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Highlights from Memoirs Of A Dervish (Robert Irwin)

The problem with most memoirs is that most authors haven't lived interesting lives, and of those who have, few have the skills to say anything interesting about it. Fortunately, Robert Irwin is unlike most authors, and his memoir Memoirs of a Dervish is a wonderful recollection of his late teenage and early 20s years as he discovered Sufism and came of age in the UK and London of the 60s and 70s. Below are my highlights from the book along with some brief commentary on them.

Before getting to my the highlights, here is a bit more background on Irwin, taken from his Goodreads biography:

Robert Irwin was born in 1946. he read Modern History at Oxford and taught Medieval History at the University of St Andrews. He also lectured on Arabic and Middle Eastern History at the universities of London, Cambridge and Oxford. He is the commissioning editor for the TLS for The Middle East and writes for a number of newspapers and journals in the UK and the USA.

Robert Irwin goes rollerblading most days and takes part in rollerblading marathons. His other pursuits include juggling, pinball and cooking.

And now the highlights. These are taken in chronological order from the book. Obviously, I highlighted what I found most interesting or notable, and there is much of interest that in the book that I did not highlight. This first one gives a sense of Irwin's approach to mysticism.

By the way, A Moslem Saint of the Twentieth Century is not a boring book. But most books on mysticism are mind-numbingly boring. They deal in abstractions, they are awash with technical terms, and all humanity is leached out as the authors drone on about the levels of enlightenment, chakra centres and the paradoxes of the ultimate Oneness. Also, a lot of the books about mysticism say that one should not be reading books, for true enlightenment cannot be found in them.

I also sought enlightenment in books at Irwin's age, and like him, failed to find it.

I was in a phase when I was reading novels not for pleasure, but in order to discover the Meaning of Life. Novels by Dostoevsky, Proust, Hermann Hesse or J. D. Salinger seemed more likely to provide the required answer than, say, novels by Austen, Dickens, Wodehouse or Ian Fleming, (I now think more highly of Austen and Wodehouse in this respect.)
Hesse's novels appeared to offer wisdom, but years later a friend of mine pointed out that, from what we know of his life, Hesse ended up an embittered failure.

I attended a well regarded boarding school and the headmaster was enamored with David Foster Wallace. He would routinely quote from his essays. I always left these talks thinking to myself, “if he was so wise why'd he kill himself?”.

He dabbled in Buddhism before Islam:

It was my membership of the Oxford Buddhist Society that led me to Islam, though not straight away. In the early days I attended a lecture by Chogyam Thongpa Rinpoche. He had fled Tibet when the Chinese invaded in the fifties and studied in India before arriving in Oxford on a scholarship in 1963. Thongpa spoke of how a cloud had enveloped the Dalai Lama and allowed him to evade his Chinese pursuers and enter India. I meditated with Lama Thongpa and he chanted sutras while I sat cross-legged and tried (in vain, of course) to think of nothing at all. But I did learn how to use chopsticks from some of his Tibetan companions. Eventually, after his years in Oxford, Thongpa cast off the guise of a holy monk, slept with several of his female disciples and took up cocaine and alcohol consumption on a grand scale. He was to die of cirrhosis of the liver, while yet preserving something of the aura of a holy man.
I found Buddhism interesting, but it also seemed rather bloodless, abstract and solipsistic.

I sometimes think of how much more boring history would be if everyone were Buddhist (although perhaps it would not be so boring if they all followed Thongpa's later interpretation of Buddhism).

On hitchhiking

For my generation, hitchhiking was a youthful rite of passage, just as the Grand Tour had been for the young men of the eighteenth century.

It seems my generation has no such rites of passages, probably for the worse.

On marriage

Later I heard that all three 'Alawi shaikhs had had problems with their wives. Later Faid told me that the reason that the Shaikh had taken a wife was to be tested and purified by the difficulties she made for him.
According to Faid, one should always say, ‘bismillah’ at the climax of sexual orgasm. I think that my wife would punch me if I did that.

Dinnertime conversation at the tariqa

The content of our dinnertime conversation was frequently about Satan, the Messiah or the magic of Celtic place names. So, in retrospect, I suppose that as dinner table conversations go it was not too bad.

