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 2 of 2:
Hall: Many of the great Sufi teachers seem to regard the
ecstatic experience as only a way station.
Shah: Oh, yes. The ecstatic experience is absolutely the
lowest form of advanced knowledge. Western biographers
of the saints have made it very difficult for us by assuming
that Joan of Arc and Theresa of Avila, who have had such
experiences, have reached God. I am sure that this is only a
misunderstanding based on faulty stories and faulty
retrieval of information.
Hall: Sufis also seem to take extra-sensory perception as a
matter of course and as not very interesting.
Shah: Not interesting at all. It is no more than a by-product.
Let me give you a banal analogy. If I were training to be a
runner and went out every day to run, I would get faster
and faster and be able to run farther and farther with less
fatigue. Now, I also find that I have a better complexion,
my blood supply is better, and my digestion has improved.
These things don't interest me; they are only by-products of
my running. I have another objective. When people I am
associated with become overwhelmed by ESP phenomena,
I always insist that they stop it, because their objective is
Hall: They are supposed to be developing their potential;
not attempting to read minds or move objects around. Do
you think that researchers will one day explain the physical
basis of ESP or do you think it will always elude them?
Shah: If I say it will elude the scientists, it will annoy the
people who are able to get enormous grants for research
into ESP. But I think, yes, a great deal more can be
discovered providing the scientists are prepared to be good
scientists. And by that I mean that they are prepared to
structure their experiments successively in accordance with
their discoveries. They must be ready to follow and not
hew doggedly to their original working hypothesis. And
they will certainly have to give up their concept of the
observer being outside of the experiment, which has been
their dearest pet for many years.
And another thing, as we find constantly in metaphysics,
people who are likely to be able to understand and develop
capacities for ESP are more likely to be found among
people who are not interested in the subject.
Hall: Is that because disinterest is necessary to approach the
Shah: Something like that. Being disinterested, you can
approach ESP more coolly and calmly. The Sufis say: "You
will be able to exercise these supernatural powers when
you can put out your hand and get a wild dove to land on
it." But the other reason why the people who are fascinated
by ESP or metaphysics or magic are the last who should
study it is that they are interested in it for the wrong
reasons. It may be compensation. They are not equipped to
study ESP. They are equipped for something else: fear, greed, hate, or love of humanity.
Hall: Often they have a desperate wish to prove that ESP is
either true or false.
Shah: Yes that's what I call heroism. But it's not
professionalism and that's what the job calls for.
Hall: You've also written a couple of books on magic:
Oriental Magic and The Secret Lore of Magic, an
investigation of Western magic. Today there's an upsurge
of interest in astrology and witchcraft and magic. You must
have speculated somewhat about magic in those books.
Shah: Very little. The main purpose of my books on magic
was to make this material available to the general reader.
For too long people believed that there were secret books,
hidden places, and amazing things. They held onto this
information as something to frighten themselves with. So
the first purpose was information. This is the magic of East
and West. That's all. There is no more. The second purpose
of those books was to show that there do seem to be forces,
some of which are either rationalized by this magic or may
be developed from it, which do not come within customary
physics or within the experience of ordinary people. I think
this should be studied, that we should gather the data and
analyze the phenomena. We need to separate the chemistry
of magic from the alchemy, as it were.
Hall: That's not exactly what the contemporary devotees of
witchcraft and magic are up to.
Shah: No. My work has no relevance to the current interest
whatever. Oh, it makes my books sell, but they were
written for cool-headed people and there aren't many of
Hall: Most of the people who get interested in magic seem
to be enthusiasts.
Shah: Yes, it's just as with ESP. There's no reason why they
shouldn't be enthusiasts, but having encouraged themwhich
I couldn't help-I must now avoid them. They would
only be disappointed in what I have to say.
You know, Rumi said that people counterfeit gold because
there is such a thing as real gold, and I think that's the
situation we are in with Sufi studies at the moment. It is
much easier to write a book on Sufism than it is to study it.
It is much easier to start a group and tell people what to do
than it is to learn first.
The problem is that the spurious, the unreal, the untrue is so
much easier to find that it is in danger of becoming the
norm. Until recently, for example, if you didn't use drugs in
spiritual pursuits, you were not considered genuine. If you
said, "look, drugs are irrelevant to spiritual matters," you
were considered a square.
Their attitude is not at all a search for truth.
Hall: Many people seem to use drugs as an attempt to get
Shah: People want to be healed or cured or saved, but they
want it now. It's astonishing. When people come here to see
me, they want to get something, and if I can't give them
higher consciousness, they will take my bedspreads or my
ashtrays or whatever else they can pick up around the
Hall: They want something to carry away.
Shah: They are thinking in terms of lose property, almost
physical. They are savages in the best sense of the word.
They are not what they think they are at all. I am invited to
believe that they take bedspreads and ashtrays by accident.
But it never works the other way; they never leave their
wallets behind by mistake. One thing I learned from my
father very early: Don't take any notice of what people say,
just watch what they do.
