There are probably quite a few people who have never heard of Khodja Nasreddin, especially in the Muslim Orient. His name is mentioned in friendly conversations, in political speeches and in scholarly disputes. He is remembered on various occasions and also for no reason, simply because Hodja has been in every imaginable and unimaginable situation in which a human being can only find himself: He cheated and was cheated, was cunning and devious, extremely clever and totally stupid.
Nasreddin was born in 605 AH (1206) near the town of Sivrihisar in Eskişehir province into the family of the venerable Imam Abdullah in the Turkish village of Horto. Dozens of villages and towns in the Middle East, however, are poised to dispute the nationality and birthplace of the great adventurer.
At the Maktab, a Muslim primary school, little Nasreddin asked his teacher, the Domullah, tricky questions. Many of them the Domullah simply could not answer. Nasreddin then studied in Konya, the capital of the Seljuk Sultanate, lived and worked in Kastamonu and then in Akshehir, where he finally died.
The Turkish historian Mikayil Bayram has done extensive research which revealed that Nasir al-Din Mahmud al-Hoyi, the real prototype of Nasiruddin, was born with his full name in the town of Khoy in the Iranian province of Western Azerbaijan, went to school in Khorasan and became a disciple of the famous Islamist Fakhr al-Din al-Razi.
He was sent to Anatolia by the Caliph of Baghdad to organise resistance to the Mongol invasion. He served as a qadi, an Islamic judge, in Kayseri and later became a vizier at the court of Sultan Qayn Qawus II in Konya. He visited many cities, was familiar with many cultures and was famous for his wit, so it is possible that he was the first character in the amusing or cautionary tales of Hoja Nasreddin.
True, it seems doubtful that this educated and influential man would ride a humble donkey and quarrel with his sullen and ugly wife. But what a nobleman cannot afford to do, the hero of amusing and instructive anecdotes can, can’t he?
There are, however, other studies that suggest that the image of Khoja Nasreddin is a good five centuries older than modern scholarship commonly assumes.
An interesting hypothesis has been put forward by Azerbaijani scholars. A series of comparisons has enabled them to suggest that the prototype of Nasreddin was the famous Azerbaijani scientist Hadji Nasireddin Tusi, who lived in the 13th century. Among the arguments in favour of this hypothesis is, for example, the fact that Nasreddin is referred to by this name in one of the sources – Nasireddin Tusi.
In Azerbaijan, Nasreddin is called Molla – perhaps this name, researchers believe, is a distorted form of the name Movlan, which belonged to Tusi. He had another name – Hasan. This view is supported by the coincidence of certain motifs in Tusi’s works and anecdotes about Nasreddin (e.g. the mockery of soothsayers and astrologers). The reflections are interesting and not without persuasive force.
So when one sets out to find someone like Nasreddin in the past, it quickly becomes clear that his historicity borders on the legendary. However, many researchers are of the opinion that the traces of Khodja Nasreddin are not to be sought in historical chronicles and burial chambers, which, judging by his character, he did not want to enter, but in the parables and anecdotes that were and are told by the peoples of the Middle East and Central Asia, and not only by them.
In the folk tradition, Nasreddin is portrayed as multi-faceted. Sometimes he appears as an ugly, shabby-looking man in an old, worn-out coat whose pockets unfortunately have too many holes for anything to lie there. Sometimes his dressing gown is greasy and dirty; long walks and poverty take their toll. Another time, however, we see a pleasant-looking man who is not rich but lives well. There is a place for holidays in his house, but there are also dark days. And then Nasreddin is genuinely happy about the thieves in his house, because finding something in the empty chests is real happiness.
Khodja travels a lot, but it is not clear where he is at home: in Akshehir, Samarkand, Bukhara or Baghdad? Uzbekistan, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Armenia (yes, that too!), Greece and Bulgaria are ready to take him in. His name is declined in different languages: Khodja Nasreddin, Joha Nasr-et-din, Mulla, Molla (Azerbaijani), Afandi (Uzbek), Ependi (Turkmen), Nasyr (Kazakh), Anasratin (Greek). Friends and disciples await him everywhere, but so do enemies and critics.
Nasreddin is spelled differently in many languages, but all derive from the Arabic Muslim personal name Nasr ad-Din, which translates as “victory of faith”. Nasreddin is addressed differently in the parables of different nations – it can be a respectful form of address such as “Khodja” and “Molla”, and even the Turkish “efendi”. It is significant that these three terms – khojah, molla and efendi – are in many ways very similar.
“Khodja” means “master” in Farsi. The word exists in almost all Turkish languages and also in Arabic. It was originally used as a name for the descendants of the Islamic Sufi missionaries in Central Asia, members of the “white bones” class (Turkish: “ak suyak”).
Over time, Khodja became an honorary title, especially for the Islamic spiritual leaders of the Ottoman princes or the teachers of Arabic script in the Mekteb, but also for nobles, merchants or eunuchs in ruling families.
Mullah (mollah) has several meanings. In Shi’ite society, a mullah is the head of a religious community, a theologian, a specialist in the interpretation of matters of faith and law (in Sunni society, these functions are performed by the ulema). In the rest of the Islamic world, in a more general sense, as a respectful title, it can have the following meanings: “teacher”, “helper”, “owner”, “protector”.
Efendi (afandi, ependi) (this word has Arabic as well as Persian and even ancient Greek roots) means “someone who can defend himself (in court)”). It is an honorific title for nobles, a polite form of address with the meanings “lord”, “respected”, “lord”. It usually followed the name and was given mainly to members of the learned professions.
