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Tuesday, September 26th, 2006

Time Event
1:35p
Finally ...
I mentioned in my previous review that I'd "skipped over" a book that I'd read, and it's been nearly two weeks and I figured I should get to this before I lose any sort of immediacy on the information. However, I still am not sure how to best approach Idries Shah's The Commanding Self ... it presents a fairly unique quandary, I would really like to strongly recommend this, but on the other hand I feel that I would be doing readers a disservice in relation to the Sufi teaching material if this served as an introduction!

This is the last (as far as I know) of Shah's major works, and is the first one where he lets his readers "look under the hood" of the methods used in his style of Sufi teaching. Much of the book uses snippets from Q&A sessions and excerpts from various correspondences to correct misconceptions, answer a wide range of queries, and point out "blinders" that many people may have. Some sections are specifically this, others are stories, etc., that springboard off of these.

Again, what sets this apart from most of Shah's books is the direct look at the how/why of many Sufi teaching approaches. For instance (and the element which is, perhaps, most germane to my hesitancy in eagerly endorsing this book as an introduction to Sufi thought), at one point he answers a question as to why he doesn't put extensive explanatory sections in books such as the Nasrudin collections ... he indicates that these tales are designed to have a specific effect on the reader, which would be attenuated (if not eliminated) if they followed information "framing" them in their technical context.

This sort of "non-Sufi analysis" of materials that have a particular Sufi intent falls under the "irrelevant associations" which are half of what makes up the title function, the Commanding Self. Shah describes this mental pattern as a mixture of "primitive emotionalism" and these misconstrued attempts at analysis (based on habitual cultural or intellectual approaches which have nothing to do with the Sufi work). It is no doubt telling that the phrase "The Commanding Self" sounds so positive to Western ears, and the fact that this pattern is something that we must struggle against (or at least struggle to be aware of its effects) is one of the subtler "teachings" of this book.

This being said, The Commanding Self is a remarkable book, full of very to-the-point examinations of significant elements of the human experience. I found Shah's analysis of most religions especially enlightening ... for, as a rule, these are nothing but the "fossilized remnants" of what had one time been an active and specifically targeted teaching, now all wrapped up in the previously noted "primitive emotionalism" which provides nothing but a "conditioning function" ala modern techniques of brainwashing!

As many of my regular readers know, I've been having to be "quite thrifty" over the past few years, so it is saying something that I bought two copies of this book. I first ordered this in paperback from Amazon at their "retail" price (which was, admittedly, at a 30% discount from cover), but was so enamored of it that I bought a hardcover copy (from the new/used vendors) as well, to better go into my library. As the cliché goes "no higher praise ..." than my voting with my much-conserved dollars!

Obviously, I am torn here, because part of me wants to insist that everybody reading this review immediately march out and pick up a copy of The Commanding Self, because it is that important, yet another side of me wants to be responsible (if somewhat unrealistic) and encourage you to read a dozen or so other of Shah's books first and then delve into this one! As I have read somewhere upwards of fifty books by Shah, his various associates (and pseudonyms), and the output of his several research and publishing ventures, I came to this book with substantial context for what he presents here ... others (going by the Amazon reviews) don't have this perspective and have called this book "judgmental" and "egomaniacal". I worry that if folks come to this book first they will come away with similar ill-considered impressions.

Anyway, in closing, let me say that it has been a long time since I got quite such a kick in the pants from a book as I've had from The Commanding Self. It may open up whole new vistas of perception for you, or it might turn you off of Sufism altogether. I, at least, am sure to be re-reading this a number of times (again, high praise from me). Like nearly all Octagon books, this is still in print, and is available from ISHK (or Octagon if in the UK) directly, as well at a discount from Amazon, and (in hardcover) as little as $6.15 from their new/used vendors. I guess I'll just have to say "do what thou wilt" (and all that) in regards to this one!


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