SUFIS.ORG : What is Sufism? : Lessing on Sufism

On Sufism and Idries Shah's
The Commanding Self (1994)
By Doris Lessing



Most people's associations with the word "Sufi" go something like this: dancing dervishes; disreputable money-hungry "gurus"; exciting Oriental music, like Ravel's "Bolero" (which did, in fact, originate as a Sufi chant to be used for specific and exact purposes); and peculiarly irritating "disciples" who use "meaningful" phrases and a vague unworldliness like badges of superiority. This mishmash seems suspect because of an association with Islam: for while Islam is as varied as Christianity, and most Moslems no more fanatic than an average Christian, recent events have revived sets of mind reminiscent of the hundreds of years of wars against the dreaded Saracen. Even in respectable reference books Sufism is described as a mystical Moslem sect, but Sufis claim that their "way," or discipline, predates Islam, and is as old as humanity itself, is coeval with humankind's beginnings, is the inner core of every religion. We are talking here not of a word or even a vocabulary but a way of looking at life, and at the human story. Sufism is not to be associated with any one practice or belief, for Sufis may use any relevant method to convey their message and often without ever using the words "mysticism," "Sufism," "spirituality." This approach does disappoint people looking for excitement or intoxication.

It is not so difficult to say what Sufism is not, but hard to say what it is, particularly when questions are put in the hope of eliciting definitive replies: Is it this? or is it that? The Sufi Way, or Path, is fluid and always changing. Every fresh introduction of it into societies (such as Central Asia and the Middle East) where it is already familiar and part of the culture, or into those where it is not, such as the West now, involve fresh, or freshly presented traditional material, a new form or framework, and usually new people. The Sufi Teacher, or Exemplar, is central to Sufism.. For this time now in the West it is Idries Shah, who is the author of this book. Sufi sayings or aphorisms hint at the difficulties. "Speak to everyone according to his (or her) understanding." "He who tastes, knows." "There is a change of perception with every new stage of the road." Which is to say that people involved with the study may see it all--must see it all--differently at different times. This can be summarized thus: the phrase "God is Love" may be graffiti on a wall, or the moment of understanding of the highest spiritual truth, with a thousand different stages of understanding between.

At the start a student will almost certainly associate Sufism with religious or cults she or he is already familiar with. But "Learning How to Learn" (the title of one of Shah's books) means shedding ideas you begin with and allowing yourself to understand what exactly is being offered. This could be a definition of the Sufi Way.

During the last thirty years or so Idries Shah has been introducing Sufism into the West. Which is not to say that Sufism has not been in the West, but has not been openly offered, in this way, as a major contribution to thought. He is a representative of an ancient family traditionally recognized within his culture as the custodian of this ancient spiritual tradition. He is only the most recent in a long line. His father, for instance, was The Sirdar Ikbal Ali Shah, an equally extraordinary man, who represented India and Afghanistan at different times as a diplomat, and in cultural institutions designed to bridge the gap between West and East, and was a writer on religious and cultural questions, and a traveler whose books still fascinate. Idries Shah has lived in Britain since the Fifties. His mother was a Scots girl who thought she was marrying a wild Afghan tribesman, but she found the truth to be somewhat more complicated. She, too, has written memoirs about a life in courts and embassies. The followers of the Sufi Way number millions, and are to be found all over the world. The analogy with the Agha Khan is an easy but misleading one.

When Idries Shah began his work, his difficulty was, as it is for all reintroducers of Sufism, that previous manifestations have left behind "husks" of cults, semi-religions and practices (like dervish dancing) which were designed to be appropriate for their times. The last thing real Sufis want is to encourage people modeling themselves on the past. The world is full of deluded "Sufis" who are replicas of medieval persons. For Sufis have always been in the forefront of their times, and have often anticipated our discoveries. They were talking about evolution, the structure of the atom, the circulation of the blood, and psychological laws, we think of as our discoveries, centuries ago. This kind of claim has attracted academics, and books on Sufism pour from the presses. Nearly all are by non-Sufis, and are, say Sufis, valueless except to those satisfied by their own processes of analysis. What Sufis offer is learning, through experience. But if Sufism is not to be understood by people not involved in the process of becoming Sufis, or working with Sufis, what hope is there for outside enquirers; what use is a book like this one? But this is exactly where The Commanding Self comes in, and other books Idries Shah has been publishing which are part of a "course," if you like, and designed to introduce the interested to this way of looking at life, as well as teaching students. An analogy they use is that a dried peach is not a peach, but may prepare you to recognize fresh peaches when at last you eat one.

