Originally published online in 2009
INTRODUCTION: Mullah Nassreddin, aka Mullah Nassr-e Din (MND), is the name of a funny story teller whom most Iranians remember hearing about him since they have been a child. And there are thousands of humorous and thoughtful stories attributed to MND. Though his identity is being claimed by many other countries (i.e. Afghanistan, Turkey, Uzbekistan, etc.), he is considered an Iranian by various respectful and internationally known scholars. Some literatures also refer to MND as a legendary figure and portray him as a myth, which is most unlikely. The MND stories constitute one of the strangest achievements in the history of metaphysics (the part of philosophy that is about understanding existence and knowledge), and they superficially may be used as jokes and anecdotes. They are told and retold endlessly in the family rooms at home, in the teahouses, coffee-shops, and on the radio and TV shows in many countries around the world. In this article the life story of MND, his various names in different cultures, and some of his anecdotes will be studied and discussed.
HIS LIFE: According to reliable sources, MND was born in the early 13th century (probably in 1209 AD) in Khorassan, a province in the north of Iran. The exact town where he was born is unknown. He firstly moved to Isfahan (a province in the center of Iran) and then to Azerbaiijan (a region in northwestern Iran) and he finally settled down in Akshehr (a town near to Konya in Turkey) where he died. As a man he was born, as a story-teller he lived, and as a wise philosopher his life came to an end and he passed away (probably in 1275/6 or 1285/6 AD). Some researchers reported that MND lived when Seljuk Dynasty (in Persian: Saljooghiaan) was in power (1037-1194), which is not true. In fact, he lived during the end rule of Khwarezmian dynasty (1077-1231) and the early rule of Ilkhanate (1256-1335). At the time of Mongolian invasion to Iran in February 1220, MND was about 11 years old.
As a boy MND had the mysterious ability to fascinate his fellow-students keeping their attentions and distracting them from the daily lessons. As a result, the academic interest of his fellow-students declined and their attentions were directed toward him. His teacher, probably a Sufi master, worked to redirect the attention of the students and at the same time guided the young MND so that his stories would benefit the others. The teacher advised MND that, “From now on, the more wise you become, the more people may laugh at your wisdom. And whenever someone tells one of your stories, they will want to continue telling more until at least seven have been told”.
MND was contemporary to well-known Iranian poet Mowlana Jalaledin Mohammad Mowlavi Rumi (1207-1273) and famous Iranian scientist and scholar Khajeh Nasir-e-Tusi (1201-1274). In his adult life, MND was considered and highly respected as a religious scholar, a theological teacher, a wise man, and he was widely remembered for his funny stories and anecdotes. Much of MND’s performances during the last part of his life can be described as illogical yet logical, rational yet irrational, bizarre yet normal, foolish yet sharp, and simple yet profound. What was added even further to his uniqueness was the way he could get across his messages in unconventional yet very effective methods in a profound simplicity. Besides, MND’s life shows a universal character on which the various humorous, philosophical, moral or pedagogic anecdotes are framed. And the main players of those anecdotes are the Mullah himself, his wife, his son, and his donkey.
HIS VARIOUS NAMES: In his editorial note, author Henry D Barnham wrote that, “Mullah Nasreddin, as he is known in the Persian speaking world, is a humorous witty character that goes by different names in different cultures”. Here is a list of the various names of MND: Nasrudin, Nasr ud-Din, Nasredin, Naseeruddin, Nasruddin, Nasr Eddin, Nasreddine, and many more. His name is often preceded or followed by the title of a religious scholar, a theological teacher, or the man of wisdom: “Khajeh”, “Khwaje”, “Hodja”, “Hoca”, “Hogea”, “Hodza”, “Chotzas”, “Mullah”, “Mulla”, “Molla”, and “Maulana”. In Arabic-speaking countries his title is known as “Juha”, “Djoha”, “Djuha”, “Dschuha”, “Mullah”, “Mulla”, “Molla”, “Maulana”, “Efendi”, “Ependi”, and “Hajji”. In China, where stories of him are well known, he is known by the various transliterations from his Uyghur name. MND’s character is also popular in the Indian subcontinent. In Central Asia, he is commonly known as “Afandi”.
HIS ANECDOTES: In many parts of the world, the anecdotes of MND are as familiar as Aesop’s Fables particularly wherever Iranians are found. (Aesop’s Fables or Aesopica refers to a collection of fables credited to Aesop, a slave and story-teller who lived in Ancient Greece during 620-560 BC). The collections of MND’s funny stories have been published in various languages such as Azeri, English, Farsi, French, German, Russian, Tatar, Turkish, Turkmen, Uyghur, and Uzbek. It has been reported that at least 1000 MND’s funny stories and anecdotes are known, and up to this date the highest number of anecdotes have been collected in Farsi and published as 600 Mulla Nasreddin Tales (in Persian: Sheshsad Dastaan-e Mulla Nasreddin). This may be due to the fact that MND was born in Iran and lived in different cities of the country where his popular funny stories can be mostly remembered. The anecdotes attributed to him reveal a satirical personality with a biting tongue that he was not afraid to use even against the most tyrannical rulers of his time, particularly after the Mongolian invasion to Iran. According to Afghan scholar Abdul Ghafoor Arezzo, MND is the symbol of Middle-Eastern satirical comedy and the rebellious feelings of people against the dynasties that once ruled this part of the world.
