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Shah On Faith

January 11, 2013

Excerpted from The Commanding Self, by Idries Shah:

Hero or Ignoramus?

The major difference between Sufis and ‘believers’ is that belief is conviction, certainty without proof, while Sufi knowledge is factual.  This is often disputed by theologians because they regularly confuse knowledge with belief.  This is easy to demonstrate.  If I know that it is ten past ten in the morning, or that there is a fly on the wall, it is absolutely unnecessary, lunatic, even, to describe this as a belief.  On the other hand, the people who believe that something is true do not know it in anything like the same way.  Why?  Because if they knew it as a positive, objective fact they would not manifest any emotion about it: neither would they be so keen to make others believe.  All human experience shows that it is only things about which there is doubt which are believed in this characteristic manner.  Facts, true ones, are not subject to either emotion or proselytization.  The theologically-centred people, then, are not wrong or deluded, they are feebly informed as to the difference between, say, ‘I know this is a pencil’, and ‘I know that there are spiritual beings, because I have felt that it is true.’

A useful illustration of this is seen in a certain tale.  There were once three men in an aircraft which was losing height, and the pilot asked one of them to jump out to lighten it so that it could land safely.  ‘I cannot jump,’ said the scholar, ‘because I am too valuable to risk my life, as the instrument of education’.

‘I shall jump,’ said the priest, ‘because I have faith that I shall be saved.’

‘There is only one parachute left,’ said the Sufi, ‘and I shall use it, because I know that the pilot will ask for another volunteer in a minute, and I shall land safely.’

‘But,’ said the scholar, ‘was the priest not a hero for believing that he would land safely?’

‘He was more than that,’ said the Sufi. ‘He picked up your rucksack, instead of the parachute, and strapped it on…’

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