(Also: Nasrettin Hoca, Mullah Nasruddin, Nasr-ed-Din, Nasr-id-Deen, Nastratin, Nasrudin, and many variant spellings)

Turkish wise man and fool. Probably born in the village of Hortu near Sivrihisar in central Anatolia in the early 13th century (1208?). Probably died some time around 1284/1285. Entombed in Aksehir.

Nasreddin Hodja is one of the most famous characters in Islamic history and folklore. While it is likely that he was an historical person, the tales of his curious life and ways have become so distorted by repeated retelling that it is difficult to say where the truth ends and myth begins. The following is the most likely interpretation of the available data, but is by no means certain truth.

Nasreddin was born the son of his village's imam, and received his first schooling from his father. Later, he was sent to the Hanafiya school in Konya, where he learned Islamic law and earned the right to be considered a teacher and imam. In 1237, he became kadi (judge) in the district surrounding Aksehir. While there, he continued his studies under Seyid Mahmud Heyrani and Seyid Haci Ibrahim. He continued to live and work in Aksehir until his death, at age 76.1

"Hodja, how may we achieve wisdom?"
"Listen with care to all that you are told by the wise and the scholarly. And, when you speak to others, listen carefully to what you say."

Hodja is a title meaning "teacher" or "preacher" (or used when talking to a senior). In Arabia and Persia, Nasreddin is called Mullah or Mollah. Further East, he is "the Effendi", and the Chinese know him as Afanti. Even the Greeks, who abhor everything Turkish, know of him. They claim him for their own, and call him Nastradhin Chotzas. Nasreddin, whatever his historical background, has become famous throughout the Islamic world, and outside. The Sufis have adopted many of the stories of his exploits as teaching tales, and perhaps invented some of their own.

Nasreddin was invited to a dinner party at the house of a wealthy family. However, on the day of the party, he was delayed, and had to arrive at the party directly from working in his fields, wearing his grubby everyday work-clothes. The servants, seeing his untidy apparel, seated him in a remote corner, and ignored him entirely.
Getting hungry, and seeing no chance of being served any time soon, Nasreddin got up, and went home to change. Returning in a splendid coat, he was seated at a good table and served immediately.
As he sat there, he suddenly took off his coat and threw it into the dish of food before him, crying: "Eat, my coat! Eat!".
"But Hodja," cried his host, "Whatever are you doing?"
"It was my fine coat that got me this seat," said Nasreddin, calmly pouring tea all over the coat, "And I thought it only fair that it got a taste of the food."

The tales of Nasreddin's exploits first reached European readers through Antoine Galland, the French Orientalist, who translated some of them in his work Paroles remarquables et maximes des Orientaux ("Remarkable sayings and maxims of the Orientals", 1694). However, we find traces of Nasreddin in the earlier writings of Boccacio and Miguel de Cervantes, and in the fables of La Fontaine. Goethe, too, was interested in Nasreddin - he had originally intended to build part of his West-Östlicher Diwan (1819) on the stories of Timur Lenk and Nasreddin.2. Goethe wanted to make Nasreddin Hodja's tales available to the general European public (in Latin), and his wish would soon be fulfilled. During the 19th century, translations in German, English, and French were published. Albert Wesselski's Der Hodscha Nasreddin (Weimar, 1911, 2 volumes) became the central work on the subject.

One day, Nasreddin went through the streets of Aksehir, dancing and singing and laughing out loud.
"Why are you so happy, Hodja?" the people asked.
"Ah, my friends, my donkey is missing!"
"But Hodja, is that any reason to be happy?"
"Of course, my friends! After all, if I had been sitting on it, I'd be missing, too!"

Nasreddin Hodja is a strange figure, a sort of "divine clown", who blurs the edges of the border between "serious" and "ridiculous". All of the tales of his exploits are funny - but, at the same time, they all contain a buried philosophical point. It is hardly surprising that Nasreddin tales have been (and continue to be) used as a medium of social criticism. In Azerbaijan, a popular magazine called Molla Nasreddin was published in Tbilisi, Baku and Tabriz in the years 1906-1920, wherein social commentary was disguised as satire, to avoid the strict Russian censorship. Curiously enough, a series of popular films produced in the Soviet Union in the 1970s portrayed Nasreddin as a hero of the people, struggling, with humour as his only weapon, against the ruthless forces of capitalism.

"How old are you, Hodja?"
"I am forty years old."
"But, Hodja, I asked you that three years ago. Back then, you answered that you were forty years old, too."
"Yes, when I have said something, I stand by it!"

The phenomenon of the "divine clown", who teaches with humour, is hardly unique. We find elements of it in Plato's descriptions of Socrates; in Jewish rabbinical stories; in Zen koans - and in the New Testament.3

"I own nothing. Let it be divided among my heirs, according to the law, and by the correct mathematical formulae. Whatever is left over, let that be divided among the poor."
(supposedly the text of the last will and testament of Nasreddin Hodja)

In Aksehir, you may visit the tomb of Nasreddin Hodja. A circular building with a peaked roof, it is surrounded by an ornamental wrought iron fence. Inside, the grave itself is topped by a kaok (a sort of melon-like turban, the sign of a hodja, which Nasreddin was said to have worn while alive). Is Nasreddin really buried here? None can say, but many generations of travellers have visited the tomb and offered their respects... and if the tomb is empty, that, in itself, is worthy of a Nasreddin story.


Note(s):

1 The oldest written version of a Nasreddin Hodja tale is in the book Saltukname by Ebu-l-Hayr-i Rumi, which was written in 1480, and which contains many other legends. The version given here is taken from that book. Another version, substantially identical, exists - but this dates events a century later.
Versions of Nasreddin Hodja's life which place him as having lived later than the 13th century often associate him with a class of stories which pit him as the jesting philosophical opponent of Timur Lenk (Tamerlane).

2 The material was supposed to have been inserted in the "Book of Timur" section of West-Östlicher Diwan, as indicated by remarks in Noten und Abhandlungen. Unfortunately, it never came to pass.

3 I don't know about you, but I can't imagine Jesus delivering the "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God." remark without a gleam in his eye.


Partial bibliography:


Oh, and just in case you missed the point that this is serious fun (or do I mean funnily serious?): the year 1996 was proclaimed Nasreddin Hodja Year by UNESCO.

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