Feedback on Shah’s book, The Sufis (1964): Wow! For me this was like discovering a second Carlos Castaneda: I found the book mystical, easy-to-read and mind-expanding, and kudos to Shah for being the primary introducer of Sufi to America in the 1960s. What I most liked about the book: My first window to the sheer awesomeness of Sufi, particularly the stories of the trickster Mulla Nasrudin. I liked discovering the source for your blind men and the elephant metaphor, and maybe your usage of the word “initiatory,” which I haven’t seen elsewhere. I’m hoping to take a class in the whirling meditation in the next year or two, and I’ll keep an eye out for more Nasrudin stories.
Also like Castaneda, Shah’s real-life behavior sometimes seemed at odds with his writings. For instance:
* Shah claimed “senior descent from Muhammad” in the “male line of descent.” Actually none of Muhammad’s male children survived, so there is no male line of descent. All Muhammad’s descendants come from his daughter Fatima Zahra. It is not impossible that Shah is descended from Fatima (though there is some evidence to the contrary), in which case he is one of an estimated 1 million+ Sayyids.
* On page 14 of his book The Sufis, Shah provides the only citation for his controversial claim that “it is authoritatively on record” that Sufi predates Muhammad, Islam and the Qur’an: the Kitab el-Luma. Although Shah does not reveal the full title or author, almost certainly he is referring to the oldest and most definitive written work on Sufi, the Kitab al-luma‘ fi ’l-tasawwuf (The Book of Lights; The Quintessence of Sufism), written by Abu Nasr al-Sarraj al-Tusi (?-988 or 989 A.D.), which in fact traces Sufi exclusively to Muhammad, Islam and the Qur’an.
* Beginning in his mid-to-late-30s, Shah began claiming to be the Qutb (”hub” or “axis”), the secret leader of the worldwide Sufi movement, and that he had been trained in Sufi since early childhood by his father. However, in Shah’s earlier published autobiographical work Destination Mecca (1957) he wrote that his father wasn’t interested in Sufi, and Shah himself never even met a practicing Sufi until he was into his 30s. It wasn’t until Shah personally witnessed the financial success of Gurdjieff’s neo-Sufi group that he retroactively became a lifelong Sufi. Before then Shah wrote poorly-selling books about oriental magic and witchcraft, avowing the reality of, for instance, the ectoplasmic Mungo force and the magical powers of Himalayan leopard powder.
* Just as Castaneda’s authority rests on the alleged Don Juan, Gurdjieff’s authority rested on the alleged Sarmoung Brotherhood (widely thought to be Gurdjieff’s remix of Blavatsky’s trend-setting alleged Ascended Tibetan Masters). With Gurdjieff dead since 1949, the book Teachers of Gurdjieff came out in the mid-60s, written by Rafael Lefort (generally assumed to be Shah writing under one of his many pen-names, though no one can prove it). The author of the book claims to have met Gurdjieff’s Sarmoung Brotherhood, who now believe that Gurdjieff had failed and Idries Shah is their new chosen Messenger.
* Less than a year after secretly self-anointing himself as the new chosen Messenger of the Sarmoung Brotherhood, Shah approached John G. Bennet. Bennet owned Coombe Springs, a seven-acre estate in Kingston upon Thames, Surrey, where he ran his Gurdjieffian Institute for the Comparative Study of History, Philosophy and the Sciences. The grounds included a Djameechoonatra or Djamee, a sort of temple to Gurdjieff (the term is from Beelzebub’s Tales, meaning “the place where one receives one’s second being food”). Shah presented Bennett with a document supporting his claim to represent the Guardians of the Tradition, aka the Sarmoung Brotherhood (Bennett had already been suitably impressed by Teachers of Gurdjieff, which he didn’t realize Shah had ghost-written). He said the Brotherhood wanted Bennett to prove his dedication by signing over the entire property to Shah, who would become their new teacher in the Gurdjieff tradition. Within a few days after Bennett handed him the property, Shah banned Bennett and his students from the grounds. He then sold Coombe Springs to a housing development (who immediately destroyed the Djamee), pocketed the cash and split.
* Shah generally dealt with the frequent problem of being caught in a fib by stating his First Rule of Esoteric Systems: “Misleading information is included in order to divert unsuitable people. This is a ‘filter’. It includes behavior on the part of the esotericists designed to annoy or otherwise deflect the unsuitable.”
Primary Source: Madam Blavatsky’s Baboon; A History of the Mystics, Mediums and Misfits Who Brought Spiritualism to America (1993), by Peter Washington