Empire’s Son, Empire’s Orphan: The Fantastical Lives of Ikbal and Idries Shah by Nile Green - review by Fitzroy Morrissey

Fitzroy Morrissey

Sufism Goes West

Empire’s Son, Empire’s Orphan: The Fantastical Lives of Ikbal and Idries Shah


W W Norton 384pp £22

Shortly before his death in 1974, R C Zaehner, Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics at Oxford, observed that young Westerners who had turned away from Christianity were more often drawn to the religions of India and the Far East than to Islam. ‘The young’, the devoutly Catholic Zaehner stated, ‘are not interested in switching from one dogmatic monotheistic faith to another: hence they are little interested in Islam except when Islam itself is turned upside down and becomes Sufism, which in its developed form is barely distinguishable from Vedanta.’ ‘Indeed,’ he went on, ‘that egregious populariser Idries Shah has gone so far as to claim Zen as a manifestation of Sufism.’ This, Zaehner declared, was historical ‘nonsense’ and academically ‘detestable’. 

Zaehner was referring to Shah’s The Sufis, which, since its publication in 1964, had become the most widely read book on Sufism in English. Helped by an introduction by the poet Robert Graves, The Sufis had met with critical acclaim. Writing in The Listener, the weekly magazine of the BBC, Ted Hughes described the book as ‘astonishing’, while, in The Spectator, Doris Lessing wrote that she couldn’t remember being more provoked or stimulated. Shah achieved further success with The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin (1966) and Tales of the Dervishes (1967), collections of popular Middle Eastern teaching stories. When in 1973 an Oxford symposium was held in Shah’s honour on the seven-hundredth anniversary of Rumi’s death (the implication being that Shah was the modern incarnation of the great Sufi poet), Mohammad Hidayatullah, a former chief justice of India, compared the experience of reading Shah to Keats’s feelings on first looking into Chapman’s Homer.

Not all were convinced, however. The Harvard scholar of Sufism Annemarie Schimmel advised readers of her Mystical Dimensions of Islam (1975) that ‘Idries Shah, The Sufis, as well as his other books, should be avoided by serious students’. Julian Baldick, Nile Green’s teacher at King’s College London, ‘insisted that none of us should read the books of … Idries Shah’. 

Part of this may have been academic snobbery. A more serious point of contention was Shah’s interpretation of Sufism, a mystical form of Islam that arose in 9th-century Iraq. While the early Sufis sought direct experiential knowledge of God, they insisted on compliance with the Sharia. ‘All paths are closed to God’s creatures,’ al-Junayd, the leading Sufi of the formative period, was quoted as saying, ‘except for those who follow in the footsteps of the Prophet.’ This remained the dominant attitude within Sufism, which in due course became a mainstream component of Islamic piety. 

Idries Shah’s Sufis, by contrast, were only loosely connected to Islam. The tone was set by Graves’s introduction. ‘The Sufis’, he began, ‘are an ancient spiritual freemasonry whose origins have never been traced or dated … If they call Islam the “shell” of Sufism, this is because they believe Sufism to be the secret teaching within all religions.’ For Shah, Sufism was an esoteric doctrine underlying Freemasonry, Rosicrucianism, alchemy, the troubadours, the spirituality of St Francis of Assisi and the philosophy of Roger Bacon, as well as the poetry of the freethinker Omar Khayyam. Even Charles de Gaulle was said to have been ‘directly influenced by Sufism’.

These assertions were rooted in the claim that, while academic studies had some value (Shah relied heavily on Orientalist translations, after all), Sufism could only be properly understood when taught by a real Sufi guide. On the jacket of The Sufis, Shah was accordingly described as ‘Grand Sheikh of the Sufis’. As Green details in this deeply researched dual biography, Shah’s claim to insights into ‘Oriental mysteries’ can only be properly appreciated against the backdrop of the life and work of his equally fascinating, if less successful, father, Ikbal. 

Born in 1894, Ikbal was the son of the Nawwab of Sardhana, an aristocrat of Afghan heritage and a loyal servant of the British, who had given an ancestor, the Afghan warrior Jan Fishan Khan, the estate of Sardhana in northern India as a reward for his services during the First Anglo-Afghan War. Educated first at the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College at Aligarh, Ikbal began and dropped out of a medical degree at Edinburgh, married a middle-class Scottish girl and became a prolific if less than trustworthy political journalist, an anti-communist propagandist and a writer of esoterica, biography and travel literature. Concealing his Indian birth, Ikbal made his name as an expert on Afghanistan, presenting himself in lectures to the Royal Central Asian Society in London and correspondence with the India Office as an Afghan with a unique insight into the politics and culture of that country.

The fantastical nature of some of these insights is captured in a series of alarmist reports he submitted in the early 1920s on a network of roads and railways that the Bolsheviks were supposedly building across Central Asia and Afghanistan and into India. ‘His railways cross mountain tops and 12,000 foot passes,’ observed one India Office official, ‘with supreme disregard of such trivial obstacles.’ No less imaginative was Westward to Mecca (1928), Ikbal’s account of a highly roundabout pilgrimage to the sacred city of Islam. H A R Gibb of the School of Oriental Studies described it as ‘a well-spiced Eastern revue, featuring Afghan raiders, alchemists, enchanted walls, watery blue-eyed Bolshevists, singing dervishes and mysterious caves’. 

In the years that followed, the indefatigable Ikbal kept churning out books at a remarkable rate: between 1932 and 1934 alone, twelve flowed from his pen. At the same time, he continued to send out a seemingly unending stream of letters to Downing Street, the India Office, the BBC and the League of Nations looking for regular work (money was always a problem). He adopted different personas too, variously presenting himself as leader of the regeneration of Islam, a celebrated Afghan alchemist, an Eastern T E Lawrence and ‘perhaps the world’s most famous journalist’. Later he appointed himself professor of oriental literature and philosophy at the University of Montevideo and claimed to have played cricket with distinction for Oxford. 

Idries learned from his father the value of a good story (the Mulla Nasrudin stories are a great read), the appeal of the esoteric and the importance of appearing authentic. Although not as prone to invention as his father, he too traded on his Afghan ancestry, at one point claiming to be leader of the Naqshbandi Sufi order, and inherited his father’s fondness for writing under pseudonyms. His de-Islamicised version of Sufism was deeply indebted to the precepts of the mysterious spiritual teacher George Gurdjieff, who was likewise fond of citing stories about Mulla Nasrudin and whose movement Idries and his brother Omar eventually took over. It was also deeply modern. In Idries’s work, Sufism was reinvented as a ‘scientific’ psychology that could cure the Western self of the ills of secular modernity. No less than Milestones, the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb’s manual of radical Islamism that was published the same year, The Sufis involved a radical reworking of Islamic tradition in response to modernity.

Qutb’s work would leave a deep mark on Islamic thought in the later 20th century. With a cast of characters that includes T S Eliot, George Orwell, James Coburn, Frank Herbert, Richard Thompson of Fairport Convention, and the Pink Panther, Green’s superb book shows how the Shahs’ impact on Western culture was similarly profound. Read alongside the work of Mark Sedgwick on traditionalism, it highlights the pervasive influence of esoteric religion – often of a Sufi tinge – in the increasingly post-Christian West.

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