An interview with Idries Shah by Elizabeth Hall, published in Psychology Today, July, 1975, reprinted in Robert Ornstein's The Psychology of Consciousness, revised edition, 1985. Part 1 of 2:
The Sufi Tradition
"Some gurus are frankly phoneys, and they don't try to hide
it from me. They think I am one too."-- Idries Shah
EH: Idries Shah, you are the West's leading exponent of
Sufism, that rich religious tradition growing out of the
Middle East. Why, at a time when new cults are springing
up, do you refuse to be a guru? You could easily become
IS: There are a lot of reasons. But if we are talking about
the teacher who has disciples, it's because I feel no need for
an admiring audience to tell me how wonderful I am or to
do what I say. I believe that the guru needs his disciples. If
he had a sufficient outlet for his desire to be a big shot or
his feeling of holiness or his wish to have others dependent
on him, he wouldn't be a guru.
I got all that out of my system very early and, consistent
with Sufi tradition, I believe that those who don't want to
teach are the ones who can and should. The West still has a
vocation hang-up and has not yet discovered this. Here, the
only recognized achiever is an obsessive. In the East we
believe that a person who can't help doing a thing isn't
necessarily the best one to do it. A compulsive cookie
baker may bake very bad cookies.
EH: Are you saying that a person who feels that he must
engage in a certain profession is doing it because of some
IS: I think this is very often the case, and it doesn't
necessarily produce the best professional. Show an
ordinary person an obsessive and he will believe you have
shown him a dedicated and wonderful person - provided he
share his beliefs. If he doesn't, of course, he regards the one
obsessed as evil. Sufism regards this as a facile and untrue
posture. And if there is one consistency in the Sufi
tradition, it is that man must be in the world but not of the
world. There is no role for a priest-king or guru.
EH: Then you have a negative opinion of all gurus.
IS: Not of all. Their followers need the guru as much as the
guru needs his followers. I just don't regard it as a religious
operation. I take a guru to be a sort of psychotherapist. At
the very best, he keeps people quiet and polarized around
him and gives some sort of meaning to their lives.
EH: Librium might do the same thing.
IS: Yes, but that's no reason to be against it. Why shouldn't
there be room for what we might call "neighbourhood
psychotherapy" - the community looking after its own?
However, why it should be called a spiritual activity rather
EH: One can't help getting the feeling that not all gurus are
trying to serve their fellowman.
IS: Some are frankly phoneys, and they don't try to hide it
from me. They think that I am one, too, so when we meet
they begin the most disturbing conversations. They want to
know how I get money, how I control people, and so on.
EH: They want to swap secrets.
IS: That's going a little too far. But they feel safety in
numbers. They actually feel there is something wrong with
what they are doing, and they feel better if they talk to
somebody else who is doing it. I always tell them that I
think it would be much better if they gave up the guru role
in their own minds and realize that they are providing a
perfectly good social service.
EH: How do they take to that advice?
IS: Sometimes they laugh and sometimes they cry. The
general impression is that one of us is wrong. Because I
don't make the same kind of noises that they do, they seem
to believe that either I am a lunatic or that I am starting
some new kind of con. Perhaps I have found a new racket.
EH: I am surprised that these gurus tell you all their secrets
as freely as they do.
IS: I must tell you that I have not renounced the Eastern
technique of pretending to be interested in what another
person is saying, even pretending to be on his side.
Therefore, I am able to draw out gurus and get them to
commit themselves to an extent that a Westerner, because
of his conscience, could not do. The Westerner would not
allow certain things to go unchallenged and would not
trick, as it were, another person. So he doesn't find out the
Look here, it's time that somebody took the lid off the guru
racket. Since I have nothing to lose, it might as well be me.
With many of these gurus it comes down to an "us and
them" sort of thing between the East and the West. Gurus
from India used to stop by on their way to California and
their attitude was generally, let's take the Westerners to the
cleaners; they colonized us, now we will get money out of
them. I heard this sort of thing even from people who had
impeccable spiritual reputations back home in India.
EH: It is an understandable human reaction to centuries of
IS: It's understandable, but I deny that it's a spiritual
activity. What I want to say is, "Brother, you are in the
revenge business, and that's a different kind of business
from me." There are always groups that are willing to
negotiate with me and want to use my name. On one
occasion a chap in a black shirt and white tie told me, "You
take Britain, but don't touch the United States, because
that's ours." I had a terrible vision of Al Capone. The
difference was that the guru's disciples kissed his feet.
