Idries Shah and Robert Graves: from Garrard’s A Book of Verse
I took up MBFM’s suggestion and got a copy of Garry Garrard’s A Book of Verse, The Biography of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
I scanned up the material on Idries Shah and Robert Graves, another sorry episode to do with Idries Shah (and sufis)
‘The poem’, Cowell replied, ‘is mystical. I am convinced of it.’
‘Omar’s laudation of drunkenness is difficult to explain away,’ said Wright.
‘By drunkenness’, said Professor Cowell, ‘is meant “Divine Love”.’
Although he had never taken Holy Orders, Cowell, encouraged by his wife,
had been an active Christian missionary while he was in India. He not only
held Sunday Bible reading classes in his own home, but risked giving offence
to his Hindu colleagues by encouraging conversions to Christianity. With this
increasing emphasis on Christian values, he found it more and more difficult
to accept that Omar could have written such apparently irreligious verses
without some hidden meaning. Nicholas made it very clear in his French
translation that he regarded Omar as a mystic, a view which FitzGerald
robustly rejected in his introduction to his third edition. ….-/ _
The Sufis themselves have certainly repeatedly claimed Omar Khayyarn as
one of their own. The first account of that was in the History of the Philosophers by al-Qifti,” who wrote that the Sufis came across Omar’s poetry and converted it for their own religious use. The latest attempt to claim Omar Khayyam as a Sufi mystic was much more recent. In 1961. Robert Graves, ~ the renowned poet and one of the grandest old men of modern English letters, met Idries Shah, a self-professed Sufi mystic. The two men became close friends, and Graves gradually became more and more dependent on his new-found fount of all wisdom, seeking spiritual justification for his lifestyle and readily accepting Shah’s advice on his personal life (as well as advising his many other friends to do likewise). In 1964, the two men underwent a bizarre blood-brotherhood ritual at Graves’s Mallorca home, organised by one of the succession of young inamoratos whom Graves took in his later years, and Graves wrote a glowing foreword to Shah’s latest book on Sufism. Idries
introduced Graves to his brother, Omar All-Shah, who said he was a Sufi poet and a Persian scholar. The brothers told Graves that their family, which
originated in Afghanistan, owned the oldest and most authoritative
manuscript of the Rubaiytit of Omar Khayytim in existence, dating from 1153,
less than twenty years after Omar Khayyam’s death. Omar All-Shah had a
request to make. If he provided Graves with a literal translation of this
manuscript, with annotated notes, would Graves faithfully recast it in ‘the
nearest possible approach to poetry’? Graves’s proven stature as a poet
certainly made him an admirable choice for such a delicate task. He had
made his reputation initially during the First World War but, as well as
writing and publishing poetry ever since, he had also studied poetry
academically and had been Professor of Poetry at Oxford for the previous five years. Later he wrote that he regarded Shah’s invitation as the greatest poetic compliment he had been paid, far more important than any of his previous formal recognition. He readily agreed to turn the translation into English poetry and did much of the work, in consultation with Ali-Shah, during a three-week convalescence in St Thomas’s Hospital after an operation for gallstones. In November 1967, Cassell & Company published the results of their joint venture: The Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayaam, A New Translation with critical commentaries by Robert Graves and Omar All-Shah. Apart from
translations of III quatrains, the book included a stinging attack on
FitzGerald as well as repeated assertions that Omar Khayyarn had been a Sufi mystic. Nearly everyone, they maintained, had been completely mistaken
about the true meaning of the quatrains.
Reaction to the new version was, to be generous, lukewarm. Martin
Dodsworth, reviewing it in the Listener, called it a ‘prosy New English Bible
sort of Khayyam’, and described the verse form adopted as ‘ripples in a sea of sludge’. John Bowen, himself a well-known translator of Persian poetry in
general and Omar’s Rubtiiytit in particular, reviewed it for The Times, and in
his analysis, pointedly headed The Rubtiiyat of Graves, he highlighted several
anomalies. In his introduction, Graves asserted that the original Persian
quatrains formed a single long poem, evidently not appreciating the stand-
alone convention of the Persian ruba’i. By a strange coincidence, eight of the
first twelve quatrains bore precisely the same numbers as those in FitzGerald’s first edition. No twelfth-century scribe could have foreseen even an approximate order that would be used 700 years later, so the original
manuscript could not be authentic. It was odd, too, that the total of III
quatrains was just one different from FitzGerald’s second edition.
A few weeks after Bowen’s review was published in The Times, he was
contacted by a former colleague whom he had known in Tehran during the
war. Laurence Elwell-Sutton, another Persian scholar, was on the same trail.