But back to the reconstructed biography. Khodja has a wife, a son and two daughters. His wife is a faithful conversationalist and eternal adversary. She is grumpy, but sometimes also much wiser and calmer than her husband. His son is very different from his father, and sometimes he is just as clever and impudent.
Khodja has many professions: he is a farmer, a craftsman, a healer, a nurse and even a thief (mostly unsuccessfully). He is a very religious man, so his villagers listen to his sermons; he is just and knows the law well, so he becomes a judge; he is noble and wise – and now a great emir and even Amir Temur himself want him as his closest advisor. In other stories, however, Nasreddin is a foolish, short-sighted man with many shortcomings, and sometimes he is even said to be an atheist.
One gets the impression that Nasreddin is a manifestation of human life in all its diversity and that everyone (if they wish) can discover their own Nasreddin.
For the Arab tradition, Nasreddin is not a random figure. It is no secret that every story or anecdote about him is a treasure trove of ancient wisdom, knowledge about the human journey, destiny and the search for true existence. And Khodja is not just a crank or an idiot, but one who tries to convey high religious and ethical truths through irony and paradox.
One can draw the bold conclusion that Nasreddin is a true Sufi! Sufism is an inner mystical current in Islam that has developed alongside the official religious schools. However, the Sufis themselves say that this current is not limited to the religion of the Prophet, but is the seed of any genuine religious or philosophical teaching.
Sufism is the search for truth and the spiritual transformation of man; it is a different way of thinking, a different way of seeing things, free from fears, stereotypes and dogmas. And in this sense, true Sufis are not only to be found in the Orient, but also in Western culture.
The mystery that surrounds Sufism, according to its followers, is not related to any particular mysticism or secrecy of doctrine, but to the fact that there have not been so many sincere and honest seekers of truth in all the centuries.
Khodja Nasreddin constantly reminds us that our understanding of things is limited and therefore our judgement is limited. And if someone is called a fool, there is no point in being offended, because for Khodja Nasreddin such an accusation would be the highest of praises! Nasreddin is the greatest teacher; his wisdom has long transcended the boundaries of the Sufi community.
There is a legend in the Orient that if the seven stories of Khodja Nasreddin are told in a certain order, the light of eternal truth, which gives extraordinary wisdom and power, touches the person. How many of them have studied the legacy of the great mockingbird from time to time is anyone’s guess.
From generation to generation, stories and anecdotes were passed on from mouth to mouth in all the teahouses and caravanserais of Asia, and the inexhaustible imagination of the people added more parables and anecdotes to the collection of stories about Khodja Nasreddin, covering a vast territory. The themes of these stories have become part of the folk heritage of several nations, and the differences between them are due to the diversity of national cultures. Most of them depict Nasreddin as a poor villager and have no reference to the time of the tale – their hero could live and act in any time and era.
Stories about Khodja Nasreddin were first literaryised in Turkey in 1480 and written down in a book called “Saltukname”. A little later, in the 16th century, the next manuscript with stories about Nasreddin was written by the writer and poet Jami Ruma Lamy (died 1531). Later, several novels and novellas were written about Khodja Nasreddin (“Nasreddin and his Wife” by P. Millin, “The Chechi of the Cherry Bones” by Gafur Gulam, etc.).
Now, the twentieth century has brought the stories of Khodja Nazreddin to the cinema screen and the theatre scene. Today, the stories of Khodja Nasreddin have been translated into many languages and have long been part of the world’s literary heritage. Thus, UNESCO declared the years 1996 to 1997 the International Year of Khodja Nazreddin.
The main characteristic of the literary hero Nasreddin is to emerge victorious from every situation with the help of words. Nasreddin is a master of words and neutralises each of his defeats. Common tricks of Khojah are feigned ignorance and the logic of the absurd.
Here is a version of Nasreddin. “Afandi, what should I do, my eye hurts?” – Nasreddin’s friend asked. “When I had a toothache, I couldn’t rest until I pulled it out. Maybe you should do the same, then you will get rid of the pain,” advised Khodja Nasreddin.
It turns out that this is nothing unusual. Similar jokes can be found, for example, in the German and Flemish legends of Till Eulenspiegel, in Boccaccio’s Decameron and in Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Similar characters in other peoples: Peter the Cunning among the South Slavs; in Bulgaria there are stories in which two characters appear simultaneously and compete with each other (most frequently Khodja Nasreddin and Peter the Cunning, who in Bulgaria is associated with the Turkish yoke).
The Arabs have a very similar character Joha, the Armenians have Pulu-Pugi, the Kazakhs (along with Nasreddin himself) have Aldar Köse, the Karakalpaks have Omirbek, the Crimean Tatars have Ahmet-akai, the Tajiks have Mushfiki, The Name of Salyai Chakkan and Molla Zaidin among the Uighurs; Kemine among the Turkmen; Hershele Ostropoler among the Ashkenazi Jews; Pacala among the Romanians and Molla Nasreddin among the Azerbaijanis. In Azerbaijan, the satirical magazine Molla Nasreddin, edited by Jalil Mammadkulizade, was named after Nasreddin.
Of course, it is difficult to say that the stories about Khodja Nasreddin influenced the emergence of similar stories in other cultures. Somewhere it is obvious to researchers, and somewhere there are no visible connections. But it is hard not to agree that there is something extraordinarily important and appealing about it.
Of course, there are those who say that Nasreddin is incomprehensible or simply outdated. Well, if Khodja Nasreddin had been our contemporary, he would not have been disappointed: He couldn’t please everyone. Nasreddin did not like to get upset. A mood is like a cloud: it gathers and floats away. We only get upset because we lose what we had. If you have lost it, that is a reason to get upset. Otherwise, Khodja Nasreddin had nothing to lose, and that is probably the most important lesson of all.