Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book

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

Rate this book
Dervish tales are more than fable, legend, or folklore. For centuries dervish masters have instructed their disciples by means of these teaching stories, which are said to increase perception and knowledge and provide a better understanding of man and the world. In wit, construction, and piquancy, they compare with the finest tales of any culture. Idries Shah spent many years traveling through three continents to collect and compare oral versions of these remarkable stories. This anthology, presented in the dervish manner, contains stories drawn from the repertories of dervish masters over a period of more than a thousand years.

221 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1967

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

Idries Shah

390 books387 followers
Idries Shah (Persian: ادریس شاه), also known as Idris Shah, né Sayed Idries el-Hashimi (Arabic: سيد إدريس هاشمي), was an author and teacher in the Sufi tradition who wrote over three dozen critically acclaimed books on topics ranging from psychology and spirituality to travelogues and culture studies.

Born in India, the descendant of a family of Afghan nobles, Shah grew up mainly in England. His early writings centred on magic and witchcraft. In 1960 he established a publishing house, Octagon Press, producing translations of Sufi classics as well as titles of his own. His most seminal work was The Sufis, which appeared in 1964 and was well received internationally. In 1965, Shah founded the Institute for Cultural Research, a London-based educational charity devoted to the study of human behaviour and culture. A similar organisation, the Institute for the Study of Human Knowledge (ISHK), exists in the United States, under the directorship of Stanford University psychology professor Robert Ornstein, whom Shah appointed as his deputy in the U.S.

In his writings, Shah presented Sufism as a universal form of wisdom that predated Islam. Emphasising that Sufism was not static but always adapted itself to the current time, place and people, he framed his teaching in Western psychological terms. Shah made extensive use of traditional teaching stories and parables, texts that contained multiple layers of meaning designed to trigger insight and self-reflection in the reader. He is perhaps best known for his collections of humorous Mulla Nasrudin stories.

Shah was at times criticised by orientalists who questioned his credentials and background. His role in the controversy surrounding a new translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, published by his friend Robert Graves and his older brother Omar Ali-Shah, came in for particular scrutiny. However, he also had many notable defenders, chief among them the novelist Doris Lessing. Shah came to be recognised as a spokesman for Sufism in the West and lectured as a visiting professor at a number of Western universities. His works have played a significant part in presenting Sufism as a secular, individualistic form of spiritual wisdom.

Idries Shah's books on Sufism achieved considerable critical acclaim. He was the subject of a BBC documentary ("One Pair of Eyes") in 1969, and two of his works (The Way of the Sufi and Reflections) were chosen as "Outstanding Book of the Year" by the BBC's "The Critics" programme. Among other honours, Shah won six first prizes at the UNESCO World Book Year in 1973, and the Islamic scholar James Kritzeck, commenting on Shah's Tales of the Dervishes, said that it was "beautifully translated".
The reception of Shah's movement was also marked by much controversy. Some orientalists were hostile, in part because Shah presented classical Sufi writings as tools for self-development to be used by contemporary people, rather than as objects of historical study. L. P. Elwell-Sutton from Edinburgh University, Shah's fiercest critic, described his books as "trivial", replete with errors of fact, slovenly and inaccurate translations and even misspellings of Oriental names and words – "a muddle of platitudes, irrelevancies and plain mumbo-jumbo", adding for good measure that Shah had "a remarkable opinion of his own importance". Expressing amusement and amazement at the "sycophantic manner" of Shah's interlocutors in a BBC radio interview, Elwell-Sutton concluded that some Western intellectuals were "so desperate to find answers to the questions that baffle them, that, confronted with wisdom from 'the mysterious East,' they abandon their critical faculties and submit to brainwashing of the crudest kind". To Elwell-Sutton, Shah's Sufism belonged to the realm of "Pseudo-Sufism", "centred not on God but on man."

