improper business dealings. Shah married the Parsi Cynthia Kashfi Kabraji in ; they had a daughter, Saira , in , followed by twins — a son, Tahir , and another daughter, Safia — in Towards the end of the s, Shah established contact with Wiccan circles in London and then acted as a secretary and companion to Gerald Gardner , the founder of modern Wicca, for some time.
The book was attributed to one of Gardner's followers, Jack L. Bracelin , but had in fact been written by Shah. According to Wiccan Frederic Lamond , Bracelin's name was used because Shah "did not want to confuse his Sufi students by being seen to take an interest in another esoteric tradition. And yet I have it on good authority that this group will be the cornerstone of the religion of the coming age. But rationally, rationally I can't see it!
Shah also told Graves that he was "intensely preoccupied at the moment with the carrying forward of ecstatic and intuitive knowledge.
Shah managed to obtain a substantial advance on the book, resolving temporary financial difficulties. The book also employed a deliberately "scattered" style; Shah wrote to Graves that its aim was to "de-condition people, and prevent their reconditioning"; had it been otherwise, he might have used a more conventional form of exposition.
The book sold poorly at first, and Shah invested a considerable amount of his own money in advertising it.
Leave it to find its own readers who will hear your voice spreading, not those envisaged by Doubleday. In June , a couple of years prior to the publication of The Sufis , Shah had also established contact with members of the movement that had formed around the mystical teachings of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky.
One of Ouspensky's earliest pupils, Reggie Hoare, who had been part of the Gurdjieff work since , made contact with Shah through that article. Hoare "attached special significance to what Shah had told him about the enneagram symbol and said that Shah had revealed secrets about it that went far beyond what we had heard from Ouspensky.
Bennett , a noted Gurdjieff student and founder of an "Institute for the Comparative Study of History, Philosophy and the Sciences" located at Coombe Springs, a 7-acre 2. At that time, Bennett had already investigated the Sufi origins of many of Gurdjieff's teachings, based on both Gurdjieff's own numerous statements, and on travels Bennett himself made in the East where he met various Sufi Sheikhs.
At first, I was wary. I had just decided to go forward on my own and now another 'teacher' had appeared. One or two conversations with Reggie convinced me that I ought at least to see for myself. Elizabeth and I went to dinner with the Hoares to meet Shah, who turned out to be a young man in his early 40s. He spoke impeccable English and but for his beard and some of his gestures might well have been taken for an English public school type.
Our first impressions were unfavourable. He was restless, smoked incessantly and seemed too intent on making a good impression. Halfway through the evening, our attitude completely changed. We recognized that he was not only an unusually gifted man, but that he had the indefinable something that marks the man who has worked seriously upon himself Knowing Reggie to be a very cautious man, trained moreover in assessing information by many years in the Intelligence Service, I accepted his assurances and also his belief that Shah had a very important mission in the West that we ought to help him to accomplish.
Shah gave Bennett a "Declaration of the People of the Tradition"  and authorised him to share this with other Gurdjieffians. For the next few years, Bennett and Shah had weekly private talks that lasted for hours. Later, Shah also gave talks to the students at Coombe Springs. Bennett says that Shah's plans included "reaching people who occupied positions of authority and power who were already half-consciously aware that the problems of mankind could no longer be solved by economic, political or social action.
Such people were touched, he said, by the new forces moving in the world to help mankind to survive the coming crisis. Bennett agreed with these ideas and also agreed that "people attracted by overtly spiritual or esoteric movements seldom possessed the qualities needed to reach and occupy positions of authority" and that "there were sufficient grounds for believing that throughout the world there were already people occupying important positions, who were capable of looking beyond the limitations of nationality and cultures and who could see for themselves that the only hope for mankind lies in the intervention of a Higher Source.
Bennett wrote, "I had seen enough of Shah to know that he was no charlatan or idle boaster and that he was intensely serious about the task he had been given.
Bennett says he did receive an invitation to the "Midsummer Revels", a party Shah held at Coombe Springs that lasted two days and two nights, primarily for the young people whom Shah was then attracting. I had only a few encounters with him but much enjoyed his irreverent attitude.
Bennett once said to me, 'There are different styles in the work. Mine is like Gurdjieff's, around struggle with one's denial. But Shah's way is to treat the work as a joke. Along with the Coombe Springs property, Bennett also handed the care of his body of pupils to Shah, comprising some people.
According to Bennett, Shah later also engaged in discussions with the heads of the Gurdjieff groups in New York. Something is preparing, but whether it will come to fruition I cannot tell. I refer to their connection with Idries Shah and his capacity for turning everything upside down.
