Obituary: Idries Shah

Idries Shah devoted the best years of his life to bringing to the West a better understanding of Sufism (a mystical movement of Islam, with the belief that deep intuition is the only real guide to knowledge).

Shah was born in British India in 1924, the son and heir of Sirdar Ikbal Ali Shah of Sardhana, and belonged to a distinguished Hashemite family. Their best-known 19th-century forbear was Jan Fishan Khan, a notable warrior and Sufi sage.

As a young man Shah often accompanied his father on his many diplomatic missions, thus acquiring the grasp of cultural divergencies needed for application of the Sufi maxim, "Right place, right people".

In 1955 Shah decided to make his home in England, though he continued to travel widely both in the East and in the United States. The Sufis, published in 1964 with an introduction by Robert Graves, was not his first book in English, but it was the first to attract critical acclaim. It was followed by a series of books, including The Way of the Sufi (1968) and Neglected Aspects of Sufi Study (1977), making Sufi classical masters accessible to Western readers and bringing to their attention the teaching story as an instrument of self-development. This initiative offended some traditional Orientalists, who persisted in regarding Sufis as belonging to an Islamic sect rooted in the past and having little contemporary relevance.

When in 1967 Graves published his new translation of Omar Khayym, challenging Edward Fitzgerald's refusal to treat the Persian Khayym as a Sufi poet, critics saw a chance to attack Shah, despite the fact that he had had no hand in Graves's version. Those interested in Sufism as a force in the modern world rallied to Shah's support and 24 of them, drawn from both East and West, compiled a Festschrift in his honour, Sufi Studies, East and West (1973).

In three of his books of tales, The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin (1966), Tales of the Dervishes (1967) and The Subtleties of the Inimitable Mulla Nasrudin (1973), Shah resurrected the Eastern joke figure Mulla Nasrudin, "the Mulla who is no Mulla, the fool who is no fool."

Shah founded the Octagon Press, which published much of his later work, including two books, Darkest England (1987) and The Natives are Restless (1988), in which he traced affinities between the English and Afghan peoples. In all, he was author of more than 30 books, translated into 12 languages, including Russian. His enthusiasm for cross-cultural studies led in 1965 to the establishment of an educational charity, the Institute for Cultural Research in London, where he became Director of Studies.

Shah's many activities in the West were never pursued at the expense of his contacts with the East and especially with the Indian sub-continent and Afghanistan. These ties came to the fore with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and he set up Afghan Relief to provide medical and other aid to refugees. No consideration of danger or ill-health could dissuade him from entering occupied Afghanistan, as well as working in the refugee camps. His experiences gave lively colour to his novel Kara Kush (1986).

Robert Cecil

Sayed Idries Shah, writer: born 16 June 1924; married 1958 Kashfi Kabraji (one son, two daughters); died London 23 November 1996.

Robert Cecil died 28 February 1994

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