A MND’s anecdote is often used to emphasize a point. Most may read a funny story. However, in the same tale, a Sufi may see multiple strands of mystic meaning and a revolutionary will see the idea of resistance to authority. Indian born British author and a well-known Sufi scholar Idries Shah (1924-1996), published a number of collections of MND’s stories in English, and suggested that MND’s anecdotes with multiple interpretations (or several layers of meaning) have also some teaching-effects. Here are some of the anecdotes attributed to MND:
Go Measure It: Once MND was hammering the nail at the end of his donkey’s bridle, as he was going to a teahouse. Someone asked him: “Mullah, where is the Center of the Universe”. MND said,” The Center of the Universe is where I just hammered the nail to my donkey’s bridle”. Someone said, “I do not believe this”. MND took a sip of his tea and said, “If you do not believe it, go measure it!”
Whom Do You Trust? A neighbor comes to the gate of MND’s yard. MND goes out to meet him outside. “Would you mind, Mullah,” the neighbor asks, “lending me your donkey today? I have some goods to transport to the next town”. MND does not feel inclined to lend out the animal to that particular man, however; so, not to seem rude, he answers: “I am sorry, but I have already lent him to somebody else”. Suddenly the donkey can be heard braying loudly behind the wall of the yard. “You lied to me, Mullah!” the neighbor exclaims. “There it is behind that wall!” “What do you mean?” MND replies indignantly. “Whom would you rather believe a donkey or your Mullah?”
You Have More Sense Asleep: The young lady’s hopes had been high for two years while MND remained silent on the question of marriage. Then one evening he said to her, “I had a most unusual dream last night. I dreamed that I asked to marry you. I wonder what that means”. “That means,” said his girlfriend, “That you have more sense asleep than you have awake!”
Look What You Got? One night, MND’s father noticed a light in his barn. He went to see what it was all about and he found MND with a lantern, all dressed up. “What are you doing all dressed up and with that lantern?” asked his father. “I am going to call on my girlfriend, Dad,” said MND. “I have got to go through the woods and it is dark”. “When I was your age calling on my wife for the first time,” said the father, “I went through the woods without a lantern”. “I know,” said MND, “But look what you got, dad!”
The First One always Tastes Terrible: MND rushed into a tavern (in Persian: May-Khaneh), and said breathlessly, “The usual, please, and hurry, I gotta go”. The bartender (in Persian: May-Foroosh) set up five glasses of red wine in a row and MND gulped the second, third and fourth, leaving the first and fifth glasses of wine over there. Then he rushed out as rapidly as he had entered. A bystander asked the bartender why the customer left the two drinks. “Oh, he does that all the time,” said the bartender. My customer (MND) says that, “The first one always tastes terrible and the last one gets him in trouble at home when he meets his wife!”
That Cannot Be: “That pain in your leg is caused by old age,” the doctor said to MND. “That cannot be,” replied MND. “The other leg is the same age and does not hurt a bit!”
A Real Convert: MND’s son asked his father, “Dad, who is a traitor in politics?” “Any man who leaves our group,” said the MND, “and goes over to the other group is a traitor”. “Well, what about a man who leaves his group and comes over to yours?” asked the young man. “He would be a convert, son,” said MND, “A real convert!”
Delivering a Homily (in Persian: Khotbeh): Once, MND was invited to deliver a public homily. When he got on the pulpit (in Persian: Manbar), he asked, “Do you know what I am going to say?” The audience replied “No”, so he announced, “I have no desire to speak to people who do not even know what I will be talking about!” and he left. The people felt embarrassed and called him back again the next day. This time, when he asked the same question, the people replied “Yes”. So MND said, “Well, since you already know what I am going to say, I won’t waste any more of your time!” and he left. Now the people were really confused and perplexed. They decided to try one more time and once again invited MND to come and deliver the homily. Once again he asked the same question, “Do you know what I am going to say?” Now the people were prepared and so half of them answered “Yes” while the other half replied “No”. So MND said that, “The half who knows what I am going to say, tells it to the other half,” and he left!
EPILOGUE: It should be noted that whether the anecdotes of MND are studied for their humor alone, or for their hidden wisdom, they may help us not only to better understand our world but also to find out something more about ourselves. Depending on the reader and the time, MND may be more of a wise man, a master of anecdotes, or a rebel. The name of MND, however, will remain in the History of Persian Culture as a populist philosopher, a philosopher representing or connected with the ideas and opinions of ordinary people.
Manouchehr Saadat Noury, PhD
Arezzo, A. G. (2008): Online News on MND, in an Interview with BBC (in Persian).
Barnham, H. D. (2005): Tales of Nasreddin Khoja: 181 Mulla Nasreddin Stories (a Translation from Turkish to English), ed., Ibex Publishers, USA.
E-Magazine Website (2007): Online Note on the Stories of “Mulla Nasruddin”.
Latifi, G. (2006): Online Article on MND in Mirrors of Different Nations (in Persian: MND Dar Aayeneh-e Mellat-haa).
Otoons Website (2009): Online Notes on Wisdom of Folly: 200 Jokes of Mulla Nasruddin.
Saadat Noury, M. (2009): Various Articles on Persian Culture and the History of Iran.
Saadat Noury, M. (2006): Online Article on With Mowlana Rumi (in the Collection of Missing Moments).
Saadat Noury, M. (2005): Online Article on First Iranian Scientist.
Shah, I. (2003): The World of Nasrudin, ed., Octagon Press.
Ramazani, M. (1997): 600 Mulla Nasreddin Tales, ed., (in Persian: Sheshsad Dastaan-e Mulla Nasreddin), Ibex Publishers, USA.
Wikipedia Encyclopedia (2009): Online Note on Nasreddin.
WordPress Website (2008): Online Note on the “Sagaciousness of Nasreddin Hoja”.
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