"Neo-Sufism: The Case of Idries Shah"
by James Moore
The backwater where modern sensibilities are impinged on by a
refurbished Sufism is a vexed and peculiar one: erudition sits
uneasily with popularisation; spiritual leaders of a stature almost
forgotten in the West are jostled by impudent careerists; and the
erratic pattern of translation lends a disproportionate influence to
the towering minds of Ibn Arabi (AD 1165-1240) and Jalaluddin Rumi AD
(1207-1273). Our contemporary British scene affords few more
successful figures than Idries Abutahir Shah -- and few more pitiful.
For twenty five years Shah [Shah died in 1996 -- ed. note] has been
lit, as by St. Elmo's fire, with a nimbus of exorbitant adulation: an
adulation he himself has fanned, an adulation which has not failed to
arouse -- in quieter Islamic, literary, academic, and Gurdjieffian
circles a largely unheeded contradiction. The coterie of serviceable
journalists, editors, critics, animators, broadcasters, and travel
writers, which gamely choruses Shah's praise, is entitled to enjoy
undisturbed its special value-judgment. Where however, more eminent
apologists have made debatable assertions of fact,' and where the
traditional orientation of Sufism and indeed the canon of truth have
suffered distortion, certain caveats concerning Shah must be
In 1975 Doris Lessing brought to a climax her long years of
enthusiasm in a 'Guardian' article of reckless ardour, appropriately
entitled, 'If you knew Sufi....' In this hagiography -- no other noun
will serve -- Shah was advertised as a saintly but genial polymath,
who had attended several Western and Eastern universities; commanded
60 million adherents; and quite disinterestedly dispensed the 'Secret
"Idries Shah is one of these (great Sufi Masters), and from his birth
has been prepared for the specific task of establishing this teaching
here in the West."
An elitist spiritual education is one of Shah's two main planks: the
second -- echoed below by Robert Graves -- adduces 'silsila' the
Sufic initiatic chain:
"Idries Shah Sayed happens to be in the senior male fine of descent
from the prophet Mohammed, and to have inherited the secret mysteries
from the Caliphs, his ancestors. He is, in fact, a Grand Sheikh of
the Sufi Tariqa..."
Such claims by such claimants deserve the compliment of attentive
scrutiny, and necessarily invite discreet interrogation of Shah's
Idries Shah's pretension to be a Sayed (in common incidentally with a
million or more putative descendants of Muhammad's younger grandson
Husain) may be conceded 'grosso modo,' without its conferring on him
the spiritual authority he implies. But the wilder boasts of his
posterity -- that he springs from Abraham's loins and from the last
Sasanid kings -- belong to the melancholy area of creative genealogy;
and indeed in so far as they rely on his vaunted place in the senior
male line of descent from... Mohammed,' they labour under the
unconsidered difficulty that all three sons of the Prophet died in
Shah's traceable paternity places him within an obscure Afghan clan
from Paghman, a resort fifty miles from Kabul. Ironically enough, his
great-great-grandfather Muhammad Shah was awarded the title 'Jan
Fishan Khan' (The Zealot) in 1840, for supporting British interests
against his Muslim co-religionists. If it is over-censorious to call
him (as I. P. Elwell-Sutton has) a 'ruffian,' it is preposterous to
call him (as Idries has) 'chief of the Hindu Kush Sufis.' The
specific Sufic link claimed by Idries is first defined and rendered
remotely plausible in the person of his grandfather Amjed Ali Shah,
the self-styled 'Nawab of Sardhana' and 'Naqshbandi Paghmani.' The
Naqshabandiyya were an important central Asian Sunni tariqa,
associated with the name of Baha'ud-Din Naqshband (AD 1318-1389). Yet
Amjed Ali's religious dedication is less well attested than his
dissipation of the family's estates at Sardhana near Delhi.
Ikbal Ali Shah (1894-1969), the son of Amjed Ali and father of
Idries, settled in Britain before the first World War, only to meet
rebuffs. Behind his compensatory inventions of private conversations
with King George V lay his failure at Edinburgh Medical School and --
equally predictable -- his ignominious treatment as a son-in-law.
