Mulla Nasrudin

Last month, ISF relaunched The Subtleties of the Inimitable Mulla Nasrudin.

It’s a selection of tales about the eponymous Middle Eastern joke character Mulla Nasrudin. The jokes are widespread- the Mulla is called Goha in Egypt (Joha in other Arab countries), Hershel Ostroplier in many European Jewish jokes, Mushfiki in Tajikstan, and Afanti in China. The original corpus of joke material has, aided by Arab migration and the Turkish domination of Egypt and much of the Middle East, become attached to native joke figures as far apart as Russia and Indonesia, where the more subtle Mulla tales rub shoulders with more indigenous material.

There has been sporadic contact between Nasrudin and Europe over the centuries. A Turkish collection of Nasrudin tales were translated by George Borrow, the 19th century English writer on Romany life. Two hundred years earlier, Cervantes allowed his familiarity with Nasrudin structures to probably influence the donkey riding Sancho Panza figure- many Nasrudin tales humorously turn upon donkey antics.

What is certain, is that at least two Nasrudin stories are built into the text of Don Quixote. In Chapter Twenty the Nasrudin tale ‘Fear is all you need’ becomes part of the interchange between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. In the tale Nasrudin is imprisoned by a cruel and ignorant king who insists he will be hanged unless he can prove he has extrasensory perception. The Mulla immediately replies that he can see demons within the earth and a great golden bird high above the sky. “But how can you do this?” asks the king. “Fear is all you need,” replies the Mulla. Which works as a joke, but only really makes sense when you know that ‘fear’ is a Sufi technical term for activation of conscience. This is believed to be a requirement for intuiting subtleties about reality. An echo of this term is found in the Christian usage ‘fear of God’ which is less about anxiety and more about respectful attention. Don Quixote asks how Sancho can see in the dark, “Fear has sharp eyes, and sees things underground, much more above in heavens.”

The Nasrudin tale about the folly of looking for eggs in last year’s nests is referenced at the end of the book. Don Quixote says, “In last year’s nest there are no birds this year: I was mad, now I am in my senses.” Cervantes was a prisoner of the Moors for five years- and Arab influence can be felt throughout the book.

Idries Shah called the Nasrudin corpus of jokes and tales “one of the strangest achievements in the history of metaphysics.” For these jokes, parables, short stories are far more than merely humorous or satirical. Indeed, some of the jokes aren’t even that funny. Some, though, are hilarious. The joke is at the service of an insight into human behaviour, not the other way round.

So what kind of comedian invents jokes that are designed to help a human being grow up and achieve more insights than his ambient culture provides? And why hide the insights in childish humour instead of a worthy tome of philosophy? The more you think about Nasrudin jokes and who actually composed them, and why, the more mysterious it all seems.

Jokes are a very stable form of container. Humorous books- think Three Men in a Boat or P.G. Wodehouse, both are read by each generation without it being a literary chore, or an effort in enduring the classics. Since humour eludes the academic at every turn the material remains fresh… (the one characteristic of a PhD on humour you can guarantee- it won’t be funny.)

So encoding valuable insights into humour will ensure their survival and transmission- a joke is the ultimate viral message. But humour itself is a deep subject. “If you cannot laugh often and deeply you have no soul” goes the saying.

Laughter happens when expectations are over turned, or met in an unexpected way. Humour is an adventure of the mind. It is the opposite of conditioning, running along Pavlovian tracks, repeating the same stuff endlessly and without reflection.

Modern neuroscience has shown that brain plasticity is vastly improved when we are, for want of a better word, ‘open’. This corresponds to situations that are novel, shocking or involve deep concentration (interestingly we are all ‘open’ all the time until we are about ten or so). Humour is about a small novel shock to the system. An overturning of a previously fixed viewpoint. As Idries Shah writes about a Nasrudin joke: “A minor enlightenment in itself, not an intellectual experience. It is also a stepping-stone toward the re-establishing of mystical perception in a captive mind, relentlessly conditioned by the training systems of material life.”

This is something extraordinary: the practice of joke telling turned into a way of actually building new neural connections. The idea that mystical study actually results in permanent change to the self seems increasingly evident.

The traditional Sufi explanation in The Legend of Nasrudin is that the ‘Old Villain’ (the ‘devil’ is often used to stand for the crude system of automatic assumptions that characteristic much of our thinking) was upbraiding one student- Nasrudin- who was telling endless jokes. “for your irreverent attitude I condemn you to universal ridicule. Henceforth when one of your absurd stories is told, six more will have to be heard in succession, until you are clearly seen to be a figure of fun.”

Hussein, the legendary originator, saw that he could use the human love of joke telling to defeat the ‘Old Villain’. Without having to preach or burn the midnight oil, Sufi study was possible in everyday life.

The therapeutic effects of telling multiple Nasrudin tales one after another have been remarked on- you definitely feel happier and less anxious. But this is an additional benefit, not the main aim. The reversal of the ‘Old Villain’s’ curse lives on: hearing seven Nasrudin tales in succession constitutes an enlightenment in itself.

Travellers to Turkey and Egypt will be aware of collections of tales other than those by Idries Shah – but these are not usually translated by Sufis. The form remains and to those who have grown up on the Sufic interpretation, they can be decoded. But many of these non-sufic versions are primarily intended as children’s reading or mere folkloric material. Some of the tales, which turn on precise use of language, are blunted and shorn of experiential value. It is therefore to be celebrated that we have a new pocket edition of Shah’s retelling, an excellent reason to reacquaint yourself with this effective mode of enlightenment.