The Way of the Sufi

The Way of the Sufiby Idries Shah, London: Octagon Press, 1980. First published in 1968.

To be a Sufi is to detach from fixed ideas and from preconceptions; and not to try to avoid what is your lot.

—Abu-Said, son of Abi-Khair

Do not look at my outward shape,
but take what is in my hand.

—Jalaludin Rumi


The Sufi is one who does what others do—when it is necessary. He is also one who does what others cannot do—when it is indicated.

—Nuri Mojudi

So many people profess themselves bewildered by Sufi lore that one is forced to the conclusion that they want to be bewildered. Others, for more obvious reasons, simplify things to such an extent that their ‘Sufism’ is just a cult of love, or of meditations, or of something equally selective.

But a person with a portion of uncommitted interest who looks at the variety of Sufi action can see the common characteristic staring him in the face.

The Sufi sages, schools, writers, teachings, humor, mysticism, formulations are all connected with the social and psychological relevance of certain human ideas.

Being a man of ‘timelessness’ and ‘placelessness,’ the Sufi brings his experience into operation within the culture, the country, the climate in which he is living.

The study of Sufic activity in distant cultures alone is of value only to those working in the narrow field of scholasticism. Considering Sufi activities as merely religious, literary or philosophical phenomena will produce only garbled renditions of the Sufi way. To try to extract theory or system and to attempt the study of it in isolation is just as comparatively profitless.

This book is designed to present Sufi ideas, actions and report: not for the microscope or as museum-pieces, but in their relevance to a current community—what we call the contemporary world.

London, 1968
Idries Shah

Sufi Stories

The Horrid Dib-Dib

One night a thief, intending to rob an old woman, crept to the open window of her home and listened. She was lying on the bed, and the thief heard her talking, with powerful emotion, in a most strange manner. She was saying:

—Aah … the Dib-Dib, the horrid Dib-Dib! This abominable Dib-Dib will be the end of me.

The thief thought:

—This unfortunate woman is suffering from some terrible disease … the malignant Dib-Dib, of which I had not even heard before!

Then, as her wails increased in volume, he began to say to himself:

—Have I, I wonder, been infected? After all, I almost took her breath as I leant in through the window …

The more he thought about it, the more he began to fear that he had, indeed contracted the injurious Dib-Dib. Within a few moments he was shaking in every limb. He only just managed to totter home to his wife, moaning and groaning:

—The sinister Dib-Dib, how can there be any doubt that the accursed Dib-Dib has got me in its grip …

His wife put him to bed at once, greatly fearful. What dreadful thing had attacked her husband? She imagined at first that he must have been pounced upon by some wild animal called a Dib-Dib. But, as he became less and less coherent and she could still find no mark upon him, she began to fear that it was a matter of supernatural intervention.

The person whom she knew to be best qualified to deal with such a problem was, of course, the local holy man. He was something approaching a priest, learned in the Law, known as the Sage Faqih.

The woman immediately went to the house of the sage and begged him to come to see her husband. The Faqih, thinking that this might indeed be a field in which his especial sanctity could be put to use, hurried to the thief’s bedside.

The thief, when he saw the man of faith beside him, thought that his end must be even closer than he had feared. Mustering all his strength, he muttered:

—The old woman at the end of the road, she has the accursed Dib-Dib, and it has flowed upon me from her. Help me, if you can, Reverend Faqih!

‘My son,’ said the Faqih, although he was himself perplexed, ‘bethink yourself of repentance and pray for mercy, for your remaining hours may now indeed be few.’

He left the thief and made his way to the old woman’s cottage. Peering through the window, he distinctly heard her whimpering voice as she writhed and shuddered:

—Foul Dib-Dib, you are killing me … Stop, stop, evil Dib-Dib, for you are sapping my very life’s blood away …

And she continued for some time in this vein, occasionally sobbing and sometimes remaining silent. The Faqih himself now began to feel as if an eerie chill passed through him. He started to shake, and his hands clutching the window-frame caused it to rattle like the chattering of teeth.

At this sound the crone leapt from her bed and seized the now terrified Faqih by the hands.

—What are you, a man of respectability and learning, doing at this time of night, looking through decent people’s windows? she shrilled.

