«Sufism is alive and well»: interview with Robert Irwin


Robert Irwin (born 23.08.1946) is mostly known as an author of the cult classic novel «The Arabian Nightmare» (1983), and as the expert scientist in the history of Orientalism and on The Arabian Nights.

During his studies in the 60s, Irwin converted to Sufi Islam and spent some time in a dervish monastery in Mostaganem, Algeria. His experience of that time is described in the «Memoirs of a Dervish: Sufis, Mystics and the Sixties» (2011). After Irwin left the monastery and returned in swinging London, he explored the psychedelic culture and Crowleyan circles (later he wrote the book about it, too: «Satan Wants Me», 1999).

Shortly after the 70th birthday of the author MAGREB talked with Robert Irwin about the variety of subjects, including publishing of his first new novel in 17 years.


What are the main difference between the Dervishes and the Sufi? Are these are the different stages of one single journey?

There is no difference between a Sufi and a dervish. Sufi is the Arabic word and dervish is the Persian one.

Sheikh who initiated young Robert Irwin in Mostaganem
Sheikh who initiated young Robert Irwin in Mostaganem



“The Arabian Nightmare” depicts medieval life in Cairo. It is interesting, how different this Cairo is from the Norman Meiler’s one (“Ancient Evenings”). These Cairos are completely different but it seems they’re telling about the same thing which Indians would call “samsara”. The madness, the labyrinth, the swamp, the tenets of the flesh, instincts and power (“Prayer-Cushions Of The Flesh”), the prison of the ornament, of the city walls, of the weather, of the culture, of the dream within a dream, repeating structures, dreams about waking over and over again (along with “The Arabian Nightmare” all of this could be found in “Saragossa” that’ve inspired you). As we understand, The One True Religion, unified ray of light/fire/knowledge always was an attempt to make a solution to this “samsara” problem, how to not get lost, but to get to the true reality, to “God” or “Allah”. But it seems to us, that you’re not depicting the solution in your novels, only the different views on the Problem…why?

If memory serves, Mailer’s Ancient Evenings was set in Pharaonic Egypt. Cairo was only founded some thousands of years later.

As for not providing solutions to the way out of the labyrinth, the obvious response to this is that I do not know the way. I am no kind of guru nor will I ever be. And, if I did know the way, I would not reveal it in a novel. I regard true mystical experiences as being too serious to be written up in fiction. Though there are things that look mystical in my novels, they are fantasies. As for dreams, I am quite disillusioned about them. The dream (for me at least) has turned out to be a poor source of literary inspiration. The dream is such a bad narrator. My rejection of dreams is encapsulated in a short dialogue in my forthcoming novel (on which, see below).


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What is the situation with Dervish/Sufi culture in modern world, Western and Eastern? Are there any real interest from the side of the people to such matters? Are there any people of such will and dignity who can walk the piligrim’s path to the end? Could “initiatic” systems of East and West provide something real to the seekers?

Sufism is alive and well. I think I am right in saying that Sufis outnumber Wahhabi and Salafi Muslims. The Alawi order, to which I was attached, thrives in both Algeria and France under its Sheikh, Khaled Ben Tounes (son of the Skeikh who initiated young Robert Irwin – ed.). But there are a number of wishy-washy New Age Sufi orders in the West – harmless, even benign, but still fairly useless.



Why have you stopped writing fiction in 1999? It’ve been years since you talked about working on new novels. When we’ll have the chance to read any of them?

I have been working a lot on The Arabian Nights and related story collections in recent years, as well as the memoir and a book on camels and lots of academic articles («Night and Horses and the Desert: the Penguin Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature» (Allen Lane 1999), «The Alhambra» (Harvard University Press, 2005), «For Lust of Knowing: the Orientalists and their Enemies» (Allen Lane, 2006), «Camel» (Reaktion Books 2010), «Mamluks and Crusaders» (Ashgate Variorum 2010), «Visions of the Jinn; Illustrators of the Arabian Nights» (The Arcadian Library 2010) — ed).

