The True Meaning of Nasrudin

‘Those who are not following a mystic path...can do with the Nasrudin tales what people have done through the centuries — enjoy them’ — Idries Shah

Nasrudin is an international folk hero of medieval origin but timeless appeal. His role changes: sometimes he is the fool, sometimes the sage. He is courtier, beggar, physician, judge or teacher. Nasrudin is indefinable and therefore indestructible. Whether his anecdotes are studied for their hidden wisdom or enjoyed for their exhilarating humour, they will remain an incomparable delight. But as Idries Shah writes in The Sufis, the Nasrudin figure was devised as the pivot for a series of jokes used to illustrate the teaching of the Sufis.

Nasrudin by Idries Shah

Nasrudin Book Cover

Mulla (Master) Nasrudin is the classical figure devised by the dervishes partly for the purpose of halting for a moment situations in which certain states of mind are made clear. The Nasrudin stories...constitute (in the manuscript The Subtleties of the Incomparable Nasrudin) one of the strangest achievements in the history of metaphysics. Superficially, most of the Nasrudin stories may be used as jokes. They are told and retold endlessly in the teahouses and the caravanserais, in the homes and on the radio waves, of Asia. But it is inherent in the Nasrudin story that it may be understood at any one of many depths. There is the joke, the moral — and the little extra which brings the consciousness of the potential mystic a little further on the way to realisation.

Since Sufism is something which is lived as well as something which is perceived, a Nasrudin tale cannot in itself produce complete enlightenment. On the other hand, it bridges the gap between mundane life and a transmutation of consciousness in a manner which no other literary form yet produced has been able to attain.

The Subtleties has never been presented in full to a Western audience, probably because the stories cannot properly be translated by a non-Sufi, or even be studied out of context, and retain the essential impact. Even in the East the collection is used for study purposes only by initiate Sufis. Individual ‘jokes’ from the collection have found their way into almost every literature in the world, and a certain amount of scholastic attention has been given them on this account — as an example of culture drift, or to support arguments in favour of the basic identity of humour everywhere. But if because of their perennial humorous appeal the stories have proved their survival power, this is entirely secondary to the intention of the corpus, which is to provide a basis for making available the Sufi attitude toward life, and for making possible the attainment of Sufic realisation and mystical experience.

The Legend of Nasrudin

The Legend of Nasrudin, appended to the Subtleties and dating from at least the thirteenth century, touches on some of the reasons for introducing Nasrudin. Humour cannot be prevented from spreading; it has a way of slipping through the patterns of thought which are imposed upon mankind by habit and design. As a complete system of thought, Nasrudin exists at so many depths that he cannot be killed. Some measure of the truth of this might be seen in the fact that such diverse and alien organisations as the British Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge and the Soviet Government have both pressed Nasrudin into service. The SPCK published a few of the stories as Tales of the Khoja; while (perhaps on the principle of ‘If you cannot beat them, join them’) the Russians made a film of Nasrudin under the name of The Adventures of Nasrudin. Even the Greeks, who accepted few other things from the Turks, consider him a part of their cultural heritage. Secular Turkey, through its information department, has published a selection of the metaphysical jokes attributed to this supposed Muslim preacher who is the archetype of the Sufi mystic. And yet the dervish Orders were suppressed by law in republican Turkey.

Nasrudin and his donkey - Turkish, 18th Century
Nasrudin and his donkey - Turkish, 18th Century. The Turks, who like many peoples claim Nasrudin as their own, know him as Hoca (pronounced Hoja), or Hoca Nasreddin. The spelling in many other countries varies from Nasrudeen to Nasr ud-Din, Nasr Eddin, Nasreddine and Nazaruddin, amongst others

Nobody really knows who Nasrudin was, where he lived, or when. This is truly in character, for the whole intention is to provide a figure who cannot really be characterised, and who is timeless. It is the message, not the man, which is important to the Sufis. This has not prevented people from providing him with a spurious history, and even a tomb. Scholars, against whose pedantry in his stories Nasrudin frequently emerges triumphant, have even tried to take his Subtleties to pieces in the hope of finding appropriate biographical material. One of their ‘discoveries’ would have warmed the heart of Nasrudin himself. Nasrudin said that he considered himself upside down in this world, argues one scholar, and from this he infers that the supposed date of Nasrudin’s death, on his ‘tombstone’, should be read not as 386, but 683. Another professor feels that the Arabic numerals used would, if truly reversed, look more like the figures 274. He gravely records that a dervish to whom he appealed for aid in this ‘...merely said, “Why not drop a spider in some ink and see what marks he makes in crawling out of it. This should give the correct date or show something.”’

