Idries Shah

Short biography

Idries Shah (16 June 1924–23 November 1996), also known as Idris Shah, né Sayyid Idris al-Hashimi, was an author in the sufist tradition. His teachings are highly controversial and his status in Sufi circles ranges from charlatan to those who believe his claims that he was te world-wide leader of Sufism, though there is no actual evidence that there is a united front on which Sufi's worldwide meet. Despite this controversy, his works are very interesting and therefor quotes of his stories and teachings are present on Katinka Hesselink Net.


Idries Shah was born in Simla, India, of an Afghan-Indian father and Scottish mother into the family of the Paghman saadat. Shah's early years were mainly spent in England (London and Oxford), but his upbringing bridged East and West. He was educated, as his father before him, by private tutors in Europe and the Middle East, and through wide-ranging travel—the series of journeys, in fact, that characterise Sufi education and development.

Shah married Cynthia (Kashfi) Kabraji in 1958, and fathered one son Tahir Shah and two daughters. One of the daughters, Saira Shah reported on women's rights in Afghanistan with her documentary Beneath the Veil. Shah's brother, Omar Ali-Shah, was also a writer and teacher of Sufism.


Idries Shah's writings greatly extended the western knowledge of the Sufi teachings. He profoundly influenced several intellectuals, notably Doris Lessing and Robert Ornstein. His definition of Sufism was liberal in that he was of the opinion that it predated Islam and did not depend on the Qur'an, but was universal in source, scope and relevance (see Sufi studies). He maintained that spiritual teachings should be presented in forms and terms that are familiar in the community where they are to take root. He believed that students should be given work based on their individual capacities, and rejected systems that apply the same exercises to all. In his own work he used teaching stories and humor to great effect.

Shah's earliest published works reflected his interest in magic, witchcraft and occultism: Oriental Magic (London 1956), and The Secret Lore of Magic: Book of the Sorcerers (London 1957). He started Octagon Press ([1]) in 1960, and the first Octagon title was Gerald Gardner: Witch, the biography of a leading figure in the British witchcraft revival of the 1950s. Attributed to "Jack L. Bracelin", it has long been known as a pseudonymous work by Shah, who was Gardner's secretary at the time of writing (see F. Lamond, Fifty Years of Wicca, 2004). Later, Shah developed his press as a means of publishing and distributing Sufi books that might otherwise have gone out of print. His desire was to have these always available to each generation. The books range from traditional Sufi manuals, to contemporary works. Several books feature the Mulla Nasrudin character. These humorous teaching stories are believed to act as a mirror to human foibles, aiding philosophical self examination.

Shah started the "Society for Understanding the Foundations of Ideas" (or "SUFI") in London in the mid-1960s. This was renamed the Institute for Cultural Research ([2]), alongside a more esoteric "Society for Sufi Studies", also founded by Shah. The ICR, currently based in London, hosts lectures and seminars on topics related to aspects of human nature, while the SSS has ceased its activities.

Shah's books have sold over 15 million copies in 12 languages worldwide. They have been reviewed by The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Times (see for example, Doris Lessing's review), The Tribune, The Daily Telegraph and numerous other international journals and newspapers. His best-selling novel "Kara Kush", was based on fact, incorporating Shah's first-hand knowledge of the courage of the Afghan people, and the atrocities inflicted upon them. About a year after his last visit to Afghanistan in late spring of 1987, Shah suffered two successive and massive heart attacks. He died in London on November 23rd 1996, at the age of 72. According to the obituary in The Daily Telegraph, Idries Shah was a collaborator with Mujahuddin in the Afghan-Soviet war, a Director of Studies for the Institute for Cultural Research and a Governor of the Royal Humane Society and the Royal Hospital and Home for Incurables.

Articles by Idries Shah