But I have two-half finished novels on the stocks and a third, «Wonders Will Never Cease» which will be published very shortly, on November 4 th to be precise. For publication details about this novel, see Amazon or the Dedalus website. I expect to complete and publish a novel about the history of cinema in 2017 or 2018.

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«Wonders» is perhaps the Arabian Nightmare as re-envisaged by an old man:

It is Palm Sunday 1461 and the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil is about to be fought outside the village of Towton. It is one of a series of engagements between the houses of York and Lancaster. The world when younger was more brightly coloured and its ecstasies and tortures more fiercely endured. But, ever since the Dolorous Stroke and the Showing of the Grail in the days of King Arthur, England has lain under a curse. So many have died that Hell is now full and consequently the dead stalk the land.

Anthony Woodville, Lord Scales, having been killed at Towton, is vouchsafed the first of many strange visions before being resurrected. From then on adventures come running after him like hungry dogs and he will encounter the Swordsman’s Pentacle, the Draug, the Miraculous Cauldron, the Curse of the Roasted Goose, the Talking Head and the Museum of Skulls. The real world is a poor thing compared to the stories that are told about it. Anthony hears or takes part in many stories, and those stories are porous, so that men and monsters move easily in and out of them. The stories that Anthony encounters have only one purpose and it is not a good one.


You were very young and fearless when you headed to Algeria back in 60s, so you were rewarded with a completely different perspective how to perceive the universe. Arab world has changed since that time. Modern world as a whole changed. People have changed. What can young intelligent seeking man, someone like young you do today, in which direction he or she should travel to reach anything completely new and shape-shifting?

I was young fearless and now I am old and timid. I think my young self must have been quite mad. Sufism still seems to me to be the way, though, from what I have read, there is a great deal to be said for the living tradition of Russian Orthodox mysticism. The right way is quite unlikely to be a new way.

But I insist that I am not a reliable guide.


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In “Satan Wants Me”, about a Sixties hippy who falls in with the occult, you quoted Aleister Crowley: “magic is a disease of language.” “Magic and language are intensely bound up witheach other; it’s a running theme in my novel.” you also said. It seems that language is really the building material for walls of the prison of limited mind…the word ”notarius”, for example, itsRoman, “empire never ended” as PKD said. What are the most interesting examples of using language as a weapon you noticed recently?

In recent decades it is striking how politicians and advertisers strive for phrases and words that are all but meaningless: ‘transparent’, ‘vibrant’, ‘stakeholder’, ‘sends out a clear message’, ‘we start with you’, ‘believe in better’, etc. The people who deal in this kind of language want us to give up listening to them critically.



What can you say about Idries Shakh’s Sufism? If it is not “authentical Sufism”, what is it? His understanding is the deepest kind and his methods are clearly work.

I cannot comment on Shah’s Sufism.

The Green Man, The Khidr, what is it really? Is it some stage of understanding, some entity (or degree of understanding of The Universal Spirit). It is green and the Islam’s colour is green (why? does it mean the infinite growth [of the spirit towards The God]?). Does it somehow connected to The Green Man of the Europe, The Green Knight of arthurian tales or, perhaps, somehow even to the “green men” from the UFOs?

In my memoir I relate how while in the Sufi zawiya I once dreamt of the GreenMan. Khidr, the Green Man, is the guardian, the promiser of eternal life. He really is the stuff of legend – especially those legends associated with Alexander. He has no connection with the various green men of the West. It is important not to let syncretism run riot and see connections where there are none.


There is a theory that alchemy as an Art came from the Magreb countries or other place in Arabian East and spreaded in Europe through Catholic priest of Spain or somehow else. And we are not talking about the genesis of the word “al-chemy” itself: the oldest documentable source of the Emerald Tablet’s text is the Kitab sirr al-haliqi (Book of the Secret of Creation and the Art of Nature), pre-Islamic (probably) Arabic compilation published in the 6-8 th century A.D.. And “The Emerald Tablet” (green is the colour of Eastern and later Islamic mysticism, as we know) was essential to the Western Hermetic Doctrine…Could you shed some light on it all up for us? Was “The Emerald Tablet” a really “translation” or the Arabs created it by themselves?