Charming and personable, Ikbal was a lifelong sufferer from
Munchhausen's syndrome -- a condition first diagnosed in 1929, when
he tried to compromise the P. M. Ramsay Macdonald, and Foreign Office
investigation revealed there 'was hardly a word of truth in his
writings.' Towards Sufism, Ikbal's stance was ambivalent. He did
write one innocuous popularisation, "Islamic Sufism" (Rider & Co.,
1933). However, he dipped his pen in the inkpot of Voltaire when
alluding to the Rifa'i, Mevlevi, and Ansariyya tariqas; and he
positively applauded Mustafa Kemal's abolition of the fez and the
Turkish dervish orders on 2 September 1925. As to orthodox Islam,
Ikbal's conduct over the notorious 'halal' meat scandal in Buenos
Aires in 1946, provoked the British Ambassador to describe him as 'a
However powerful and unusual were the influences to which Idries Shah
was innocently exposed in his formative years, they were hardly
A Youthful Tourist
Idries Abutahir Shah was born in Simla on 16 June 1924. Before long,
he was brought to England where he grew up -- a timid child --
at 'Northdene,' Brighton Road, Belmont, Sutton. His boyhood with his
brother Omar Ali Shah was uneventful -- though, even in Belmont, not
entirely insulated from pockets of inexcusable prejudice against
Anglo-Indians. In August 1940, when German bombing began in earnest,
the family evacuated from London to Oxford, where Idries's two or
three academically undistinguished years at the City of Oxford High
School, in New Inn Hall Street, evidently crowned and concluded his
formal education. To the decade 1945 to 1955 Idries assigns
his "Wanderjahre," assiduously cultivating the impression of far-
flung and audacious travels in Asia as a 'student of Traditional Sufi
sheikhs.' He may indeed have used his father's oriental contacts.
Incongruously enough however, it was to Uruguay that he went in
winter 1945, as secretary of his father's 'halal' meat mission, and
to England that he returned in October 1946. All that is certain
apropos this period is that Shah has made portentous and inherently
improbable claims, without elucidating (and indeed largely clouding)
the biographical record.
Our subject emerges somewhat from the shadows with the publication of
his first books, which are important in indicating the voltage and
orientation of his mind, before he gained support from literary
agents and research assistants, and, crucially important in situating
him vis-à-vis Islam and Sufism, before he had furbished his 'Sufic'
persona. Shah's first book "Oriental Magic" (Rider, 1956) will
survive, if at all, as the prototype of his recourse to antecedent
writing, and of his pretensions as a mystery figure. It finds him, at
32, primarily concerned with matters like 'Mungo' the ectoplasmic
force, garters for distances, and Himalayan leopard powder. Only
chapter 7, 'The Fakirs and their Doctrines,' approaches the Sufic
theme, and it is replete with errors. His ensuing travel
memoir "Destination Mecca" (Rider, 1957), although intrinsically
slight, is certainly more important for its unconscious self-
depiction. What do we find? Regrettably, we find a tourist who
(Shah's own words) 'had lived for years in the West'; a mind
embarrassingly superficial and banal, lacking the least resonance of
religious feeling; a photographer obsessed with his Robot f/2.8 rapid
action camera, exultant at his furtive and sacrilegious snapshots of
the Kaaba; a materialist repelled by the 'unhygienic bodies' of the
Muslim Brethren but intrigued by Mecca United football team; a man
meeting his first practicing Sufis around the age of 30, only to find
their sacred books unfamiliar:
"These were the actual Dancing Dervishes -- of the Bektashi Order --
in action! I would have given any thing to have had my camera with
Alike in his conflation of the Bektashi and Mevlevi tariqas and in
his voyeuristic reaction -- the real Idries Shah exposes himself.
