THURSDAY MAY 5, 1994 On The Commanding Self by Idries Shah (Re-printed from The London Times)


Doris Lessing pays tribute to a great exponent of Sufism

Thirty years ago there appeared The Sufis, a book which at once announced itself as unlike any other. Hundreds of books by non-Sufis appear every year, disappear without trace or wash up on obscure shelves in academic libraries. This book was at once "recognised" -- a Sufi term which may be summed up by "like calls to like" -- by a remarkable range of people, many of them poets. The Sufis is a classic, and was by Idries Shah, who represents a genuine mystic tradition -- there are many imitators.

Since then he has written or compiled over 30 books, providing a comprehensive experience of the Sufi view of life. The whole body of work, together with his reissuing of still relevant Sufi classics, adds up to a many-faceted whole. There are people who have taken part in this process, book by book. Others have found this or that book useful or entertaining. The Commanding Self is both a summing up of a third of a century's work, and a development. People who have stayed the course will find similar ideas here, but put into a new context or taken a step further, sometimes unexpectedly.

"The commanding self" is a Sufi term for the false personality. Their contention is that we are all products of ideas put into us by our parents, by our culture, by the time we live in, and that what is real in us is very small (and precious). It is this part the Sufis aim to reach and teach. Some people, hearing that nearly everything they seem to be is only a mask made by conditioning, will say, "Well, of course!" -- and want more information, while others may feel threatened. The picture on the cover is a photograph of an ancient figurine, a representation of the commanding self, like a savage dog. "Do you want to live an angry biting life?"

A very old philosophy or way of looking at life has been openly introduced into a culture -- the West -- that has had little contact with it. Which is not to say that Sufism has not been at work in every country, this one too, sometimes secretly. What the Sufis offer is seen by them as a kind of yeast, or energising stream.

All our associations with the word mysticism are wrong or limited. For instance, the word "Sufism" is a recent German coinage, and not used by Sufis. "Isms" are foreign to the nature of something felt as a process or a development. Ignorance causes bafflement. Highly educated people, hearing the word "mysticism," may say they have no time for table- turning, seances, gurus, whirling dervishes, ESP, encounter groups and so on. A familiarity with the ancient ideas behind mysticism has not been part of our curriculum. People who have had 20 years of our kind of education may suddenly fall victim to a charlatan or a cult: they are highly developed in one area but left ignorant and defenceless in others. Sufis say it took 800 years of preparatory work to get Islam to accept them: they take a long-term view of the human condition. Then Islam claimed the Sufis as its property, and in our reference books Sufism is defined as a mystical Islamic sect.

This philosophy, or Way, antedates Islam; claims to be the inner part or essence of every religion, is not interested in labels or definitions, and is continually reappearing, openly or in a disguised form, in every culture. A new Sufi appearance is always within the terms of the host culture, is never an exotic, thrives, does its work, and dies, leaving behind "husks." It is these dead forms that litter every culture and they are what most people see first. Shah has said often that a main difficulty in teaching is to prevent the material from being made into a system, yet another rigid framework of ideas, or a cult. This will happen in due course: it always does. Meanwhile here is the real thing, alive and full of juice and energy.

People tempted to sample this pretty astonishing phenomenon could not do better than try this book. They will find the word mysticism has lost its bizarre associations, and that the Way of the Sufi (the title of one of Shah's books) reveals itself as a sophisticated view of life, embodied in people who through the centuries have always been in advance of their time. Sufis claim that all kinds of notions we think of as Western achievements were part of Sufi knowledge long ago: evolution, for instance, or the power locked in the atom. Their sociological and psychological insights are far in advance of our current ideas. These are most skilled and versatile servants. I have been a student for three decades, and am continually being surprised by what I learn. I have found nothing as informed, subtle, comprehensive, perceptive, anywhere else.

Sufi uses of literature are certainly full of surprises. For thousands of years the teaching story has been a Sufi instrument. "Their effects on the innermost part of the human mind is direct and certain." Teaching stories are not didactic, not parables -- a form some of us at least are still familiar with. Parables are open to a simple interpretation: this tale means this or means that. Being introduced to the great treasurehouse of Sufi literature taught this writer, at least, a realistic view of her talents.

There are wonderful tales here, some long, some very short. An elephant and a mouse fell in love. On the wedding night the elephant keeled over and died. The mouse said, "Oh Fate! I have unknowingly bartered one moment of pleasure and tons of imagination for a life time of digging a grave."

There is not a grain of sentimentality in this view of life. A tortoise carries a stranded scorpion across a river. The scorpion stings the tortoise who demands indignantly: "My nature is to be helpful. I have helped you and now you sting me." "My friend," says the scorpion, "your nature is to be helpful. Mine is to sting. Why do you seek to transform your nature into a virtue and mine into villainy?"

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