Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Religious and other Cults

from Knowing How to Know, by Idries Shah
 (published posthumously in 1998):

Sufi Attitudes towards Religious
and other Cults:

1. Sufis are opposed to fanaticism and closed minds, believing
that these lead to oppression.

2. Many cults using the name 'Sufi' have arisen over the
centuries. They have caused harm to their followers, and
have, at times, given the word Sufi an undesirable flavour.

3. For the above two reasons, initial Sufi activity has, for
centuries, aimed at explaining the nature of real Sufi aims
and also at clarifying the undesirable effect of what today
are called conditioning systems.

4. It has been observed by scholars and others that the Sufis
are almost alone in having assessed and described the two
undesirable factors referred to above. In so doing, they may
have paved the way for contemporary knowledge on
mind-manipulation. While others, for example, were still
thinking in terms of 'the Devil is behind cults', the Sufis
have pointed out the causes of cults as being purely

5. Among the characteristics of a 'false or misguided path',
the Sufis have noted the following features which help to
identify it:

i) The claim that the organisation is the sole repository
of truth, or is the only 'path';

ii) The mistaking of emotional for spiritual states;

iii) Separation of the followers of the group from the
populace at large;

iv) Failure to do one's human duty to everyone,
regardless of such people's confessional position;

v) The emphasis upon hope and fear, and upon reward
and punishment;

vi) Material richness of the organisation, and especially
of its leaders;

vii) The uniqueness of a leader, asserting superhuman or
other qualities or responsibility;

viii) Secretiveness;

ix) Inability to laugh at things which appear funny to
people outside the 'path';

x) Employment of stereotyped techniques and/or rituals
and exercises, not adapted according to the principle
of 'time, place and people';

xi) 'Idolatry': which includes investing people, animals
or things with a special meaning;

xii) Teachers' who are themselves ignorant.

6. Sufis do not actually oppose such cults, since Sufis are
tolerant: but they find it essential to describe them, in
order to show the differences between cults and
Sufism, and to help to prevent people interested in
Sufism from forming or joining such organisations or groups.


The great development in the knowledge of psychology during
the twentieth century has made it possible for Sufis to
communicate in these terms to a world audience.

In earlier days, due to the general backwardness of most
cultures, Sufis were obliged to communicate in established
terminology, which reduced communication. Today, many of
the contentions of the Sufi teachers of the past, still preserved
in numerous classics, can be seen as pioneering the understanding
of spiritual as distinct from sociological groups. Numerous
modern observers have noted this contribution, though it is not
yet fully disseminated among either the general public or even
the specialists, though the process is accelerating.

There are now many references in books, monographs, etc.,
to the above facts.

One of the most conspicuous contributions of the Sufis has
been the assertion that someone's conviction about the truth
of a doctrine may be engineered, accidentally or deliberately;
and to label that as 'religious faith' or anything similar is no
more than a display of ignorance of how the human brain works.
Reluctance to accept the reality of indoctrination as taking place
in all human systems marks the lower-level thinker.


First, elimination: the school, its teachers and students should
be observed for signs of the features (item 5, above) which
identify a spurious school. Second, it should be noted that the
following are among the marks of an authentic Sufi school:

i) It does not restrict attention to any specific literature
or teachings, but expects its students to have a good
knowledge of a wide range of literature, while at the
same time specialising in appropriately measured

ii) It will be able to explain and interpret past
formulations of the Sufi Way, as contained in the
whole range of Sufi literature;

iii) It will be able to explain the process of supersession
of materials;

iv) It will not be culture- or language-based. That is to
say, it will not need to bring in, except at times for
illustration or analogy, words or practices belonging
to cultures and/or languages other than those of the
people among whom the Sufis are working;

v) It will not use outlandish clothes (robes) or words,
etc., extraneous to the local culture;

vi) It will not accept slogans or 'sayings' from past
teachers unless they have an illustrative function;

vii) It does not use intonations, movement, music, etc.,
as a quasi-religious ceremony or as a spectacle, but
has knowledge of such things as parts of a
comprehensive system of applying stimuli;

viii) It will neither claim to have a mission to teach
everyone, nor will it enrol everyone. It will first make
sure that the interested person has enough information
and experience to come to a decision about Sufis and
Sufism in an appropriate manner;

ix) It will make clear the nature of the 'instrumental
function' of ideas, techniques, etc., rather than
regarding them as immutable, sacrosanct, 'traditional'
and so on;

x) It will deal with everyone according to capacity and
character, being neither benevolent nor the reverse:
for kindness and cruelty, while effective and
understood in ordinary relationships, operate as part
of a conditioning system within a teaching or group situation.


There are two kinds of literature. The first kind is Sufic: that
is to say, it is designed for teaching purposes. It is by Sufis, and
essentially directed towards the people of the time in which it
is issued. Subsequent generations have to understand the plan
which underlies it, which the school has a duty to make clear.

The second kind is literature from the outside: materials about
Sufis and Sufism. There is a vast body of this. It is often written
by scholars, who do not understand Sufism, as they assess it
from the academic and mechanical or emotional standpoints.
This is useful only in illustrating the nature and pattern of the
academic mind. It does not teach anything else. The very
abundance of this literature has caused many people to imagine
that they can learn from it. The Sufis, down the centuries, have
often commented upon this material as 'trying to send a kiss
by messenger', or 'teaching the taste of jam through the written
word'. Such, however, is the prestige of the written word that
even otherwise sensible people often fail to understand that an
external assessment can hardly be useful, except of another external phenomenon.

--from Knowing How To Knowp. 333-336