The opening of the 1960s found Shah veering towards occultism, and
acting as secretary-companion to Dr. Gerald Gardner, Director of the
Museum of Magic and Witchcraft in the Isle of Man. However, a
nouvelle orientalism was in the air (articulated amongst others by
Daisetz Suzuki, Pak Subuh, and the Maharishi); and the Sufi niche was
temptingly unfilled. 'People must have labels,' Shah concluded. 'The
scramble is to get the right one and then hold on to it...' A
scramble certainly -- for the assiduous revisionism which yielded him
his 'Grand Sheikh' label generated a corpus of pseudonymous
literature, unparalleled in our century for its magnitude, coherence,
Shah has conceded his own recourse to pen names (v. "Reflections," p.
88), without divulging details; many of his disciples emulate him,
Given this obfuscation, it is problematic which of the score or more
queerly named authors stylistically and thematically assignable to
the 'Shah-School' (e.g. Omar Michael Burke Ph. D., Arkon Daraul,
Rafael Lefort, Hadrat B.M. Dervish and so on) have independent
physical existence? Pending investigation, it perhaps suffices that
none show a scintilla of independent philosophical existence. Shah-
School productions date from May 1960, and throughout them Shah
receives -- ostensibly from disinterested third parties --
intemperate praise: he is 'Tariqa Grand Sheikh Idries Shah Saheb'; he
is 'Prince Idries Shah'; 'King Enoch'; 'The Presence'; 'The Studious
King'; the 'Incarnation of Ah'; and even the Qutb or 'Axis.'
Someone deeply impressed by the idealized Shah was the former Marxist
Doris May Lessing (b. 1919) who, while writing "The Golden Notebook"
underwent a sort of Damascene conversion. For 20 years she has
remained the spearhead of Shah's defence, again and again
pitting 'half-truth, irrelevancy, double think, misquotation and
invention' against the scholarship and deadly fairness of Shah's
redoubtable critic Laurence Elwell-Sutton, Reader in Persian at
Edinburgh University. Innocent of any oriental tongue, she has
plunged deep into debates which turn on a command of mediaeval
Persian; lacking any indigenous Sufic experience, she has set her
judgment against that of profound Sufi thinkers like Professor Sayed
Hossein Nasr. Beyond all exasperation, it is impossible not to feel
for the loyal Quixotic Mrs. Lessing something akin to regard.
No single element in Shah's whole life has proved more materially
advantageous -- or psychologically revealing than his stratagem
concerning the philosopher-savant George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff (c.
1866-1949). Hardly had Shah-School productions appeared, than they
began to belittle Gurdjieff -- adding in coded language the
preposterous rider that Shah (who never even met him) had assumed his
mantle. This campaign reached apogee in 1966. First came the
distasteful fabrication "The Teachers of Gurdjieff" by Rafael Lefort
(a botched anagram of 'A Real Effort'). Here young 'Lefort' pretends
to have sought out Gurdjieff 's teachers in Asia (a chronological
absurdity), who demeaned their former pupil and pointed towards Shah.
Next, extrapolating from Gurdjieff's references to a
certain 'Sarmoung Brotherhood,' Shah-School productions impudently
claimed that the Sarmoung were extant and had one emissary in Europe -
- a figure strangely redolent of Shah himself. At last, in "Special
Problems in the Study of Sufi Ideas," the reborn 'Naqshbandi'
ventured an explicit and attributable statement:
"G. I. Gurdjieff left abundant clues to the Sufi origins of virtually
every point in his 'system'; though it obviously belongs more
specifically to the Khwajaghan (Naqshbandi) form of dervish
But why Gurdjieff and why 1966? To explore this we must briefly
advance the singular figure of J. G. Bennett.
John Godolphin Bennett (1897-1974) was a complex, gifted, sincere,
and indefatigable eclectic searcher strangely deficient in common
sense. Having been successively the pupil of P. D. Ouspensky,
Gurdjieff himself, Jeanne de Salzmann, H. H. Lannes. Emin Chikou,
Abdullah Daghestani, Pak Subuh, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and the
Shivapuri Baba, and even received into the Roman Catholic Church, he
wondered at age 69 if he was making sufficient headway. His
predicament was compounded because he himself had accumulated a
numerous and serious following and a prestigious house at Coombe
Springs. Bennett, with his Messianic and millenarian promptings was
that 'rara avis,' a guru in search of a guru; and from 1962, when the
Shah-School began propagating its Gurdjieffian allusions, the hook
had been temptingly baited for him.