Hall: Let's get back to your main work. What is the best
way of introducing the Sufi way of thinking to the West?
Shah: I am sure that the best way is not to start a cult, but to
introduce a body of literary material that should interest
people enough to establish the Sufi phenomenon as viable.
We don't plan to form an organization with somebody at
the top and others at the bottom collecting money or
wearing funny clothes or converting people to Sufism. We
view Sufism not as an ideology that moulds people to the
right way of belief or action, but as an art or science that
can exert a beneficial influence on individuals or societies,
in accordance with the needs of those individuals and
Hall: Does Western society need this infusion of Sufi
Shah: It needs it for the same reason that any society needs
it, because it gives one something one cannot get
elsewhere. For example, Sufi thought makes a person more
efficient. A watchmaker becomes a better watchmaker. A
housewife becomes a better housewife. When somebody
said as much in California last year, 120 hippies got up and
left the hall. They didn't wait to hear that they weren't going
to be forced to be more efficient.
Hall: But there must be more than efficiency to it.
Shah: Of course. I wouldn't try to sell Sufism purely as a
means to efficiency, even though it does make one more
effective in all sorts of ways. I think Sufism is important
because it enables one to detach from life and see it as near
to its reality as one can possibly get.
Sufi experience tends to produce the kind of person who is
calm, not because he can't get excited, but because he
knows that getting excited about an event or problem is not
going to have any lasting effect.
Hall: Would you say that it might give a person an outlook
on the problems of this time similar to the outlook he might
presently have on the problems of the 16th century?
Shah: Very much so. And such an outlook takes the heat
out of almost every contention. Instead of becoming the
classical Oriental philosopher who says, "All reality is
imagination. Why should I care about the world," you
begin to see alternative ways of acting.
For example, some of the finest people in this country
spend a great deal of their time jumping up and down
waving banners that condemn the various dirty beasts of
the world. Such behaviour makes the dirty beasts delighted
at the thought that they are so important and the jumpers
are so impotent. If the Trafalgar square jumpers had an
objective view of their behaviour, they would abandon it.
First, they would see that they are only giving aid and
comfort to the enemy, and second, they would be able to
see how to do something about the dirty beasts - and if it
were necessary to do anything about them.
Hall: In other words, Sufism might help us solve some of
the enormous social, political and environmental problems
that face us.
Shah: People talk about Sufism as if it were the acquisition
of powers. Sufi metaphysics has even got a magical
reputation. The truth is that Sufi study and development
give one capacities that one did not have before. One would
not kill merely because killing is bad.
Instead, one would know that killing is unnecessary and, in
addition, what one would have to do in order to make
humanity happier and able to realize better objectives.
That's what knowledge is for.
Hall: When I read your books, the message came through
very clearly that you are not interested in rational,
sequential thought - in what Bob Ornstein calls left-hemisphere
Shah: To say that I'm not interested in sequential thinking
is not to say that I can live without it. I have it up to a
certain point, and I expect the people I meet to be able to
use it. We need information in order to approach a
problem, but we also need to be able to see the thing whole.
Hall: When you speak of seeing the thing whole, you're
talking about intuitive thought, where you don't reason the
problem out but know the answer without knowing how
you got it.
Shah: Yes. You know the answer and can verify that it is an
answer. That is the difference between romantic imagining
and something that belongs to this world.
Hall: Ornstein, who seems to have been profoundly
influenced by Sufi thought, has suggested that most people
today tend to rely on logical, rational, linear thought and
that we tend to use very little of the intuitive, non-linear
thought of the brain's right hemisphere.
Would you say that Sufism can teach one to tap righthemisphere
Shah: Yes, I would. Sufism has never been over-impressed
by the products of left-hemisphere activity, although it's
often used them.
For instance, Sufis have written virtually all the great
poetry of Persia, and while the inspiration for a poem may
come from the right hemisphere, one must use the left
hemisphere to put the poem down in the proper form. I
think that the behaviour and products of Sufism are among
the few things we have that encourage a holistic view of
things. I don't want to discuss Sufism in Ornsteinian terms,
however, because I'm not qualified to do so. I can only say
that insofar as there is any advantage in these two
hemispheres acting alternately or complementing one
another, then Sufi material undoubtedly is among the very
little available material that can help this process along.
Hall: Why are the traditional Western methods of study
inappropriate for the study of Sufism?
Shah: They are inappropriate only up to a point. Both the
Western and Middle Eastern methods of study come from
the common heritage of the Middle Ages, when one was
regarded as wise if he had a better memory than someone
else. But some of the teaching methods that Sufis use seem
rather odd to the Westerner. If I were to say to you that my
favourite method of teaching is to bore the audience to
death, you would be shocked. But I have just results of
some tests, which show that English schoolchildren, when
shown a group of films, remembered only the ones that
bored them. Now this is consistent with our experience, but
it is not consistent with Western beliefs.
