Across the Islamic world, numerous fables recount the tales of a semi-fictionalized cleric, prominently featuring. While it is possible that a historical figure named Nasreddin Hodja existed, it is the fictionalized version portrayed in these fables that has captured the collective imagination of the Muslim world. These stories, dating back centuries, have firmly established the 13th-century Turkish cleric as a symbol of foolish yet insightful wisdom.
The comedic value of these tales is undeniable, but they also embody a universal archetype found in various cultures—the jester who challenges conventional wisdom through cleverness. The enduring popularity of Nasreddin’s adventures may provide insight into our own psychology and our innate desire for a touch of chaos to disrupt the monotonous routine of normalcy.
Within these folktales, the cleric often embarks on journeys accompanied by his trusty donkey, inadvertently stumbling upon various adventures where he becomes either the subject of ridicule or the hero of the tale.
In one particular episode, he attracts curious gazes as he rides his donkey with an unconventional twist—he sits on it facing backward. As the donkey plods along, a passerby cannot help but inquire of the elderly traveler, “Why are you riding your donkey in reverse?” Sporting a jovial disposition, the cleric responds, “I am the one aligned with the correct direction; it is my donkey that has opted for an unconventional path.”
This anecdote represents just one example among the countless narratives featuring this character, albeit with slight variations in name. Among Turks, he is known as Nasreddin Hodja; among Arabs, he is referred to as Joha, while in Iran and South Asia, he is recognized as Mulla Nasreddin.
Typically, these stories carry an underlying moral or didactic message, aiming to either challenge commonly accepted notions of common sense or shed light on social injustices.
In another tale, Nasreddin assumes the role of a judge tasked with settling a dispute between a beggar and an innkeeper regarding a pot of soup. The beggar stands accused of attempting to savor the soup’s aroma by holding a piece of bread over the simmering liquid.
Having caught the beggar in the act, the furious innkeeper demands compensation for the theft of the “fragrance” of the dish. Wise and astute, the judge rules in favor of the innkeeper but devises an unconventional solution. He orders that the beggar compensate for the soup’s scent by producing the jingling sound of a coin purse.
The trickster archetype
Nasreddin is often referred to as a trickster figure, aligning with an archetypal aspect of human psychology as described by Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung and embraced by some literary theorists. According to this theory, tricksters occupy the boundary between socially acceptable and absurd behavior, skillfully navigating between the two realms to reveal the flaws of conventional thinking.
At the end of Nasreddin’s fables, it is usually those left scratching their heads who appear more foolish than Nasreddin himself. In his book Trickster Makes This World, scholar Lewis Hyde remarks on the mischievous nature of this archetype and its purpose for those who engage with these stories.
Hyde asserts that the role of the trickster is to disrupt established notions of truth and ownership, thereby opening the path to potential new worlds.
In essence, characters like Nasreddin aim to alter people’s perspectives. Hyde cites examples such as the coyote in Native American folklore, as well as characters like Loki in Norse mythology and Hermes in the Greek pantheon.
Due to their shared purpose, tales featuring trickster figures often explore similar themes and can be interchangeable across cultures. A notable example is the story of Nasreddin’s journey with his son and their donkey. Walking alongside the donkey, they attract mockery from passersby for not riding the animal. Upon hearing the criticism, Nasreddin Hodja places his son on the donkey, but this garners new complaints—now the boy rides while his father walks.
Embarrassed, the boy suggests his father take his place, but the critics continue to find fault, condemning Nasreddin for riding while his son walks. Determined to please everyone, the pair then attempt to ride the donkey together. However, the donkey soon exhausts and slows, inviting further reproach from onlookers.
Frustrated, Nasreddin decides that he and his son will carry the donkey to their destination, teaching the young man the futility of trying to please critics—a message relevant both today and during the time of Aesop’s fables in Ancient Greece. Attentive readers will discern the similarities between this tale featuring Nasreddin and the fable of “The Miller, His Son, and Their Donkey”.
Tricksters in Islamic Culture
Nasreddin Hodja is not the sole trickster within Islamic culture. Carl Jung also mentions the story of Khidr in the Quran as another example. Khidr is a mysterious figure in Islamic lore, not specifically identified by Muslim scholars. In the surah (chapter) known as “Al-Kahf” (The Cave), Khidr is simply described as God’s “righteous servant.”
According to the Quranic account, Moses seeks out Khidr in hopes of attaining divine knowledge but is instructed not to question anything he witnesses until Khidr himself allows it. Although Moses agrees, he finds it difficult to restrain his objections when Khidr scuttles a boat, kills a young man, and repairs a crumbling wall in a town that had denied them hospitality.
As Moses fails to comply with the agreed conditions, Khidr decides to part ways with him but not before explaining the reasons behind his actions. The boat was destroyed to prevent its seizure by a tyrant ruler, the young man would have grown up to oppress his parents, and the collapsing wall concealed treasures that belonged to orphans, which would have been stolen if discovered by the townspeople.
Beneath this narrative lies a profound message: actions that appear absurd on the surface may possess hidden wisdom, and there are certain forms of knowledge that will forever remain beyond the reach of humankind. Beyond religious sources, early Arab and Persian Muslim cultures also featured the characters of Joha and Bohlul, who eventually became synonymous with Nasreddin Hodja despite predating him by several centuries.