How Bennett took that bait; how the older man became persuaded that
Shah had come direct from Gurdjieff's 'Sarmoung Monastery' with
a 'Declaration of the People of The Tradition'; how Shah pressed
Bennett ('The caravan is about to set out') to give him Coombe
Springs outright; how Bennett agonized, and in January 1966 complied;
how Shah promptly repudiated Bennett, and sold the establishment for
100,000 [British pounds]; how Coombe Springs with its sub-Goetheanum
Djamichunatra passed under the bulldozers; how Shah with the proceeds
founded the Society for Organising Unified Research in Cultural
Education (SOURCE) and the Society for the Understanding of the
Foundation of Ideas (SUFI) and established himself at Langton House,
Langton Green, near Tunbridge Wells -- all this defies both précis
and belief, but is indelibly recorded in Bennett's
Robert Graves Stung
Within two years 'The People of the Tradition' had claimed an even
older, more vulnerable, more eminent victim: the poet Robert Graves.
His ill-fated work "The Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayyam -- A New
Translation" with critical commentaries (Cassell, 1967) was written
with, and at the instigation of, General Omar Ali Shah, but in aid of
Idries Shah's highly tendentious thesis that Khayyam's was 'the Sufi
voice.' Entering the spirit of the thing, Ikbal, who had dismissed
Khayyam in 1928 as 'the Bacchus with the mind of a Rabelais,' now
felt happy to endorse his piety. As for poor Graves, his book was
exposed by academics as a nullity cubed; a 'translation' (which was
not a translation but a copy of a Victorian commentary); of the
twelfth century 'Jan Fishan Khan MS' (which did not exist); of a
composite stanzaic poem by Khayyam (which he did not write). As
Graves laboured hopelessly to defend himself, Idries twice promised
to produce the elusive MS 'from Afghanistan,' only to renege finally
on 30 October 1970. No MS, no photocopy, no detail of format or
location, no substantive text, no colophon ever transpired -- and
Graves like Bennett reaped the harvest of his credulity.
With Shah now over 60 it is not too early to take stock.
Yes he has made a contribution of sorts in popularising his
invertebrate, humanistic 'Sufism,' and in pleasing the Mrs. Lessings
of this world. It is not nothing. But consider the cost: the rearing
of an unsavoury pseudonymous literature; the clouding of Graves's
reputation; and the injection into the world's biographical
dictionaries of a false prospectus of Gurdjieff. Yes Shah is affluent
and famous now and a member of the Athenaeum: but Baha'ud-Din
Naqshband sought only spiritual riches, and forbade his followers to
record the least word about him. Yes, Shah has brought energy and
resource to his self-aggrandizement; but where is the evidence of
conscience or real 'dasein'? Then is not Shah's life -- all in all --
as opaque in terms of genuine Sufism, as it is transparent in terms
of Adlerian psychology?
Beyond this ad hominem critique, inescapable as an antidote to Shah's
personality cult, what of his work? Many people will enjoy his
dervish anecdotes and Mullah Nasruddin stories unaware how cavalierly
they lean on unacknowledged and out-of copyright sources). But their
spiritualising action on middlebrow European readers is surely nil.
Plucked from their true cultural, linguistic, and didactic contexts,
and from the rich oral tradition which gave them life, they have been
ignobly reduced to the level of 'The Hundred Best After-Dinner
Stories.' And if they are truly exemplary tales, they are
marvellously at variance with Shah's own example.