It is useless with such people to be passive, and it is useless to avoid the issue. For the time being, we can only hope that some good will come, and meanwhile continue our own work The author and clinical psychologist Kathleen Speeth later wrote,. Witnessing the growing conservatism within the [Gurdjieff] Foundation, John Bennett hoped new blood and leadership would come from elsewhere Although there may have been flirtation with Shah, nothing came of it.
The prevailing sense [among the leaders of the Gurdjieff work] that nothing must change, that a treasure in their safekeeping must at all costs be preserved in its original form, was stronger than any wish for a new wave of inspiration. Langton House at Langton Green became a place of gathering and discussion for poets, philosophers and statesmen from around the world, and an established part of the literary scene of the time. Shah was an early member and supporter of the Club of Rome , [nb 2] and several presentations were given to the Institute by scientists like Alexander King.
Other visitors, pupils, and would-be pupils included the poet Ted Hughes , novelists J. The interior of the house was decorated in a Middle-Eastern fashion, and buffet lunches were held every Sunday for guests in a large dining room that was once the estate stable, nicknamed "The Elephant" a reference to the Eastern tale of the " Elephant in the Dark ".
Over the following years, Shah developed Octagon Press as a means of publishing and distributing reprints of translations of numerous Sufi classics. In Shah's interpretation, the Mulla Nasruddin stories, previously considered a folkloric part of Muslim cultures, were presented as Sufi parables.
Nasruddin was featured in Shah's television documentary Dreamwalkers , which aired on the BBC in Segments included Richard Williams being interviewed about his unfinished animated film about Nasruddin, and scientist John Kermisch discussing the use of Nasruddin stories at the Rand Corporation Think Tank. Other guests included the British psychiatrist William Sargant discussing the hampering effects of brainwashing and social conditioning on creativity and problem-solving, and the comedian Marty Feldman talking with Shah about the role of humour and ritual in human life.
The program ended with Shah asserting that humanity could further its own evolution by "breaking psychological limitations" but that there was a "constant accretion of pessimism which effectively prevents evolution in this form from going ahead Man is asleep — must he die before he wakes up?
Shah also organised Sufi study groups in the United States. Claudio Naranjo , a Chilean psychiatrist who was teaching in California in the late s, says that, after being "disappointed in the extent to which Gurdjieff's school entailed a living lineage", he had turned towards Sufism and had "become part of a group under the guidance of Idries Shah.
Both of them were associated with the University of California , where Ornstein was a research psychologist at the Langley Porter Psychiatric Institute. Ornstein was also president and founder of the Institute for the Study of Human Knowledge , established in ; seeing a need in the U. Another Shah associate, the scientist and professor Leonard Lewin , who was teaching telecommunications at the University of Colorado at the time, set up Sufi study groups and other enterprises for the promotion of Sufi ideas like the Institute for Research on the Dissemination of Human Knowledge IRDHK , and also edited an anthology of writings by and about Shah entitled The Diffusion of Sufi Ideas in the West The planned animated feature film by Williams, provisionally titled The Amazing Nasruddin , never materialised, as the relationship between Williams and the Shah family soured in amid disputes about copyrights and funds; however, Williams later used some of the ideas for his film The Thief and the Cobbler.
Shah wrote around two dozen more books over the following decades, many of them drawing on classical Sufi sources. In late spring of , about a year after his final visit to Afghanistan, Shah suffered two successive and massive heart attacks.
Idries Shah died in London on 23 November , at the age of 72 and was buried in Brookwood Cemetery. Shah's early books were studies of what he called "minority beliefs". His first book Oriental Magic , published in , was originally intended to be titled Considerations in Eastern and African Minority Beliefs. The names of these books were, according to a contributor to a festschrift for Shah, changed before publication due to the "exigencies of commercial publishing practices.
Before his death in , Shah's father asserted that the reason why he and his son had published books on the subject of magic and the occult was "to forestall a probable popular revival or belief among a significant number of people in this nonsense. My son In an interview in Psychology Today from , Shah elaborated:.
The main purpose of my books on magic was to make this material available to the general reader. For too long people believed that there were secret books, hidden places, and amazing things.
Born in India , the descendant of a family of Afghan nobles, Shah grew up mainly in England. His early writings centred on magic and witchcraft. In his writings, Shah presented Sufism as a universal form of wisdom that predated Islam. Emphasizing that Sufism was not static but always adapted itself to the current time, place and people, he framed his teaching in Western psychological terms. Shah made extensive use of traditional teaching stories and parables , texts that contained multiple layers of meaning designed to trigger insight and self-reflection in the reader. He is perhaps best known for his collections of humorous Mulla Nasrudin stories.
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