Shah was born into a family of saadat who had their ancestral home at Paghman, not far from Kabul. His mother is of Indian Parsi ethnicity and his father was the Sufi teacher and writer Idries Shah. His elder sister is the documentary filmmaker Saira Shah. He also has a twin sister, author Safia Nafisa Shah.
Tahir Shah was born and brought up in Britain. His father believed strongly in lifelong learning, which influenced his literature. Tahir Shah was educated at Bryanston School, Dorset, England and at universities in London, Nairobi and San Diego. In 2003, sick of living in a London apartment, Shah moved to Morocco along with his wife Rachana and their two small children, Ariane and Timur, where they bought a crumbling mansion in Casablanca located in the middle of a huge shantytown. The Caliph's House (2006) charts the highs and lows of their integration into their new life.
Tahir Shah is a prolific author of books, documentaries, book introductions, peer reviewed academic articles, and book reviews. The vast majority of Shah's books can be considered travel literature, with the exception of his 2012 release Timbuctoo. Shah's first published book was Cultural Research, written for the London-based Institute for Cultural Research. One of his more notable works is Trail of Feathers, an account of his trip through Peru, Machu Picchu, the Incas and Cusco. Another book, In Search of King Solomon's Mines, searching for undiscovered mines known only in folklore. Other books like in Arabian Nights and Travels with Myself are mostly about the author's journeys through exotic locations. His first traditional travelogue was in 1995 with Beyond the Devil's Teeth, covering a trip through Africa, India and much of Latin America.
Shah has written book reviews for The Washington Post, The Guardian, and The Spectator. As well as writing and film making, Shah writes screen material and co-wrote Journey to Mecca, an IMAX film charting the first journey made by Ibn Battuta to Mecca for the Hajj, in 1325. In addition, he reviews for a selection of other media on both sides of the Atlantic, and writes pieces for the radio, such as The Journey, which was read on BBC Radio 3.
In the years before he turned his hand primarily to book writing, Shah wrote a large number of serious reportage-type magazine features, highlighting the lives of the voiceless in society, especially those of women. These included pieces about women on Death Row, widows who cleared mines in Cambodia, the trapped lives of bonded labourers in India, and the women-only police stations in Brazil, known as "Delegacia da Mulher" (Woman's Police Station). He continues to write journalistic pieces, especially aimed at drawing attention to causes he believes deserve public attention.
After having published a number of books with traditional publishers, Shah made the move to self publishing in 2011 with his print-on-demand book Travels With Myself, which was published using Lulu.com. He later took his self publishing efforts a step further in 2012 with the release of Timbuctoo and again in 2013 with Scorpion Soup, two limited edition hardcovers that were designed by his wife Rachana.
Shah regards family friend Doris Lessing as a key influence, as well as his aunt Amina Shah—the latter now in her nineties. In addition, Shah maintains a close association with a number of travel writers and novelists, including Robert Twigger, Tarquin Hall, Jason Webster, Rory Maclean, Jason Elliot, and Marcel Theroux. Shah himself has written about his fascination with the works of Bruce Chatwin, especially his book The Songlines, as well as with a range of the classic nineteenth century explorers, such as Samuel White Baker, Heinrich Barth and Sir Richard Burton. He had a close friendship with Wilfred Thesiger, whom he considered a mentor and a source of inspiration.
Shah's father Idries Shah and English poet Robert Graves were close friends and confidants, and for a number of years, Spike Milligan and Robert Graves had a correspondence. The highlights were later published in a book called Dear Robert, Dear Spike. Shortly after Tahir Shah's birth, in a letter dated 6 February 1967, Robert Graves wrote to Spike Milligan: "I may be over in a few weeks to help two young Afghan Arabs named Tahir Shah Sayid and his twin sister with a name so beautiful that I forget it. He's the nearest to Mahomet in a straight line, of any Arab baby in existence. Isn't Tahir a splendid name."
I can hear 'Tahir, Tahir'
Loud & clear
Shouted all the way from Kabul
Without the least trouble.
Kabul is locally pronounced to rhyme with 'trouble', not 'a 'bull', and in the book the surname Shah is misspelled as 'Shar'.
Shah's style is one of simple prose and overwhelming humour, with an intention to educate and inform his readers, while at the same time amusing them. In this capacity, one could liken Shah's work to the literary devise employed in several books by his father, Idries Shah, who used the wise fool Mulla Nasruddin to illustrate deeper ideas in human understanding.
Shah avoids "self-congratulatory" literary festivals. He writes on a rigid schedule.
In July 2005 (a week after the 7 July London bombings) Shah and two colleagues from Caravan Film in London were arrested in Peshawar in Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and held without charge in solitary confinement in a torture prison. Much of the time they were handcuffed, stripped virtually naked, and blindfolded. After sixteen days of interrogations in a "fully equipped torture room," Shah and his colleagues were released. The Pakistani government agreed that they had done nothing wrong. Tahir Shah gave an interview which was screened on British TV's Channel 4 News, and published an article in the British Sunday Times about the ordeal. Shah has publicly maintained his affection for Pakistan, despite the rough treatment he and his film crew received at the hands of the Pakistani secret services. The illegal custody earned Shah and his film crew a mention in the United States Department of State's 2005 report on Pakistan's human rights practices. The news story came back into the spotlight in July 2008, when a British MP claimed that the British government had 'outsourced' the torture of UK citizens to Pakistani security agencies.
Tahir Shah is also a champion of what he calls "the East-West Bridge". In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in the United States in 2001, Tahir Shah began to devote a great deal of time and energy into establishing and promoting a "cultural bridge" made up by those who, like him, are both from the East and from the West. One example of this work is the Qantara Foundation (from "qantara" meaning "bridge" in Arabic). He has spoken and written on the idea that people such as he have a responsibility to "show the East to the West, and the West to the East," highlighting the common cultural heritage of the two, and working towards a common goal. Shah's greatest interest within the East-West theme is probably the subject of the legacy of science in medieval Islam, and its role in creating a foundation for the Renaissance. He has lectured publicly on the subject and believes strongly in the importance of drawing attention to the polymath poet-scientists from the Golden Age of Islam.Cultural Research, (editor) for the London-based Institute for Cultural Research
The Middle East Bedside Book, Octagon Press, 1991
Journey Through Namibia, Camerapix, 1994
Spectrum Guide to Jordan, Spectrum Guides, 1994
Beyond the Devil's Teeth, Octagon Press, 1995
Sorcerer's Apprentice, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998
Trail of Feathers, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2001
In Search of King Solomon's Mines, John Murray, 2002
House of the Tiger King, John Murray, 2004
The Caliph's House, Doubleday, 2006
In Arabian Nights, Bantam, 2008
Travels With Myself: Collected Work, Mosaique, 2011
Timbuctoo, Secretum Mundi, 2012
Scorpion Soup, Secretum Mundi, 2013
Three Essays, Secretum Mundi, 2013
Eye Spy, Secretum Mundi, 2013
Casablanca Blues, Secretum Mundi, 2013
Paris Syndrome, Secretum Mundi, 2014