Idries Abutahir Shah and his Sufism await judgments immeasurably
beyond the competence of 'Religion Today': the judgment of history,
if not the judgment foretold in Surah LXXVIII. But some provisional
comment may be ventured without malice: that his is a 'Sufism' which
Baha'ud-Din Naqshband would find unrecognisable and repugnant; that
his is a 'Sufism' without self-sacrifice, without self-transcendence,
without the aspiration of gnosis, without tradition, without the
Prophet, without the Quran, without Islam, and without God. Merely
[This article first appeared in Religion Today. Moore is the author
of "Gurdjieff -- A Biography," "Gurdjieff and Mansfield," and is
currently working on his memoirs. Email: james.moore@g...]
This article constitutes a footnote to L. P. Elwell-Sutton's
magisterial 'Sufism & Pseudo-Sufism' (Encounter Vol. XLIV No. 5, May
1975, pp. 9-17). which in certain sectors it augments and corrects.
My 25-year-plus interest in Idries Shah has been enlivened by
correspondence with Elwell-Sutton, Elizabeth Bennett, Edward
Campbell, Martin Seymour-Smith, K. E. Steffens, Richard Thomas, and
Colin Wilson; by contact with Professors James Vickie (Yak Sake),
Sayed Hossein Nasr, and Anne Marie Scheme; and by collaboration from
the PRO, the Doris Lessing Society and the Society of Genealogists.
Of Shah's apologists I have listened most attentively to Ahmed R.
Bullock. I am especially grateful to J. I. Somers, archivist of The
Gurdjieff Society and director of Fine Books Oriental. For reasons of
typography and disparate provenance respectively, I make no attempt
here at scholarly or consistent transliteration from Arabic or
Contemporary British scene. Contemporary neo-Sufism presents three
ideological backcloths -- Sunni, Shiite, and 'Gnostic. 'The
traditions of Alawiyya, Chisti, Halveti-Jerrahi, Mevlevi, and
Nimatullahi dervishes are variously articulated by strongly
contrasted figures like Hasan-Lutfi Shushud, Frithjof Schuon, ('Isa
Nuruddin'), Suleiman Hyati Dede, Dr. Sufi Aziz Balouch, Sheikh
Muhammad Muzaffer-eddin Ashki, Pir Vilayat Khan, Dr. Javad Nurbaksh,
and Bulent Rauf.
Coterie of serviceable journalists.... Among the more notable are
Edward Campbell, Geoffrey Grigson, Desmond Morris, Isabel Quigley,
Ted Hughes, Pat Williams, and Richard Williams.
Brought to a climax. Doris Lessing's admiration of Shah first emerged
on 18 September 1964 with her review 'An Elephant in the Dark,'
Spectator 213:373. The personal context is briefly evoked in her
interview by Nissa Torrents for the Spanish journal La Calle (No. 106
'Secret Wisdom. 'Doris Lessing, 'If you knew Sufi...' The Guardian 8
Jan. 1975, p. 12.
His ancestors. Robert Graves, Introduction to The Sufis by Idries
Shah (New York: Doubleday 1964).
Sons died in infancy. Muhammad's line of course descends through his
daughter Fatima and son-in-law Ali; of his two grandsons the elder
was Hasan (whose progeny bear the title shatif) not Husain (whose
progeny bear the title sayed). See Philip K. Hitti, History of the
Arabs (Macmillan & Co. 1953) p. 440 n. 8.
Ruffian. L. R Elwell-Sutton, Letter, 'Sufism and Pseudo-Sufism'
Encounter, Dec. 1972, p. 92. For the basis of this condemnation, see
inter alia Sir John William Kave. History of the Indian Mutiny 1857-
58 (Vol.11), p. 145.
Chief of Hindu Kush Sufis. Idries Shah, The Sufis, p. 168.
The Naqshabandiyya. Shah's claim to lead the Naqshbandi Order is
baseless. For the historical background see J. Spencer-Trimingham,
The Sufi Orders in Islam (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971). For some
cryptic pointers towards the authentic modem silsila, see 'The
Naqshbandi Order -- A Preliminary Survey of its History and
Significance' (Berkeley, California, 1977) pp. 123-52 by Hamid Algar,
the world authority on this tariqa. For Naqshbandi encroachment into
certain contemporary political arenas, see for example Turkish
literature surrounding the National Salvation Party led by Mr.
