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The Sufis
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82 of 89 people found the following review helpful
on January 18, 1998
Terry W. Williams, Ph.D., Del Mar, CA.

Idries Shah's The Sufis, first published in 1964, is the seminal work of this famous Afghan author and a first-of-its-kind modern statement on Sufism. A famous Sufi once said, "Previously Sufism was a reality without a name. Now it's a name without a reality." One meaning of this saying is that there was a time when the science and procedures of learning the meaning of mankind's existence were clearly understood and formed an essential part of human life. However, that meaning has been lost by humanity and only the name remains. In The Sufis, Idries Shah has made a monumental contribution to bringing this precious meaning back into the life stream of humanity.

This book, written after years of travel, research, and collection of an amazingly diverse array of materials, presents the reader with a series of startling revelations concerning the basis of the knowledge structure of Western and Eastern thought. The idea of an advanced knowledge in the custody of, for the most part, unknown and mysterious people with strange powers, may seem at first glance to be an absurdity. The idea that the unified knowledge of the Sufis concerning the developmental and evolutionary potential of mankind influenced or lay behind the organization and theories such as those of Chivalry, St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, Roger Bacon, Geber, Hindu Vendantist teachings, the Troubadours, in Shakespeare, the Rosicrucians, the techniques of Japanese Zen, in Chaucer - to name only a few - is sure to clash with the conditioned thinking inculcated by submersion in conventional thought and maintained by our environment.

In the book, Shah states: "Sufism, in one definition, is human life. Occult and metaphysical powers are largely incidental, though they may play their part in the process, if not in personal prominence or satisfaction. It is axiomatic that the attempt to become a Sufi through a desire for personal power as normally understood will not succeed. Only the search for truth is valid, the desire for wisdom the motive. The method is assimilation, not study."

"The Sufi life can be lived at any time, in any place. It does not require withdrawal from the world, or organized movements, or dogma. It is coterminous with the existence of humanity. It cannot, therefore, accurately be termed an Eastern system. It has profoundly influenced both the East and the very bases of the Western civilization in which many of us live - the mixture of Christian, Jewish, Moslem and Near Eastern or Mediterranean heritage commonly called `Western.' Mankind, according to the Sufis, is infinitely perfectable. The perfection comes about through attunement with the whole of existence. Physical and spiritual life meet, but only when there is a complete balance between them. Systems which teach withdrawal from the world are regarded as unbalanced."

"When, and where, did the Sufi way of thinking start? This is, to most Sufis, slightly irrelevant to the work at hand. The "place" of Sufism is within humanity....' The practice of the Sufis is too sublime to have a formal beginning," says the Asrar el Qadim wa'l Qadim (Secrets of the Past and Future). But as long as one remembers that history is less important than the present and future, there is a great deal to be learned from a review of the spread of the modern Sufi trend since it branched out from the areas which were Arabized nearly fourteen hundred years ago. By a glance at this period of development, the Sufis show how and why the message of self-perfection may be carried into every conceivable kind of society, irrespective of its nominal religious or social commitment."

"Sufism is believed by its followers to be the inner, `secret' teaching that is concealed within every religion; and because its bases are in every human mind already, Sufic development must inevitably find its expression everywhere. The historical period of the teaching starts with the explosion of Islam from the desert into the static societies of the Near East."

