Bismillahir Rahmaneer Raheem. In the name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. My salutation is also to our Prophet Muhammad sallal-Iahu alayhi wa sallam (S) [peace and blessings of Allah be upon him].
Civilization is often measured in terms of arts and literature and never in terms of might or strength of a nation to subdue other nations. That is why, we never hear about Hun, Scythian and Mongol civilization, despite the fact that savages of the past like Attila the Hun (the barbarian), Genghis Khan and Hulagu Khan were able to terrorize millions and kill hundreds of thousands of people and control vast territories. Fortunately, from very early on wherever Islam made an inroad it was able to either refine indigenous civilization of a nation that was already enjoying a certain level of civilization, or civilize a people that was hitherto drowned in savagery. That is why, it is not difficult to fathom why for nearly a thousand years (7th-17th century C.E. or 1st-11th century A.H.) while most of the European nations were sunk in savagery, Muslim nations in Asia, Africa and Moorish Spain were enjoying fruits of such a lofty civilization that was simply superb. Muslim nations were, therefore, able to breed a multitude of great scientists, philosophers, doctors, mathematicians, astronomers, social scientists, geographers, historians, writers, poets, novelists, linguists, artists and humorists. Nasreddin Hodja (Hoca in Turkish: the letter ‘c’ is pronounced as ‘dj’) was one such Muslim humorist from Turkey (in the 13th century CE), a county not known for arts and literature in the era that preceded Islam.
Writing about elements of humor in Central Asia: The Example of the Journal of Molla Nasreddin in Azerbaijan, H. B. Paksoy writes: “Humor can be considered a branch of the literary traditions of a society. Like literature, humor cannot always be understood without knowledge of the society which produces it. This is a critical point. Some observers claim that in a given culture, country or nation, humor does not exist. This is a rather rash judgment. Rather, the question ought to be: ‘Are we properly equipped to understand the humor of the people we are studying?’... Central Asia has produced humor throughout its history. We can at least begin to understand the nature of this humor through a simultaneous study of history and current events.”
I remember how much I, as a Bangladeshi child, enjoyed reading such stories, especially the anecdotes of Nasreddin Hodja. His stories are well known from the shores of Aegean to the Eastern reaches of Sinkiang, where he is known as “Effendi.” One of his statues adorns a city square in Bukhara, depicting the esteemed Hodja riding his donkey backwards, as told in one of his anecdotes. It should be pointed out here that some variations of the anecdotes exist in the way they are told through time and space. Many a punch lines from his anecdotes have long since reached the status of proverbs. Mark Twain’s Library of Humor of the late 19th century includes a story attributed to Hodja.
As many as 350 anecdotes have been attributed to the Hodja, as he most often is called. Hodja is a title - meaning teacher or scholar (“Hodja” or “Hojjat” literally means “Proof:” e.g., of learning or in Islam). These stories about Molla Nasreddin are enjoyed throughout the world, not just among Turkish speakers where the anecdotes originated. Azerbaijanis and Iranians know this comic sage as “Molla Nasreddin.” Turks and Greeks call him “Hoja Nasreddin.” Kazakhs say “Koja Nasreddin;” Arabs, “Juha;” and Tajiks, “Mushfiqi.” Other spelling variations for Nasreddin include: Nasrettin, Nasrudin, Nasr-id- deen, Nasr-eddin, Nasiruddin, Nasr-ud-Din, Nasr-Eddin, Nasr al- Din and Nasr-Ed-Dine. Molla is also written as Mulla. The many spelling variations for Hodja include: Hoja, Hojja, Hodscha, Hoca, Chotza, Khodja, Koja and Khoja.
The historical Nasreddin Hodja can be considered a populist philosopher, wise and witty man. The stories attributed to him display a biting sense of humor and the anecdotes themselves have satirical qualities that go immediately to the heart of the matter. Molla’s observations involve people from all walks of life, from beggar to king, politician to clergy, and scholar to merchant. His stories often point to an obvious truth which has been taken for granted and usually include an unexpected twist that makes his ideas witty and fresh. Though Molla often appears as a fool, he usually is the one who cleverly exposes other people’s foolishness. Subtleties of his pronouncements may not be apparent at first, but cannot be dismissed off-hand even by the most skeptical.
The stories are eternal; they deal with social issues, which are fundamental to human nature, social injustice, class privilege, selfishness, cowardice; laziness, incompetence, ignorance, narrow-mindedness and all kinds of fraud. Though most of the stories are set in the 13th century teahouses, bath houses, caravanserai and market places, Molla’s observations about human nature are so insightful and told so cleverly that they have the power to amuse and captivate us centuries later. The incidents and characters in these stories illustrate the comic, eccentric and inconsistent aspects of human beings through Nasreddin Hodja’s astute observations.