Idries Shah writes in English. He has caused to be published or published himself Sufi classics considered still relevant, or mixed his own work with material from the past. All Sufi teachers have done this. It is hard to categorize Shah's books, or any Sufi book. They are not academic, nor like any genre we are familiar with. His books are very varied in style and method. Some Sufi books are written by the "scatter" method, where the material is arranged in such a way that "impacts" reach the reader by-passing the conditioned self, which is such a very efficient censor. A good example of "scatter" is in The Sufis, the book in which Shah introduced the new appearance of the Sufi Way in the West. People ask, "Does Sufism have a bible?" No, it cannot, because of their continual updating of the material, but this book is for our time a classic, a compendium of information, historical material, stories and poems and jokes. It is the book I found when looking thirty odd years ago for a teacher and a teaching. Reading it was the most remarkable experience of my life. Ideas, aspirations, intuitions, discoveries I had thought I could share with no one else were here, in this book. Why was I looking at all? I had reached the end of some road, and knew it: specifically, I had exhausted what I have described as "the intellectual package" of our time, which consists of material, both philosophic and that assumption of our culture that creature comforts must be everyone's chief aim in life; then, belief in one of the churches of Marxism; a belief that politics or a political party will solve everything; science in the place of God. I was by no means the only one to have tired of this "package." In my case it was writing The Golden Notebook that taught me I must look again.

The fact that we in the West are conditioned to material accumulation and to a belief that we are entitled to anything we may happen to want are barriers to understanding the Sufis. It is common for persons hearing about "mysticism" for the first time--as in my case, at the age of forty or so--to assume that all they have to do is demand it and it must be theirs by right. And many are put off when they hear, "Nearly everyone is fitted to contribute to the advancement of humanity," and not, "You want it? Fine, here it is." A hint of the Sufi attitude to evolution is conveyed in this miniature tale: a caterpillar is told that one day it will be a beautiful butterfly. "Show me now," says the caterpillar, "while I am crawling up this tree."

It takes a long time, perhaps years, to understand the Sufi claim that emotionalism may be a barrier. This is put in the Mulla Nasrudin joke, thus: Nasrudin summons the doctor. "My temperature is over 110." "You don't need me," says the doctor. "Call the fire engine." Nasrudin is a joke figure created by the Sufis to carry their message across frontiers, and many of our jokes originated in the Nasrudin corpus. We value emotions and emotionalism, an attitude caricatured in the television serial Star Trek. Mr. Spock is deficient because he has no emotions, but real people have emotions and are on a higher level. But emotion with us is a word that lumps together everything from puppy warmth to the highest reaches of intuition.

Idries Shah says that his task is first of all to supply information to a culture starved of it, information that is about a genuine mystical tradition. It is an astonishing fact, and one that I first encountered thirty years ago that someone may have gone through many years of our education or--as in my case--be pretty well read within our own literary tradition, and yet have not heard much more about the great spiritual traditions than that they exist. Yet they have all deeply influenced the cultures they are part of. At the best we may have read St. John of the Cross and The Cloud of the Unknowing, and if so, we have been given an inkling of what a real mystical tradition may be. But it is hardly a rare sight in our time to see a highly educated person encountering some cult or "guru" and losing all balance because unfamiliar and exciting material is rushing into an area of their brains left uncultivated, and so they have no defenses. They throw over their own traditions as if they have no value at all, and hasten to lose themselves in an ashram or cult (of which there are dozens, all over the world) amazing better-balanced onlookers who do not understand how these besotted ones have apparently learned nothing at all about how to assess people, have lost ordinary common sense.

In Moslem countries Sufis and Sufism are not exotics. The ideas and themes are part of the culture. Sometimes great Sufi classics are the foundations of a literature--in Iran,. for instance, with Hafiz, and Sanai, Sa'adi and Attar. A Thousand and One Arabian Nights originated with the Sufis. There are many other wonderful books hardly known to us in the West. The Sufis say that it took eight hundred years of hard and often dangerous work to get Islam to accept the Sufi claim. These are people who take a very long view: they complain that Westerners think we are showing concern for the future if we think of the welfare of our children.