—Good, but unfortunate woman,’ faltered the learned one, ‘I heard you speak of the awful Dib-Dib, and now I fear that it has its clutches upon my heart as well as upon your own, and that I am, physically and spiritually, lost …’

—You incredible fool,’ screeched the hag, ‘to think that for all these years I have looked up to you as a man of books and wisdom! You hear someone say ‘Dib-Dib,’ and you imagine it is going to kill you! Look, then, in yonder corner, and see what the appalling Dib-Dib really is.’

And she pointed to the dripping tap, which the Faqih suddenly realized was leaking with the thud of dib-dib-dib …

But divines have resilience. In next to no time he felt himself marvelously restored by the relief from his troubles and hurried back to the house of the thief, for he had work to do.

—Go away,’ groaned the thief, ‘for you deserted me in my necessity, and the sight of so depressing a face offers little reassurance as to my future state …’

The elder interrupted him:

—Ungrateful wretch! Do you think that a man of my piety and learning would leave a matter such as this unsolved? Attend, then, closely to my words and acts, and I shall show you how I have worked untiringly, in accordance with my celestial mandate, towards your safety and recovery!

The word ‘recovery’ immediately focused the attention of both the thief and his wife upon the imposing dignity of the reputed sage.

He took some water and said certain words over it. Then he made the thief promise never to steal again. Finally, he sprinkled the prepared water over the thief with many a polysyllabic word and gesture, ending with:

—Flee, unclean and infernal Dib-Dib, whence thou camest, never returning to plague this unhappy man!

The thief sat up, cured.

From that day to this the thief has never stolen again. Neither has he told anyone about the miraculous cure, because in spite of everything he still does not much like the sage and his ideas. And the old woman, normally a gossip, has not spread the word of the idiocy of the Faqih.

She plans eventually to turn it to good account; some occasion will arise for a battering of good turns, perhaps.

And, of course, the Faqih … well, the Faqih is not of a mind to have the details bruited about, and he will not recite the tale either.

But, as is the way of men, each of the people involved has told his or her own version, in strict confidence of course, to one other person. And that is why you have been able to know the whole story of the woman, the thief, the priest, and the terrible Dib-Dib. /129-132

Ben Yusuf the Carpenter

Once upon a time there was a carpenter named Nazar ben Yusuf. He spent all his spare time for many years in studying ancient books which contained many half-forgotten pieces of knowledge.

He had a faithful servant, and one day he said to him:

—I have now attained an age where the ancient sciences must be used to ensure my continued existence. I therefore want you to help me in carrying out a process which will rejuvenate me and make me immortal.

When he explained the process, the servant was at first most reluctant to carry it out. The servant was to dismember Nazar and put him in a huge barrel filled with certain liquids.

—I cannot kill you,’ said the servant.

—Yes, you must, for I shall die in any case, and you will be bereaved. Take this word, and stand guard over the barrel, telling nobody what you are really doing. After twenty-eight days, open the barrel and let me out. I shall be found to have regained my youth.

So the servant agreed, and the process was started.

After a few days, however, the servant in his loneliness began to feel intensely uncomfortable, and all kinds of doubts assailed him. Then he started to become accustomed to his strange role. People came regularly to the house asking for his master, but he could only say: ‘He is not here at the moment.’

Finally the representatives of the authorities arrived, suspecting that the servant had done away with his vanished master. ‘Let us search the house,’ they said. ‘If we find nothing, we shall take you into custody on suspicion, and it is probably that you will not be released until your master reappears.’

The servant did not know what to do, since by that time only twenty-one days had passed. But he made up his mind, and said:

—Just leave me in this room with this barrel for a few minutes, and then I shall be ready to come with you.

Immediately a tiny man, looking much younger but exactly like his master, though only the height of a hand, jumped out of the barrel, and ran round and round saying repeatedly:

—It was too soon, it was too soon …

And then, as the horrified man watched, the little being vanished into thin air.

The servant went out of the room, the officers arrested him.

His master was never seen again, although there are many legends about Nazar ben Yusuf the carpenter; but these we must leave for another time. /135-136

The Girl Who Came Back from the Dead

In ancient times there was a beautiful girl, the daughter of a good man, a woman among women, rare in her loveliness and in the delicacy of her nature.

When she was of marriageable age, three young men, each apparently of the highest capacities and of great promise, sought her hand. Having decided that they were of equal merit, the father left the final choice to her.

But months passed and the girl did not seem to be making up her mind.