Wisdom from Ibn Khaldun

As the fourteenth-century philosopher-historian Ibn Khaldun[1] observed, ‘Each man resembles his own times more than he does his father.’


Occasionally, to wind my visitors up, I used to preach the values of middle-class life and bourgeois morality as the estimable product of many centuries of social evolution. Families and everyday pastimes were beautiful. My words were shocking. It was as if I had farted loudly in an enclosed space.

This would still be shocking to many students at elite institutions today, despite them largely being a product of such bourgeois morality.

Jesus and Muhammad

Faid claimed that Jesus and Muhammad were socialists, but they were not like the socialists of today, whose socialism was all ‘Moi, moi, moi.’ (That was a very fair comment on the sort of socialism that was practised in Algeria in the sixties.

And it would be a fair comment to make today. However, I don't want to give the impression that Irwin is particularly political, his book is largely unconcerned with political matters though by virtue of him writing about coming-of-age in the 60s it is understandable that they creep in at times.

On boredom

When one sets out on a mystical path one anticipates all sorts of horrendous obstacles, but not boredom. Yet boredom there must be. Mostaganem was a strange place in which to try to grow up.

This advice is as relevant today as it was then, but it seems every generation has to relearn this lesson on its own.

In Drugs, Mysticism and Make-believe (1973) he denounced the idea that drug-taking could lead to enlightenment and he attacked the Californisation of Oriental religions in the West. As for hippies, ‘They make themselves ridiculous because they are trying to do what can only be done without trying. Try to be spontaneous and you will only succeed in becoming conventionally unconventional.’

Describing walking in London with his girlfriend before culture went global.

We used to walk hand in hand down the King's Road. In those days it was not monopolised by the same chain stores and coffee houses one sees in every part of the country now. Then there was Mary Quant, Granny Takes a Trip, the Chelsea Drugstore and Gandalf's Garden and, just off King's Road, there was Hung on You. Just as important, there were still local grocers and cobblers, as well as secondhand bookshops and antique stalls. By now, the logic of commerce has destroyed almost all of this and no one in their right mind would bother to walk the length of King's Road for pleasure. But then, ‘In Chelsea, the girls in their breathtaking short skirts, their outrageous dresses inspired by anything from art nouveau to the Union Jack, their mad stockings and kinky boots, their obvious acceptance of the stares of stunned gasping males, are so tantalising and so beautiful that any account of entertainment in London must inevitably give them pride of place (Milton Shulman).’

It's a shame such places are gone.

On his girlfriend at the time

It was difficult to see much of her, for she was often on night duty or on weekend duty and I had seminars and tutorials that I had to attend. When she was on night duty she started letters, long letters that straddled over several days. In the early letters she often wrote about her ideal in life being to curl up on a rug in front of a fire with a hot drink and a good book in some safe suburban place. (In the sixties, by the way, people still wrote letters frequently and at length.) I became her reading counsellor and got her to read Thomas Mann and other heavyweight novelists, but she still read medical stuff like The Sea Within: The Story of Our Body Fluids by Willaim D. Snively. But, in later letters, the cosy domestic theme faded somewhat and there was a lot more of a sense of her inhabiting a swinging London. She was writing to me about fast cars, fast-talking people and quick changes of clothes. By now human love and divine love were mixed up in my mind.

On his memory

By now I was in my final year and the approach towards Finals. History remained interesting, but it was not as interesting as God or women. I worked fitfully and revised incompetently. I have a poor memory.

I'm somewhat surprised that Irwin claims to have a poor memory, especially since, while reading one of his non-fiction works, I was struck by his seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of orientalists and their works, but this is a common trait among good writers, many of whom write well as a way of synthesizing ideas that they'd otherwise struggle to remember.

I'm sure this story of his breakup will be familiar to many readers, it was to me.