In fact, 386 means 300 + 80 + 6. Transposed into Arabic letters, this decodes as SH, W, F, which spells the word ShaWaF: ‘to cause someone to see; to show a thing’. The dervish’s spider would ‘show’ something, as he himself said.

If we look at some of the classical Nasrudin stories in as detached a way as possible, we soon find that the wholly scholastic approach is the last one that the Sufi will allow:

Nasrudin, ferrying a pedant across a piece of rough water, said something ungrammatical to him. ‘Have you never studied grammar?’ asked the scholar.
‘Then half of your life has been wasted.’
A few minutes later Nasrudin turned to the passenger.
‘Have you ever learned how to swim?’
‘No. Why?’
‘Then all your life is wasted — we are sinking!’

Sufism as a practical activity

This is the emphasis upon Sufism as a practical activity, denying that the formal intellect can arrive at truth, and that pattern-thinking derived from the familiar world can be applied to true reality, which moves in another dimension.

This is brought out even more forcefully in a wry tale set in a teahouse; a Sufi term for a meeting place of dervishes.

A monk enters and states:
‘My master taught me to spread the word that mankind will never be fulfilled until the man who has not been wronged is as indignant about a wrong as the man who actually has been wronged.’
The assembly is momentarily impressed. Then Nasrudin speaks:
‘My master taught me that nobody at all should become indignant about anything until he is sure that what he thinks is a wrong is in fact a wrong — and not a blessing in disguise!’

Nasrudin, in his capacity as a Sufi teacher, makes frequent use of the dervish technique of himself playing the part of the unenlightened man in the story, in order to highlight a truth. A famous tale denying the superficial belief in cause and effect makes him the victim:

Mulla Nasrudin was walking along an alleyway one day when a man fell from a roof and landed on top of him. The other man was unhurt — but the Mulla was taken to the hospital.
‘What teaching do you infer from this event, Master?’ one of his disciples asked him.
‘Avoid belief in inevitability, even if cause and effect seem inevitable! Shun theoretical questions like: “If a man falls off a roof, will his neck be broken?” He fell — but my neck is broken!’

Don Quixote on his steed
Some claim Nasrudin inspired Cervantes’s Don Quixote*

Because the average person thinks in patterns and cannot accommodate himself to a really different point of view, he loses a great deal of the meaning of life. He may live, even progress, but he cannot understand all that is going on. The story of the smuggler makes this very clear:

Nasrudin used to take his donkey across a frontier every day, with the panniers loaded with straw. Since he admitted to being a smuggler when he trudged home every night, the frontier guards searched him again and again. They searched his person, sifted the straw, steeped it in water, even burned it from time to time. Meanwhile he was becoming visibly more and more prosperous. Then he retired and went to live in another country. Here one of the customs officers met him, years later.
‘You can tell me now, Nasrudin,’ he said. ‘Whatever was it that you were smuggling, when we could never catch you out?’
‘Donkeys,’ said Nasrudin.

Arabic collection of Nasrudin stories
The Arabic name is, ‘Juha’, is the rendition of the Turkish word, Hoca, backwards. This is said by some to be in recognition of Nasrudin’s habit of riding backwards on his donkey

This story also emphasises one of the major contentions of Sufism — that preternatural experience and the mystical goal is something nearer to mankind than is realised. The assumption that something esoteric or transcendental must be far off or complicated has been assumed by the ignorance of individuals. And that kind of individual is the least qualified to judge the matter. It is ‘far off’ only in a direction which he does not realise.

Nasrudin, like the Sufi himself, does not violate the canons of his time. But he adds a new dimension to his consciousness, refusing to accept for specific, limited purposes that truth, say, is something that can be measured as can anything else. What people call truth is relative to their situation. And he cannot find it until he realises this. One of the Nasrudin tales, a most ingenious one, shows that until one can see through relative truth, no progress can be made:

One day Nasrudin was sitting at court. The King was complaining that his subjects were untruthful.

‘Majesty,’ said Nasrudin, ‘there is truth and truth. People must practise real truth before they can use relative truth. They always try the other way around. The result is that they take liberties with their man-made truth, because they know instinctively that it is only an invention.’
The King thought that this was too complicated.