Doris Lessing, one of Shah's greatest defenders,stated in a 1981 interview: "I found Sufism as taught by Idries Shah, which claim

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
348 (53%)
4 stars
191 (29%)
3 stars
84 (12%)
2 stars
19 (2%)
1 star
11 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 68 reviews
Profile Image for Aubrey Davis.
Author 11 books36 followers
April 24, 2019
Haunting, puzzling and often funny, these 82 ancient tales from the East beg to be reread. And if you do, you may find even more in these evocative, often shocking tales and in yourself too. Somehow they sneak inside, later popping up, changing how you see and do things in everyday life. This is a rare opportunity to experience tales as tools for understanding. While a few of them underpin the work of Shakespeare, Cervantes and Andersen, this type of tale, the Teaching-Story, is not well-known in the West. Tales of the Dervishes is a glittering patchwork of intriguing tales and a brilliant introduction to Sufi thought.
Profile Image for Kevan Bowkett.
61 reviews7 followers
April 7, 2015
A beautiful collection of "Teaching-Stories of the Sufi Masters over the Past Thousand Years." This book is a gift, for its wonderfully-told tales, for its wit and wisdom. It seems almost superfluous to try to comment on the book; the best thing is to get a copy and immerse yourself in this splendid and startling world. Great stories include "The Tale of the Sands," "The Candlestick of Iron," "Fatima the Spinner and the Tent" (which is also available in an illustrated edition from Hoopoe Books: http://www.hoopoekids.com/catalog.htm), "The Man with the Inexplicable Life," "The Indian Bird," and "When Death Came to Baghdad" -- and this is merely an arbitrary selection out of a casket of treasures. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Köksal KÖK .
660 reviews72 followers
October 24, 2017
üslubu harika, menkıbeler su gibi akıyor. sizi orta çağın mistik öğretilerinde, dergahlarında, tapınaklarında, çöllerinde büyük bir merakla gizemle gezdiriyor.

eserin, büyük bir araştırmanın olduğu anlaşılıyor. anadolumuzun erenleri, menkıbeleri de sık sık karşımıza çıkıyor kitapta. ayrıca yazarın bilgi birikimine de hayran oldum.
Profile Image for Stefano Zanella.
57 reviews1 follower
September 24, 2019
More than a collection of tales, this is a field book of exercises aimed at elevating our spirit and our level of consciousness. Something I’d keep on my bed table and get back to every so often to reflect on my understanding of life.
Knowing that the Sufi’s tradition is mostly oral, I’m grateful that this book exists; it gives a glimpse into an ancient and mysterious tradition that seems mostly inaccessible from the western world of today.
Profile Image for John Zada.
Author 2 books36 followers
March 16, 2019
This is an outstanding collection of traditional Sufi tales from the Middle East and Central Asia. The tales, known as “teaching stories,” are narratives whose structures embody manifold patterns which help the reader, or listener, perceive similar, yet hard to see situations (patterns) in real life.

The late Lewis F. Courtland wrote of these stories, “For centuries, folklorists and scholars had assumed that these were merely moral tales but modern study with which Idries Shah has been chiefly associated has now shown that such ‘mere stories’ have a significant and wholly unsuspected effect on human thinking capacity.”
Profile Image for John Handforth.
64 reviews2 followers
May 31, 2016
An amazing collection of Sufi teaching stories (including folktales, fables, and true accounts) spanning over a thousand years. Immensely entertaining, they also have the effect of activating the mind to think in new directions and hold a broader, potentially liberating range of concepts. Sufism is an action philosophy designed to outwit the 'commanding self' which prevents most of us from having a breakthrough into higher consciousness. This is a fascinating read for anyone.
Profile Image for Alejandro Sanoja.
312 reviews12 followers
February 6, 2021
This is the best book that I read during January 2021.

The book is filled with stories that can be leveraged for different purposes. The stories should lead you to reflection and self-awareness.

Ideally, they will teach you something about yourself of the world.

Most importantly, you will also then be able to leverage these stories to help others learn about themselves and the world.

All great leaders are always armed with stories that they can leverage at different moments to illustrate their ideas, their vision, and overall the change they think needs to happen to make the world a better place. This book is filled with great stories.

Flow: 5/5
Actionability: 5/5
Mindset: 5/5

Not many highlights in this one but I will be sharing some of the stories through my videos. Stay tuned.
Profile Image for David.
783 reviews1 follower
October 4, 2019
Profound, playful, moving, inspiring. This is a great collection to browse or read over time. Not a page-turner, though. You need to pause, reflect, look inward. The short contextual and biographical sketches that follow each tale are fascinating, too, and provide some directions for next steps if you want to dig deeper.

