Shah first wrote about the existence of the Tradition in his book The Sufis, which brought him prominence in academic and other circles. It claims that Sufism is the heart of any religion and the Sufis existed always, although they gained prominence under the shadow of Islam. The book explains why Islam was the perfect soil for the flowering of Sufism, but it also claims that Sufis were present in all significant esoteric tendencies in all the times of humankind’s existence. The Tradition contained within it higher knowledge accessible only to the initiated who had passed through special (Sufi) teaching. In that regard, here immediately we recall René Guénon and other traditionalists who believed that true knowledge in fact was received by a certain magical means in ancient times and then was preserved and passed down from age to age from the chosen to the chosen. Only to Guénon it seemed that at a certain moment Tradition was forgotten and displaced by the modern, and therefore the new time was an era of the fall of morals and everything in general. Shah, on the contrary, states that the Tradition did not go anywhere and exists perfectly well even in our troubled days, continuing the transmission of knowledge and teaching of those who are capable of it. He stated that Sufis are encountered everywhere, acting sometimes openly, and sometimes hidden – and they fulfill the Work in maintaining the Tradition and evolution of all humankind as a whole.
The idea that in ancient times all of humankind received higher knowledge from the same Source, most often called the Absolute, is not very new. Its followers find signs of the manifestation of common ideas, common symbolism and rituals close in essence – in the most diverse eras and various mystical orders and schools. The idea of Tradition bearing True Knowledge and giving humankind a kind of vector for correct development always attracts people seeking meaning in what is happening with us in this world, and why. The idea of secret knowledge, encoded in books, buildings, and music also attracts a certain type of minds, dreaming to contact mysteries and become at least a little chosen. Finally, the idea of the existence in the world of something at all higher – including higher knowledge – already feeds the mind with the hope of acquiring the highest meaning.
The ego is constructed in such a fashion that for faith in the importance of possessing anything, it needs brands tested by time. The new model of the Audi automobile is valued above all because it is an Audi. The ancient secrets of knowledge are also a brand promoted by more than one generation of various types of spiritual writers and teachers. There is the famous saying by the Strugatsky Brothers, that you have to write about either what you know very well, or what nobody else knows anything about. Ancient, and even secret knowledge is related to the category of what no one knows anything about, and under that guise, one can give listeners and readers plenty of ad-libbing. Quite of bit of this has been put out in the last hundred years.
Idries Shah used the concept of Tradition, even so, departing from the principle of cursing modernity and praising the past. He made use of the idea of ancient knowledge and ascribed the role of its bearers to the Sufis. Essentially, Shah created a new Sufi brand from scratch, applying citations from the texts of great Islamic mystics in confirmation of his claims, which were at times shocking. Shah proposed a new picture of the world to the Western reader, in which Sufis, to one extent or another, influenced almost all science and culture. In Shah’s presentation, Sufis became the initiators of progress or – using the author’s terminology – the evolution of humankind.
Evolution is yet another one of the concepts used by Shah in The Sufis. This refers above all to the internal development of a person, acquired through conscious efforts, but it also says there that the existence of humankind also has a certain purpose, related to the opening of the potential of its development. It is not directly stated who placed such a goal before humankind. It is implied that apparently the Lord God did, but there is no clear indication of this. The purpose of evolution of the Sufi – according to Shah – is to acquire mystical experience in the form of illumination which leads to a new level of understanding and knowledge. Possibly, the integrity of the perception is also guaranteed not so much by practices as by illumination. But it is impossible to learn more detail about this from Shah’s books.