And one day she suddenly fell ill. Within a few hours she was dead. The three young men, united in grief, took her body to a cemetery and buried it in the deepest of silent agony.

The first youth made the graveyard his home, spending his nights there in sorrow and meditation, unable to understand the workings of the fate which had taken her away.

The second youth took to the roads and wandered throughout the world in search of knowledge, as a fakir.

The third young man spent his time in consoling the bereaved father.

Now the youth who had become a fakir, in his journeyings came across a certain place where a man of repute in uncanny arts resided. Continuing his search for knowledge, he presented himself at the door, and was admitted to the table of the master of the house.

When the host invited him to eat, he was about to start the meal when a small child started to cry. It was the grandson of the wise man.

The sage picked up the boy and threw him into a fire.

The fakir jumped up and started to leave the house, crying out:

—Infamous demons! I have had my share of the sorrows of the world already, but this crime surpasses those of all recorded history!

—Think nothing of it, said the master of the house, for simple things appear otherwise there is an absence of knowledge.

So saying, he recited a formula and waved a strange emblem, and the boy walked out of the fire, unharmed.

The fakir memorized the words and the design, and the next morning was on his way back to the cemetery where his beloved was buried.

In less time than it takes to tell, the maiden stood before him, fully restored to life.

She went back to her father, while the youths disputed as to which of them had earned her hand.

The first said:

—I have been living in the graveyard, keeping, through my vigils, contact with her, guarding her spirit’s needs for earthly support.

The second said:

—You both ignore the fact that it was I who actually traveled the world in search of knowledge, and who ultimately brought her back to life.

The third said:

—I have grieved for her, and like a husband and son-in-law I have lived there, consoling the father, and helping with his upkeep.

They appealed to the girl. She said:

—He who found the formula to restore me was a humanitarian; he who looked after my father acted as a son to him; he who lay beside my grave—he acted as a lover. I will marry him. /136-138

Eat No Stones

A hunter, walking through some woods, came upon a notice. He read the words:


His curiosity was stimulated, and he followed a track which led past the sign until he came to a cave at the entrance to which a Sufi was sitting.

The Sufi said to him:

—The answer to your question is that you have never seen a notice prohibiting the eating of stones because there is no need for one. Not to eat stones may be called a common habit.

—Only when the human being is able similarly to avoid other habits, even more destructive than eating stones, will he be able to get beyond his present pitiful state. /168

Why the Dog Could not Drink

Shibli was asked:

—Who guided you in the Path?

He said:

—A dog. One day I saw him, almost dead with thirst, standing by the water’s edge. Every time he looked at his reflection in the water he was frightened, and withdrew, because he thought it was another dog. Finally, such was his necessity, he cast away fear and leapt into the water; at which the ‘other dog’ vanished. The dog found that the obstacle, which was himself, the barrier between him and what he sought, melted away. In this same way my own obstacle vanished when I knew that it was what I took to be my own self. And my Way was first shown to me by the behavior of—a dog. /168

What the Devil Said

Once upon a time there was a dervish. As he was sitting in contemplation, he noticed that there was a sort of devil near him.

The dervish said:

—Why are you sitting there, making no mischief?

The demon raised his head wearily.

—Since the theoreticians and would-be teachers of the Path have appeared in such numbers, there is nothing left for me to do. /169

The Three Deaf Men and the Dumb Dervish

Once upon a time there lived a poor goatherd.

Every day he took some goats to a hill overlooking the village where he lived with his family, to seek fresh grazing. He was deaf, but this did not matter to him at all. One day he found that his wife had forgotten to give him the bundle containing his midday meal; nor did she send their child with it, as in the past when it had been forgotten, even when the sun was high overhead.

‘I will go home and get it,’ thought the goatherd, ‘I cannot stay out here all this time until sundown without a bite to eat.’ Suddenly he noticed a man cutting shrubs on the hillside. He went up to him and said:

—Brother, please keep an eye on the goats and see that they do not stray, for my wife has stupidly forgotten my midday meal, and I must go back to the village for it.

Now the shrub-cutter was also deaf, and he heard not one world of what had been said, and completely misunderstood the goatherd. He answered:

—Why should I give you any of the shrubs which I am cutting for my own animals? I have a cow and two sheep at home and I have to go far and wide for food for them. No, leave me, I want nothing to do with the likes of you, seeking to take what little belongs to me.

