Empire's Son, Empire's Orphan: The Fantastical Lives of Ikbal and Idries Shah (Hardcover)

Empire's Son, Empire's Orphan: The Fantastical Lives of Ikbal and Idries Shah By Nile Green Cover Image
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A rollicking story of two literary fabulists who revealed the West’s obsession with a fabricated, exotic East.

In the highbrow literary circles of the mid-twentieth century, a father and son spread seductive accounts of a mystical Middle East. Claiming to come from Afghanistan, Ikbal and Idries Shah parlayed their assumed identities into careers full of drama and celebrity, writing dozens of books that influenced the political and cultural elite. Pitching themselves as the authentic voice of the Muslim world, they penned picaresque travelogues and exotic potboilers alongside weighty tomes on Islam and politics. Above all, father and son told Western readers what they wanted to hear: audacious yarns of eastern adventure and harmless Sufi mystics—myths that, as the century wore on and the Taliban seized power, became increasingly detached from reality.

Empire’s Son, Empire’s Orphan follows the Shahs from their origins in colonial India to literary London, wartime Oxford, and counterculture California via the Levant, the League of Nations, and Latin America. Nile Green unravels the conspiracies and pseudonyms, fantastical pasts and self-aggrandizing anecdotes, high stakes and bold schemes that for nearly a century painted the defining portrait of Afghanistan. Ikbal and Idries convinced poets, spies, orientalists, diplomats, occultists, hippies, and even a prime minister that they held the key to understanding the Islamic world. From George Orwell directing Muslim propaganda to Robert Graves translating a fake manuscript of Omar Khayyam and Doris Lessing supporting jihad, Green tells the fascinating tale of how the book world was beguiled by the dream of an Afghan Shangri-La that never existed.

Gambling with the currency of cultural authenticity, Ikbal and Idries became master players of the great game of empire and its aftermath. Part detective story, part intellectual folly, Empire’s Son, Empire’s Orphan reveals the divergence between representation and reality, between what we want to believe and the more complex truth.

About the Author

Nile Green holds the Ibn Khaldun Endowed Chair in World History at UCLA. A former Guggenheim Fellow, he is recognized as one of the world’s leading historians of Islam. He has written nine previous books, most recently, How Asia Found Herself: A Story of Intercultural Understanding and Empire's Son, Empire's Orphan.

Praise For…

Green shows how, by dint of hard work, brazen fraud and a mastery of ‘the occult energies of identity,’ over the course of the 20th century, first father and then son became recognized as experts on the East in general and Afghanistan in particular, helping to shape how those places were viewed on both sides of the Atlantic.
— Robyn Creswell - New York Times

[A] superb book… it highlights the pervasive influence of esoteric religion—often of a Sufi tinge—in the increasingly post Christian West.
— Fitzroy Morrissey - Literary Review

Rarely has the literary world been more successfully hoodwinked than by Ikbal and Idries Shah . . . I was hooked from the first page.
— Miranda Seymour, author of Robert Graves: Life on the Edge

In this dual biography of the father and son shapeshifters Ikbal and Idries Shah, Nile Green has given us a funhouse mirror of Great Britain’s alter ego as its empire unraveled. Green chronicles the Shahs’ ever-multiplying monikers, mythical backstories, prolific spinning of tales of derring-do, royal lineage, and esoteric mysticism with unflappable flair. And when you think it can’t get any more fantastic, Doris Lessing pops up in Peshawar, following her Sufi master Idries in shilling for the mujahideen just as the Holy War is getting underway. In an age when identities aspire to be fixed, cultural appropriation is frowned upon, and borders are locked shut, the Shahs perfected the art of trespass.
— Deborah Baker, author of The Last Englishmen

This scholarly and hilarious tale of the Shahs, father and son, and their decades of fabrications, is one of a kind. Nile Green is an exquisite writer, and his book is more droll, erudite, and delightful than anything the Shah family ever came up with.
— Peter Theroux, translator and author of Sandstorms

This rollicking tale of the beguiling father and son duo Ikbal and Idries Shah is a thrilling exploration of the space that Islam occupied in the western imagination over the span of the twentieth century. Some of the Forrest Gump-like encounters will leave your jaw on the floor and the Catch Me If You Can intrigue of it all will keep you turning the pages. Nile Green, one of the world’s foremost scholars on Islam, has written a truly extraordinary, accessible, and timely book

— Shahan Mufti, author of American Caliph

Green’s finely wrought narrative presents father and son as, in some ways, boxed into their grift by the strictures of Britain’s racist society and its Orientalist expectations; at the same time, the duo’s genuine love of poetry and spiritualism is palpable. This nuanced and erudite account dives headfirst into the messy contradictions of life under British imperialism for colonial subjects.
— Publishers Weekly

[A] remarkable father-and-son biography.
— Booklist

A solid, eminently readable work of scholarly detection and high-toned chicanery.
— Kirkus (starred review)
Product Details
ISBN: 9781324002413
ISBN-10: 1324002417
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Publication Date: July 2nd, 2024
Pages: 384
Language: English