Time and again Nasrudin passed from Persia to Greece on donkey-back. Each time he had two panniers of straw, and trudged back without them. Every time the guard searched him for contraband. They never found any.
‘What are you carrying, Nasrudin?’
‘I am a smuggler.’
Years later, more and more prosperous in appearance, Nasrudin moved to Egypt. One of the customs men met him there.
‘Tell me, Mulla, now that you are out of the jurisdiction of Greece and Persia, living here in such luxury – what was it that you were smuggling when we could never catch you?’
From the Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin, © 1983 The Octagon Press
In different cultures around the world, particularly in those of the Middle East, traditional stories, fables or tales serve numerous functions and can operate on different levels. A tale - listened to or read - might entertain, serve as a joke, be used to illustrate something moralistic, or it can have an even higher purpose of conveying something far more subtle – the first steps on the road to greater awareness and wisdom.
One of the more familiar characters found in the traditional corpus of tales from the East is the joke figure known as Mulla Nasrudin. The Sufis, the traditional psychologists of the East, maintain that they have used Mulla Nasrudin stories, in part, to help fine-tune the perceptual abilities of the human mind. And according to the late Afghan author, Idries Shah, a collector of these tales, Mulla Nasrudin stories “constitute one of the strangest achievements in the history of metaphysics.”
Mulla Nasrudin tales are similar to other collections of stories such as Aesop’s Fables, the Greek Myths, and the Arabian Nights collection – all of which were originally, for their own times and places, written to provide a vehicle for esoteric psychology and to symbolize aspects of human behaviour and the human mind.
As for Nasrudin himself, nobody really knows who he was, where he originated, and whether or not he even existed. His elusiveness is mirrored in the stories in which he appears. Here he takes different forms from an often bumbling, pathetic and self-deprecating fool to a man of deeper insight who has knowledge to impart.
Nasrudin tales can be found in different parts of the world from Iran and Afghanistan where he is best known; to Turkey where he is called Hodja Nasreddin; to the Arab Middle East where he is referred to popularly as Joha; to other local versions of this personality found in Italy, Greece, Bosnia, Russia and beyond to China.
In the same way that the smuggler Nasrudin and his donkey slip past the border guard in the story above - a representation of the ability of tales and humour to transcend political and cultural borders - these traditional stories are of such a refined subtlety that they have a way of also bypassing the borders and obstacles of the mind.
How do Nasrudin tales work exactly?
According to Shah and to others, Nasrudin tales are not meant to be didactic, nor are they meant to be decoded, taken-apart or analyzed by the rational mind. They are instead meant to simply be read and re-read and absorbed until they take form holistically in one’s mind. The tales can form patterns or templates in the mind which at certain moments can match up to reality, allowing us to see ourselves and the behaviour of others – including thought patterns, habits, behaviours, and even aspects of reality - which would otherwise be out of waking consciousness.
These amusing stories, told orally, have entertained countless people in the East for centuries. More recently they were collected and put into book form by Shah who spent his life researching and collecting the Eastern heritage of Sufi knowledge and relating it to the science and psychology of the West.