Sacred Laughter of the Sufis

On January 7 of this year, the French satirical weekly magazine called Charlie Hebdo was the target of a terrorist attack. Twelve people died. Witnesses said they had heard the gunmen shouting, “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad” and “God is Great” in Arabic while calling out the names of the journalists who dared portray the founder of Islam in irreverent ways.

This came to mind as I was coming to know the figure of the Mulla Nasruddin, Islam’s great comic foil who is village simpleton and sage all rolled into one. The earliest written accounts of him go as far back as the 13th century. He is shown as wearing a turban, which is the traditional sign of a person of learning, but in fact he has no formal education. He is seated on a donkey, but backwards. In one story, he is rushing through the marketplace. When the townsfolk greet him, he replies to them hastily, “Sorry—can’t stop to talk. I’m looking for my donkey!”

He is a holy fool. Everywhere there is Islam, there is Nasruddin. In the Albanian language, in Arabic, Armenian, Berber, Bosnian, Bulgarian, Chinese, Daghestani, Greek, Judeo-Arabic, Kurdish, Maltese, Mandaic, Macedonian, Persian, Serbian, Sicilian, Syrian, Tajik, Turkish, Uighur and Uzbek—in all these languages—we find tales of his outrageous silliness. We laugh and laugh, but this laughter opens up a space in our hearts, and into that space the Nasruddin story slips a piece of wisdom, and that piece of wisdom helps us wake up.

“What is this precious love and laughter budding in our hearts?” says the Sufi poet Hafiz. “Listen … it is the glorious sound of a soul waking up!”

So it comes as no surprise that Nasruddin was the main character in a magazine called, simply, Mulla Nasruddin, published in Azerbaijan from 1906 to 1931. Wikipedia reports that it addressed corruption and inequality and “ridiculed the backward lifestyles and values of clergy and religious fanatics, implicitly calling upon the readers to modernize…. The magazine was frequently banned but has a lasting influence on Azerbaijani and Iranian literature.”

It’s Charlie Hebdo before Charlie Hebdo. From out of the very heart of Islamic culture comes a wisdom that wants to heal that culture of its excesses and evils, and it wants to heal every culture. Wisdom that takes the form of a turbaned man riding a donkey backward.

No punches are pulled with this guy.


The Mulla lay gravely ill, surrounded by family, friends, and his wailing wife. The doctor arrived and a hush came over the room as he examined the Mulla. After quite some time the doctor turned to the Mulla’s wife and declared, “O honorable wife of the Mulla, only Allah is immortal. It is with deep sorrow that I have to inform you that your husband has passed away. He is dead. His soul has flown to the bosom of God.” As the doctor continued his eloquent remarks, the Mulla feebly protested. “No! Wait! I’m alive! I’m alive!” “Quiet!” retorted his wife. “The doctor is speaking! Don’t argue with the doctor!”

Listen again:

Nasruddin was walking in the bazaar with a large group of followers. Whatever Nasruddin did, his followers immediately copied. Every few steps Nasreddin would stop and shake his hands in the air, touch his feet and jump up yelling “Hu Hu Hu!” So his followers would also stop and do exactly the same thing. One of the merchants, who knew Nasruddin, quietly asked him: “What are you doing my old friend? Why are these people imitating you?” “I have become a Sufi Sheikh,” replied Nasruddin. “These are my students. I am helping them reach enlightenment!” “How do you know when they reach enlightenment?” “That’s the easy part! Every morning I count them. The ones who have left – have reached enlightenment!”

No punches are pulled in a Nasruddin tale. In both stories, blind faith is lampooned, whether in doctors or spiritual leaders. Whatever else enlightenment may be, it’s freedom from slavish dependence on the “experts.” It’s coming to realize that a fake teacher is indeed a fake and a fraud.

All this suggests an even larger truth. That the enormous power religious communities wield can be co-opted to serve unworthy ends. Thieves can break in and steal. And so, another story has Nasruddin noticing the Devil sitting down, looking confident and relaxed. “Why are you just sitting there, making no mischief?” the Mulla asks. The Devil replies, “Since the clerics, theoreticians, and would-be teachers of the religious paths have appeared in such numbers, there is nothing left for me to do.”

This is blasphemy equal to what the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists committed. But thankfully you can’t kill stories.

In every Muslim nation, and around the world, the Mulla Nasruddin is unstoppable. A force for spiritual freedom. He represents the “loyal opposition” to religious institutions everywhere. For as important as institutions are in transmitting wisdom from age to age and in shaping people’s character in the image of such wisdom, still, institutions are imperfect. They can lose track. The pristine message of founders like Muhammad or Jesus or Buddha or Ralph Waldo Emerson can be degraded. Constant reform is needed.

One day a student came to the Mulla and said, “I have heard that there are secret words that, when repeated, open the gates of enlightenment, accelerate our ability to find contentment in life, and connect us to divine mysteries.” “Absolutely true!” said the Mulla. “You may start your special secret lessons tomorrow and will be joined by a student who is at a similar level of attainment.” The next day the student arrived with eager anticipation and found the Mulla teaching the mystical words to a parrot!

We all want a silver bullet solution. A silver bullet theology that gives a person a spiritual identity that is always clear and never changes and defends against every anxiety. A silver bullet spiritual technique that protects a person from making mistakes and racking up regrets. Silver bullet church strategies guaranteed to result in governance without tears, leadership development without bumps, and numerical growth in the pews without a doubt.

That’s when the Mulla says to us, Absolutely true! You may start your special secret lessons tomorrow and will be joined by a student who is at a similar level of attainment.”

When an institution promises to deliver a silver bullet strategy, you can bet that its focus is to create parrots, not people. I call that a degraded spiritual mission.

