Idries Shah’s Attraction for the Wilfully Blind

The Moral: Idries Shah’s writing on St Francis of Assisi brought me to a fairly important understanding: his technique, I contend, was to write such utter balderdash that anyone who accepted him as a teaching authority would be too wilfully blind to see through him, at least for quite some time. Having joyfully swallowed one false bait, they would be committed to opening their gullets wide enough to swallow more. Then, the sillier his fantasies became, the more others pointed this out, the more the true believers would close ranks so that it was “us against the world.”

The Narrative: I was recently asked something about St Francis of Assisi’s relations with the Muslims. It is clear that he went there as a Crusader, that is, to preach Christianity: Further, the visit, made during the Fifth Crusade, in the year 1219, was a short one, lasting only a few days. Francis was already a formed contemplative before then, and the Sultan received him as a “holy man.” This jogged my memory: didn’t Idries Shah say that Francis was influenced by Muslims in his spiritual life?

So I dusted off Shah’s The Sufis, and found his chapter on Francis. It was so extraordinarily feeble that it makes me wonder if Bennett did not accept Shah’s claims precisely because they were so totally lacking without foundation. If that view is correct, then his logic would have been something like: “Shah is so obviously a fraud that he must be presenting himself that way for some inscrutable purpose.” In fact, Shah was doing two things at the same time: by being so patently idiotic he was ensuring that only those who came to him for instruction were wilfully blind and would never see through him; and by making assertions and passing off all sorts of fictions as facts, he was furnishing himself with material for a thesis which could not be supported by any evidence.

When it comes to St Francis, says that the troubadors were “a relic of Saracenic musicians and poets” (257). Let us take that as so, for the sake of argument, although of course the troubadors had developed far beyond their origins and displayed much diversity. If it was so, then what of it? Does that prove that all troubadors at all times were Muslim? Or were Sufi? Or were influenced by Sufi doctrine? Did they even know of their “Saracenic” origins? What aspect of those origins remained among them?

Then Shah asserts that “It is often agreed that the rise and development of the monkish Orders in the middle ages was greatly influenced by the penetration of Moslem dervish organization in the West” (257). Really? Who agrees? Since Western monasteries were founded around the time of St John Cassian’s Abbey of St Victor in 415, and Muhammad was not yet born, it is rather a case of Monty Python’s “I wrote Shakespeare’s plays and my wife wrote his sonnets.”

On the next page, Shah asserts that Francis’ poetry “so strongly resembles in places that of the love poet Rumi that one is tempted to look for any report which might connect Francis with the Sufi order of the Whirling Dervishes.” (258) Of course, Shah does not provide a single of strong resemblance. In my academic writing on theories of literary borrowing or dependence, I have urged that apart from the necessity, in all but the most lengthy and striking coincidences, of showing that transmission was possible, that any alleged similarity cannot be explained otherwise, and that the thesis would be strengthened by finding something anomalous in the borrower’s work which can only be explained by referring back to the alleged source. In this case, it would mean setting out what Francis had written alongside the putative original in Rumi. Then, if they do indeed seem to bear some relation, to prove that that very Rumi text was circulating in a language, at a time and in a place, where Francis had been present, able to read or hear it. Then it would help if there was positive evidence that Francis had read it, and that the Rumi original makes sense of something otherwise obscure or problematic in Francis.

Of course, Shah does none of this, but where this thesis crosses the line from the baseless to the fantastically absurd is in this: St Francis lived from about 1181 to 1126. Rumi lived from 1207 to 1273. So Rumi was nineteen years of age when Francis died. Rumi did not even meet his dervish teacher until 1244, when St Francis had long been enjoying his heavenly reward. Therefore, there can have been no connection between Francis and an order of “Whirling Dervishes” which did not then exist.

Yet, Shah shamelessly asserts that “Rumi’s school of Whirling Dervishes was in full operation and its founder was still alive, during the lifetime of St Francis.” (258) No one can deny that this is flatly wrong: it presents Rumi as an older contemporary of Francis when the opposite was the case, and the “school” was note even founded. The most favourable thing one can say is that Shah was sincerely mistaken. But, then consider his “spinning” tale. When Francis and Brother Masseo did not know where to go at a fork in the road, Francis said that they would take the road which God wills, and they would know that when Masseo turned around, as children do, until told to stop. He then executed a series of twirls which even on Shah’s account resemble children turning around until they are dizzy, not the disciplined movement of the Mevlevi (258).

So, there were no Whirling Dervishes at this time, there is no evidence of any way they could have influenced Francis, no evidence that he ever “whirled” dervish fashion, or that there is any evidence whatsoever of his having Sufi ideas. Instead, we have Francis saying that if one turns around until giddy, the will of God will be manifest. In the context, this means that we must become as children, allowing a chance to show the way forward, when the resources of our adult mind have been set aside. That is, trust in God, with childlike innocence.

Truly, anyone who falls for Shah’s claims, wanted to be deluded, and I am sorry to say that one whose work I esteem so highly, John G. Bennett, fell into this category, because he had his pupils read The Sufis as if it would teach them anything.

In the featured image, St Francis speaks with Idries Shah, who has retrojected himself in time and space to appear in feathered form, the better to teach Francis the true Sufi mysteries.

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