Failure at Edinburgh Medical School. During World War I, Ikbal
avoided military service by attaching himself as a volunteer to the
Indian General Hospital at Brighton. In 1933 his frustrated medical
and social aspirations dominated his unintentionally hilarious novel
Afridi Gold, whose hero Colonel Francis Challenger of the Indian
Medical Service, would 'devote the same remitting (sic) care and
attention to a black body as a white' (p. 9).
Ikbal Ali Shah's wife (mother of Idries and
Omar) assumed on marriage the tide Sharifa Saira Khanum, her maiden
name being usually cited as 'Elizabeth Louis MacKenzie.' Questionable
rumours -- which Idries appears neither to confirm nor deny -- have
circulated that Ikbal in fact married into Scotland's premier family
the 'haughty Hamiltons 'the bride, to Ikbal's chagrin, feeling
obliged to register pseudonymously to circumvent parental
obstruction. Suggestions that her father was actually 'Chief of Clan
Hamilton' seems particularly extravagant: neither the 12th nor l3th
Dukes of Hamilton had daughters available to Ikbal; nor is such a
liaison mentioned by Lt. Col. George Hamilton in A History of the
House of Hamilton (Edinburgh, 1933). The connection, if any, was more
plausibly through the eccentric Sir Abdullah Archibald Hamilton,
formerly Sir Charles Edward Archibald Watkins Hamilton, who embraced
Islam on 20 December 1923. Incongruous Scottish allusions permeate
Shah-School productions e.g. in Destination Mecca Idries appears
as 'Laird... of the Fatimite Family' returning to his ,native Afghan
glens. 'He himself is married to Bibi Kashri Khanum (nee Kabraji) by
whom he has a son, Tahir, and two daughters.
Hardly a word of truth. 'Notes on Sirdar Ikbal Ali Khan.' (PRO, FO 37
1, 129, N.3024/2824/97): a detailed and condemnatory report on
Ikbal's integrity and veracity. (Damaging material on Ikbal abounds
throughout FO, 371 and FO 395 from 1926 to 1950).
A swindler. Gordon Vereker (British Ambassador Montevideo) letter of
17 July 1946 to Victor Perowne. (PRO, FO 371, 1946, AS/4439/46). For
the basis of this condemnation see FO, 371 Piece 52194.
Undistinguished years. Although its headmaster was entitled to attend
The Headmasters' Conference, the School was evidently in decline by
Shah's day; and is now defunct. Its most famous old boy, decades
earlier, was T. E. Lawrence -- a powerful allusion ironically denied
Shah, because his English childhood sat so uneasily with Sufic and
Sarmoung Brotherhood allusions.
Returned to England. Sailing on the SS DARRO out of Buenos Aires on
26 September 1946.
Lived in the West. Idries Shah, "Destination Mecca" (Rider, 1957) p.
Dancing Dervishes. Ibid. p. 177.
Scramble. Ibid. p. 11.
'Shah-School' productions. A thematically and stylistically,
homogeneous literary oeuvre, eulogizing Shah and/or his 'Sufism' --
promulgated by Shah's Octagon Press. Four categories emerge:
1) Overt writing by Shah e.g. The Sufis (New York: Doubleday,
2) Pseudonymous writing reasonably ascribable to Shah himself e.g.
work by 'Arkon Daraul'(see. Note 20) and by 'Rafael Lefort' (see Note
3) Overt writing by Shah's admirers e.g. Doris Lessing's 'If you
knew Sufi...' (The Guardian 8 Jan. 1975) p. 121;
4) Pseudonymous writing by Shah's admirers e.g. The People of the
Secret (Octagon Press, 193 1) by 'Ernest Scott' (reputedly Edward
Campbell, former literary editor of The Evening News). Given the
peculiar motivation for this genre, there seems a persuasive case for
detailed investigative and stylometric research, to extend firm
knowledge. of authorship beyond Shah, his literary agent, and The
Registrar of Public Lending Right.
