‘He Who Tastes Knows’: Contemporary Sufi Studies and the Work of Idries Shah

‘He Who Tastes Knows’: Contemporary Sufi Studies and the Work of Idries Shah

By Steven Nightingale | June 16, 2023

afghan author idries shah

Today, June 16th, marks the birthday of the late Afghan author and thinker Idries Shah. His seminal works both inspired and informed the work of The Institute for the Study of Human Knowledge (ISHK), including one of its cornerstone initiatives, which you are reading from: The Human Journey Project.

Among a great many other things, Shah collected traditional Eastern Teaching Stories and transmitted them in book form to the West. Those traditional tales encapsulate centuries of Sufi thought aimed at developing a latent capacity within us all—an intuitive capacity for recognizing truth.

A major focus of our work has been to diffuse these traditional psychologies, to see how and where they intersect with modern research on the mind and brain, and to find ways to apply this important part of the human legacy to solving the most urgent needs of our contemporary culture.

To commemorate Shah’s work, we have chosen to republish an essay about his ideas written by American author Steven Nightingale. The piece, which first appeared on the Idries Shah Foundation website, will be republished here in two parts. The second instalment will appear next week.


We must look at the world we have made: the crudity of our politics, the menace of military force, the threat of oblivion from atomic weapons; the destruction of earth’s life support systems, the fundamentalism that corrupts religious faith.

What resource we might turn to, if we are to confront with wisdom and sentience so lurid an array of challenges? We stand in the most urgent need of examining the texts we study—the ways of life offered us in language—in search of authentic understanding, of insight into the working of our minds and the redemptive dreams of our spirit.

There is no resource like a good book: one born of long study, beautifully conceived and mindfully composed, with the most potent mix of learning, intuition, and instruction. Where, among the welter of volumes, the annual cascade of prizes and promotions and citations, might we identify such volumes, ones that speak to the life of the times and to the life of each of us?

My own recommendation to everyone is the oeuvre of Idries Shah, whose collective work I hold to be one of the foremost accomplishments of the last century—perhaps of the last few centuries. Beginning in 1964 with his publication of the seminal work, The Sufis, and in the more than thirty books of stories and short essays that followed, Shah set forth the literature, teaching, principles, and history of Sufism, adapted to the needs and qualities of our present day.

The books, as they were published, earned worldwide interest and study, and were justly celebrated for their usefulness, intuitive configuration, and beauty. The work gives itself with grace and openheartedness, in a way that builds a bond of trust with the reader.

Shah presents a tradition of life, thought, and study, and taken as a whole offers the reader an introduction to a way of life with ancient roots, centuries-long practice and refinement, and contemporary relevance. Some central facts are easily stated: the Sufis hold that the revelations of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism have a common source. Those original revelations were configured into their respective forms of worship, ritual, and belief according to the constraints of language, place, time, and historical circumstances. But the core experience—the radiant transformation of a man or woman by love, understanding, and study—remains a possibility, if we might seek to be worthy of such a birthright.

In the technological, materialistic, and pessimistic era in which, especially in the West, we live currently, such a claim is likely to be dismissed out of hand. Allow me, therefore, to state it again, in different terms: each of us may be capable of a conscious evolution that gives rise to singular capacities of mind, and a prescient sense of the workings of the world and purposes of history. Such knowledge makes another life possible: one of potent intuition, generosity, and transcendental helpfulness. It is as if the Sufis offer a way of love within history, because it is ready within the mind.

If any of this sounds fantastical, it is worth stating that such a description is meant, on the contrary, as plain fact. A modern smartphone would, not so long ago, have been seen as fantastical, but every such device works because of the verified science that underlies its functioning. We might think of Shah’s work as an initiatory course in the technology of the mind; it is as if he were presenting to us a science for comprehensive understanding. Look at the technologies now present and accepted: heart transplants, supercomputing, the modification of the genetic code, the design of machines meant to explore other planets in our solar system. Is it so outlandish to entertain the idea that in the course of human history, there might have been developed a science of the mind that has its own relevance and usefulness? And that, as with any of the fields that produced the breakthroughs mentioned, to learn such a science requires preparation, study in prescribed circumstances, knowledgeable oversight, and all the proper conditions of, as Shah puts it, “right time, right place, right people?”

Now, the claim of having such a technology to offer raises from its ugly lair the spectacle of cults, some of which make analogous claims. Such cults have been present, it seems, always and everywhere, and may be identified by the way they enslave their adherents, and offer little more than emotional release and gratification, excitement about mysteries, and ordinary social fulfillments. The Sufis as a whole, and Idries Shah prominently, have stood firmly against such organized deception, however well-meaning such groups take themselves to be. Sufism is not about entertainment. It is about effectiveness.


This essay, the first of two-parts, originally ran on the Idries Shah Foundation website.

Steven Nightingale is the author of twelve books: novels, sonnets, long essays on cities, lyrical meditations on nature, haiku, and short stories.