The Sound of Truth

One of the major themes in Shaw’s Wisdom of the Idiots is the conflict between the wisdom of the Sufis and the knowledge of scholars. Indeed, one of the major appeals of this work is the distinction between wisdom and knowledge:


Sufi Ajmal Hussein was constantly being criticised by scholars, who feared that, his repute might outshine their own. They spared no efforts to cast doubts upon his knowledge, to accuse him of taking refuge from their criticisms in mysticism, and even to imply that he had been guilty of discreditable practices.

At length he said: ‘If I answer my critics, they make it the opportunity to bring fresh accusation against me, which people believe because it amuses them to believe such things. If I do not answer them they crow and preen themselves, and people believe that they are real scholars. They imagine that we Sufis oppose scholarship. We do not But our very existence is a threat to the pretended scholarship of tiny noisy ones. Scholarship long since disappeared. What we have to face now is sham scholarship.’

The scholars shrilled more loudly than ever. At last Ajmal said:’Argument is not as effective as demonstration. I shall give you an insight into what these people are like.’

He invited ‘question papers’ from the scholars, to allow them to test his knowledge and ideas. Fifty different professors and academicians sent questionnaires to him. Ajmal answered them all differently. When the scholars met to discuss these papers, at a conference, there were so many versions of what he believed, that each one thought that he had exposed Ajmal, and refused to give up his thesis in favour of any other. The result was the celebrated ‘brawling of the scholars’. For five days they attacked each other bitterly.

‘This,’ said Ajinal, ‘is a demonstration. What matters to each one most is his own opinion and his own interpretation. They care nothing for truth. This is what they do with everyone’s teachings. When he is alive, they torment him. When he dies they become experts on his works. The real motive of the activity, however, is to vie with one another and to oppose anyone outside their own ranks. Do you want to become one of them? Make a choice soon.’

As an English major at the University of Washington I was certainly made aware of the split between poets and critics, with a definite bias towards poets in most of the classes I took. I’m sure that bias still shows in the way I discuss poetry and novels here, with emphasis on what they mean to me and whether or not they help to see the world more clearly rather than on critical analysis per se.

That’s not from a lack of ability. By the time I entered Grad school, I had generally mastered the literary game. In three years of grad school, the only “B? I ever got was one in Filmmaking. Several English professors even asked me why I wasn’t pursuing my PHD and trying to move up to teaching at the college level.

Simply put, I wasn’t a good enough poet to get a job at a college and had absolutely no interest in literary criticism. I could barely stand to read a book of literary criticism, even those written by famous poets like Eliot and Auden. Like Joseph Duemer,
who also attended the UW, when it comes to poetry I prefer “the concrete as opposed to the abstract.?

I wouldn’t be posting Shaw’s tale, though, if I thought it merely applied to poets and literary critics since I doubt that many who visit here are interested in such things. It seems to me that the last two paragraphs of Shaw’s tale apply just as much to many bloggers, particularly political bloggers, who spend days arguing over the issues of the moment, more concerned with attracting readers to their blog than with actually getting down to the truth of the matter.

Caught up in their own opinions and interpretations, they have little time for facts and less desire to arrive at some kind of agreed upon truth. The way they throw the term “fact? around, one doubts they even know the difference between a fact and an opinion, much less the difference between a sound and unsound opinion. For most of them, a good opinion is the one that draws the most attacks and, in doing so, attracts the most readers because that’s the way most of them measure success.

Just Full of Facts

I like many of the tales in Shah’s Wisdom of the Idiots, but this one comes a little too close for comfort — which might explain why it’s a favorite. All you have to do is glance at the column on the left and see the works I’ve read in just the last four years, a small percentage of the total number of works I’ve read over the years, and realize I might suffer from information overload.

Like most people who’ve spent a lifetime reading, I have more useless facts in my head than I’ll ever use, no matter how many games of Trivial Pursuit I get conned into playing. Some people admire others who are able to remember bits of information, celebrating it in program after program on television. Though I’ve often benefitted from the kind of memory that can tell you exactly where on a page a fact can be found and can answer multiple answer questions quite easily, I have serious doubts about the benefits of remembering endless strings of facts.

This tale suggests how dangerous undigested facts may be:


A man came to Bahaudin Naqshband, and said:

‘I have travelled from one teacher to another, and I have studied many Paths, all of which have given me great benefits and many advantages of all kinds.
‘I now wish to be enrolled as one of your disciples, so that I may drink from the well of knowledge, and thus make myself more and more advanced in the Tariqa, the Mystic Way.