Arkon Daraul. Arkon Daraul, "Secret Societies Yesterday and Today"
(Frederick Muller Ltd., 196 1). Material from Chapter 5 "Me Path of
the Sufi' (giving a risible account of initiation into a 'Naqshbandi
Lodge' in a country house in Sussex, all too identifiable by
the 'Arms of the Princes of Paghman' p. 72) is excerpted in
Davidson's 'Symposium' promulgated by Shah (see Note 2 1).
Date from May 1960. W. Foster, 'The Family of Ilashim,' Contemporary
Review Vol. 197. No. 1132, May 1960) pp. 269-7 1. A convenient
anthology of ensuing Shah-School productions in the vigorously
expansionist period Jan. 1961-Dec. 1965 is Documents on Contemporary
Dervish Communities, ed. Roy Weaver Davidson (SOURCE, 1966). A more
recent and unintentionally piquant production is "The Diffusion of
Sufi Ideas in the West" (more accurately subtitled "An Anthology New
Writings by and about Idries Shah") ed. L. Lewin (Boulder, Colorado,
Keysign Press, 1972).
Spearhead of Shah's defence. See Paul Schlueter. 'Lessing and Sufism'
a checklist compiled for the Doris Lessing Society: English Dept.,
Old Dominion University. Norfolk, VA 23508, USA.
'Half-truth, irrelevancies...' L. Elwell Sutton. Letter 'Sufism and
Pseudo-Sufism, 'Encounter (Dec. 1972) p. 9 1.
Against that of profound Sufi thinkers. See for example Nasr's review
of Shah's "The Sufis in Islamic Studies" (1964). For their part Shah
and his School display a patronizing, even dismissive, attitude
towards scholars like Arberry, Corbin, Massignon, Nicholson, and
Rice -- while simultaneously leaning on their work.
Distasteful fabrication. The persistent rumour (and reasonable
inference) that Shah himself is 'Rafael Lefort' was first publicly
bruited by Nicholas Saunders in Alternative London (Nicholas
Saunders, 1970) p. 109.
Sarmoung Brotherhood. Space precludes consideration of the complex
literary, historical, geographical, and etymological questions posed
by Gurdjieff's purported contact with a 'Sarmoung Brotherhood' in
Central Asia c. 1899. Independent and trustworthy corroboration of
the Order's existence is thus far lacking, and the self-serving
exploitation of the name, both by the Shah-School and Irv Garv B.
Chicoine, the egregiously self-styled 'Chief Sarmouni,' hinders
Khwajaghan (Naqshbandi) form of dervish teaching. The 11th-13th
century Khwajaghan Masters were protagonists both of the Naqshbandi
and Yesevi tariqas. See Trimingham op. cit. p. 62ff. and Algar loc.
cit. pp. 131-134. For more problematical formulations see the work of
Hasan Lutfi Shushud, e.g. "Masters of Wisdom in Central Asia"
Systematics Vol. VI p. 310 (Coombe Springs Press); and J. G.
Bennett, "Gurdjieff -- Making a New World" (Turnstone Books, 1973)
Chap 27 "The Masters of Wisdom"; and J. G. Bennett "The Masters of
Wisdom" (Turnstone Books, 1977).
Bennett. J. G. Bennett was fluent in 10 languages: his mathematical
paper (written with R. L. Brown and M. W. Thring) 'Unified Field
Theory in a Curvature-Free Five-Dimensional Manifold' was published
in The Proceedings of the Royal Society in July 1949: his major
opus "The Dramatic Universe" conveys, despite its opacity, his
Shah pressed Bennett. Idries Shah q. J. G. Bennett, "Witness"
(Turnstone, rev. ed. 1975) p.361.
Djamichunatra. The nine-sided Djamichunatra (or Djameechoonatra) at
Coombe Springs was designed and built by J. G. Bennett and his
pupils, notably a dozen architects led by Robert Whiffen; the
building was begun on 23 March 1956, completed on 29 October 1957,
and demolished by 'developers' in 1966. For its inspiration see G. I.
