Empire’s Son, Empire’s Orphan: The Fantastical Lives of Ikbal and Idries Shah by Nile Green

On the campaign trail in 2008, Hillary Clinton infamously claimed that she had landed at a Bosnian airbase, in March 1996, “under sniper fire.”

“There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport,” the presidential hopeful told supporters, “but instead we just ran with our heads down.” Unfortunately for Clinton, footage of the event was swiftly produced that showed the then First Lady calmly walking off the ramp of a U.S. military aircraft before stopping to chat with soldiers and enthusiastic well-wishers. Confronted with the discrepancy, Clinton said she had made a simple “mistake,” while the Obama campaign accused her of inventing the daring-sounding escapade to emphasize her foreign-policy experience.

In the modern age, it’s difficult to get away with exaggeration or neat invention. Those who seek to appeal to employers or the electorate by gilding their curriculum vitae tend to be found out. (It’s not that Donald Trump’s myriad falsehoods and inaccuracies have not been exposed—it’s that millions of Americans do not apparently seem to care, or prefer his word over that of the mainstream media.) But for much of human history—before television, before commercial air travel, before smartphones, and before the Internet—frauds, impostors, charlatans, and mountebanks flourished.

Ikbal Ali Shah, the first subject in Empire’s Son, Empire’s Orphan, a double biography by Nile Green, claimed to have unique knowledge of what was once known in the West as the Orient. The descendant of a noble family of Afghan warriors, he presented himself as an expert on his ancestors’ mysterious country, recalling the folklore of his childhood, lecturing on its customs and history, and warning the British government of the dangers of Russian penetration following the Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917.

Ikbal “claims to be the only Afghan in this country who is competent to speak with knowledge about the present political situation in C. Asia,” noted a British civil servant in 1919. The following year, Ikbal published a series of articles describing his travels across the mountains of Afghanistan and Soviet Central Asia, where he had witnessed the foot soldiers of Russian Communism building roads prior to a descent on British India.

Yet Ikbal had never set foot in Afghanistan. The descendant of an Afghan landowner who had sided with the British during the First Anglo-Afghan War and been rewarded with an estate near Delhi, he had been brought up in India before attending the renowned Edinburgh Medical School.

In 1916, he married a lower-middle-class Scottish girl called Elizabeth Mackenzie, causing his father to cut him off. Always short of money, the romantically minded Ikbal would spend the next 30 years coming up with increasingly inventive ways to trade on his Eastern heritage.

As a journalist, he wrote on genies, Sufism, magic, folklore, ancient Indian flying machines, and the occult. As an agent of the British government in the 1920s, he reported on the Bolshevik menace to Central Asia and the “progressive puritanism” of Ibn Saud’s Wahhabis. As a propagandist during the Second World War, he broadcast on the loyalty of Muslims to the anti-Fascist cause and wrote stories on the “justness” of British policy in the Middle East. And, as an author, he produced books on the Prophet Muhammad, Sufism, Indian fables, the Koran, Afghanistan, Atatürk, and his adventures, part real but chiefly imagined, between Suez and the frontiers of China.

Like Father, Like Son

Ikbar’s second son followed in his footsteps. Although Idries Shah—the other subject of this double biography—came of age just as the British Empire was crumbling, he saw it as his mission to bring the wisdom of the East to a Western audience. Books on Oriental magic, in which he argued that magic was real, and Mulla Nasrudin, the “wise fool” of Middle Eastern folklore, followed. But it was as an advocate and teacher of Sufism, the mystical form of Islam that seeks divine love and wisdom through personal experience of God, that he was best known.

Although Green, a professor specializing in the global history of Islam at U.C.L.A., says little about the origins and practices of Sufism, he makes it clear that Idries’s version was idiosyncratic, if not outright fraudulent.

Historically, the Sufis abhorred narcotics, but Idries was one of several writers who promoted the use of psychedelic drugs as a means of inducing mystical experiences. “At the end of twenty-four hours’ talk about poetry and other things, he came to mushrooms,” wrote the poet Robert Graves, after being intellectually seduced by the young “Afghan” in 1961. (According to Idries, Hindu Brahmans prepared a “psychedelic elixir from the urine of fellow priests who had eaten sacred cowpats offered to their gods.”)

That same year, Idries published an article under the pseudonym Omar Burke, in which the fictional Burke spends time in a Sufi monastery on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. There he hears the name of Idries Shah, a “mysterious figure,” a spiritual pedagogue, the “Grand Sheikh” of Sufism, no less.

Soon, Idries was telling wide-eyed mystics in Britain’s home counties that he had been sent by “the Guardians of the Tradition” to spread their ancient enlightenment. “No one could quite tell what it all meant,” writes Green, “but the gist seemed to be that there was a secret doctrine that was the preserve of an invisible hierarchy who had now decided the time was ripe to share it with humankind.”

Within a short period, Idries had taken over the Surrey-based institute dedicated to the mysticism of the Armenian-born George Gurdjieff and made it his own. Sitting cross-legged on a leopard skin, he would begin sessions with recitations of Buddhist mantra, followed by alleged Sufi teaching tales. The Islamic underpinnings of Sufism were ignored. Instead, Idries presented Sufism as a form of “spiritual freemasonry” that, as Green writes, “linked the medieval mystic Ibn Arabi to the Irish goddess Bridget, with court jesters and Druids thrown in for good measure.”

All of this is good fun, except when it is quite scary. Green writes with clarity and verve, and contextualizes his subjects within the cultural and literary Zeitgeist. If the book has a flaw, it is that the influence, the legacy, the impact of this highly imaginative, undoubtedly intelligent, completely unscrupulous father and son is not properly explored. The extent to which Ikbal influenced Western thinking about Afghanistan and “the Orient” is not examined; nor are the effects of Idries’s teachings outside his immediate circle.

As a cautionary tale of convincing frauds and a gullible public, however, Green’s book is certainly timely.

Tim Bouverie is the author of Appeasement: Chamberlain, Hitler, Churchill, and the Road to War