This is a great contextual companion to reading the poetry of Rumi, Lalla, or Hafiz too.
Profile Image for Bere Tarará.
515 reviews24 followers
March 16, 2021
Textos cortos pero llenos de significado. Una buena introducción a una tradición poco conocida en occidente
46 reviews3 followers
March 3, 2019
A book of over eighty very entertaining and varied stories begins with some already appreciated by many in the West, like ‘The Tale of the Sands’, ‘The Food of Paradise’, and ‘The Blind Ones and the Matter of the Elephant’. Shah guides us through these, and the many unfamiliar tales which follow. He tells us that not all dervish stories are suitable for everyone, for all places, and for all times. As an example, ‘The Man Who Walked on Water’ provides great enjoyment and a superficial moral for those of us who read it in English; but, to be fully appreciated, it needs to be encountered in Arabic.

The book contains a story composed by one of the greatest Arabic poets, el-Mutannabi. ‘The Three Truths’ was, like others in his collection, to remain an oral legend for a thousand years, because the retelling needed to be in accordance with ‘the changes of the times’. By the time Shah compiled this collection, a thousand years since the poet’s death had elapsed, and the story finally appeared in print.

This is not the only reminder that the Eastern approach to storytelling is governed by what seem to us to be inexplicable rules. ‘The Lame Man and the Blind Man’, according to dervish lore, is only to be read after receiving definite instructions to do so. Alternately it can be read by those who have already studied ‘The Blind Ones and the Matter of the Elephant’. When you come to the penultimate story, make sure you leave yourself enough time to read the last one immediately afterwards, because ‘The Host and the Guests’ is one of the Sufi Tales which carry an embargo. In this case we are warned that it may not be studied in isolation.

I read the Kindle edition of this book twice before attempting this, admittedly inadequate, review. I thoroughly enjoyed all the stories, but make a plea not to ignore, or dismiss lightly, the more down-to-earth tales. Some of the stories I found most surprising and rewarding included ‘The Time, the Place and the People’, ‘Wisdom for Sale’ and ‘The Lamp Shop’
Profile Image for Sobia Nawab.
42 reviews3 followers
September 29, 2017
This book belonged to my late father-in-law. So I kept it as keepsakes. It was an old old book, he probably had it for many decades, I'm sure I had an emotional connection with the book and its contents because I absolutely LOVED it!
Every story in its simplicity and wisdom brought smile to my face. It was a pleasure reading this book.
Profile Image for Keefe.
Author 14 books29 followers
June 27, 2016
Bagus sekali, awalnya buku ini adalah ragam manuskrip timur tengah yg di terjemahkan ke Bahasa Indonesia menjadi kumpulan cerpen klasik para sufi yg sangat menginspirasi kehidupan manusia dan menghibur, walau pengetahuan saya terbatas dan kurang memahami beberapa cerpen didalamnya. ^^
3 reviews1 follower
August 29, 2020
This is one of the first collections of teaching stories by the author that I encountered close to 40 years ago. Rereading it now, I sense the same sort of jolt of surprise, an upending of assumptions based on cultural conditioning, habits of thought. I feel like I'm breathing some air of an unusual sense of truth, beginning again to notice the human potential for a much wider, finer perspective and for the taste of a deeply hidden, interconnected reality. In the depth of he ocean of these stories there seems to be layers of riches beyond compare. I've spent most of my life safely on the shore.

Here are some of my re-familarizing impressions. Experiential themes are woven in a subtle and intuitive manner throughout the work. One theme is the difficult psychological blocks to even approaching this teaching and it's teachers in a useful, acceptable manner. The overall tone of this theme is perhaps set in one of the early stories, one of my favorites — The Tale of the Sands. In this multi-meaning filled allegory a stream is approaching a desert, which will soak it up or at best create a stagnant marsh. The stream, like our accumulated identity habits and assumptions, is reasonably reluctant to give itself up in vaporish form so that the wind might carry it across the sands, where it would become a mountain stream again. The sands have seen it all before and eventually persuade the stream to let its essential self move on.
Necessity seems an essential nudge for letting go or at least setting aside one's fool's gold, in order to acquire new or buried sense organs.