Gurdjieff "Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson" (RKP, 1950) p. 1160;
for Bennett's vision of it see his "Witness" (Hodder and Stoughton,
1962) p. 323f and 348f, for further technical details see A.G. E.
Blake "A History of the Institute for the Comparative Study of
History, Philosophy and the Sciences Ltd and the Influences upon it"
(Daglingworth: privately circulated, 198 1) p. 5; for Frank Lloyd
Wright's aesthetic criticism see Anthony Bright Paul "Stairway to
Subud" (Coombe Springs Press, 1965) p. 116; and for its wanton
destruction see Witness (rev. ed. 1975) p. 362.
All this defies belief. J. G. Bennett, Witness (Turnstone, rev. ed.
1975) pp. 355-62. Bennett's introduction to his limited edition
of "Witness" (Coombe Springs Press, 1971) had enthusiastically
announced a forthcoming Bennett-Shah paper elaborating both men's
motivation. This eludes researchers.
Khayyam. Idries Shah, The Sufis (New York: Doubleday, 1964).
'The Bacchus with the mind of a Rabelais.' Ikbal Ali Shah, Westward
to Mecca (H. R & G. Witherby, 1928) Chap IX 'Omar and Shakespeare,'
181. Cf p. 184.
Exposed by academics. Between 1968 and 1973 virtually every eminent
Persicologist in Britain, America. and Iran pronounced against
the 'Jan Fishan Khan MS' and the Graves-Shah 'translation': none for
it. Credit for first exposing the hoax goes to L. P, Elwell-Sutton
for his 'The Omar Khayyam Puzzle'(RCAJ Lv/2, June 1968. pp. 167-79);
credit for burying it to J. C. E. Bowen for his 'The Rubaiyat of Omar
Khayyam: A Critical Assessment of Robert Graves' and Omar Ali
Shah's 'translation'(Iran: Journal of Persian Studies Vol. XI 1973,
pp. 63-73). Idries Shah went to ground throughout the debacle but his
major role became apparent with the publication of "Between Moon and
Moon: Selected Letters of Robert Graves 1941-1972," ed. Paul O'Prey
(Hutchinson, 1984) pp. 281-83.
Renege finally. See O'Prey op. cit. p. 281ff.
False prospectus of Gurdjieff. Thanks to Shah and Bennett, the
misconception of the preponderantly Sufic provenance of Gurdjieff's
ideas has now a tenacious hold in works of reference e.g.
Encyclopaedia Britannica 15th ed. (1985) Vol. 5 of Micropaedia. For a
more balanced -- though somewhat superficial -- analysis, see James
Webb, "The Harmonious Circle" (Thames and Hudson, 1980) Part 3, Chap.
I 'The Sources of the System' pp. 499-543. It needs emphasis that
Shah did not, as mistakenly conveyed by Elwell-Sutton, fall heir to
the mainstream Gurdjieff movement in Britain, which in fact under H.
H. Lannes held fastidiously aloof.
Mulla Nasruddin stories. In "Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson" (RKP,
1950) G. I. Gurdjieff gave high significance to the 'incomparable
Mullah Nassr Eddin, 'the mediaeval wise fool of Turkish folklore.
Shah, in the expansionist year 1966 (see text), almost predictably
published "The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin" (Jonathan
Cape); this was shortly followed by "Nasrudin's Pleasantries" (1968),
both books evidently aimed at capturing a specifically Gurdjieffian
readership and allegiance. In this Shah failed. By 1973, with
publication of "Nasrudin's Subtleties" and the incorporation of Mulla
Nasrudin Enterprises Ltd., proselytism had become secondary to normal
commercial motive. Although, characteristically, Shah fails to
specify the origin of his Nasrudin stories, their provenance is
transparent to scholars familiar with the enormous out of copyright
Nassr Eddin literature (dating back to 1937 in Turkish and 1857 in
European languages). For an authoritative review of this literature
and of Nassr Eddin's historicity, see Fehim Bairaktare -- vic's entry
in "Enyclopaedia of Islam" Vol. 3, pp. 875-78.
[Reprinted from "Telos", Volume 6, Number 4, Autumn]