There is some controversy around Hodja’s birth and death dates. According to most accounts, he was a village Imam (cleric) during Seljuk times, and was born in 1208 C.E. in Hortu village near Sivrihisar in Central Anatolia and died in 1284 C.E. (683 AH) at the age of 76. However, the most reliable document is the date 1383 (796 AH) found inscribed on the wall of his tomb in Aksehir. It indicates that Hodja died before 1393. This latter date seems to agree well with his encounter with the Mongol Emperor Timur.
As a young boy he must have enjoyed a free country childhood and lived in one of the cottages with adobe walls and flat baked earth roofs, typical of this region. He received his early education from his father, the village imam, and went on to study at the madrasa (Islamic school). After working as a village imam for some years, he moved to the town of Aksehir. There he is known to have studied under such notable scholars of the time as Sayyid Mahmud Hayrani and Sayyid Haci Ibrahim. Later he became a professor at the madrasa in Aksehir and served as kadi (Judge).
Nasreddin Hodja was buried in Aksehir, near present day Konya province in the Turkish Republic, in a tomb that symbolizes the absurdity in life, which he had loved to expose while alive. It is protected against the elements by a large diameter ribbed dome, supported by many slender columns. An imposing gate, leading to the area covered by this dome, is most visible. Two rectangular stone posts provide the anchor for the tastefully designed wrought-iron door. The two wings of the ornate gate are tightly shut and secured with an enormous padlock. However, there is no surrounding fence and the gate stands alone on its site. Once his name is invoked, the tradition demands that seven anecdotes from Nasreddin Hodja be told.
Immortalized by his humorous and thought provoking words and actions, Nasreddin Hodja was a man of the people who perceived the world through their eyes. This won him a deep love, which has lasted for centuries. In the pessimistic and strife-torn world of the Middle Ages, Nasreddin Hodja radiated optimism. Yet this certainly did not prevent him from attacking injustice with stinging words. In his accounts he always seeks a peaceful way to get his message across, getting the better of his antagonists without argument or fight.
He loved life, and despite being a man of religion disliked nonsensical debates on religious subtleties. When he was asked about where the mourners should stand when carrying the coffin at a funeral, he retorted, “As long as you are not the one inside it doesn’t matter a jot!”
Nasreddin Hodja never let trivial matters worry him. When a kite seized the liver he was carrying home for supper, he shouted, “You’re wasting your time, I’ve got the recipe!” His affection extended to animals, and in many anecdotes we find him talking to his donkey like a friend.
One day a man stopped him and said, “Hodja, a roasted stuffed turkey just went past.” Nasreddin Hodja replied, “What has that got to do with me?” “But it went to your house,” said the man. “What has that got to do with you?” retorted Nasreddin Hodja.
His optimism is illustrated by one of his most famous stories.
One day a man found him pouring the remains of his yogurt into Aksehir Lake. “Hodja, what are you doing?” the man asked. “I am turning the lake into yogurt,” he replied. When the man laughed at him, he said, “But you never know perhaps it might.”
This endorsement of hope against all odds has remained valid in every era.
Among the things that annoy Nasreddin Hodja most are meanness, bigotry, injustice, corrupt judges, insolence and sycophancy.
My sources for the following retold anecdotes include The Tales of Nasrettin Hoca, told by Aziz Nesin, retold in English by Talat Halman (Istanbul: Dost Yayinlari, 1988); Allan Ramsay and Francis McCullagh, Tales from Turkey (London: Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, and Kent, 1914); Nasreddin Hodja compiled by Alpay Kabacali, illustrated by Fatih M. Durmus and published by NET; and Somnath Dhar, Folk Tales of Turkey (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers, 1989). I have also drawn some stories from the following websites, which are duly acknowledged here.
Towards compilation of this work, I would like to thank Dr. Ziauddin Ahmed for suggesting the need to compile storybooks from Muslim nations so that our children could share their Islamic heritage with other English-speaking children around the world. Without his enthusiasm this project probably would not have materialized. I pray and hope that our children enjoy these stories and share them with their neighbors and friends. Since some of the stories were pulled from websites, it is possible that some spelling and grammatical errors have crept in, which I wish to correct InshaAllah (God Willing) in a future edition.
I am indebted to my good old friend Raja Ahmed for a wonderful job with layout and formatting of the book. May Allah reward him immensely for his help!
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