The Subtleties of Mulla Nasrudin
Sufis' by Idris Shah
When you arrive at the sea, you
Do not talk of the tributary.
(Hakim Sanai, The Walled Garden of
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?'
'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.
This is brought out even more forcefully in 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 Nasruddin
speaks: "My master taught me that nobody at all should become
indignant about anything until he is sure that what he think is
a wrong is in fact a wrong-and not a blessing in disguise!"
Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin / The Subtleties
of the Inimitable Mulla Nasrudin, Idries Shah, Octagon Press, Paperback
from Stories : Caravan of Dreams and the
Adventures of Mulla Nasrudin,Idries Shah, Octagon Press, Limited,
Audio Cassette - August 1996
Pleasantries of the Incredible Mulla Nasrudin Idries Shah, (June
the Wise, Michael Flanders, (16 May, 1974) Studio Vista.