Elwell-Sutton on Pseudo-Sufism

In the December 1972 edition of Encounter, Laurence Paul Elwell-Sutton, a Professor of Persian and Middle Eastern studies published an article “Sufism & Pseudo-Sufism.” I had seen references to his work, such as his Persian Grammar and studies in Persian poetic metres, and proverbs. However, until I was researching my book on J.G. Bennett, I had not actually read any of his work. I have been unsure as to how much of the article to cite, and whether to critique it or not. I do not agree with everything in it. He makes some elementary errors in writing of Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, and Bennett. But given the difficulty of locating the article, I have opted to keep my own comments to a minimum, and provide some but not all of his arguments.

The article opens with a most impressive concise explanation of Sufism and its history: the best I have read by a margin. On page 10, he makes a distinction between Western and Eastern Sufi schools which is similar to that which Bennett made between Northern and Southern schools.

I have always found that with closer acquaintance, every phenomenon shows signs of historical development, and understanding depends upon grasping the contours of this. I recently read Buehler’ Recognizing Sufism: Contemplation in the Islamic Tradition (2016), and good as it is, Elwell-Sutton clearly has a deeper understanding. Sutton wrote:

In spite of the appearance of major figures like Suhrawardi, promulgator of the doctrine of illuminism, the theosophy of light—and of Ibn Arabi who taught the concept of the “unity of existing things”, the pre-existence of all things as ideas in the knowledge of God, whence they emanate and whither they ultimately return—the most significant developments in Sufism from the 13th century onwards were in the direction of institutionalisation and ritualisation. The Sufi path could only be followed within the confines of an Order and under the guidance of a qualified teacher recognised in his turn by his superiors. In this way transmitted knowledge and mechanical observances took the place of personal experience. The achievement of wajd (ecstasy) ceased to be no more than a means to gnosis, and became an end in itself. Even more unfortunate was the encouragement given to the cult of personality. The shaikh of the sub-order (and even the individual teacher) became the object of veneration, while God, once the immediate and only object of the search, slipped away into a more remote, inaccessible Elysium. While there continued—and continue—to be genuine Sufis who understood the full implications of the Sufi way of life, as well as scholars both Eastern and Western who studied its writings in depth, popular Sufism tended to deteriorate into a de-spiritualised accumulation of ritual, superstition, and folklore, often in the hands of itinerant dervishes playing on the credulity of the simple-minded. (12)

Sutton then states that: “it is unfortunate that it is precisely these decadent and negative aspects of Sufism that have gained most currency in the West, since pseudo-Sufis have scrambled on to the band-wagon of “Oriental” mysticism set rolling by the Zen Buddhists in the 1950s.” (12) I had not realised that Shah’s efforts to package himself as a Sufi had commenced at least by 1960, but Sutton states refers to an article by William Foster in The Contemporary Review for May 1960 (I have found this, and it is dated January for those seeking it). It is cautious, but Sutton states that its significance is its “singling out for special sanctity and a special role in the world an obscure Afghan clan from whom, as it happens, Idries Shah is descended.” He adds that: “There followed hints of the establishment of a centre of Sufi teaching somewhere in Europe (… Idries Shah: “There is a conscious, efficient and deliberate source of legitimate Sufic teaching actually in operation in the West”). (12)

Among other matters, Sutton refers to a book, Sufi Studies: East and West, “in honour of Idries Shah’s services to Sufi studies,” which includes this line from a Hindu, Dr Bankey Behari: “Idries Shah: you have provoked in me the desire to place before you a dish I have prepared; by offering it to you I expect thereby to secure your blessings, to bring me close to the lotus feet of my Lord and bestow on me a place in the eternal Divine Abode.” (13) There is much more of that type in it: I have read the book.

When Sutton turns to Shah’s books, he concludes that: “On the evidence of his writings, Idries Shah can claim no more knowledge of the plain facts of Islamic history, religion, literature, and philosophy than might be acquired by the use of any standard, non-specialist reference works—and only such works. Indeed, he appears at times to have treated even these sources somewhat cavalierly.” (13) On the same page, he gives examples of mistranslations and other errors by Shah and his colleagues.

Sutton takes issue with much of Shah’s work, e.g. Shah in The Way of the Sufi (32) asserts that: “Almost all the literature of Persia in the classical period is Sufic.” Sutton replies: “This was very far from being the case. The authentic Sufi poetry has to be recognised, not by its language or symbolism, but by its fundamental characteristics of self-denial, rejection of the world and its temptations, abandonment of self-love for love of God, yearning for union with and annihilation in God.” (11)

He notes, quite correctly, that: “Much is made of the fact that Idries Shah is a Hashemi Sayyid.” He states:

The term “Sayyid” is applied to descendants (real and imaginary) of the Prophet Muhammad through his daughter Fatima and son-in-law Ali and their son Husain. As this couple were married in the early part of the 7th century A.D., it is scarcely surprising that their posterity at the present time should run into seven figures. Sayyids proliferate throughout the Islamic world, in all walks of society and on both sides of every religious and political fence. Robert Graves, in an attempt to upgrade this rather undistinguished lineage, claimed that Idries Shah was “in the senior male line of descent from the Prophet”—a rather unfortunate gaffe, since all the three sons of the Prophet died in infancy. Rushbrook Williams, having another try, calls him “a descendant of the last of the Sasanian kings”, again a distinction that all Sayyids can claim if the legend is accepted as true that Husain married the daughter of Yezdegerd III. (14)

Sutton continues: “The facts are that Idries Shah is the son of the late Iqbal Ali Shah, a one-time unsuccessful medical student at Edinburgh University who turned world-traveller and publicist to a number of Asian countries and personalities. The family is descended from a clan of Musavi Sayyids in the small Afghan resort of Paghman, 50 miles west of Kabul.” (14)

After some inaccurate comments about Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, he correctly notes that J. G. Bennett and the Institute for the Comparative Study of History, Philosophy and the Sciences, offered Coombe Springs to Idries Shah (14). Then, Shah sold the property and “acquired an estate at Langton Green, whence he runs what is now described … as the Institute for Cultural Research. His life-style, lovingly depicted for us by Lewis F. Courtland in The Diffusion of Sufi Ideas, shows us a man very much of this world, impressed by big names and revelling in the lionising and the personality cult that centre round him.” (15)

Sutton ties this in with other trends:

The real secret, however, of Idries Shah’s success must be sought not in himself but in his disciples. … Many a intellectual, gazing from his ivory tower at a world given over to irrational violence, longs for some panacea, comprehensive in scope and not too demanding on the mind. Something of this kind must be the explanation for the appearance in Sufi Studies: East and West of this strange medley of European and American figures from the fringes of oriental studies, supported by cosmopolitan expatriates from the Western-trained chanceries and bureaucracies of Asia, whose Eastern names are no doubt intended to give ‘artistic verisimilitude’ to what must be admitted to be a rather unconvincing narrative. … The spiritual and intellectual level of their contributions is dismally low; most of them seem to be little more than reconstituted handouts from the Shah propaganda machine. … It does not seem to have occurred to Idries Shah that the gaps in his knowledge of the field, easy to conceal from the layman, would be immediately obvious to specialists in Islamic thought and culture, those whom he patronisingly describes as “conventional” or “traditional” scholars. Curiously, his contempt for the academic world has not stopped him from trying to creep in by the back door. His publicity repeatedly refers to a lecture he once gave to a history seminar at Sussex University, and even to the use of a single sentence from one of his books as a peg on which to hang a question in an Oxford University examination paper on medieval Catalan. (15)

We even learn from the dust-cover of Tales of the Dervishes that he has met and recorded interviews and exchanges with the “Hidden Imam” of the Muslims —a scoop indeed, for the Hidden Imam went into concealment during the 9th century A.D., and is to reappear only at the Day of Judgment. (15)

Whatever the cause, one cannot but be struck by the mental contortions undergone by followers of Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, Idries Shah, in their attempts to reconcile what their rational faculty recognises as nonsense with the uncritical acceptance they feel must be given to a “Master.” Kenneth Walker wrote {Venture with Ideas, p. 163): “Suddenly the answer came to me. All this that puzzled me in Gurdjieff’s behaviour and in his writing, like many things that he did, served a purpose. This emotional disturbance in me, this shouting within me of contradictory voices, this incessant struggle between ‘yes’ and ‘no’, all this was deliberately provoked, both as a test and as a form of treatment.” (15)

The community who handed over their destinies to Idries Shah “were convinced that he had a most significant contribution to make to the betterment of mankind in the present critical phase of human development.” We have here perhaps the clue to the fatal flaw in Idries Shah’s teaching, an impression that is confirmed when one reads his books. The uneasy feeling that something vital is missing crystallises suddenly into the realisation that this is Sufism (if it deserves that name) without Islam, “Sufism” without religion, “Sufism” centred not on God but on man. Page after page of his writings do not even mention the name of God, the word “love”, the concept of unity with God through love. He is far more concerned with prescriptions for self-improvement, directions for the achievement of personal happiness, guide-lines for a worldly elite. (16)

The balance of the article is worth reading, but is a more general critique of a Sufism which is no Sufism at all. In the end, I would say it comes down to this: Elwell-Sutton establishes that if Shah’s take on Sufism is authentic, then those who are known to history as Sufis were not Sufis at all, because for a Sufi it would be a mistake to think they were necessarily Muslims seeking God; yet, the real Sufis are those whom other Sufis do not acknowledge.