This storyteller must confess that the Sufi use of tale and anecdote and poems and jokes has been and is a most intense delight. This body of literary material, described by them as the most valuable of the treasures in the human heritage is too varied to be described here. Some tales go back thousands of years. Idries Shah's Tales of the Dervishes offers samples of this richness. Others are new-coined. Shah has created some. It takes time to even begin to appreciate what a range and depth is there. When the Sufis claim they use stories to teach, our associations with the words "teach" and "teacher" limit understanding. Their insistence that the inculcation of a simple morality of an ethic is a very low-level stage of instruction begins to explain something of their scope. A real teaching story, whether thousands of years old, or new, goes far beyond the parables that are still part of our culture. A parable has a simple message: this means that. But in a Sufi teaching story, there may be layers of meaning, some of them not to be verbalized. Current ways of "teaching" literature in schools and universities may make it difficult for literary people to approach Sufi literature as it should be: Sufis do not pull apart a tale to find its meaning, but cite the case of the child who has dismantled a fly and, left with a heap of wings, a head, legs, asks "Where is the fly?" In other words, a student learns to use the mind in ways unfamiliar to us. They "soak themselves" in the material. They ignore the analytical approach, and the practice of memorizing and regurgitating. The meaning of a Sufi tale comes through contemplation, and may take years.

I particularly like the unsentimental Sufi view of life: "A tortoise carries a stranded scorpion across a river on its back. The scorpion stings the tortoise, who indignantly protests, '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?'" With us, this tale is often quoted as an example of the wickedness of the scorpion and the helplessness of the tortoise. Poor little me. But these are psychologically sophisticated people. That people may enjoy suffering has only recently been accepted by us. Or that people may be brainwashed. Or that we are easily conditioned. Psychology is very much a "language" of our time. And so in this time it is often within this framework that they teach.

A Perfumed Scorpion (by Idries Shah) for instance. I have found nothing as subtle, comprehensive, perceptive and often surprising anywhere else, as the Sufi knowledge about the nature of the human being. Which may be abrasive. In one of the exchanges in this book which are traditionally used by Sufis to illustrate problems, the questioner asks about prayer. The answer: "Prayer depends on knowing how to pray and what it is for. The usual idea of prayer is merely emotional and performs a conditioning function." There are no simple messages here. The Sufis do not offer an indoctrination course. They say that our demand, often an unconscious one, to be indoctrinated and given "belief" is a barrier to what they have to offer. They insist, decade in and decade out--and always have done--that all human societies are based upon, and their continuity and growth reinforced by, the use of hope, fear and repetition. This structure is not visible to the majority of people, but it is employed in every type of organization, whether tribal, national, political, religious, recreational, educational or any other. "Because everyone is accustomed to being manipulated by hope and fear, because everyone assumes that repetition is necessary, the possible progress in analyzing this situation is virtually at a halt."

"The Commanding Self" is a Sufi technical term for the false personality, which is made up of what a culture puts into a person--parents, schools, the zeitgeist. This false self is an enemy which has to be recognized for what it is and then by-passed (not destroyed) if the Sufi understanding is to be received.

When I first read the Sufi contention that I am mere concoction of transient influences. I felt liberated, as if at last hearing news I had been waiting for. I know some people find it a threat. "What, me, a mere play of shadows? But there are more and more people who, perhaps because of the savage times we live in, which challenge us so directly, perhaps because of the way we all move about, forced to compare different cultures and to see ourselves as products of our own, welcome the news that what we really are is not what is to be seen, but is "something else," and "somewhere else." If our real self is initially only a "tiny shining precious thing," then it is capable of infinite expansion. The picture on the cover of the book is of a very ancient representation of the commanding self, like an angry biting lurid threatened, and threatening, animal. Some of us may be tempted to see this nasty beast as, too, an illustration of the frightening angers and paranoia of the world now.

Our current mind-set, which is a passionately or dogmatically defended atheism, does not deter the Sufis, who say that it is only a different manifestation of the religious impulse, almost a religion in its own right.

-- Doris Lessing



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