Breaking up with Juliet was difficult and, as it turned out, I was always to be bad at breaking up with women. I brooded and I wrote long argumentative letters, as if one could win a person's love by force of debate. In one break-up after another, the woman would want us to stay friends, but friendship was not what I needed. I had plenty of friends, albeit weird ones mostly. I needed love and emotional reassurance and it was too painful to face relegation to just a confidant and a recipient of letters, from then on enjoined to look at but never to touch the adored one. It is sad that I spurned the friendships that I was offered and, in retrospect, I am ashamed of it, but that was how it was. I am ashamed of it even now. I wanted never to see Juliet again. No, I wanted to see her once more to fix her in my memory, but then never again. I needed to explain to her why we should never meet again, or, alternatively, why I had changed my mind about that. It was not a clean break. We did have a series of meetings that usually turned into sullen rows. But in the very long run, as Walter Savage Landor had it, ‘there is no name, with whatever emphasis of passionate love repeated, of which the echo is not faint at last.’ Then the religious madman in me demanded to know how, if I could not worship a sweet young girl as she deserved to be worshipped, could I worship God?

I’m sure similar collections of characters still exist, but they seem much rarer today.

In the autumn I had moved into Roupell Street, an attractive street of little houses close by Waterloo Station that were, I believe, built originally for railway workers. Thereby I fell in with a rather wonderful community of young people, spread among two or three houses in the street. There was a strong artistic component to this community, which included a sculptor, a book illustrator, a jewellery designer, a potter, a trainee artist, a trainee actress and a book-binder, but also a nurse, a classics student, a Ph.D. student in anthropology and a town planner. Besides the young artists, an older generation of circus folk had settled in the street and a pair of retired acrobats ran the corner shop. People came and went and moved from house to house and there was a lot of bed-hopping. It was difficult to be lonely in Roupell Street, but sometimes I managed it.

On his friends at the time

I had friends but... Kevin Jackson, in an illuminating discussion of that great sixties film Withnail and I, gets it right: ‘It feelingly portrays the intensity and insecurity of adolescent friendships—are these the people I am going to be stuck with for the rest of my life?—the dread of loneliness, directionlessness and humiliating, total failure in “the terrible years in your twenties”.’ I did not want nice friends. I wanted interesting ones. None of my contemporaries had televisions and this was still an age of letter writing. I kept getting demanding and genially abusive letters from Peter Fullter—‘shit face’ was a typical term of affection—wanting me to come and see him in Cambridge, wanting me to come out and join him on Mount Athos, wanting me to accompany him to India.

Are people more or less interesting now that media has shifted from more literary forms to more visual ones?

Now that I was in London, investigating secretive spiritual and occult groups became my hobby. (I think that, as much as anything else, I needed to have an interesting enough life to write about in my diary. I blame my diary.)

Irwin takes part in a satanic ritual. This scene is very reminiscent of similar events that Jack Parsons was present at.

The main part of the ritual was like something out of the film version of Dennis Wheatley's The Devil Rides Out and it was aesthetically rather pleasing, as it featured black and gold robes, a dark vessel containing a mysterious black potion, a silver mirror, black candles and The Book of the Law. The robed celebrants were the Deacon, the Priest, the Virgin Priestess and two long-haired acolytes. The Priestess wore white, the men black. The high point was when the Priestess was stripped down to her underwear and made to lie spread-eagled on the altar, where she was kissed all over by the Priest. There were no dark manifestations and I heard someone mutter that the Priestess was not really a virgin. It was not Satanism, but merely theatre.

On heartbreak

Cowling then told Fuller that there was no answers to love thwarted except intense suffering for at least six months and when this was relayed to me I derived cold comfort from it.

Studying Arab history used to be too weird to explain

At parties I used to lie about what I was studying, as it sounded so weird and because it would be tedious and difficult to explain why I was doing so. I could not imagine how to make medieval Arabic chronicles seem sexy. Therefore two of my ficitonal incarnations were as an officer with the Trucial Oman Scouts and as a professional mah-jong player. I was astonished to find how plausible I was.

On Jung

It became clear to me without any shadow of a doubt that Jung was an intellectual charlatan, though, come to that, Ibn Umayl was also a charlatan. But Jung was also a racist and in his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, he had presented the Arabs as naive, childlike and the ethnic dark shadow of the rational European.

