Beyond their value in entertainment, stories provide wonderfully comprehensible perspectives at the most confounding aspects of human behavior.  In factthey are even mentioned in the Qur’an: “So relate the Stories; Perchance they may reflect”(6: 176)(Tales of Nasrudin, Ali Jamnia, p.4).    Although his stories were never related by any great sufi masters, Nasrudin and his stories have resonated throughout the world, and particularly in Turkey and throughout the Middle East (Jamnia, p.4).  Mulla Nasrudin is an extremely simple character (though the title implies he was a religious scholar) who often appears in humorous situations that, through their oddity, often bring out some wisdom that is difficult to explicitly state.   Nasrudin stories have become very popular among the common man.  They are typically composed of a short, pithy, often humorous story, and a key to the story, composed of a moral and a little extra nugget of wisdom.  As such a popular media based in an old tradition, I saw these stories as a means of expressing views on society, much like Muhammad Iqbal’s famous poems, “The Complaint” and “The Answer.”  I sought to embody a personal sentiment about many of the reform movements in Islamic states.  I found my inspiration in the following two stories:

Story 1 : Take Refuge in God

One of the rulers asked Mulla Nasrudin ,”At the time of the Abbasid Caliphs, it was customary for rulers to be given titles which ended with the suffix –God.  For example, there were titles like ‘who was successful by God,’ of ‘trusted in God,’ or ‘took help from God.’  What title should people say when they see me?”

“The best thing to say,” expounded Mulla, is “ ‘I take refuge in God’.”


Polititians are like this.  They occationally need to be reminded that their actions do in fact impact real people in real situations.  Nasrudin seems to be saying that it is best that people avoid contact with officials… a wisdom that still offers much today.

It is the true mark of the tyrant that other people are not real to him: he is ‘the only game in town.’  In this case the tyrant is the lower self.  When the self is challenged by the presence of God, its last trick may be for it to claim to be God. To say “I take refuge in God” is to deny the lower self this refuge. ( Jamnia, p.107)

Story 2 : A Conversation with a Christion

A Christian man was eating meat during the period of lent which was an illicit act according to his creed.  Nasrudin saw what he was doing and went over to share some of the food.  The Christian rebuffed him by saying, “What do you mean Mulla?”  Christian meat is illicit for you Muslims!”

Nasrudin instantly replied, “I am among the Muslims as you are among Christians.”


There is an old folklore saying, “Drop a dog in rose water and it’s still a dog.”  So too, a hypocrite is what he (or she) is regardless of their confessed beliefs.  And how often do we find ourselves worrying about someone else’s impurity of heart so as to avoid looking at our own?  On the other hand, those who understand the ‘meat’ of religion will not be separated by rite and creed, however important and necessary these may be on their own level. ( Jamnia, p.64)

  In my own, I attempt to address a particular type of the “back to fundamentals” reform movement, by having Nasrudin direcly reflects the Egyptian thinker Tahtawi and his famous quote “When I was in Europe, I saw much Islam everywhere but I saw very few Muslims; now I am back in Egypt, I see many Muslims but little Islam.”   It also addresses the idea of “Islam as progress,” as pioneered by Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan.  Both of these thinkers took the radical stance that there was nothing in conflict between the Western thought and Islamic thought.   Though I tried to bring to light a more subtle understanding of progress:

 Nasrudin and the devout Christian

One day, one of Nasrudin’s friends brought him to a city saying, “This is the most devout Islamic city in all the land.  All the men are bearded and have memorized the Qur’an back to front, and all the women are covered head to toe.”  While they were going, Nasrudin fell asleep, as his friend had been very longwinded in his praise of the city and it’s people.  When they finally arrived, they promptly woke Nasrudin, but he refused to dismount, saying, “I see all of the muslims, but where is the Islam in the city?  My friend told me that our destination was the most devout Islamic city, yet I see no devout Islam, thus I must still be dreaming.  Let me continue on our journey, so that I may wake up.”

When his friends saw they could not convince him, they journeyed on, hoping he would soon come to his senses.  When they stopped in the western part of town, where people were less concerned with religion, Nasrudin once more awoke, and this time he said, “now I see no muslims, but more Islam.  But the people are not the most devout, so I am still dreaming.  Let us continue.”

Finally, while they were traveling on, they passed the poorest part of town.  There, they saw an old, bent Christian clothe and feed a beggar.  At this, Nasrudin immediately woke up and jumped down saying “We have arrived!”  His companions said, “surely you are sleepwalking!”  To which he responded, “I cannot know, but this man has woken my heart, so I trust in God that I am truly awake.”


We often forget that outward rituals and practice are no substitute for inner practice of Islam.  No matter how much one resembles the prophet, or how much one heaps on “modest” clothing, the truly important is one’s inner submission.  The hypocracy can be a barrier to true progress.

However, without this external practice, we can often lose our way, or never start on our path at all.  It may allow for worldly progress, but internal progress may be left by the wayside.  In his immediate recognition of this characteristic in this man outside of Islam, Nasrudin seems to be saying that a state of Internal well-being and its progress is more important than both external devotion and outward progress, and is the sign of true devotion.

The final exchange is more subtle.  In this Nasrudin seems to be implyingthat he does not know the difference between sleeping and waking, symbols used frequently to denote life and death.   But as his “heart” has been awoken, he can see with his “eye of the heart” and perceives clearly the truth of the situation, a power that is only possible through God.


While the actual historical figure of Nasrudin is still a subject of heated debate, scholars do seem to agree that a similar figure existed in 13th century Aksehir in Turkey.  A celebration in honor of his life is celebrated every year near his supposed tomb:  the “International Nasreddin Hodja Festival.”  For more information on the historical Nasrudin, see any of the works of Professor Mikail Bayram, who has made his life’s work the uncovering of this character’s hidden past.

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