This book is a great source of information and history on Sufism. A scholarly work, published first in 1970, it is still pertinent to today.
It opens with an important chapter on the study of Sufism in the Western world — and its limitations.
Shah raises questions about how much one can learn and understand about Sufism, using books and writings which may not fully understand how Sufism works. As one example, he uses modern Western debates on the meaning of the word "Sufi". Westerners, with our determination that there is an understandable and intellectual explanation for everything, often cannot accept that there may not be a 'logical' explanatin.
As explained in the eleventh -century Revelation, the earliest Persian writings on Sufism by Hujwiri, the term 'Sufi' has no etymology.
But for decades, a common explanation by Westerners is that
'Sufi' is similar to the Arabic word pronounced soof which means 'wool'. Those practicing Sufism wore wool, therefore this is the logical explanation.
(Shah submits that the reason common among Sufis is that the effects of sounds are important in Sufism — and the sound of the Arabic letters which bring out the sounds of S U F are significant to the Sufis in their practices).
This short chapter is full of useful thoughts for modern day Western "Sufis" , with cautions and thoughts about what Sufism is, how it is understood and much more. He ends the chapter with a list of requirements for Western students studying Sufism -
1. Understand the bulk of translations available are unsuitable 2. seek authorative written and oral information and activities designed by Sufis to operate in the student's own culture and times
3. Recognize organizations not genuinely Sufi are 'conditioning instruments' whether consciously or otherwise
4. be prepared to abandon preconceptions about what it means to 'study'
5. decide whether the student's search is or is not a disguised search for social integration, a manifestation of sheer curiosity, a desire for emotionial stimulus or statisfactin?
6. credit the possibility that there is a conscious, efficient, deliberate source of legitimate Sufic teaching in the West.
(These seem to be true and good questions for any Seeker to ask, of any religious practice)
This is all in the first chapter, and more - worth the price of the book just to read that section. But, there is of course, much more. Shah states the intent of this book is to give geeral reader an idea of the richness and variety of Sufi ideas, and the rest of the writings have been formed as an introduction to Westerners in the mid-20th century, when the book was written.
Next is a section on Classic Authors with quotes and short biographical/historical/philosophical information about these authors. Twelfth century philosopher El-Ghazali, Omar Khayyam, Attar of Nishapar, Ibn El-Arabi, Saadi of Shiraz, Hakim Jami, Hakim Sanai, Jalaludin Rumi are touched on.
The next section is Four Major Orders, with short explanations of 1) The Chishti Order 2) The Qardi Order 3) The Suhrawardi Order and 4) The Naqshbandi Order.
There are also stories of Sufi Masters, teaching stories, themes for solitary contemplation, group recitals and letters and lectures (very short, at the end).
My Turkish daughter in law when introduced to American Sufis in our Quaker meeting looked puzzled — they did not seem closely related to the Sufis she is familiar with. This book may explain why.
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