He had discovered that the ‘literal translation’ provided by Omar All-Shah
had been copied faithfully from Edward Heron-Allen’s work, which
identified FitzGerald’s original Persian sources. Even the errors were
repeated, and the quatrains from FitzGerald’s introduction and notes,
grouped together at the end of Heron-Allen’s work purely for convenience,
remained in that arbitrary order. Even faced with this evidence, Graves
remained defiant. By now, the translation had been widely condemned by
experts in Iran and the USA, as well as in Britain. Graves and Ali-Shah
reacted angrily, in a joint effort to rebut the criticism. They each wrote to
The Times, in vain attempts to justify the anomalies identified by Bowen. In
the Daily Telegraph of 25 March 1968, Graves even labelled FitzGerald ‘a
dilettante faggot trying to pretend he was a scholar’. To anyone who knew
anything about the subject, Graves and Ali-Shah were simply digging
themselves a deeper and deeper hole. Elwell-Sutton published his account of
the hoax, ‘The Omar Khayyam Puzzle’, in June 1968 in the Royal Central
Asiatic Review. As far as the experts were concerned, the translation had
been thoroughly discredited.
However, the majority of readers were not familiar with Persian poetry, and
Graves continued to maintain the authenticity of the manuscript, said to be
owned by an elderly prince in the Hindu Kush. In Life magazine he wrote ‘I
understand that it will not be long before the Royal owner of the A.D. 1153
document satisfies the World’s appetite for the truth: whereupon any English
Persicologist who cannot face the facts will either have to resign his
lectureship or consult a psychiatrist.’ Bowen could see that such strong views loudly expressed by such an eminent poet could easily convince readers, unfamiliar with Persian literature, that the true manuscript really did exist in some far-off valley in Afghanistan. Graves continued to receive active support from All-Shah. who maintained that he had actually seen the original document and was satisfied that it was genuine, and that the old man who owned it would be upset to be ‘challenged by imbeciles’.
Bowen was as determined as he was resourceful and he realised that if he
were to make the truth absolutely irrefutable, he would have to investigate
himself. In the spring of 1969, he set out on the long and arduous overland
journey to Afghanistan. In Kabul, he enlisted the aid of a couple of friendly
and cooperative local experts who were also fascinated by the controversy.
The editor of the local Karavan newspaper sent his car the 50 miles to
Paghman, the village where Omar Ali-Shah’s family had originated. The car
brought back the 85-year-old patriarch of the family who was ‘bright,
courteous and co-operative’. Not only had he no ancient manuscript in his
possession, he had never seen one and he had never even heard of Omar
Khayyam, When Penguin published a new edition of the Graves/ Ali-Shah travesty of a ‘translation’ in 1972, Bowen was moved to publish a summary of the entire sorry episode in a long letter to the Listener, published on 3 August. His letter was greeted by a ‘deafening silence’ from Graves, Ali-Shah, Cassell, Penguin and Doubleday (the latter had published an American version). It seemed as if at last Bowen had put the final nail in the coffin of one of the greatest literary hoaxes of all time. Just to make sure, the following year Bowen published ‘Translation or Travesty’, a small book that contained an expanded expose of the entire story. To make doubly sure, he repeated a similar account in Iran: Journal of Persian Studies»
Idries Shah spent twenty-five years writing books about pseudo-Sufism and
peddling the subject to anyone who would listen. True Sufis studiously
ignored him, but in the late 1960s and 1970s there was a willing audience of
gullible Westerners thirsty for any secrets of Eastern mysticism – it was in
1968 that the Beatles made their famous trip to India to see the maharishi.
Idries had an enthusiastic band of followers; the most notable was Doris
Lessing who publicly supported him for twenty years. He encouraged the view that he was descended from Muhammad and the last Sasanid kings, that he had attended several Western and Eastern universities and that he had dedicated his life to the study of Sufi mysticism. In fact, although he was born in India, he was brought to England with his brother Omar when he was very young indeed. The two boys grew up quietly in Sutton, Surrey, and his limited education was completed by a few mediocre years at Oxford High School. Their father, Ikbal Ali-Shah, was a failed medical student and serial fantasist of whom the Foreign Office once wrote, ‘there was hardly a word of truth in his writings’, and whom the British ambassador to Argentina dubbed ‘a swindler’ after a South American scam involving halal meat. Idries had played a central role in that deception.
It is safe to assume that Graves knew nothing of the dubious background
of the Shahs and was an unwitting dupe. When his version of the Rubaiyat
came under attack, Graves’s blustering defence was not unnatural; who
would not robustly defend something told to him by such a trusted friend?