Much of the "learning how to learn analogies" emphasize the in-the-world, experiential requirements of this teaching method, An example is the story of the Greedy Sons, which
illustrates a designer and his design for overcoming a common psychological impediment to this sort of learning capacity. A father leaves land to his sons, with the suggestion that gold is buried there, somewhere. After exhausting their greedy search for a few years, the sons become successful farmers from the habit of tilling the soil in the search.

One story that has cleared up some confusion in my mind and promises more insight to follow if I allow it to work its way into the texture of my life — is the Tale of the Three Domains. All these tales seem designed to be entertaining and possibly have a nourishment for those ready and open to a further transformational effect. One saying of this teaching might be relevant — taste and you will know.

3 reviews
August 19, 2020
Tales of the Dervishes is a collection of traditional Sufic teaching stories.

The stories in this collection may entertain you, and can be read in any order. But entertainment is not this book’s true purpose, and you will find certain themes about human behavior repeat themselves in subtly different ways throughout the collection.

You are likely to find “morals” in many of the stories, much like reading Aesop’s Fables. A few stories with no obvious moral may bewilder you. Pondering the morals you perceive is another way to enjoy this book. For those that seek it, Tales of the Dervishes can also teach about human nature and perception.

Each story in this collection contains within it layers of meaning that become accessible to the reader through contemplation and successive readings. Details within the stories, such as whether a dervish or a Sufi is involved, may escape notice, and even if noticed, may not seem significant. They are. Noticing such details, understanding the role they play in the story, and realizing the significance of small changes in situations, are just a few of the lessons available in Tales of the Dervishes.

If you want casual entertainment, these tales provide it. If you want a book that entertains, and also helps you better understand the human condition every time you read it, Tales of the Dervishes should certainly be on your reading list.
Profile Image for Tim.
144 reviews1 follower
October 6, 2021
“You have to learn how to teach, for man does not want to be taught.” I think I had this as a suggestion from Tim Ferriss’ newsletter and decided to give it a go. It’s a collection of probably fifty or so short stories or fables or pieces of advice that come from Middle Eastern or Asian collections. Each story gives a brief synopsis of the idea and author at the end and so there’s a little history of Turk and Indian and Persian thinkers from the past thousand years or so. Some of them are familiar from Arabian Nights or other books of fables (like the blind men describing the elephant). Usually there is some moral around greed or hard work or figuring out what is really important. It is interesting to note that the stories all deal with men (and written by men) with the occasional female character being the target of marriage or a hindrance to the man’s happiness.
I enjoyed a few of the stories and their messages but felt most of them were pretty forgettable. I also had the habit of zoning out while reading which indicates there wasn’t much that was interesting even after the first paragraph of a story. Maybe I’ll revisit and read a story here or there and see if my opinion changes over time.
Not really recommended unless this genre interests you.
Profile Image for Glen Tucker.
69 reviews2 followers
February 10, 2019
A delightful package of many many Sufi stories designed to make one think and humorous too. They are to my mind similar to the parables that Jesus taught in as much as they are rooted in ordinary life and hence rustic and understandable from an ordinary person's view but also with an esoteric message.
In this respect, some of the stories are easier than others to understand.
I read this book in about 8 sessions, each session required some digestion because of the compact stories. But if you love to delve into the esoteric by reading stories, a bit like Nasrudin, which seems to have gone out of fashion, get and read this book. (PS for Sufi aficionados, there is a timeline of masters at the end of the book; really interesting.
Profile Image for Hashim Sardar.
15 reviews6 followers
August 30, 2022
Beautiful tales. On surface they look ordinary and some of them pointless; however, one needs to pay very close attention to get something out of them. They’re told/written in a way so that it enables the listener/reader to think beyond ordinary limitations. One story can be understood on many different levels of understanding. Usually the Sufi masters would use these tales at the right time for the disciple. They are not presented for entertainment purposes. If they see a disciple cannot get pass a certain hidden prejudice, they will not try to reason with him but just tell him a tale from which he can decipher and understand first through analogy and then through intuition. Unlike western model of storytelling the moral is not spelled out, but hidden and only understood intuitively.
Profile Image for Lacivard Mammadova.
574 reviews56 followers
July 31, 2019
Nağıl deyil, ibrətamiz hekayələr deyək. Bütün uşaq vaxtı eşitdiyiniz, 1001 gecə nağıllarından, Ruminin söhbətlərindən, Quran və İncildə danışılan hadisələr hamısı az çox eyni mənaya gələrək toplanıb. Həqiqətən hər hekayə bir dərsdir. Təqdim edilmə şəkli olduqca maraqlıdır. Əvvəlcə hekayə yazılıb, daha sonra danışılan hadisədən çıxarılmalı olan dərs, ardınca isə hekayənin kim tərəfindən nəql edildiyi və hansı mənbələrdə qeyd edildiyi, bənzər mənalı yazılara daha harada rast gələcəyiniz barədə məlumatlar var. Hətta digər mənbədə dəyişiklik varsa, onun nədən ibarət olduğu da deyilir. Bu tip formatla ilk dəfə qarşılaşıram və nə vaxtsa sufi nağılları oxuyacağımı da düşünmürdüm. Bəyəndim.
Profile Image for Hina.
45 reviews
May 3, 2021
A beautiful book, full of the most beautiful parables, I love to read a few stories every night with my son, he enjoys them so much, as do I.

