Monday, December 27, 2010

(Belated) Book Review Wednesday: Oriental Magic by Idres Shah

Title: Oriental Magic
Author: Idries Shah
Publisher: Rider & Co. 1956, London
Content: 217 Pages of content, not counting notes or bibliography. No Index.

I used to recommend Oriental Magic to folks as an intro to Arabian Magical practice. I still would, though only for an idea of how far we've come as far as scholarship. I had previously only been able to get snippets of the book, as it is now out of print, and can fetch a high-ish price for a small paper back. Luckily I was able to find a very tattered copy second hand and snapped it up for about two dollars American, plus shipping. Like I said, I USED to recommend Oriental Magic. Then I read the whole thing.

Mr. Shah does go the extra mile in the Forward in saying that we must apply rigorous academic scrutiny to the study of Magic, if its claims are to be believed. In fact he has the attitude of a scholarly debunker, more than a mystic in most chapters. This fits with his "westernization" of his school of Sufi thought. Very psychological, very adaptable to reason. His works on Sufism I have little problem with, other than they can be at times too reasonable! I like a little Divine madness in my Sufism, and a heavy handed dash of Occultism.

Since he is so focused on scholarship, it is unfortunate (and surprising!)then that he misses the mark so often in the following chapters. The book reads more like the musings of a weathered vagabond's travel log, rather than a scholarly text. Think of a continental explorer researching the curious ways of all those a little bit browner than himself. The effect reaches its fullness when the author delves into the non Abrahamic paths of the Far East, when he obviously has little understanding of what he is talking about.

The chapters on Chinese and Japanese magic are short enough and generic enough that the errors are understandable for the time. But shit gets real when he starts talking Tibet. No, really, he flat out says that the Bonpo are Animist Demon Worshippers that commit human sacrifice to worship their dread Lord Yamantaka. He also remarks that "the Tibetans emphasize mental (though not so much physical) hygiene.." Pg. 202

Threaded through the Far Eastern chapters (all of them)are Chinese Calligraphy said to work various wonders, and a few examples of actual Daoist talismans. The Chinese calligraphy is also in the Japanese and Tibetan sections sort of haphazardly. Searching for usable information in this book is a lot like rooting around in a garbage can full of pig shit to find someones gold tooth. There is totally usable information in there, but there are much easier and safer ways to get gold. The amount of misinformation in the book more than balances out the "scholarship" put in to it.

There are also a great deal of secret sources cited in the book. Manuscripts only the author knows about. Secret conversations with secret high Shaikhs. It's all rather suspicious. it is also very indicative of the time it came out. The East was big, new, and spiritual. In a world where Arabian scholarship is significantly lacking outside of very specialized communities, one can easily make a niche market out of spirituality when you have a massive amount of control over the flow and quality of information. More journalism than scholarship by far, and tabloid journalism at that.

The book, all in all, is a good reference for running a Mage: the Ascension game, or perhaps writing fiction that doesn't need to be back up with hard facts. A book of whispers, and shadowy insinuations, none of which are particularly helpful. Interesting yes, but it's interesting in the same way reading about someones trip to Marrakesh is interesting, and about half as useful. Read it for entertainment if you are going to read it at all, and any useful bits can be considered found money. Speaking of money, please get it from a library loan, or if you have to buy it do not pay full price or rare book mark up.

Now as to better modern resources for this sort of quest for information I'd recommend Fons Vitae, and Ishtar Publishing . Also, go visit some western friendly Sufis if you dig the Arabian groove. The best way to experience Sufism isn't from a book. It's from actual contact. The Nur Ashki Jerrahi Order are generally very welcoming, I've found. For an intro in book form I would recommend the Shambhala guide to Sufism.


Gordon said...

Ahhh Mage: The Ascension. That takes me back.

Waaaay back.

But in other news, this review was unbelievably helpful as I have just wishlisted a bunch of Shah in prep for Amazon's January sale.

Do you think we can excuse some of the parts he glossed over due to the time period in which he wrote -ie very little scholarship existed? Or do you think it was a personal, authorial choice to emphasise some bits over others?

Jow said...

I think it is a little of both. I think he was the product of a time when everyone was still trying to sweep the messier aspects of mysticism and the occult under the rug of science. Like Crowley saying the spirits of the Goetia are parts of the brain. I also think being a man of middle eastern descent in the UK at the time he had a lot of people thinking he was backward, superstitious, or otherwise "less sound" than his white contemporaries, so he had to try twice as hard to be more "legitimate".

Even in Sufism he is less mystic and more close to Leary, Gurdjieff, and thier like.

A great many people were inspired him, so I definitely think he has a lot to offer, but he is decidedly modern in his thought and approach.