I am no kind of expert on the Emerald Tablet, though, if it could be as late as the eighth century, it cannot not be pre-Islamic. I doubt if it was created by the Arabs. From memory, it looks like a Hellenistic text.


You’re a specialist on “The Arabian Nights”, so-called “most influential book in the Western canon that does not actually belong to it”. Considering this to “legends, lies and honest mistakes are as much a part of the story of the Alhambra as is the factual record”, about your historical research.

I think the Bible is ‘the most influential book in the Western canon that does not actually belong to it’. But The Arabian Nights runs it a fairly close second. I am not sure what you are asking here. Anyway, in recent years I have been struck by the number of fake works of literature that have had a major and benign influence on mainstream literature, for examples MacPherson’s Ossian and Mardrus’s essentially fraudulent translation of the Nights. More generally, historians, including historians of Islam, are getting increasingly interested in “invented traditions”, for they are often far more potent than real ones.


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What is the most interesting, previously widely unknown Arabic piece of alchemy you discovered? What was the most beautiful amount of poetry?

The alchemical treatises of Abu’l-Qasim al-Iraqi are beautifully illustrated with (I think bogus) Egyptian hieroglyphs. My favourite Arabic poem is the  Mu‘allaqa of Imru’l-Qais. My favourite poem ever is the anonymous Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Then a lot of Yeats.

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What are the levels of gradation of Sufi initiation? What are the“siddhis” are possible on every level? What qualities and character’s traits should have the man on every level to accomplish it? How alters the consciousness as a result on every level on this way? 

Could Sufi be Sufi without Islam restrictions and regulations, just by “the Essence of the teaching”? And if so, what this essence really is?

I do not feel able to offer answers to the next two questions. But levels of initiation differ in the various Sufi orders. Sufism is necessarily embedded within Islam. It is not dependent on changing fashions in psychology, sociology and politics.




There is a clear distinction between the beginning and the end of your memoir (or was it a distinction between our initial expectations and the result?). You “fell to earth”, it is a very powerful ending. But you commented in recent interview, that it probably was more like “Siddhartha”’s case, to drown oneself completely in abovementioned samsara, to make it through…what do you think now about your way and your experience in Mostaganem? Will you visit it once more someday?

When I was young I found it easy to reject worldly things. After all, I had so few of them. No house, no wife, no child and very little money indeed. Renunciation of the world was then a bit phoney. I guess that I will visit Mostaganem again. But it may be like going through the green door in the H.G. Wells short story. The return to the remembered paradise of youth may be death.

What do you think about Elon Musk’s project of Mars’s colonization? What is the real purpose of this project? What would really feel the human beings, departed from the Earth for the first time ever, trying to build a life in a completely different world? From the spiritual point of view, this planet, Mars, wasn’t made for humans to live on its surface. Will these travellers face the resistance of the planet’s spirit, god of war (talking materialistically, its hostility is expressed in low gravitation, absence of non-toxic water and magnetic poles). 

I know nothing whatsoever of Elon Musk colonisation project. If you read Ray Bradbury, you will learn that Mars is haunted.


When the world will be the better place, full of peace and understanding?

The world already is a better place than it was in past centuries. I count myself blessed to have been born in this one.

What interesting books/films/music you discovered to yourself recently?

Clive James’s May Week Was in June was for me an exhilarating read. It took me back to Oxbridge in the 60s. Habanera, a German film of the Nazi era, is a beautifully shot, deep-focus visual symphony in black and white – and with good songs. The Red Army Ensemble’s rendering of Russian and British choral numbers was a delightful discovery.




Are you still roller-blading?

Arthritis forced me to give up roller-blading three or four years ago. But I dream of roller-blading more or less every week – of gliding, swooping, spinning and leaping. And then I awake, at first very cheerful, ‘but when I awaked I cried to dream again’ (Caliban).