Afghan scholar and author, Idries Shah, spent years interpreting the Sufi tradition for a Western audience. With many illustrated picture books to choose from, Lion’s Whiskers here offers three.
First, we have The Silly Chicken, illustrated by Jeff Jackson, which offers a very amusing parable about intellectual courage. I remember many years ago asking myself why people in fantasy stories were always so quick to believe talking animals. Why would you place such confidence in the accuracy of the animal’s information, or assume a lack of agenda? Might the animal not be a liar? Might the animal not be stupid? In this book, we have a excellent example of why being skeptical of talking animals may be proper wisdom. A man spends a great deal of effort teaching a chicken to talk; finally, the chicken does speak, and what the chicken says sends the people of the town off into a hair-tearing panic. After a great deal of confusion, the people finally discover they’ve been given information by someone with no intelligence at all. They ask “How could you tell us such a thing?” And the chicken – with common sense that can only be seen as ironic – replies, “Only silly people would listen to a chicken in the first place.” In an age when we swallow information – especially alarming information – without chewing first, this is a timely cautionary tale! The pictures are cheerful with bright, bold primary colors, and the book is sure to amuse young children. Feel free to act it out. The story is just begging for exaggeration and silliness.
Another fine example of intellectual courage is Fatima the Spinner and the Tent, illustrated by Natasha Delmar. A young woman is the ‘victim’ of one reversal of fortune after another. With each disaster, she must build her life again in a new place, learn a new trade, acquire different skills. Just when it seems that she must surely be doomed to a life of bad fortune without let-up, it becomes clear that every single stroke of “bad luck” has prepared her for her ultimate triumph with the intellectual and manual skills she acquired along the way. We can also see emotional courage at work here, as Fatima picks up the pieces each time, “and within a year or two she was happy and reconciled to her lot.” The illustrations are beautifully detailed, with borders that change as Fatima’s circumstances change, and illuminated capital letters that give the book the look of an old treasure. Maps on the endpapers trace Fatima’s journey through the story.
Last, we offer The Old Woman and the Eagle, also illustrated by Natasha Delmar. Here we have a parable that many of us would do well to heed. An old woman, whose experience of birds is limited to pigeons, finds an eagle in her garden. Thinking it an odd-looking pigeon, she gives the eagle a pigeon make-over. Instead of seeing the qualities that make him an eagle, she sees those qualities only as flaws of “pigeon-ness.” She lacks the intellectual courage to question her assumptions; she lacks the social courage to feel comfortable with something or someone outside her experience; she lacks the emotional courage to let the eagle just be himself but instead tries to make him into a better pigeon. Fortunately for the eagle, he manages to escape and undo the “improvements” she had made to him. “And with that, the eagles flew back to their own country and returned to their own nests. And they never went near that silly old woman again.” Nor do I blame them! Sometimes it is worth the effort to educate someone about what makes us unique; sometimes our explanations fall on deaf ears. Emotional courage and social courage allow us to preserve our unique gifts in order to share them with those who will appreciate them!
There are many other illustrated tales from the Sufi tradition by Idries Shah. Lion’s Whiskers wishes you good fun in discovering the six types of courage within these stories.