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The Subtleties of Mulla Nasrudin

From 'The Sufis' by Idris Shah

When you arrive at the sea, you
Do not talk of the tributary.

(Hakim Sanai, The Walled Garden of Truth)

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. Humor 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 organizations as the British Society of the Promotion of Christian Knowledge and the Soviet Government have both pressed Nasrudin into service. The S.P.C.K. 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 o the metaphysical jokes attributed to this supposed Moslem preacher who is the archetype of the Sufi mystic. And yet the dervish Orders were suppressed by law in republican Turkey.

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 characterized, 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 the '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 studies 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 to swim?'
'No. Why?'
'Then all your life is wasted-we are sinking!'

This 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.

Further reading:

The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin / The Subtleties of the Inimitable Mulla Nasrudin, Idries Shah, Octagon Press, Paperback - 1985

Learning from Stories : Caravan of Dreams and the Adventures of Mulla Nasrudin,Idries Shah, Octagon Press, Limited, Audio Cassette - August 1996

The Pleasantries of the Incredible Mulla Nasrudin Idries Shah, (June 1993) Arkana

Nasrudin the Wise, Michael Flanders, (16 May, 1974) Studio Vista.


Last updated: May 9, 2004