Omar Ali & Idries Shah: Renowned authors to disseminate Sufi culture

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

Sufi philosophy, poetry and music is more popular today across the western hemisphere today than it has been ever before. Mevlana Rumi, Fariduddin Attar even Shams-i-Tabrizi are household names in many western countries. However, we often don’t remember many of the people who has contributed greatly to the spread of the understanding and popularity of Sufism. Omar Ali Shah and Idries Shah are two such names. The two were brothers, and both have left important contributions to the spread of Sufi understanding in the West. Omar was two years younger to Idries. While both of them have passed away their good work is being carried forward by their disciples.

Omar Ali and Idries Shah of Naqshbandi clan

Omar Ali Shah was born in 1922, in Sardhana. A city in the Indian province of Uttar Pradesh. He is considered to be a prominent propagator of modern Naqshbandi Sufism. The name is derived from the name of Baha ud-Din Naqshband Bukhari. A major Islamic scholar and practitioner of the 14th century. He founded the Naqshbandi Sufi order, which over time has become one of the largest Sunni Sufi orders. Omar Ali Shah not only headed a large number of Sufi groups in Latin America, Canada and Europe, but also penned several important books to take the message of Sufism to people at large. Among his important books are: The Course of the Seeker, Sufism for Today and The Rules or Secrets of the Naqshbandi Order. He passed away in 2005, and has been laid to rest in London’s Brookwood Cemetery.

Books by Idries Shah

In this same cemetery also lies in perpetual peace is his brother Idries Shah. He was born in 1924. His initial foray in the world of Sufism began with the founding of a publication house named Octagon Press in 1960. From there he published translations of a number of Sufi classics. His magnum opus The Sufis was published in 1964. The book introduces Sufi philosophy to interested lay people in a language that is easily accessible. Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing has called the work, “a seminal book of the century, even a watershed”. The Washington Post has declared the book to be a “seminal book of the century”.

Idries Shah founded the Institute for Cultural Research in 1965 in London, which was followed up by the founding of the Institute for the Study of Human Knowledge in the United States. There certainly was some controversy over his new translations of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, but many great minds, such as Lessing, defended Idries. Over next several decades Idries Shah wrote more than 20 books on Sufism, most of which are still widely circulated, and draw keen interest from the Western audience in particular.

Popularity in Western hemisphere

One of Shah’s most popular books, removed from his usual works on Sufi philosophy, though not totally disconnected, is a collection of humorous stories, titled The World of Nasruddin. Shah has treated these stories as Sufi parables. Nasruddin features in Shah’s famous documentary Dreamwalkers, which was aired by the BBC in 1970. He has lectured in major universities across Europe and America. He passed away on November 23, 1996.


(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)

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