  1. https://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/elwell-sutton
    ELWELL-SUTTON, LAURENCE PAUL (b. Ballylickey, Cork County, Ireland, 2 June 1912-d. Edinburgh, 2 September 1984), scholar of Islamic and modern Persia (Figure 1). Son of a naval officer, Lt.-Comdr. A. S. Elwell-Sutton, he was a scholar at Winchester College and then studied Arabic at the School of Oriental Studies, University of London, graduating in 1934.
    His first job was with the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (A.P.O.C.; q.v.) at Ābādān (q.v.), where he served on the staff of labor administration (1935-38). During World War II, he lectured at the University of London (1939-40) and was attached to the Ministry of Information. He then worked at the BBC as a specialist in Persian and Arabic. In 1943-47 he was press attaché, Broadcasting, at the British mission in Tehran. During this period, he acquired his interest in the lively Persian press of the post-Reżā Shah years. After several more years at the BBC, he became a lecturer in Persian at Edinburgh University in 1952 and remained there until his retirement in 1982. He became professor of Persian in 1976. Among his early interests were the Social Credit movement, and in later years, Scottish nationalism.
    Elwell-Sutton’s interests and publications in Persian studies fall into five categories: Persian language; Persian literature; modern Persian history and politics; Persian folklore; and Islamic science. In the first of these, his Colloquial Persian (London, 1941) and Elementary Persian Grammar (Cambridge, 1963) have remained in print as standard works. In the second category fall his English translations of a Persian life of the Prophet Moḥammad, Payāmbar (Tehran, several reprs., tr. as The Messenger, Lahore, 1964-65), by Zayn-al-ʿĀbedīn Rahnemā and ʿAlī Daštī’s Dam-ī bā Ḵayyām (Tehran, 1344 Š./1965, tr. as In Search of Omar Khayyam, London, 1971). Prosody and metrics were a special interest of his, marked by a chapter on the robāʿī in Camb. Hist. Iran IV (pp. 633-57), and above all, by The Persian Metres (Cambridge, 1976), his most technical and closely-argued work. In this, he reacted—perhaps too strongly—against the notion that the meters of the New Persian are wholly derived from the quantitative Arabic ones and based his own analysis on the Persian meters summarized in his article “ʿArūż” (EIr. II, pp. 670-79) as they actually occur in New Persian literature. So far, few scholars would quarrel with this assessment, but Elwell-Sutton went further, asserting that the quantitative metres of Persian have nothing to do with the Arabic ones, but continue the patterns of pre-Islamic Middle Persian poetry; yet it seems probable that the latter was essentially a minstrel poetry based on syllables and stress, with no noticeably quantitative elements (see F. de Blois, in Storey, V/1, p. 49, for a critique of this view). The Persian Metres nevertheless remains a model of meticulous analysis.
    His concern with modern Persia and its politics arose from his years of residence in Persia at a time when the country was undergoing marked political and social change. His Persian Oil: A Study in Power Politics (London, 1955) stirred up controversy at the time because of its critical attitude toward his former employer, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (q.v.), and was translated into Russian and Chinese. Later in life, however, Elwell-Sutton became critical of the trend of events in Persia, particularly after the 1978-1979 Revolution, and before he fell ill he was about to embark on a biography of Reżā Shah, whom he regarded as the pioneer figure in bringing Persia into the modern world. He was also interested in the Persian press, publishing a catalog of Persian periodicals 1941-47 (Iran 6, 1968, pp. 65-104) and many articles on Persian newspapers in the Encyclopaedia Iranica.
    His interest in folklore was longstanding. He used his stay in Persia and took subsequent visits to collect material from this folk heritage, then in danger of disappearing under the accelerating pace of change; his The Wonderful Sea-Horse and Other Tales (London, 1950) and Persian Proverbs (London, 1954) illustrate this enthusiasm. His study of Islamic science is seen in The Horoscope of Asadullah Mirza: A Specimen of Nineteenth-Century Persian Astrology (Leiden, 1977). At the time of his death he had nearly completed an edition of Bīrūnī’s treatise on the astrolabe (See AṢTORLĀB), the Ketāb fī estīʿāb al-wojūh al-momkena fī ṣenāʿat al-aṣṭorlāb, based on six manuscripts. He compiled A Guide to Iranian Area Study (Washington, 1952) and edited the invaluable Bibliographical Guide to Iran (Brighton and Totowa, 1983).
    C. E. Bosworth and C. Hillenbrand, eds., Qajar Iran, Political, Social and Cultural Change 1800-1925: Studies Presented to Professor L.P. Elwell-Sutton, Edinburgh, 1984, repr. Costa Mesa, 1992, contains a preface and a foreword on his life and work and a bibliography of 134 of his works (pp. vii-ix, xiii-xxv).
    See also the obituary in Iran 23, 1985, pp. iii-iv.
    (C. Edmund Bosworth)
    Originally Published: December 15, 1998
    Last Updated: December 13, 2011
    This article is available in print.
Vol. VIII, Fasc. 4, pp. 372-373

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