I have to simplify the language for my son while preserving the narrative. These stories sometimes make no sense when you read them, and as you sit with them, as you read them again, or just in a random moment minutes, hours or days later, the meanings start to reveal themselves to you.

This is not a book you read and put away in a shelf, its one that will stay with you, each and every day, as long as you are prepared to read and absorb the lessons it contains.
Profile Image for Brian Wilcox.
Author 1 book649 followers
March 20, 2019
These stories are best fit for spending time with in prolonged reflection or as a means of receiving teaching: as indicated in the subtitle.

Also, one will not learn much about Sufism from reading this, for the stories imply 'inside' information that most readers will not have about Sufism. Some helpful notes would have assisted in providing information to make the collection more beneficial for the non-Sufi reader.

When reading sacred stories, I read for inspiration and encouragement, I found little of either here, while many of the stories were enjoyable to read.
March 27, 2019
A collection of teaching stories that can be read just for entertainment, but the book makes clear that it is meant to be functional teaching material (much like Shah's other works). This means that the stories will repay careful attention and repeated reading by the would-be student. I can only imagine the monumental work that went into collecting these gems and preparing their presentation in this book!
Profile Image for rachid  idjiou.
221 reviews59 followers
December 31, 2017
idries shah collected tales , teaching stories of the Sufi master over the past thousand years. He selected from the Sufi classics, from oral tradition , from unpunished manuscripts and school of sufi teaching in many countries .Book tales of the dervishes contain many beautiful story, spiritual tales. I recommend you to read it.
Profile Image for Dany.
201 reviews3 followers
March 9, 2021
“Clerics, philosophers, and others visited him and asked: ‘Under whom did you study?’

‘It is difficult to say,’ said Mojud.

His disciples asked: ‘How did you start your career?’

He said: ‘As a small official.’

‘And you gave it up to devote yourself to self-mortification?’

‘No, I just gave it up.’

They did not understand him.” (156)
Profile Image for Book Wormy.
1,371 reviews19 followers
June 26, 2017
A collection of stories, fables or fairytales, depending how you view them, that the dervishes use to guide the Sufis to the correct way to live your life for the benefit of humanity not just yourself.

I like the historic details added after each story.
Profile Image for Ayaan Shah.
57 reviews
February 22, 2023
Pretty good book. Got it in London over the summer and read it with family over Sunday morning breakfasts. Some stories were intriguing and thought-provoking, others were kind of dumb. Maybe I just didn’t understand the stories. Oh well.

Overall a fun read.
1,747 reviews55 followers
December 11, 2017
I liked this book better than Shah's other Sufi teaching stories
Profile Image for Nadim.
43 reviews1 follower
August 15, 2018
I need to re-read this. The world got quicker while I slowed down.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 68 reviews

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.