On The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin

Mulla Nasrudin is a medieval folk hero who is claimed by many countries, including Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey. He is part court jester, part Socratic philosopher, and the many tales of his sayings and adventures are still popular throughout the Middle East and parts of Asia. Nasrudin was a Sufi, and the Sufis often use his exploits (chronicled in a series of books by Sufi scholar Idries Shah) much as Zen Buddhists use koans. His stories are also very similar to the longer, more magical tales of the Taoist sage Chuang Tzu. Reading and pondering on Nasrudin’s shenanigans can help break down conventional thinking, and help nurture a breakthrough into wisdom. Mulla Nasrudin’s witty stories are an interesting example of how the parable can intersect with the aphorism.

Parables are not automatically aphorisms. But a parable can contain one or more aphorisms. A parable, taken as a whole, can also be an aphorism, albeit one that pushes the boundaries of the form’s demand for brevity. Most of the parables about Mulla Nasrudin are not aphorisms. Some are just jokes. (Mulla Nasrudin is, for example, one of the early sources for the perennial joke about the drunk looking for his car keys under a lamp-post: Where did you lose them?, his friend asks. At home, the drunk says. Then why are you looking here? The light is better.) Others are short bursts of moral or social satire. But some of these compact anecdotes are pretty good aphorisms, so I thought I’d offer up a couple of them here:

His Imperial Majesty the Shahinshah arrived unexpectedly at the teahouse where Nasrudin had been left in charge. The Emperor called for an omelette. “We shall now continue with the hunt,” he told the Mulla. “So tell me what I owe you.” “For your and your five companions, Sire, the omelettes will be a thousand gold pieces.” The Emperor raised his eyebrows. “Eggs must be very costly here. Are they as scarce as that?” “It is not the eggs that are scarce here, Majesty—it is the visits of kings.”

Nasrudin sometimes took people for trips in his boat. One day a fussy pedagogue hired him to ferry him across a very wide river. As soon as they were afloat, the scholar asked whether it was going to be rough. “Don’t ask me nothing about it,” said Nasrudin. “Have you never studied grammar?” “No,” said the Mulla. “In that case, half your life has been wasted.” The Mulla said nothing. Soon a terrible storm blew up. The Mulla’s crazy cockleshell was filling with water. He leaned over towards his companion. “Have you ever learnt to swim?” “No,” said the pedant. “In that case, schoolmaster, ALL your life is lost, for we are sinking.”

From: The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin, by Idries Shah. London: Picador, 1973.