Thursday, December 8, 2011

Can You Recommend A Book by Idries Shah?

A colleague, appreciating a comment which I'd posted to a listserve discussion, which included a couple of quotes by Idries Shah, asked me to recommend a book of Shah's for her to read. Here's my reply:

Here's a very brief overview of Shah's writing that might indicate a title you might like to look into.

Shah wrote over 30 books, and the styles vary. He also wrote over a period of thirty years or so, so sometimes his writing might reflect changes in readership, with the later books perhaps written partly for a readership familiar with the earlier books. Which is not to say that the earlier ones aren't full of value; "The Sufis," for example, was his first Sufi book, in 1964 I think, and I am not alone in finding new content whenever I return to it. It lays out a sort of patchwork background of Sufi thought and action over the past thousand years or so, and if you are looking for a historical context, you might find it here. Another earlier book that has some context about Sufism is "The Way of the Sufi," which contains examples of stories, meditation themes, comments from the masters, sort of a representative cross-section of classical Sufi thought. At the same time, it isn't an A through Z genre or catalog; each book stands on its own, so a reader could start anywhere.

"Learning How To Learn: Psychology and Spirituality in the Sufi Way," is based on lectures Shah gave in New York and California (in 1974, as I recall), as is "A Perfumed Scorpion." "Seeker After Truth" came in 1982. "The Commanding Self," and "Knowing How to Know" are later works, and they are all very rich in psychologically and spiritually relevant content, in which the interaction of traditional Sufi attitudes and perspectives and contemporary Western psychological and sociocultural perspectives and behavior are more up front, at least to me. Shah was a great storyteller, and these books, in style, go back and forth between stories and discursive discussion.

The Sufis are preeminent cultivators of stories--Shah coined the term, "Teaching Stories" for a particular genre of tales--seeing story and metaphor as reflecting both reality and processes of thought and perception in ways that logic, analysis, etc., can't. It's not that logic and analysis are discarded, but they have a subordinate role to perception. This makes sense because we have to perceive the context of a situation before we can analyze or measure parts of it. Sufis see our perceptual capacities as capable of being provoked and evolved through various experiences, in which stories can play a part. At the same time, they emphasize the importance of having one's feet on the ground, as it were, in being well integrated into ordinary life.

Shah published several collections of stories without narrative, and little or no commentary, such as Tales of the Dervishes (an early collection of classical tales) and The Magic Monastery (a later one, including modern tales of his own). "Thinkers of the East" and "Wisdom of the Idiots" are others; "Dermis Probe" contains an award-winning script based on Rumi's "Elephant in the Dark" story, and has brief comments in an appendix. "Caravan of Dreams" is another kind of cross-section, containing travel writing, stories, table talk, and more.

Adding to the richness of Shah's work and the complexity of recommending a first book, there are several volumes of stories about Mulla Nasrudin, the wise-fool figure whose antics reflect mental processes, a sort of psychological mirror. Some Nasrudin fans like him right away, for others he's an acquired taste. There's a chapter on Nasrudin in The Sufis which provides context. Canadian storyteller Aubrey Davis posts Nasrudin stories on Facebook, and you can "friend" Nasrudin and receive occasional stories to your facebook screen,at

So, there's a brief overview of some of Shah's work. If you want an introduction with background and context, "The Sufis" is a good place to start. "Way of the Sufi" provides a sort of cross-section of classical Sufi thought. If you prefer a more psychologically oriented presentation, "Learning How To Learn" might provide that; although there's a lot of psychological and social-behavioral insight throughout Shah's work. If you'd like to start just with stories, you might try "Tales of the Dervishes," "Thinkers of the East," "Wisdom of the Idiots," or "The Magic Monastery." If you'd like a later work, starting at the end of his writing career so to speak, "Knowing How to Know," is his last.

Shah's books are not much on the bookstore shelf these days, although you can often find one or two, and you could try your luck with whatever might be in your local bookstore. Amazon and Barnes and Noble carry selections online. More complete catalogs are available in USA through ISHK Book Service,, and also from Octagon Press in London

My colleague replied:

Hello Jay,

What a delightful answer, thank you for spending the time to give me such full information on Idries Shah. I have long been interested in storytelling and so love the tales of Nasrudin. I am also attuned to the mystical traditions in all cultures and would like to read more about Sufi thought. So, I will choose from each genre.

I have a favorite bookseller online, because they use part of their profits to support world literacy: and they have 14 of Shah's books in stock.

Thank you!

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