Thus, Idries Shah takes us on a developmental journey through the past fourteen hundred years, from the angle of how, when, and where the Sufic stream was in operation in the East and West. Thought provoking and written like a finely crafted mystery, The Sufis is an astounding and unparalleled source of information on the totally unexpected basis of Eastern and Western thought. It will appeal to those interested in spiritual and metaphysical ideas, as well as those with a yearning to discover the impulses which are the basis of our humanity.
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41 of 44 people found the following review helpful
on March 16, 2000
Through lack of information, misunderstanding and cultural prejudice, the words 'Sufi' and 'dervish' have acquired strange associations in the West, where they're likely to conjure up images of wild-eyed ragamuffins or whirling fanatics. Idries Shah's compelling book THE SUFIS shows this to be not only erroneous but unfortunate, because the world into which it gives a tantalizing glimpse is one of unsuspected sophistication, breadth and relevance to the human condition. With deft scholarship and eloquent prose, Shah shows Sufism to be nothing like what one might expect - not a religious cult, nor a political movement, nor a collection of vague-minded idealists. Instead it emerges as a body of men and women who see themselves as engaged in the practical task of unlocking the hidden potential of the human being and guiding it to completion, both on an individual and a societal level. The way in which they do this, they say, is tailored to local needs and conditions and thus varies from epoch to epoch and from culture to culture, as well as from individual to individual - something that has confused scholars no end and given rise to much misunderstanding. This has been exacerbated by a profusion of imitators, many of them well-meaning but misguided. Sufism seems to have achieved an understanding of the human mind that goes far beyond that of modern psychology, many of whose tenets - e.g., conditioning and the unconscious - it anticipated by centuries. Its influence on the world has been enormous, though not widely known. In the West alone, Sufism lies behind a host of diverse cultural heirlooms, ranging from Freemasonry to alchemy to the Kabala, and had a profound impact on such thinkers as Roger Bacon, Paracelsus and St. Francis of Assisi. While many of these examples have been well-documented by individual scholars operating in various fields, the information has been scattered here and there like broken fragments. In THE SUFIS, Shah combines these pieces with a wealth of other information to form a picture of a fascinating society of people, still very much alive and kicking, that since ancient times has had a profound affect on mankind. A fitting introduction to Shah's many other excellent books, it is one the reader is unlikely to ever forget. I know that I certainly won't.
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20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on March 28, 1999
The most comprehensive book on the subject available in our culture. Has chapters on Classical authors such as Attar and Rumi. Also, the amazing Mulla Nasrudin; whose antics, jokes, and quibs have helped to inspire and instruct for centuries. Yet this is not an historical book or an academic one, but real, live Sufi teaching and instructional material, designed for contemporary culture. Never boring, often challenging, The Sufis sheds light on organizations and people who have throughout history, come and gone, leaving only the empty husk. I especially enjoyed the Seeker After Knowledge chapter, a teaching narrative that memorably illustrates deficiencies in our approaches to knowledge.
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18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on December 5, 2003
Having been a reader of Shah's books since the mid seventies, and gradually coming to the realization that I am a slow learner, I can only say that I agree fully that we need to have not only the teacher and the place, but to be in the right time of our lives in order to learn. I learned a tremendous amount from The Sufis the first time I read it. Since then I have returned to the book occasionally. Now I am going through it again, more slowly and carefully than ever before, and really, it is as though I have never read it. There are truly layers there which we cannot guess at until we reach a certain level of inner development. I persevere, and perhaps some day I will understand. I also consider myself fortunate to live in a world where books such as this are available for us to read.
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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on November 21, 1997
Sufism is not a religion (if by that we refer to organized groups with prescribed methods of ritual and dogma) because Sufism is the shedding of one's externals, the releasing of the True Self from the Commanding Self. It is the purification of the soul through seven stages, largely centered around (but not necessarily restricted to) esoteric interpretations of the Qu'ran, the Holy Book of Islam. Idries Shah's work is based upon his lifetime experience, having been raised as a dervish (a student of Sufism) and ultimately becoming a Grand Sheikh, like his father before him (the recently deceased author's lineage was legitimately traced as far back as the Prophet Mohammed). Hailed internationally as a master and scholar, he was a guest lecturer at several Universities, including Stanford, as well as a visiting professor at Geneva. First published in 1964, THE SUFIS is Idries Shah's classic and most expansive work. It brings to light the wonders of a highly misunderstood international society first established in the East, whose influence in the West remains largely unknown, while its true birth remains concealed beneath the veils of space and time.
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22 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on November 28, 2008
Idries Shah published a series of books on Sufi subjects beginning in the late 60's. Many of them, like "Tales of the Dervishes" and "Thinkers of the East", are entirely delightful, collections of Islamic stories and wisdom very difficult to find elsewhere.

