A Beacon of Sanity in Our Age of Polarity: On Contemporary Sufism and the Works of Idries Shah

By John Zada

With the Internet and social media offering everyone an instant voice and platform, it sometimes feels as if we’ve all become standard bearers of a cause, or a medley of them. The ease with which we can publicly air our viewpoints everyday, even many times a day, has created a ruckus of opposing perspectives that is staggering in its intensity and breadth. We are exposed to many different ideas and points of view, which is a good thing. But what we fail to see in all the exciting rabble-rousing is that we’re also engendering a toxic culture of disputation that is seeping into all areas of life.

For all its often informative and sometimes humorous fits and spurts, Twitter, for example, has also become a forum for emotionality and opinion-mongering. A place where the digital free radicals of doctrine — “trolls” — ply their special form of harassment, and where any of us reacting angrily or cynically to what we deem wrong or ridiculous, can and do become members of a virtual mob. It’s reminiscent of the blood sport of the Roman coliseum, but where we the audience can also be participants — and vice versa — reveling in the thrill of the fight.

To be sure, our lust for debate in Western culture is nothing new. Linguist Deborah Tannen describes Western society, particularly North America, as an “argument culture” — one conditioned to its core by notions of dichotomy, dispute and ritualistic opposition. Even the quickest glance at our media, politics and legal systems reveals them to be hobbled by approaches that are black-and-white and deeply adversarial. Think: Super Bowl, filibusters, the lawsuit industry, and Jerry Springer.

Part of the issue is that we’ve inherited a mode of thinking deeply rooted in analysis and criticism. Indeed, the capacity for critical thinking which saved us from the magical and superstitious mind of the Middle Ages may now have become our worst enemy. This mental posture placed a heavy emphasis on either/or thinking and instilled in us an obsession with argument at the expense of cooperation and problem solving — a less automatic and thus more difficult modes of thinking. The blinders of high emotion and cult-thinking further confine us to our two-toned world.

Social media activity can deepen these ruts, sometimes elevating our pet peeves and paradigms, our concerns and cares, to compulsive fetishes. The result is a cacophonous Tower of Babel, where we air our fixations about everything under the sun: race, religion, politics, gender, identity, the environment, science, Donald Trump, conspiracy theory — anything will do. Everyone is vying to out-shout and out-clever the other. And if you get a million “likes” in the process, then all the better.

Irrespective of what else may define our current epoch, we are without doubt living in what we might describe as an “Age of Polarity.”

But here’s the rub — we don’t see the conviction in our positions for what the worst of it can often be: dogma. We tend to associate fanatical, ideological, or dogmatic thinking with the most boorish and extreme postures on the political spectrum: the death cult of ISIS, say, or the white supremacy of the KKK. The reality is that any idea can become narrow, all encompassing, and tyrannical over its holder – and thus over others. And it needn’t manifest in threats or acts of physical violence. Valuable perspectives stemming from a desire to do good or redress injustice sometimes morph into inviolable laws that are applied indiscriminately — creating those black-and-white worlds of right and wrong that fragment reality into overly simplistic fault lines. Democratic and rights-based perspectives come to mind. As do those declaring everything to be cultural appropriation, white privilege, colonialism, or anti-Semitism.

The common denominators are an inability to simultaneously hold and acknowledge multiple points of view, to see exceptions to the rule, and to more than periodically shift our attention away from our fixations.

If being blinkered in this way isn’t problematic enough, we can also be manipulated from these positions towards even more extreme thoughts and acts.

And therein lies the danger.

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In 1964 an unusual work appeared on bookstore shelves in the West — one whose topic, structure, and spirit runs counter to the machinations of the fixated mind.

The Sufis was the first authoritative work on the subject of Sufism, an ancient philosophy and way of life popularly associated with Islam. Its author, the Anglo-Afghan thinker Idries Shah, wrote it for a Western audience caught in a vogue of Oriental spirituality cults, or an overly academic approach to Sufism. The book was meant to highlight the sober and practical purpose of genuine mysticism, and to provide a sense of Sufism’s universality, which, according to Shah, went far beyond its role in Islam.

