by Imam Jamal Rahman
This article first appeared in Watkins Mind Body Spirit, issue 40.
The well-loved trickster from Islamic folklore reminds us to trust, laugh, and be honest with ourselves.
The Mulla, a folklore trickster of Muslim tradition, is both timeless and placeless. Called by various names, he’s a village idiot and sage rolled into one—and he enjoys laughing at himself and invites us to join him. He has no image to cling to and no reputation to uphold. He is free. And even though he is illiterate, he is given the title of Mulla, which indicates a person of some learning: His intelligence appears to emanate from a source beyond books.
Teaching stories about the Mulla are some of the most precious resources in Islamic spirituality. As part of a learning curriculum, Sufi teachers give Mulla stories to their students to contemplate and interpret for their own spiritual journeys. Unfailingly witty and entertaining, each story is said to have at least seven levels of meaning for those who seek.
A favorite image of the Mulla is as a middle-aged man, turbaned and bearded, seated on his donkey and rushing through the market place. When the townsfolk hail him and ask him why he is in such a hurry, he hastily replies, “I’m sorry, I can’t stop to talk; I’m busy looking for my donkey.”
These stories offer astute and amusing insights into human behavior. For example, how often do we trip on our outsized egos, claiming credit for something that is none of our doing? We are like the Mulla, who happened to pass by a well on a moonlit night and was horrified to see the moon in the bottom of the well (this could have disastrous consequences because the lunar calendar of Islamic observances is based on cycles of the moon). The Mulla rushed home to get a rope, tied it to a hook, and returned to rescue the moon. After dropping the hook into the well, he heaved and pulled until something came loose and the momentum threw him on his back. Lying there, he was delighted to see the moon restored to its proper domain. “Thank God I came along!” he crowed in self-satisfaction.
The Mulla had no sympathy for those of us who allow ourselves to be entranced and manipulated by people in positions of title and power rather than using our God-given faculties of reason and educated intuition. When we surrender our own common sense in deference to the experts, we are like the Mulla’s wife in the story about the Mulla lying on his sick bed, close to death.
After examining him at length, the doctor turned to the Mulla’s wife and said, “Madam, alas, only Allah is immortal. I am sorry to tell you that the Mulla has passed away.”
As the doctor continued an eloquent little speech to display his piety and learning, the Mulla feebly protested: “But I’m alive! I’m alive!”
“Quiet!” retorted his wife, “Don’t argue with the doctor!”
Clerics and politicians who, because of vested interests, go to absurd lengths to defend their institutions even if they are rotten to the core also come in for their share of derision in the Mulla stories. One rainy evening, the Mulla attended a religious meeting in a house of worship. As the leader was going on about the beauty and superiority of their particular institution, a fierce storm arose and the weak rafters of the sacred house began to sway and creak ominously.
“Don’t worry,” said the leader. “These rafters are actually singing hymns of praise out of love for God.”
Hearing this, the Mulla raised his hand and asked, “But what if the building, out of love for God, decides to bow and prostrate to the Almighty?”
Sins of “convenient truths” are not the sole domain of clerics and politicians. Each of us, in our private and collective lives, needs to guard against deceptions large or small that are rooted in self-interest and convenience. To prepare food for a large celebration, the Mulla knocked on his neighbor’s door to borrow a large cooking pot. The neighbor reluctantly let go of her prized pot, and the next day the Mulla returned with two pots: the large one and a smaller one.
“Where did the small one come from?” asked the housewife.
“Oh, Madam, your pot gave birth to this one,” replied the Mulla. “Didn’t you know your pot was pregnant?”
“I suspected as much,” the housewife quickly replied, and she thanked him profusely for taking care of her pot’s pregnancy.
A few months later the Mulla knocked on her door again, wanting to borrow the large pot. This time the housewife readily acceded. But in the next few days there was no return visit from the Mulla, so she went to his house to demand the pot.
“I’m so sorry, Madam,” said the Mullah, “but your pot was pregnant again and died in childbirth.”
“That’s ridiculous,” retorted the housewife. “How can a pot possibly be pregnant?”
“Ah, but you believed it the first time,” declared the Mulla.
Convenience can be an obstacle to truth in more fundamental ways as well. One night the Mulla was looking for a lost key under a streetlight, and several of his neighbors turned out to help. After searching without success, they asked him where he might have dropped the key.
“Actually,” said the Mulla, “I lost it in my house.”
Surprised and bemused, they asked him why he didn’t look for it there.
“That’s simple,” he replied. “There’s no light in my house, but the light out here is bright.”
The spiritual insight here is profound: When we lose our joy or peace of mind because of a failed relationship or a job, too often we look outside ourselves—outside the house—for what is lost. We work hard on the externals, laying blame and taking action in all the wrong places. The truth is that we lost our joy or peace inside ourselves, but the inner work is inconvenient because the light is dim. Nevertheless, that is where we need to look, and no number of helpful neighbors can find it for us.
On the other hand, even though our neighbors can’t do the inner work for us, community plays an essential role in our spiritual and intellectual lives. More than clerics and teachers, our primary source of real learning is the people we live and work with every day. One day the Mulla was invited to preach at a famous mosque.
As he stepped onto the podium, he asked, “Do you know what I’m going to talk about today?”
In one voice the congregation replied “No,” so the Mulla stepped down, saying it would be a waste of his time if they didn’t know what he was talking about. Urged by the mosque officials to return, he again ascended the podium and asked the same question. Thinking they had learned their lesson, the congregation replied, “Yes! Yes!” whereupon the Mulla stepped down again, saying that in that case, there was no need for him to teach. Exasperated, the mosque officials once again pressed him to return and the Mulla once again asked the same question. Chastened by their previous experience, some in the congregation said “yes” and others said “no.”
“Very well,” said the Mulla, as he stepped down from the podium again. “Those who said ‘yes’ teach the ones who said ‘no.’”
These are just a few examples of the brilliantly entertaining ways the Mulla stories can teach us to know and laugh affectionately at our human foibles. Here’s one more: The Mulla walked into an unfamiliar bank to do a financial transaction and the official asked him to prove his identity. The Mulla reached into his pocket, took out a pocket mirror, and peered into it.
“Yes,” he said, “that’s me all right. I do certify it!”
What about you? When you look into your inner mirror, what do you see? By grace of God, may you see your divine nature manifesting as the priceless person you are.
In Turkey, there is a tomb of the famous Mulla. In the front is a secure iron door with chains and padlocks, but no wall surrounds the door. Even in his tomb, the Mulla offers us one more teaching: In this world, no matter what plans we make or things we acquire, the thief will come from the unguarded side. Be occupied, then, with your inner life. It is a gift of real and lasting value.
Meet the Author: Jamal Rahman is a popular speaker on Islam, Sufi spirituality, and interfaith relations. He has been featured in the New York Times, CBS News, BBC, and various NPR programs. Cofounder and Muslim Sufi minister at Seattle’s Interfaith Community Sanctuary and adjunct faculty at Seattle University, he is a former host of Interfaith Talk Radio and travels nationally and internationally, presenting at retreats and workshops. www.jamalrahman.com
Imam Jamal Rahman
Sacred Laughter of the Sufis: Awakening the Soul with the Mulla’s Comic Teaching Stories and Other Islamic Wisdom Skylight Paths
£14.99, Available from Watkins Books
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