Another favourite Sufi teaching method is to be rude to
people, sometimes shouting them down or shooing them
away, a technique that is not customary in cultivated
circles. By experience we know that by giving a certain
kind of shock to a person, we can - for a short period -
increase his perception. Until recently I wouldn't have
dared speak about this, but I now have a clipping indicating
that when a person endures a shock he produces Theta
rhythms. Some people have associated these brain rhythms
with various forms of ESP. No connection has been made
yet, but I think we may be beginning to understand it.
Hall: Recent studies of memory indicate that unless
adrenaline is present, no learning takes place, and shock
causes adrenaline to flow. We also know from experience
that when you find yourself in a situation of grave danger,
you tend to notice some very small detail with great clarity.
Shah: Exactly. Concentration comes in on a strange level
and in an unaccustomed way. But using this knowledge has
traditionally given Sufi teachers a reputation for having bad
manners. The most polite thing they can say about us is that
we are irascible and out of control. Some people say that a
spiritual teacher should have no emotions or be totally
balanced. We say that a spiritual teacher must be a person
who can be totally balanced, not one who cannot help but
Hall: People in the United States seem to be looking for
leaders, whether spiritual or political, and they keep
complaining because there are no leaders to follow.
Shah: People are always looking for leaders; that does not
mean that this is the time for a leader. The problems that a
leader would be able to resolve have not been identified.
Nor does the clamour mean that those who cry out are
suitable followers. Most of the people who demand a leader
seem to have some baby's idea of what a leader should do.
The idea that a leader will walk in and we will all recognize
him and follow him and everybody will be happy strikes
me as a strangely immature atavism. Most of these people,
I believe, want not a leader but excitement. I doubt that
those who cry the loudest would obey a leader if there was
one. Talk is cheap, and a lot of the talk comes from
millions of old washerwomen.
Hall: If so, the washerwomen are spread throughout the
Shah: They're not called washerwomen, but if we test them,
they react like washerwomen. For example, if you are
selling books and you send a professor of philosophy
something written in philosophical language, he will throw
it away. But if you send him a spiel written for a
washerwoman, he will buy the book. At heart he is a
washerwomen. Intellectuals don't understand this, but
business people do because their profits depend upon it.
You can learn much more about human nature on Madison
Avenue than you will from experts on human nature,
because on Madison Avenue on stands or falls by the sales.
Professors in their ivory towers can say anything because
there's no penalty attached. Go to where there is a penalty
attached and there you will find wisdom.
Hall: That's a tough statement. You sound as if you are
down on all academics.
Shah: Well, in the past few years I have given quite a few
seminars and lectures at universities, and I have become
terrified by the low level of ability. It is as if people just
aren't trying. They don't read the books in their fields, don't
know the workings of them, use inadequate approaches to a
subject, ask ridiculous questions that a moment's thought
would have enabled them to answer.
If these are the cream, what is the milk like?
Hall: Are you talking about undergraduates, graduate
students, or professors?
Shah: The whole lot. Recently I've been appalled at the low
levels of articles in learned journals and literary weeklies.
The punctuation gone to hell, full of non-sequiturs, an
obvious lack of background knowledge, and so on. I went
to a newspaper and looked up the equivalent articles from
the 1930's. A great change has taken place. Forty years ago
there were two kinds of articles: very, very good and
terribly bad. There seemed nothing in-between. Now
everything is slapdash and mediocre. Why are so many
famous persons in hallowed institutions now so mediocre?
Hall: Critics like Dwight Macdonald have said for years
that as education becomes widespread and people become
semiliterate, the culture at the top is inevitably pulled
down. But you're not really hostile to all academics, are
Shah: No, some of my best friends are academics.
Hall: That is no way to get out of it.
Shah: Of course, I'm not hostile to all academics. There are
some great thinkers. But I do not believe that it is necessary
for us to have 80% blithering idiots in order to get 20%
marvellous academics. This ratio depresses me. I think that
the good people are unbelievably noble in denying that the
rest of them are such hopeless idiots. Privately they agree
with you, but they won't rock the boat.
For the sake of humanity, somebody has got to rock the
Hall: For the sake of humanity, what would you like to see
Shah: What I really want, in case anybody is listening, is
for the products of the last 50 years of psychological
research to be studied by the public, by everybody, so that
the findings become part of their way of thinking. At the
moment, people have adopted only a few. They talk glibly
about making Freudian slips and they have accepted the
idea of inferiority complexes. But they have this great body
of psychological information and refuse to use it.
There is a Sufi story about a man who went into a shop and
asked the shopkeeper,
"Do you have leather?"
"Yes," said the shopkeeper.
"Then why don't you make yourself a pair of boots?"
That story is intended to pinpoint this failure to use
available knowledge. People in this civilization are starving
in the middle of plenty. This is a civilization that is going
down, not because it hasn't got the knowledge that would
save it, but because nobody will use the knowledge.