Genuine Sufis, Shah asserts, are members of an age-old tradition of experiential knowledge that is flexible and ever-evolving, and which aims to inculcate a true understanding of the nature of reality. Far from necessarily being members of an Islamic sect, Sufis have always existed within different faiths and cultures, including those of early antiquity.

Sufis, irrespective of their religious, cultural, or professional affiliations, are engaged in a task best described in our terms as psychological: to sharpen perception and coax into operation a nascent organ of intuition. Articulating the idea of evolution long before Darwin, they viewed the human tendency to see things narrowly, and in fragments, as something to be superseded. Shah holds that much of human history has been subject to this largely unnoticed activity to widen human frontiers. The Sufi luminaries from Middle Eastern and Central Asian history — figures like Jalaludin Rumi, Omar Khayyam, Hafez, Ibn al-Arabi, Saadi — espoused these ideas through their poetry, philosophical treatises, and actions. They were just a tiny fraction of a large group of wisdom-seeker, which included Westerners. Occidental notables such as Cervantes, Shakespeare, Sir Richard Burton, St Francis of Assisi, and Robert Graves were all influenced by Sufi thought. And yet, owing to the achievements of the former group, Sufism is still largely seen as a strictly Islamic mystical tradition.

Shah writes that the works of people such as Rumi were designed, in part, to bring the reader:

into an understanding of the fact that he is temporarily out of contact with complete reality, even though ordinary life seems to be the totality of reality itself. What we see, feel and experience in ordinary, unfulfilled life according to Sufic thinking, is only a part of the greater whole. There are dimensions which we can reach only through effort. Like the submerged portion of the iceberg, they are there, though unperceived under ordinary conditions. Also like the iceberg, they are far greater than could be suspected by superficial study.

Idries Shah, who passed away in 1996, went on to write over 30 titles, which have sold 15 million copies in roughly 20 languages, and are still in print thanks to the Idries Shah Foundation.

Many of his writings include “teaching stories” — fictional tales and jokes that Sufis have used from time immemorial to help people think more flexibly. Shah spent the better part of his life collecting these, along with a wealth of sayings, proverbs, and aphorisms from the East, such as:

          What is known to be tyranny to the superior man may appear to be justice to the ordinary one.
          Whoever has not first dug a well, should not steal a minaret.
          When you realize the difference between the container and the content you will have knowledge.

Considering the polemics of our age, Shah’s books may be even more relevant today than when he first published them. Sufi anecdotes and stories work in the opposite direction of dogma and fanaticism. Rich in characters and plot, they eschew both analysis and a “moral,” embodying numerous metaphorical patterns that are meant to seep slowly into the reader by way of multiple readings and rumination. The idea being that the larger the pattern of variables we are processing, the more objective we are. The many possible meanings and applications these stories contain encourage a mental posture that is loose and nimble, able to accept an complex, organic narrative — a metaphor, Sufis say, of our wider interconnected reality.

Indeed, it isn’t unusual for Sufis to hold contradictory ideas in their minds — to consider multiple points of view, even if they appear incongruous. Nuanced thinking requires it. “Things which are seemingly opposed may in fact be working together,” Shah writes in The Sufis. But this is not to say that Sufis are fence-sitters or are unwilling to take a position when required; witness their crucial involvement in ending the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, as described in Louis Palmer’s Adventures in Afghanistan.

Still, those seemingly inconsistent postures have, over the last thousand years, earned Sufis the hostile, mocking epithets of “idiots,” “madmen,” and “fools” (which they, in true Sufi fashion, have good-humoredly taken in stride and coopted into nicknames). And many a Sufi – including the medieval savants Mansur al-Hallaj and Farid ud-Din Attar of Nishapur — has fallen afoul of ideologues, paying with his or her lives for holding up a mirror to society and offering escape routes from what the late Nobel Prize-winning writer Doris Lessing (also influenced by Sufis), described as “the prisons we choose to live inside.”