See What I Mean?
Nasrudin was throwing handfuls of crumbs around his
"What are you doing?" someone asked him. "Keeping
the tigers away."
"But there are no tigers in these parts."
"That's right. Effective, isn't it?"
EH: Gurus keep proliferating in the United States, always
with massive followings. A 15-year-old Perfect Master can
fill the Astrodome.
IS: Getting the masses is the easy part. A guru can attract a
crowd of a million in India, but few in a crowd take him
seriously. You see, India has had gurus for thousands of
years, so they are generally sophisticated about them; they
take in the attitude with their mothers' milk. This culture
just hasn't been inoculated against the guru. Let's turn it
around. If I were fresh off a plane from India and told you
that I was going to Detroit to become a wonderful
automobile millionaire, you would smile at me. You know
perfectly well the obstacles, the taxes, the ulcers that I face.
Well, the Indian is in the same position with the automobile
industry as the American with the guru. I'm not impressed
by naive American reactions to gurus; if you can show me
a guru who can pull off that racket in the East, then I will
EH: Before we go any farther, we'd better get down to
basics and ask the obvious question. What is Sufism?
IS: The most obvious question of all is for us the most
difficult question. But I'll try to answer. Sufism is
experience of life through a method of dealing with life and
human relations. This method is based on an understanding
of man, which places at one's disposal the means to
organize one's relationships and one's learning systems. So
instead of saying that Sufism is a body of thought in which
you believe certain things and don't believe other things,
we say that the Sufi experience has to be provoked in a
person. Once provoked, it becomes his own property, rather
as a person masters an art.
EH: So ideally, for four million readers, you would have
four million different explanations.
IS: In fact, it wouldn't work out like that. We progress by
means of NASHR, an Arabic word than means scatter
technique. For example, I've published quite a number of
miscellaneous books, articles, tapes and so on, which
scatter many forms of this Sufi material. These 2,000
different stories cover many different tendencies in many
people, and they are able to attach themselves to some
aspect of it.
EH: I noticed as I read that the same point would be made
over and over again in a different way in a different story.
In all my reading, I think the story that made the most
profound impression on me was "The Water of Paradise."
Afterward, I found the same point in other stories, but had I
not read "The Water of Paradise" first, I might not have
picked it up.
IS: That is the way the process tends to work. Suppose we
get a group of 20 people past the stage where they no
longer expect us to give them miracles and stimulation and
attention. We sit them down in a room and give them 20 or
30 stories, asking them to tell us what they see in the
stories, what they like, and what the don't like. The stories
first operate as a sorting out process. They sort out both the
very clever people who need psychotherapy and who have
come only to put you down, and the people who have come
If A Pot Can Multiply
One day Nasrudin lent his cooking pots to a neighbour,
who was giving a feast. The neighbour returned them,
together with one extra one - a very tiny pot.
"What is this?" asked Nasrudin.
"According to law, I have given you the offspring of your
property which was born when the pots were in my care,"
said the joker.
Shortly afterwards Nasrudin borrowed his neighbour's
pots, but did not return them. The man came round to get
"Alas!" said Nasrudin, "they are dead. We have
established, have we not, that pots are mortal?"
IS: In responsible Sufi circles, no one attempts to handle
either the sneerers or the worshippers, and they are very
politely detached from the others.
EH: They are not fertile ground?
IS: They have something else to do first. And what they
need is offered abundantly elsewhere.
I Know Her Best
People ran to tell the Mulla that his mother-in-law had
fallen into the river.
"She will be swept out to sea, for the torrent is very fast
here," they cried.
Without a moment's hesitation Nasrudin dived into the
river and started to swim upstream.
"No!" they cried, "DOWNSTREAM! That is the only
way a person can be carried away from here."
"Listen!" panted the Mulla, "I know my wife's mother. If
everyone else is swept downstream, the place to look for
her is upstream."
IS: There's no reason for them to bother us. Next we begin
to work with people who are left. In order to do this, we
must cool it. We must not have any spooky atmosphere,
any strange robes or gongs or intonations. The new
students generally react to the stories either as they think
you would like them to react or as their background tells
them they should react. Once they realize that no prizes are
being given for correct answers, they begin to see that their
previous conditioning determines the way they are seeing
the material in the stories.