And if Graves had a fault, it was the depth of not only the loyalty he showed
to those he considered his friends, but the unquestioning trust that he placed in them. He wrote to Idries Shah imploring him to produce the manuscript, or at least some concrete evidence of its existence, but was met by evasion and mention of the need for trust between friends. Eventually Shah wrote that he would not produce the manuscript under any circumstances. In 1970, Graves wrote back: ‘Your decision, for reasons of family pride, not to submit to scrutiny under any circumstances seems difficult to reconcile with either our personal or family friendship.’ Shah sent back only a brief. abrupt businesslike letter in reply. It was the end of a beautiful friendship, and a sad lesson for Robert Graves. It would have been no compensation at all even if Graves had realised that his exploitation was well and truly in the sorry tradition of the Shah family.
Graves is often perceived as one of the villains of this sad tale, but in fact
he was the most serious victim, and not only because his trust had been so
cruelly abused. When the Poet Laureate, John Masefield. died in 1967
Graves was asked to deliver his memorial address at Westminster Abbey,
normally a sure sign that he could expect the succession. However, with the
emergence of the potential scandal hanging over his head, it became
impossible to offer Graves the position, which went instead to Cecil Day-
Lewis. It was not just Graves’s Rubciiyat translation that was in doubt: now
his very reputation and his entire canon of historical writing was at stake,
and he reported a noticeable drop in royalties. However, one’s sympathy for
a gullible old man is inevitably tempered by the unnecessary and gratuitous
abuse that Graves continually directed at Edward FitzGerald, who was in no
position to defend himself after more than eighty years below the cold clay
of Boulge churchyard. The ill-conceived translation that caused all the
controversy was published regularly throughout the 1990s, mainly by
several US-based ‘Sufi’ organisations, but Robert Graves’s name has
mercifully disappeared from the creditation, which now cites Omar All-Shah
as the sole translator.
However unfortunate the Shahs’ deception may have been, especially for
such a well-respected poet and author as Robert Graves, its failure does not
prove that Omar Khayyam was not a Sufi. The debate has continued ever
since Nicholas’s French translation was published in 1867. Arguments have
usually been based on detailed analysis of the precise wording of Omar
Khayyam’s quatrains. Lengthy, complicated or esoteric analysis is, however,
unlikely to provide a convincing answer because, almost by definition, it will
always be subjective. Some of his metaphors have, indeed, been used by the
Sufis – not only wine and drunkenness, but also sensual pleasures: ‘I
exclaimed “For this loving I’ll cry, I’ll rage, I’ll frenzy … ” But she closed my
mouth with her sweet lips and the attraction of moths to a lighted candle’.
These may all perhaps be interpreted ambiguously, but some quatrains do not
make sense unless they are interpreted using Sufi metaphors. At the same
time, there are verses that are clearly a complete antithesis of the Sufi
tradition. The only fruitful approach is to try to understand a little about
what Sufis actually believed, and how that affected their way of life. Then we can decide whether that belief is compatible with Omar’s lifestyle, and
examine comments made about Omar by mystics of his own time.
It needs only a very brief outline of Sufi beliefs to reach a firm conclusion.
Sufi mystics abandoned all desires for worldly goods or power and, more to
the point, knowledge, which they regarded as spurious. All they desired was
closeness to God: so close that they became one with God and ultimately part of God. Scientific knowledge, or its pursuit, would interfere with that goal.
Sufis showed complete contempt for the sciences and no Sufi would presume
to question the works of the Creator, even less seek to understand them.
Omar Khayyam’s other preoccupation, with logic and the law, was equally
eschewed by the Sufis. The mystic Abu Sa’id Abi’l Khayr buried all his books
because ‘the first step in [Sufism] is the breaking of ink-pots and the tearing
up of books and the forgetting of knowledge’. Nothing could be further from
the aspirations of Omar Khayyarn who spent his entire life in the pursuit of
knowledge, completely at odds with Sufi ideals.
This conclusion is confirmed by Sufis who lived only a short time after
Omar. Najm al-Din wrote his Sufi mystical work Mirsad al-ibad in 1223, about
ninety years after Omar’s death. In it he expresses what seems to have been
the orthodox view of Omar, praising him as ‘famous for his talents, his
wisdom, intelligence and doctrine’ but adding that he is ‘associated with
those unfortunate philosophers and materialists, who, detached from divine
blessings, wander in stupefaction and error’. In the earliest known reference
to Omar Khayyam’s Rubciiyat, al-Din quotes two quatrains which demonstrate
his ‘height of confusion and error’.
A similar view is shared by Farid ud-Din Attar, the Sufi poet and thinker
who wrote the Bird Parliament which FitzGerald also translated.