This book was central, setting out his version of Sufism in overview. It is a ton of fun, intriguing and thought-provoking. It shines a fascinating light on little-known corners of history. It is also completely and utterly bogus. If you want to learn about real Sufism, this is not the book for you. It bears the same relation to Sufism that "The Da Vinci Code" does to Gospel scholarship or "Ancient Astronaut" books to archaeology.

Shah's Sufism was uncannily calculated to appeal to intelligent Westerners, but he was not all he seemed. He was born in Bristol; though he claimed to be a Master of the Naqshbandiyya Sufi Order, no-one else in the order had ever heard of him. In her authoritative "Mystical Dimensions of Islam" Annemarie Schimmel devotes a footnote to warning the reader to avoid Shah's works.

I wouldn't be so snitchy. This book at least introduced people to some of the great names of Sufism. Read it for fun, read it for interest, but don't take it seriously. I give three stars for entertainment value; zero stars for authenticity.
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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on July 8, 2006
A woman owns a talking parrot that came from India. She's about to visit that country, and asks the bird if he'd like her to do anything. He asks for his freedom, but the woman says 'No.' So he asks her to find his relatives and tell them he's a prisoner.

When she gets back, the bird asks about his relatives. She says, "Sorry. When I told them you were in a cage, one of them dropped dead at my feet on the spot."

At this, the parrot stiffens, twirls on his perch, and drops dead at the bottom of the cage. The woman picks him up, sees no signs of life, and lays his limp body on the windowsill--and the bird snaps to life and flies to freedom in a nearby tree.

He turns to his mistress and says, "You thought you were bringing bad news from my relatives--but in fact, you carried a message from them that told me how to escape."

The Sufis say that humans are "caged," too, but have a real self that is naturally free. This self is chained by "jealous owners," so the means of escape must be signalled in a way that is obvious, but disguised and subtle: rather like an "open secret" that can slip past (and even be delivered by) the guards, but be recognized and put to use by those who are watching for it.

"The Sufis" contains many things, and people see it in many ways. Some praise, some dismiss. The book itself says Sufi teaching can provoke scorn and praise, irritation and delight--even in the same reader--but such reactions are irrelevant. The real question is, "Can the intended reader use and gain from the material?"

As the Indian Bird said, "You thought you were bringing bad news, but in reality, you gave me the hint I needed to escape."
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on February 1, 1998
Although this book was written some years ago, it remains the best single account of the ways Sufi thought and action have influenced diverse cultures through the ages. You'll want to read this one again and again, and it will most certainly lead you to seek out more of Shah's remarkable books.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on July 18, 2001
Picked this book up in my "seeking" as one more path to learn about. What I found is something that taught history, talked about "spiritual" matters in a way that was non-new-age-y and made me stretch my brain. Made sense in a logical non-magical thinking sort of way. And it got me angry in parts 'cuz I felt like it was written poorly or was being patronizing, obtuse. That was the first read. About 6 years and many other Shah books later, I read things I had NEVER seen before-in the same copy of the same book! "Got" this notion of the scatter method of teaching/relaying information... a little. If you are interested in pursuing the notion of an objective truth and are turned off by the sentimentality and lack of depth/substance of new age material, this book may be of interest to you...Have fun!
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on June 7, 1998
If there is any book that can teach you all that you need to learn in the study of Sufism, it's this book. Although its major theme is to describe the course of the influence of Sufi ideas on the western world from ancient to modern times, it also delineates the path of a student of this knowledge. The mistakes of the beginner and the remedies for change may all be found: this, however, only over the passing of time, the renewal of the book, and certain other conditions, which bit by bit become apparent to the gradually shifted apprehension, and to which the text refers.
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