Invisible Ink No 240: Idries Shah


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The Independent Culture

Blame it on the 1970s, a time when paperback authors began to delve into magic, astrology, mysticism, Eastern religions, spiritual healing, and a panoply of alternative self-help explorations.

Unfortunately, many of the books were spurious and shallow, yoking together everything from dowsing to yoga. It was a time when Man, Myth & Magic, a part-work written by more than 200 specialists and published in 112 sections, became one of the most successful magazines in Britain.

Idries Shah was born in Simla, India in 1924. Of Afghan descent but raised in London, he first wrote about the occult but became a teacher of Sufi philosophy, translating Sufi classics and titles of his own. He redefined Sufi writings as a timeless, adaptive set of stories with multiple meanings, designed to trigger insight and reflection, framing them in comprehensible Western terms.

In 1964, he published The Sufis, with an introduction by his friend Robert Graves, to critical acclaim. Not all academics were convinced. Some found his work slovenly, muddled, smug, and filled with pseudo-mystical mumbo-jumbo.

In 1967, Shah published a new translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, supposedly based on a manuscript that his family had held for 800 years. Orientalists were convinced the story was false. Shah’s father was supposed to show Graves the manuscript but died in a car crash in Tangiers, and as Idries prevaricated over providing proof of the document’s existence, Graves’s reputation suffered.

Modern consensus is that Graves fell prey to a hoax. Although Shah was overtaken by showmanship, he still popularised Sufi philosophy in the West, using humour, emotion, and psychological insight to create a new audience of admirers – including Doris Lessing, who was deeply influenced by his writings. And he used the immortal Mullah Nasruddin, a Persian Sufi folk character, as his hero.

The brilliant Canadian animator Richard Williams spent almost 30 years working on a widescreen feature version of the Nasruddin stories entitled The Thief and the Cobbler. Shah produced tie-in books that reached a new readership, but Williams lost control of the film after completing only 49 minutes of footage.

It fell into the hands of a producer who fatally vulgarised the final version. The lost work became known as “the greatest animated film never made”, and was reassembled in a fan edit by the devastated animators. Shah’s Nasruddin books are filled with wonderful brain-teasers and are back in print, although sadly the editions with Williams’s beautiful drawings have vanished.