‘A thing must be true or false. I will make people tell the truth, and by this practice they will establish the habit of being truthful.’
When the city gates were opened the next morning, a gallows had been erected in front of them, presided over by the captain of the royal guard.

A herald announced: ‘Whoever would enter the city must first answer the truth to a question which will be put to him by the captain of the guard.’

Nasrudin, who had been waiting outside, stepped forward first.
The captain spoke: ‘Where are you going? Tell the truth — the alternative is death by hanging.’
‘I am going,’ said Nasrudin,‘to be hanged on those gallows.’
‘I don’t believe you!’
‘Very well, then. If I have told a lie, hang me!’
‘But that would make it the truth!’
‘Exactly,’ said Nasrudin, ‘your truth.’

The would-be Sufi must also understand that standards of good and bad depend upon individual or group criteria, not upon objective fact. Until he experiences this internally as well as accepting it intellectually, he will not be able to qualify for inner understanding. This shifting scale is exemplified by a story of the chase:

A king who enjoyed Nasrudin’s company, and also liked to hunt, commanded him to accompany him on a bear hunt. Nasrudin was terrified.
When Nasrudin returned to his village, someone asked him: ‘How did the hunt go?’
‘How many bears did you see?’
‘How could it have gone marvellously, then?’
‘When you are hunting bears, and when you are me, seeing no bears at all is a marvellous experience.’

Internal experience cannot be transmitted through repetitiousness, but has to be constantly refreshed from the source. Many schools continue to operate long after their actual dynamic is exhausted, becoming mere centres repeating a progressively weakened doctrine. The name of the teaching may remain the same. The teaching may have no value, may even oppose the original meaning, is almost always a travesty of it. Nasrudin emphasises this as one of the points in his ‘Duck Soup’ story:

A kinsman came to see the Mulla from somewhere deep in the country, bringing a duck as a gift. Delighted, Nasrudin had the bird cooked and shared it with his guest. Presently, however, one countryman after another started to call, each one the friend of the friend of the ‘man who brought you the duck’. No further presents were forthcoming.
At length the Mulla was exasperated. One day yet another stranger appeared. ‘I am the friend of the friend of the friend of the relative who brought you the duck.’
He sat down, like all the rest, expecting a meal. Nasrudin handed him a bowl of hot water.
‘What is this?’
‘That is the soup of the soup of the soup of the duck which was brought by my relative.’

Statue of Afandi - In Central Asia, Nasrudin is commonly known as ‘Afandi'
Nasrudin stories can be found in most cultures around the world in one form or another. In Central Asia, Nasrudin is commonly known as ‘Afandi'

The sharpened perception which the Sufi attains sometimes enables him to experience things which are imperceptible to others. Ignorant of this, members of other schools generally give away their lack of perception by saying or doing something which is so obviously the result of spiritual immaturity that the Sufi can read him like a book. In these circumstances Sufis seldom trouble to say anything. The perception, however, is illustrated by another tale:

Nasrudin called at a large house to collect for charity. The servant said, ‘My master is out.’
‘Very well,’ said the Mulla; ‘even though he has not been able to contribute, please give your master a piece of advice from me. Say: “Next time you go out, don’t leave your face at the window — someone might steal it.”’

People do not know where to look when they are seeking enlightenment. As a result, it is hardly surprising that they may attach themselves to any cult, immerse themselves in all manner of theories, believing that they have the capacity to distinguish the true from the false. Nasrudin taught this in several ways.

On one occasion a neighbour found him down on his knees looking for something.
‘What have you lost, Mulla?’
‘My key,’ said Nasrudin.
After a few minutes of searching, the other man said,
‘Where did you drop it?’
‘At home.’
‘Then why, for heaven’s sake, are you looking here?’
‘There is more light here.’

This is an excerpt from The Subtleties of Mulla Nasrudin, the fourth section of The Sufis by Idries Shah.

To continue reading this section, follow The Sufis by Idries Shah.

 The Pleasantries of the Incredible Mulla Nasrudin - original book cover

'Humour cannot be prevented from spreading; it has a way of slipping through the patterns of thought which are imposed upon mankind by habit and design'

Idries Shah




*A man of Many Names, Paul Lunde
Idries Shah and Sufism, Michael D. Bobo
Oxford Academic, Idries Shah and Sufi Psychology

Copyright © The Estate of Idries Shah