And he waved his hand in derision, laughing harshly. The goatherd did not hear what was said, and replied:

—Oh, thank you, kind friend, for agreeing. I shall be as quick as I can. Blessings be upon you, you have set my mind at ease.’

He ran off to the village, and went to his own humble hut. There he found his wife sick with a fever, with the neighbor’s wife in attendance. He took his food bundle and ran back to the hill. He counted the goats carefully, and they were all there.

The shrub-cutter was still busy at his task, and the goatherd said to himself. ‘Why, what an excellent person this must trustworthy shrub-cutter is! He has seen that my animals have not strayed, and seeks no thanks for this service! I will give him this lame goat which I meant to kill anyway. It will make a fine meal for him and his family tonight.’

So, putting the undersized lame goat upon his shoulders, he bounded down the hill, calling as he ran:

—Ho, brother, here is a present for looking after my goats while I was away. My unfortunate wife has a fever, and that explains everything. Roast this goat for your evening meal tonight; see, it has a lame leg and I meant to kill it anyway!

But the other did not hear his words and shouted in a rage:

—Vile goatherd, I never saw what happened while you were gone, how can I be responsible for the leg of your infernal animal! I was busy cutting these shrubs, and have no idea how it happened! Be off with you, or I shall strike you!

The goatherd was amazed at the man’s enraged gestures, but he could not hear what he was saying, so he called a passer-by who was riding a fine horse:

—Noble Sir, please, I beg you, tell me what this shrub-cutter is talking about. I happen to be deaf, and do not know why he has refused my gift of a goat with such annoyance!

Both the goatherd and the shrub-cutter began to shout at the traveler, and he got off his horse and came towards them. Now, he was a horse-thief, and as deaf as a post, and he could not hear what they were saying. He was lost, and had meant to ask them where he was. But when he saw the threatening gestures of the two other men he said:

—Yes, brothers, I stole the horse, I confess, but I did not know that it belonged to you. Forgive me, I pray, for I had a fleeting moment of temptation and acted without thinking!

—I had nothing to do with the laming of the goat! shouted the shrub-cutter.

—Get him to tell me why he will not accept my present, urged the goatherd. I merely wanted to give it as a gesture of appreciation!

—I certainly admit to taking the horse, said the thief, but I am deaf, and cannot hear which of you owns it.

At that moment an aged dervish came into view, walking along the dusty road towards the village. The shrub-cutter ran to him, and, pulling at his robe, said:

—Venerable dervish, I am a deaf man who cannot make head or tail of what these other two are saying. Will you please, in your wisdom, judge and explain what each of them is shouting about?

The dervish, however, was dumb, and could not answer, but he came to them and looked searchingly into the faces of the three deaf ones, who had now stopped talking.

He looked so long and penetratingly, first at one, then at the other, that they began to feel uncomfortable.

His glittering black eyes bored into theirs, seeking the truth of the matter, trying to get a clue to the situation. But each of the others began to fear that he was going to bewitch them, or gain control over their wills in some way. And suddenly the the thief sprang upon the horse, and rode it furiously away. Immediately the goatherd began to round up his animals, driving them farther up the hill. The shrub-cutter, lowering his eyes from those of the dervish, packed his shrubs into a net and hoisted it on his shoulders, bounding down the hill towards his home.

The dervish continued his journey, thinking to himself that speech can be such a useless form of communication that man might just as well have never been given it. /200-202

The Cap of Invisibility

In the land which is unseen to us, but in reality more real than the real, there lived a boy, and his name was Kasjan. His elder brother, Jankas, was hard-working and intelligent. But he, Kasjan, was neither hard-working nor idle. He was neither intelligent nor stupid, but he used to apply himself to any problem he could, as well as he could.

The two brothers, neither of whom seemed to be making great progress in the Unseen Land, decided to seek their fortunes together. They walked away from their home one afternoon, and it was not long before darkness separated them, and—as for Jankas we shall hear presently. Kasjan came suddenly upon a quarrel. Three men were arguing, it seemed, about three items lying on the ground. They explained to him the trouble. Their father had died and left them a conical hat, the Kulah of Invisibility, a flying carpet, and a staff which made the carpet fly when it was beaten with it. Each one wanted all the items, or at least first choice of them. Their reasons were that they were the eldest, the middle and the youngest sons, and each on his account claimed priority.