A saying from Abu Mihjan

There is a saying attributed to Abu Mihjan, a Companion of the Prophet: ‘If you drink wine, let it be the finest; if you listen to music, let it be the sweetest; and if you commit a forbidden act, let it be with a beautiful partner, so that, even though you may be convincted of sin in the next world, you will not at any rate be branded as a fool in this.’ After Juliet, I went out with a series of strikingly good-looking women and, though I never got very far with any of them, in retrospect I think that I was blessed to be able to drink in their beauty. Only it did not feel like that at the time, for I was in torment, but yet I delighted in that torment.

Everything old is new again. I routinely hear about the “insights” many of these thinkers came up with, or how “revolutionary” psychedelics will be for the treatment of depression or other mental illnesses.

Clearly the hippy sixties ended in anticlimax, but one needs some perspective here. Only a few young people had ever bought into the hippy ethic, which was in any case poorly articulate. Moreover, to take music as an example, over the decade Cliff Richard, Engelbert Humperdinck and The Sound of Music were all more successful than the Beatles. The sixties turned out to be all trousers and no mouth, the fashions were fine, but there was very little in the way of worthwhile literary production and no one produced a persuasive manifesto of what the hippies might stand for. Then there were so many gods that failed. There were the spiritual gurus, like the Maharishi and other charlatans I have either already named or am shortly to discuss. But there were also secular charlatans, like R. D. Laing, Herbert Marcuse, Marshall McLuhan, Timothy Leary and Ivan Illich. And drug-taking went nowhere. In the end, it and the culture it supported came to seem boring. A friend, who, like me, had tried most of the iconic drugs of the decade, confided that he had come to the conclusion that the best drug with the most predictable highs was alcohol. It was a bonus that it was amazingly easy to score alcohol and there was no fear of being busted by the fuzz.

Ideas such as this have been somewhat tempered by advances in pesticide-resitant crops and fertilizer production, but fake meat and bug eating are spiritually equivalent.

Hills believed that the world's nutritional problems could be solved by getting the poor of the Third World to eat algae.

Will Irwin spare any sacred cows before the end of his memoir?

Well, I have lived with dreams for so long and dutifully recorded so many, but at the end of it all I am disillusioned. The dream is not only a liar, it is also an incompetent narrator. I cannot think of anything useful I have learned from dreams, or any instance in which a dream has served as a valuable inspiration.

Losing his confidence

Paris depressed me, for I was sensing my limitations. I was no longer questing for the Single big Truth. I wanted to settle for smaller truths. While I walked around Paris, I was thinking that if salvation is not for everyone, then what is it for? I had set out for Mostaganem in 1965 confident and idealistic. Now I had lost that confidence. I knew I was not up to the spiritual path and I had become cynical. Yet I took some comfort from a saying of the Shaikh that a faqir had quoted to me: ‘no matter how much one ignores my commands, disobeys them and does the direct opposite, I am always with that faqir.’

Why he didn't go back

In the course of writing this book, I would have liked to go back to Mostaganem to see what memories it might have stimulated, but I dared not. As I have grown older, I have become more cowardly. I think of Algeria as a beautiful country populated by saints and murderers.

Islam vs. Modernity

[F]or much of the Third World, Islam is the last line of defence against the sleazy values of the First World: the easy sex, the video games, the drunkenness in the streets, the cults of celebrities who are famous for being famous and the complacent belief in the triumph of the atheistic secularism of the West.

The entire book I was wondering if Irwin was still a Muslim or not, this passage answered that question for me, though his view of Islam remains one of the strangest I'm aware of.[2]

But, even granting Islam to be essentially true, as I believe it to be, how does that solve the Meaning of Life? Frankly, I have no idea.

  1. Irwin has written many other books, a few of which I've read, one of these is a summary of Ibn Khaldun's thought and how it has been used and interpreted by subsequent thinkers. I enjoyed it. ↩︎

  2. Perhaps surpassed in strangeness only by rapper Tech N9ne's interpration of Islam, who, in the last concert of his I attended, after opening the show by talking about his conversion to Islam, asked the audience where the “bitches who like to get high and fuck” were at. ↩︎