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

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

By Steven Nightingale | June 23, 2023

Idries Shah, the author of the book, 'The Sufis'

This is the second of a two-part article which first appeared on the Idries Shah Foundation website.


Allow me to touch upon a few of the ideas in the field of Sufi studies, which I pray the reader might take as a few drops thrown off from the clear stream of offerings in Idries Shah’s books.

First, the notion of virtue among the Sufis: often, in our culture, the development of the virtues of, say, honesty, generosity, patience, humility, and so forth, is held to be an illustrious goal, and a person in possession of such virtues is valued accordingly. Among the Sufis to have such virtues represents the bare minimum of qualities necessary for useful study—baby steps that precede a fuller range of capacities that cannot be imagined beforehand. And as to the virtue of generosity, the Sufis do not tire of pointing out that material generosity is often a form of self-adornment, a fuel for self-esteem. Real generosity may occur when the giver is hardly conscious of giving at all—“the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing”—and the recipient thus does not know the giver, who remains anonymous.

And as to that clear stream of offerings: the teaching is of such variety, on so many levels, and addresses so many dimensions of mind, that it might be useful to have a saunter through some of the ideas and phrases in the work.

—The way ritual, doctrine, ceremony, and repetition put the mind to sleep.

—The incompleteness of the perceived world, which we take to be whole and finished.

—The way that people talking of any subject may be talking principally of themselves.

—The manner in which the essential nature of a person, no matter how well concealed, is inevitably shown forth.

—How we must in learning seek “the content, not the container; the wheat, not the measure in which it is contained; the meaning, not the man.”

—The need to move from belief to knowledge, from concept to experience. “He who tastes, knows.”

—The need to see into the world, and to live in the world, beyond obsession, attraction, desire, and appearance; to learn, that is, to be “in the world but not of it.”

—The presence in the world of invisible chains of cause and effect—in essence, a design—to which we may sensitize ourselves, so as to live life more fully.

—The way perfection “exists in a dimension other than its own; its local form leads us to it.”

—The reality of many forms of communication, including a direct bond of “heart to heart.”

—The need to study and work in a certain sequence, and not think of “making the bread before the flour is milled.”

—The need to seek “the truth for the sake of the truth, and not for the sake of ourselves.”

—The central importance of being able to distinguish the literal from the figurative, and the relative from the absolute.

—The way a teaching must work as an organic whole, which cannot be disassembled without destroying its function; no more than a bird can be disassembled, if we would have it live and fly.

—The need for deeply inclusive thinking, when we learn how to see an event or a problem from a host of different angles, putting together pieces and perspectives until we can see it whole.

—The means to set aside rigidity of mind, in favor of flexibility and suppleness of perception and action.

—The way jokes illuminate the working of the world and of our minds. Shah has introduced us to the brilliant world of Mulla Nasrudin. In hundreds of stories we read of a man of knowledge who teaches by the way he lives, and makes us laugh and learn not just about the world’s absurdities, but also about our own.

—The way a story can correspond to or evoke a deep structure in our minds, and, with time, reflection, and instruction, enrich our understanding and show us ways our work might be more beneficial to the human community.

This last sentence brings me to the myriad stories themselves, now in circulation around the world. They are literature, and more than literature. Idries Shah never tired of pointing out that the stories, however beautiful, durable, or enveloping, are not valuable by reason of such qualities only. Rather, they have instrumental value. That is, they are valuable to life, to life itself: to our chances for understanding, for our attunement to objective reality. Surely, this claim is in concord with our own best hope to have in our hands books that have transcendental value, because they are so eminently practical.

Few of us can escape the sense that daily life is often enslaved to assumptions about appearance, to a deep pessimism and a persistent idolatry. In Shah’s books we may find ways to break our shackles and learn to walk with a freedom that promises a way to peace.

Few of us can read the news in our era without the sense that misunderstanding and confusion poison our world. Yet we may with high confidence look for the antidote in the books of Idries Shah: they hold for us, and offer to us, a whole lucid work of love, clarity, and trustworthy counsel.


This essay, the second 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.