‘They are all unworthy,’ thought Kasjan, but he offered to adjudicate between them. He told them all to withdraw forty paces and then turn round. Before they could finish his instructions he had placed the Kulah on his head, got on to the carpet and struck it with the stick. ‘Carpet,’ he commanded, ‘take me to wherever my brother Jankas may be.’

Now not long before, his brother Jankas had been snatched up by a mighty Anqa bird, which had deposited him on the minaret of a mosque in Khorasan. Because Kasjan was thinking at the time, however, that Jankas must have made himself a prince at least, the carpet heard this thought and—flying with immense speed—came lightly to rest on the battlements of the king’s palace of the city of Balkh in Khorasan.

The king, who had seen him alight, came out at once, saying:

—Perhaps this is the youth who it is foretold will help my daughter and yet not desire her.

Kasjan saluted the king, and told him that he was seeking his brother Jankas.

—Before you do that, said the king, I want you to help me with your special equipment and keen mind.

The princess, it transpired, used to disappear every night and return in the morning, nobody knew how. This had been foretold and had come to pass. Kasjan agreed to help, and suggested that he should watch by her bedside.

That night, through half-closed eyes, he saw the princess look to see whether he was asleep. Then she took a needle and stuck it in his foot, but he did not move, because he was expecting some such thing. ‘I am ready,’ said the princess, and all at once a terrible spirit appeared and took her on his shoulders, and they soared together through the ceiling, without making any impression of it.

Rubbing his eyes, Kasjan immediately placed the Kulah of Invisibility on his head, sat on the magic carpet and, beating it with the stick, cried: ‘Take me where the princess has gone.’

There was a rushing and roaring, and Kasjan found himself in the Unseen Land beyond the Unseen Land. There was the princess accompanied by the spirit. They walked through forests of trees of precious stones. Kasjan broke off a piece of jade tree with diamond fruits. Then they walked through a garden of unknown plants of unexcelled beauty. Kasjan put a few of the seeds in his pocket. Finally they stood by a lake whose reeds were shimmering swords.

—These are the swords which can kill spirits such as me,’ said the spirit to the princess; but only a man called Kasjan can do it, so it has been foretold.

As soon as he heard these words, Kasjan stepped forward, seized one of the swords from the reed bed, and cut off the awful head of the spirit. He seized the princess and dragged her on the carpet. Soon they were speeding back to the palace of the king of Balkh in Khorasan.

Kasjan took the princess at once before the king, , waking him unceremoniously from his slumber.

—Your Majesty, he said, here is your daughter, and I have released her from the grasp of a demon in such-and-such a manner.

And he related all that had befallen them, producing the pieces of jewel and seeds as proof. Released at least, the princess offered to marry Kasjan. But Kasjan, asking for a few moments’ leave, flew on his magic carpet to find his brother Jankas.

Jankas was sleeping in a caravansary, because he had only been able to obtain employment as a teacher in a seminary, and the pay was very low. When he returned to the court, the princess was immediately smitten by the manly features of Jankas, and she decided that she wanted to marry him instead of Kasjan.

—That is exactly what I was about to suggest, said Kasjan, and the king together.

They lived happily ever after; for the kingdom was handed over to Jankas and his bride, while the king of Balkh and Kasjan together transferred themselves on the magic carpet to the Unseen Land beyond the Unseen Land, which now became their join kingdom.

Do More than Laugh at Fools

Once upon a time there was a fool who was sent to buy flour and salt. He took a dish to carry his purchases.

—Make sure, said the man who sent him, not to mix the two things—I want them separate.

When the shopkeeper had filled the dish with flour and was measuring out the salt, the fool said:

—Do not mix it with the flour; here, I will show you where to put it.

And he inverted the dish, to provide, from its upturned bottom, a surface upon which the salt could be laid.

The flour, of course, fell on to the floor.

But the salt was safe.

When the fool got back to the man who had sent him, he said:

—There is the salt!

—Very well, said the other man, but where is the flour?

—It should be here, said the fool, turning the dish over.

As soon as he did that, the salt fell on the ground, and the flour, of course, was seen to be gone.

So it is with human beings. Doing one thing which they think to be right, they may undo another which is equally right. When this happens with thoughts instead of actions, man himself is lost, no matter how, upon reflection, he regards his thinking to have been logical.

You have laughter at the joke of the fool. Now, will you do more, and think about your own thoughts as if they were the salt and the flour?

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