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Deciphering The Meaning!

Although there are 278 pages in the book, more than 250 pages are left blank! A little bit of content is there in the rest of the pages. This is how the publication, titled ‘The Book of the Book‘, was published in 1969. As author Idries Shah (June 16, 1924 – November 23, 1996) had already become famous, this majestic publication attracted many book lovers. However, most of them were surprised to turn the pages after purchasing it, as so many pages were blank. Shah’s book also shocked the publishing industry. It seems that today’s readers are unfamiliar with the name, Idries Shah (or Idris Shah or Sayed Idries el-Hashimi). However, the story-lovers across the world are intimately acquainted with one of his incomparable works! Shah was the compiler of the stories of Mullah Nasruddin.

Shah was born in the northern Indian city of Simla to an Afghan-Indian father, Sirdar Ikbal Ali Shah, a writer and diplomat, and a Scottish mother, Saira Elizabeth Luiza Shah, in 1924. Although he was an author and teacher in the Sufi tradition, his early writings centred on magic and witchcraft. In 1960, Shah established a Publishing House, Octagon Press, for producing translations of Sufi classics, as well as titles of his own. The Sufis is one of his most important works, as he discussed different aspects of Sufism in this publication. It may be noted that Sufism is a mystical Islamic belief and practice in which Muslims seek to find the truth of divine love and knowledge through direct personal experience of God. While conducting research on Sufism, he collected various stories scattered throughout the Islamic World. He became famous in the Western World even before the publication of The Book of the Book. With his works on Oriental Magic and Sufism gaining popularity in Europe and the US, his new book received a huge response. However, it confused the readers because the book consisted of some 15 pages of print, bound together with over 250 blank pages.

Except for the title page and ancillary pages, the rest of the pages were empty in the first edition of the book. Towards the very end, there was a 15-page story, and that’s that! The story was about a Philosopher King who could not understand how to teach his subjects. A person arrived at his court, one day, and the stranger told the King about the story of a wonderful book with the help of which a wise man used to teach his disciples. However, the wise man would never let his disciples see the book. After the demise of that person, the disciples discovered that all the pages of that book were blank! In a page, it was written: “When you realise the difference between the container and the content, you will have knowledge.” As the disciples failed to understand the real meaning of those words, they approached various wise people for help. The wise men, too, failed to grasp its meaning. Then, a saint told them that the entire book was instructive, and its essence was: No object should be judged by its structure. Later, the book got lost. A Sufi Philosopher, named Mali, compiled this book with the help of his memory. He penned down the history of this book and only a single sentence in countless blank pages.

It was actually a simple statement as mentioned in the Sufi Philosophy… The contents should never be guessed by looking at the cover of something. The book and the 15-page story are all about this Truth. There was a proverb mentioned in the title page of the book that means the value of a house is determined by its occupants. One could find Aesop’s story in its introduction. A lioness, according to Aesop, was asked by some other animals how many cubs she produced at one birth. She said: “One – but that one is a Lion.” With this Aesop story, Shah informed his readers that his book was all about how to see the best. However, some readers strongly criticised Shah for his The Book of the Book. One of them was Laurence Paul Elwell-Sutton (June 2, 1912 – September 2, 1984), a British Scholar of Persian Culture and Islamic Studies. He referred to Shah’s work as hypocrisy! Elwell-Sutton, writing for The New York Review of Books, said: “I suppose his admirers among the Hampstead intelligentsia will have swallowed this buffoonery with the same enthusiasm with which they have gulped down the rest.” Interestingly, Nobel Literature Laureate (2007) and British-Zimbabwean novelist Doris May Lessing (October 22, 1919 – November 17, 2013) slammed Elwell-Sutton for making such a comment, stressing that the latter failed to realise the essence of Shah’s work.

When this essence came up in stories of Mullah Nasruddin in a different form, no one considered it as tomfoolery. In one such story, Shah wrote: “Nasruddin went to a Turkish bath. As he was poorly dressed, the attendants treated him in a casual manner, giving him only a scrap of soap and an old towel. When he left, Nasrudin gave the two men a gold coin each. He had not complained, and they could not understand it. Could it be, they wondered, that if he had been better treated he would have given an even larger tip? The following week, Nasrudin appeared again. This time, of course, he was looked after like a king. After being massaged, perfumed and treated with the utmost deference, he left the bath, handing each attendant the smallest possible copper coin. “This,” said Nasruddin, “is for the last time. The gold coins were for this week.”” Multiple stories on Mullah Nasruddin are based on the teaching that the quality of a person should not be judged on the basis of her/his appearance.

Whose Beard?
Nasruddin dreamt that he had Satan’s beard in his hand. Tugging the hair he cried: “The pain you feel is nothing compared to that which you inflict on the mortals you lead astray.” And he gave the beard such a tug that he woke up yelling in agony. Only then did he realise that the beard he held in his hand was his own. – Idries Shah

The roots of all these stories lie in the distant past. There are stories like this in each and every culture. Shah compiled those stories, scattered in different cultures, and presented them to people in the form of a book. Those blank pages were also an integral part of the publication. Although there are no letters in those pages, they communicate to the readers silently. Shah left the world in 1996… but, he left behind many notable books written under the pseudonym Arkon Daraul. His compilation of stories on Mullah Nasruddin continues to delight readers in different parts of the globe. However, The Book of the Book is still being considered as wonder by book-lovers.

The grave of Idries Shah in Brookwood Cemetery

It has been said that Shah was an author and teacher in the Sufi Tradition who wrote over three dozen books on various topics, ranging from Psychology and Spirituality to Travelogues and Cultural Studies. He was also a leading thinker of the 20th Century… One should consider the time, and the number of people in the West, who knew much about the Philosophical Stances taken by the Orient! Shah was, at times, criticised by Orientalists who questioned his credentials and background. His role in the controversy, surrounding a new translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, published by his friend Robert Graves and his older brother Omar Ali-Shah, came in for particular scrutiny. However, he also had many notable defenders, and chief among them was novelist Lessing. Shah came to be recognised as a spokesperson for Sufism in the West and lectured as a Visiting Professor at a number of Western Universities. His works have played a significant part in presenting Sufism as a form of Spiritual Wisdom, approachable by individuals and not necessarily attached to any specific religion.

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