Bahaudin, instead of answering the question directly, called for dinner to be served. When the dish of rice and meat stew was brought, he pressed plateful after plateful upon his guest. Then he gave him fruits and pastries, and then he called for more pilau, and more and more courses of food, vegetables, salads, confitures.

At first the man was flattered, and as Bahaudin showed pleasure at every mouthful he swallowed, he ate as much as he could. When his eating slowed down, the Sufi Sheikh seemed very annoyed, and to avoid his displeasure, the unfortunate man ate virtually another meal.

When he could not swallow even another grain of rice, and rolled in great discomfort upon a cushion, Bahaudin addressed him in this manner:
‘When you came to see me, you were as full of undigested teachings as you now are with meat, rice and fruit. You felt discomfort, and, because you are unaccustomed to spiritual discomfort of the real kind, you interpreted this as a hunger for more knowledge. Indigestion was your real condition.
‘I can teach you if you will now follow my instructions and stay here with me digesting by means of activities which will not seem to you to be initiatory, but which will be equal to the eating of something which will enable your meal to be digested and transformed into nutrition, not weight.’

The man agreed. He told his story many decades later, when he became famous as the great teacher Sufi Khalil Ashrafzada.

So that’s the discomfort I felt when I finally graduated from college. I know that there were times when I was in graduate school when I just wanted to be “finished? with classes, doubting I was still learning anything worth learning.

That discomfort probably explains why I went nearly two years after I first retired without reading a single book, choosing to spend my time working in my garden or hiking or cross-country skiing in the mountains.

When I finally decided I wanted to start reading again, I chose to go back and re-read a number of books that I had found interesting years before. After that, I started reading books that I had bought during all those college years but hadn’t found time to finish. Four years later, I still haven’t finished all those books, though to be fair reading an old book has often led to buying new books that explore similar ideas.

I hope that taking time to write about everything I read helps to digest what I’ve read and put it in some sort of perspective. I do think my reading and my other interests have begun to dovetail.

You’d Be a Idiot Not to Listen

When I finally discovered many years ago that the source of my violent sinus headaches was book mold, I felt it was my body confirming that I shouldn’t become a scholar. I could no longer go into the University of Washington Library stacks without taking a Benadryl or two first, which, of course, made it nearly impossible to understand what I was reading.

I can’t even go into used bookstores today. I’m particularly prone to mold from paperbacks. As a result, I seldom keep a paperback book around longer than a year to two.

It’s surprising, then, that I still have a copy of Idries Shah’s Wisdom of the Idiots on my bookshelf. It’s my favorite of several Shah books I read nearly thirty years ago. I’m actually having a hard time reading it without my eyes watering or without sneezing. Since I probably don’t have another thirty years to read it again, I’m going to scan a few of my favorite tales and get the book and its mold out of the house.

Since I put a check mark in the table of contents for tales I liked best when I first read the book, it’s interesting to see how many of those are still favorites this time around. Apparently my taste has changed somewhat, though I’m finding several tales that relate to teaching that I still identify with.

Here’s an example of a tale that I liked thirty years ago and still find enlightening today.


Bahaudin el-Shah, great teacher of the Naqshhandi dervishes, one day met a confrere in the great square of Bokhara.

The newcomer was a wandering Kalendar of the Malamati, the ‘Blameworthy’. Bahaudin was surrounded by disciples.

‘From where do you come?’ he asked the traveller, in the usual Sufi phrase.

‘I have no idea,’ said the other, grinning foolishly.

Some of Bahaudin’s disciples murmured their disapproval of this disrespect

‘Where are you going?’ persisted Babaudin.

‘I do not know,’ shouted the dervish.

‘What is Good?’ By now a large crowd had gathered.

‘I do not know.’

‘What is Evil?’

‘I have no idea.’

‘What is Right?’

‘Whatever is good for me.’

‘What is Wrong?’

‘Whatever is bad for me.’

The crowd, irritated beyond its patience by this dervish, drove him away. He went off, striding purposefully in a direction which led nowhere, as far as anyone knew.

‘Fools!’ said Bahaudin Naqshband, ‘this man is acting the part of humanity. While you were despising him, he was deliberately demonstrating heedlessness as each of you does, all unaware, every day of your lives.’

It seems like we can never be reminded too often just how unaware we really are and how easy it is to judge right and wrong merely by whether it’s good or bad for us.

Of course, if it were easy to remain aware, I probably wouldn’t like this same tale so much after thirty years of trying to attain a greater sense of awareness.

Still, it’s nice to be reminded of this in a simple, well-written tale that doesn’t belabor its message.