So, the second use of the stories is to provide a protected
situation in which people can realize the extent of the
conditionings in their ordinary lives. The third use comes
later, rather like when you get the oil to the surface of a
well after you burn of the gases. After we have burnt off
the conditioning, we start getting completely new
interpretations and reactions to stories. At last, as the
student becomes less emotional, we can begin to deal with
the real person, not the artefact that society has made him.
EH: Is this a very long process?
IS: You can't predict it at all. With some people it is an
instant process; with others, it takes weeks or months. Still
others get fed up and quit because, like good children of the
consumer society, they crave something to consume and
we're not giving it to them.
EH: You say that conditioning gets in the way of responses
to Sufi material. But everyone is conditioned from birth, so
how does one ever escape from his conditioning?
IS: We can't live in the world without being conditioned.
Even the control of one's bladder is conditioned. It is
absurd to talk, as some do, of deconditioned or
nonconditioned people. But it is possible to see why
conditioning has taken place and why a person's beliefs
Nobody is trying to abolish conditioning, merely to
describe it, to make it possible to change it, and also to see
where it needs to operate, and where it does not. Some sort
of secondary personality, which we call the "commanding
self" takes over man when his mentation is not correctly
balanced. This self, which he takes for his real one, is in
fact a mixture of emotional impulses and various pieces of
conditioning. As a consequence of Sufi experience, people
- instead of seeing things through a filter of conditioning
plus emotional reactions, a filter which constantly discards
certain stimuli - can see things through some part of
themselves that can only be described as not conditioned.
EH: Are you saying that when one comes to an awareness
that he is conditioned, that he can operate aside from it? He
can say, "Why do I believe this? Well, perhaps it is
IS: Exactly. Then he is halfway toward being liberated
from his conditioning - or at least toward keeping it under
control. People who say that we must smash conditioning
are themselves oversimplifying things.
EH: A number of years ago an American psychologist
carried out an interesting experiment. He had a device that
supplied two images, one to each eye. One image was a
baseball player, the other was a matador. He had a group of
American and Mexican schoolteachers look through this
device. Most of the Americans saw a baseball player and
most of the Mexicans saw the matador. From what you
have said, I gather that Sufism might enable an American
to see the matador and a Mexican to see the baseball
IS: That is what many of the Sufi stories try to do. As a
reader, you tend to identify with one of the people in the
story. When he behaves unexpectedly, it gives you a bit of
a jolt and forces you to see him with different eyes.
EH: When one reads about Sufism, one comes upon
conflicting explanations. Some people say that Sufism is
pantheistic; others that it is related to theosophy. Certainly
there are strains in Sufism that you can find in any of the
major world religions.
IS: There are many ways to talk about the religious aspects
of Sufism. I'll just choose one and see where it leads. The
Sufis themselves say that their religion has no history,
because it is not culture bound. Although Sufism has been
productive in Islam, according to Sufi tradition and
scripture, Sufis existed in pre-Islamic times. The Sufis say
that all religion is evolution, otherwise it wouldn't survive.
They also say that all religion is capable of development up
to the same point. In historical times, Sufis have worked
with all recognized religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam,
Vedanta, Buddhism and so on. Sufis are in religion but not
Early To Rise
"Nasrudin, my son, get up early in the mornings."
"It is a good habit. Why, once I rose at dawn and went for
a walk. I found on the road a sack of gold."
"How did you know it was not lost the previous night?"
"That is not the point. In any case, it had not been there
the night before. I noticed that."
"Then it isn't lucky for everyone to get up early. The man
who lost the gold must have been up earlier than you."
EH: What is the Sufi attitude toward mysticism and the
IS: Sufis are extraordinarily cautious about this. They don't
allow a person to do spiritual exercises unless they are
convinced that he can undergo such exercises without harm
and appreciate them without distraction.
Moment In Time
"What is fate?" Nasrudin was asked by a scholar.
"An endless succession of intertwined events, each
influencing the other."
"That is hardly a satisfactory answer. I believe in cause
"Very well," said the Mulla, "look at that."
He pointed to a procession passing in the street.
"That man is being taken to be hanged. Is that because
someone gave him a silver piece and enabled him to buy
the knife with which he committed the murder; or
because somebody saw him do it; or because nobody
IS: Spiritual exercises are allowed only at a certain time
and a certain place and with certain people. When the
ecstatic exercises are taken out of context, they become a
circus at best and unhinge minds at worst.
EH: So the ecstatic experience has its place but only at a
certain time at a certain stage of development?
IS: Yes, and with certain training. The ecstatic experience
is certainly not required. It is merely a way of helping man
to realize his potential.