Indeed, Shah’s work can be as jolting as a glimpse in the mirror, bringing us face to face with our prejudices. When turned over in the mind, the tales in his books illuminate many facets of human behavior. Some yarns, like “The Old Woman and the Eagle,” address our perceptual problems head on. Here Shah tells the story of a elderly lady who had never before seen an eagle:

One day an eagle alighted upon this woman’s balcony. “Oh my! What a funny looking pigeon you are!” the woman said in astonishment.

The eagle protested, telling her it wasn’t a pigeon at all — let alone a funny looking pigeon. But the old woman wouldn’t be swayed. “Nonsense,” she said. “I know a pigeon when I see one. Your beak is just a little bent, your claws are too long, and the feathers on your head are too messy. But we’ll fix that!”

She grabbed the eagle, took it inside, and clipped its claws, combed its feathers, and straightened its beak.

“There, now you look more like a pigeon,” the woman said, smiling ear-to-ear. “That’s so much better!”

A tale like this, told orally in the East for millennia, acts as a mental pattern or template, illuminating situations in our everyday lives. On one level, it speaks to the human tendency to mistake one thing for another. But it can also force us to reflect on our biases, our reflex to bend something discomfortingly unfamiliar in order to make it fit our preconceived notions. Any writer who has submitted a manuscript to a publisher will see another dimension in this story.

Those with ties to Turkey, Iran, or Afghanistan may instantly recognize the name “Mulla Nasrudin” — the great whimsical joker of the Sufi tradition. Nasrudin and his anecdotal encounters are another tool in the rich Sufi repertoire of instructional literature. On one obvious level these jokes are meant to entertain; Sufis contend that humor and the mental requirements to appreciate it are inimical to the blinkered mind. Yet the jokes also contain deeper patterns.

Shah collected, translated, and published three separate anthologies of Nasrudin stories for Westerners. One volume, called The Pleasantries of the Incredible Mulla Nasrudin, contains a story entitled “Fixed Thinking”:

“How old are you, Mulla?”

“Forty.”

“But you said the same last time I asked you, two years ago!”

“Yes, I always stand by what I have said.”

In an anecdote titled “Moment in Time,” collected in The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin, Nasrudin plays a more sober sage:

“What is Fate?” Nasrudin was asked by a scholar.

“An endless succession of intertwined events, each influencing the other.”

“That is hardly a satisfactory answer. I believe in cause and effect.”

“Very well,” said the Mulla, “look at that.” He pointed to a procession passing in the street. “That man is being taken to be hanged. Is that because someone gave him a silver piece and enabled him to buy the knife with which he committed the murder; or because someone saw him do it; or because nobody stopped him?”

We might replace the question about the cause of the crime in Nasrudin’s tale with that of how ISIS arose, or how Donald Trump was elected – the source of much vituperative head-bashing between those employing simplistic blame in service of their narrow biases and agendas. A chronic appetite for argument can only make cause with the parts, never the whole.

ONE OF OURS

A theologian found himself at the entrance to the Gardens of Paradise. He had a pious look, and the angel on duty asked him a nominal question or two and then said:

“Pass, friend, enter the Garden.”

“Not so fast, my boy,” said the cleric. “I am a noted Believer, impeccable in faith and renowned for my intellect, accustomed to making up my own mind, and not to people making up their minds about me. How can you prove that this is Paradise and not a snare and a delusion: think carefully before you answer.”

The angel rang a bell and angelic guards appeared.

“Take this one inside, will you? He’s one of ours, alright.”

The moderate and flexible thinking of genuine Sufism, ever mindful of nuance and context, is an antidote to fanaticism in all its forms. It is a beacon of sanity, which we need more than ever if we are to avoid sinking deeper into the miasma of polemics — and their dangerous consequences.

 

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