You just can’t be both parrot and spiritually free.


Now, besides “loyal opposition” to religions and religious institutions, Nasruddin stories address other aspects of spiritual freedom. Islamic teacher Imam Jamal Rahman, in his book Sacred Laughter of the Sufis, helps us understand what these are. He identifies them as “a common thread of Sufi teachings:”

  1. Every human has a divine spark veiled by the layers of personality. Whether we call it Allah, Jesus, Elohim, Krishna, or any other name, that spark is the same, and we are foolish not to realize our astounding potential.
  2. An essential spiritual practice is to observe and witness oneself continuously and compassionately, acknowledging and laughing at foibles and weakness while working relentlessly to evolve into higher consciousness.
  3. The light of persistent awareness is bound, little by little, to dissolve our false self and bring us closer to our authentic self.

As Unitarian Universalists, we speak of the free and responsible search for truth and meaning, and we can bring a distinctly Sufi understanding to this. We call it a SEARCH and not an automatic accomplishment because it takes time and trial-and-error and lots of help from others and lots of compassion to dissolve the ego patterns that keep us bogged down. Our authentic selves are inside us, but it can feel as if they are a million miles away. Thus the SEARCH. Thus the need for the PERSISTENT LIGHT OF AWARENESS, which dissolves the false self.

Enter Nasruddin, the holy fool. Lots of his stories shine a light on the false self….

In one, we meet the Mulla as a court advisor. One day, he encountered the royal falcon for the first time. He thought to himself, “What an odd looking pigeon!” Wanting to be of service, he trimmed the claws, wings, and beak of the falcon until, crowing with satisfaction, he declared, “Finally, you look like a decent pigeon. Obviously, your keeper was neglecting you!”

In another story, the Mulla went with a friend on his pilgrimage to Mecca. People from every corner of the world go on pilgrimage each year, all of them clothed in plain white robes, so the Mulla tied a conspicuous eggplant around his waist so that his friend would recognize him if they got separated. One evening after the Mulla fell asleep, a trickster untied the eggplant and fastened it around his own waist. When the Mulla awoke in the morning, he was confused. He saw the man with the eggplant and said, “I know who you are, but then, who am I?”

In yet a third story, the Mulla happens to be working in a factory. The president of this factory called a meeting and told all the employees that, starting next month, the factory would be completely automated. There were gasps of disbelief and people shouted, “But how will we feel our families?” “Please don’t be alarmed,” the president said. “All of you have been loyal employees. You will no longer work here, but I’ve got some fantastic news. Because of the increased profits, you will be paid as usual with annual increments! You will continue to enjoy the subsidized cafeteria and sports facilities! All you have to do is come in on Friday to collect your pay.” There were sighs of relief, tears of joy, and much laughter. After a while, the Mulla raised his hand and asked, “That’s great, but not every Friday, I hope!”

The stories help us wake up to the silliness of our egos. They always want more—that’s the lesson of the last story. A sense of entitlement is always around the corner if not center stage, and that sense kills an ability to inhabit the spaciousness of the present moment and appreciate our lives as they are….

Then there’s the second story, the one in which the Mulla establishes his identity through something external to him: an eggplant. But he could equally have done that by crowing over his expertise with social media (as we saw in the video from today), or by pointing to the kind of car he drives, or the career he has, or how his body looks, or the size of his paycheck. We do that all the time—base our sense of self on externals and not on the divine spark within which is what truly gives the peace that passes all understanding…

This is all false self stuff. This is what makes the free and responsible search such a long and winding road…

Same thing with the story about the falcon. Like the Mulla, all we know is pigeons, and so every bird we meet we treat like a pigeon even though it might be something vastly different. Situations and people come to us like falcons, but we don’t know how to appreciate them in all their fullness….

Just yesterday a friend confessed that, like me, she is terrible at remembering song lyrics. That old Bangles’ classic, “Walk Like an Egyptian,” has a line that goes, “All the SCHOOL kids sooo sick of books they like THE PUNK AND THE METAL BAND.” But in her mind that had become “All the cool kids sooooo sick of books they like the funk in the Indian.” It had become that, and it had stayed that for years and years like a broken record until she checked the actual song and realized there is no funk in the Indian involved in walking like an Egyptian…

It’s just like the false self. The false self is an old record, a tired groove, the words are all wrong, repetition ad infinitum. But laughter is the glorious sound of a soul waking up. Sunlight exists underneath this skin. “This little light of mind, I’m gonna let it shine…” But only as the false self patterns are dissolved….

It is said that the Mulla complained every day at lunch that he was sick and tired of cheese sandwiches. Every day, his coworkers had to listen to this. Finally, one of them offered some advice. “Mulla, tell your wife to make you something different. Be persuasive with her.” “But I’m not married!” “Well then, who makes your lunch?” Replied the Mulla, “I do!”

What are your cheese sandwich patterns? What are the cheese sandwich patterns of our families, our nation? What about this community right here?

Shine the light of persistent awareness. Dissolve the false self systems.

Mulla Nasruddin comes on his donkey, sitting backwards. He wears a turban that indicates he is learned but he has no formal education at all. Mulla Nasruddin the holy fool comes into our midst, and he makes us laugh, and we need that laughter, the world is so serious, there are so many circular firing squads we find ourselves in, we need something to dispel all that deadly serious energy that only binds us even further to the deadliness…

Do you know that Sufis are regularly accused by conservative Muslims of being overly flexible (much as Unitarian Universalists might be regularly accused by conservative Christians)? But the Sufis smilingly reply, “Blessed are the flexible for they will never be bent out of shape!”

It is said that laughter is the best medicine.

It is said that the person and the community that laughs, lasts.

Mulla Nasruddin, come give us a blessing today!