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Elise Bellin, Librarian of the Islamic Resource Center, wrote this book review as part of an ongoing series that focuses on a range of books within the IRC collection as a service to the community.

Tales of the Dervishes: Teaching Stories of the Sufi Masters over the Past Thousand Years

Tales of the Dervishes: Teaching Stories of the Sufi Masters over the Past Thousand Years by Idries Shah © 1967 – ISBN: 0140193588

Teaching stories are some of the oldest forms of tales. Their purpose, much as their name suggests, is to teach, usually such things as important values or morals, simplifications of how things work, social expectations, etc. Most societies and religions have them, although sometimes we know them by another name.

Aesop’s fables, the parable of the Good Samaritan helping his neighbor, the myths of the ancient Greeks, many of the tales from the Arabian Nights, etc. all have their basis in teaching stories. You didn’t think Persephone went to the underworld just to eat a pomegranate and be stuck for eternity, did you? She went so the ancient Greeks could understand the changing seasons. Shaharazad didn’t simply tell the king stories until he couldn’t take it anymore and gave up on ever killing her. She told stories that subtly changed his thinking and realigned it into a more socially acceptable format, one in which compassion was to be treasured and spousal homicide wasn’t the correct reaction to getting married. Then we have Hans Christian Anderson, Disney, the Brothers Grimm … the list goes on and on as does that of what they are called.

Idries Shah was an author who was well known for his focus on the Sufi tradition, one of the more mystical branches of Islam. In particular, he focused on their teaching or wisdom stories and shared them with a global public. He made extensive use of teaching stories and parables, fables and folktales to weave in wisdom through the many layers of his stories to bring what he saw as a “universal form of wisdom.” In his book, Tales of the Dervishes, Shah collected classic Sufi tales in many forms, traditional oral, unpublished and otherwise, to bring some of that wisdom to the Western world. All have their morals and lessons at the end, to further punctuate the state of affairs.

The tales themselves come from across the Middle East. Some are better known than others, with more humor, piquancy and style, bringing a rare enjoyment to the read while others might fall a little flat. And again, this is somewhat an older book. It has been a little over fifty years since its initial publication, after all. But if you wish a good compilation of genuine and classic teaching stories, especially those from the Sufi tradition, you can’t go wrong with Shah or this book. It is an excellent place to start your journey to wisdom.

Founded in 2010, the Islamic Resource Center (IRC) is the first Islamic public lending library in Wisconsin. The IRC aims to provide resources to educators, students, health professionals, interfaith groups, and any members of the Milwaukee community that want an accurate understanding of the Islamic faith, its practices, and its people.