The Lessons of Mulla Nasruddin


Two years after September 11, 2001, when the righteous indignation of Americans at the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon had cooled a bit, five Ivy League colleges decided to invite a Muslim sage to talk to them about why such horrible things were done to Americans.

After much deliberation, the five colleges narrowed their choice to Jelalduddin Rumi and Mulla Nasruddin, two Muslim sages best known to Americans. (That does not mean that many Americans have heard about these sages.) In the end, it was the Mulla who won out, since he was thought to possess a keener mind on matters mundane.

I had the privilege of attending all five lectures. The Mulla had called me up and insisted that I should read his talks. He was afraid that the audience would be distracted by his Oriental attire and Farsi accent. It was an honor I could not turn down.

Before returning to his home town in Bokhara (or, is it Balk, Badakhshan or Bamiyan?) the Mulla asked if I could make his talks available to a wider American public. I did not have the heart to tell the Mulla that his talks, which were stories about his antics, had not gone well (he had not noticed), and it wasn’t very likely that they would be better appreciated by a wider American public. [1] But perhaps I was forgetting the blinders that academics wear.

I will report the Mulla’s lectures exactly as I read them, but at the end of each lecture I have dared to insert a few helpful notes. At least, I think they might be helpful.

First Lecture

Many years ago, the Mulla was traveling on the Silk Road to China when he met George, a traveler from the land of the Franks. They soon became friends and decided to travel together, each pledging to help the other on the long and difficult journey ahead.

Several days later, after traveling through a dreary stretch of arid country, they came to a small town. Since they were both hungry and thirsty, they found their way to the only inn in town. But they had little money left. So they decided to share a bowl of milk. It would quench their thirst and provide some nourishment.

George said to the Mulla, ‘You drink your half first. I have one lump of sugar, and it is only enough to sweeten my half.’ The Mulla insisted that they share the sugar too. However, when he saw that George was not in a mood to relent, the Mulla went into the kitchen and returned with a large lump of salt, and told George that he just remembered that he preferred to drink his milk with salt.

Before the Mulla could add the lump of salt to the glass of milk, George had a change of heart. Smiling, he offered his lump of sugar to the Mulla. One by one, they quenched their thirst with sweetened milk. In addition, the Mulla savored the sweet taste of victory.

Notes: The glass of milk is the world: its land, water, and the fruits of labor. The sugar is the technology, property rights, etc. And the salt? What is your guess?

Second Lecture

Once, the Mulla woke up in the middle of the night to find that there was a burglar in his house gathering up his furnishings, clothes and pots. He did not disturb the burglar, but watched quietly as he swept the house clean and loaded his haul into a donkey cart.

When the burglar took off, the Mulla followed the donkey cart at a distance. He took note of the rich and commodious house, a few blocks from his own, where the burglar unloaded his loot, and quietly returned to his modest–and now emptied–dwelling, and went back to sleep.

Next morning, the Mulla asked his wife and children to follow him. They were moving into a new house. He took them to the burglar’s house, pushed open the door, and moved in.

When the burglar woke up later in the day, the Mulla thanked him profusely for helping him move to his new house.

Notes: Imagine the poor Latin Americans moving north across the Rio Grande, or the North Africans heading for the northern shores of the Mediterranean.

Third Lecture

One day the Mulla walked into a teahouse. He was audibly muttering to himself, ‘I don’t like the sun: it does little good. I love the moon.’

The people in the teahouse asked him why? The Mulla answered, ‘Can’t you see? The moon shines at night when it is dark, spreading its light for travelers, night workers and lovers. On the other hand, the sun shines during the day, when it is bright anyway.’

Notes: The mind can play tricks, missing the obvious connections. Example: We were attacked on 9-11 because the Arabs hate our freedom and affluence. We have only been kind to them.

Fourth Lecture

On one occasion, the Mulla borrowed a large cooking pot from his next-door neighbor. When returning it, he placed a smaller cooking pot inside the borrowed one. The neighbor reminded him that the smaller pot did not belong to him; he had lent the large one. The Mulla replied that in fact it did belong to him. He explained, ‘While your pot was with me, one night it gave birth to a baby pot.’ The neighbor did not object to that.

A few days later, the Mulla again borrowed his neighbor’s cooking pot, but this time never returned it. When the neighbor came asking for his pot, the Mulla told him that he could not have it back. ‘Your pot had died soon after I borrowed it,’ he said.

At first, the neighbor thought the Mulla was joking. But soon he grew irate when he found that the Mulla was sticking to his narrative. The Mulla tried to calm his neighbor, ‘If your pot could give birth to a baby, why couldn’t it die?’

Notes: The social sciences have invented some quite improbable stories to push the agenda of their clients: privileged classes, “races,” and countries. Occasionally, these narratives are applied only partially. The rich countries tout free markets for their capital, but rigorously protect their own labor.

Fifth Lecture

A mighty emperor once sought the Mulla’s help. He told the Mulla: ‘the great kings and conquerors of the past carried great titles, and often their titles celebrated divine favors. In the past, there were kings that were God-anointed, God-chosen, God-like, and even God-descended.’ The mighty emperor asked the Mulla to come up with an honorific appropriate to his great conquests.

The Mulla said that he would have to think about it, but he would send him one after a month’s meditation upon the subject. A month later, having safely hidden himself, the Mulla sent his answer to the King, embossed on gold-leaf. It said: ‘God-forbid.’

Notes: This king ruled over the greatest country in the world–even the greatest in the history of mankind.

[1] The Mulla Nasruddin stories in this report are taken from two books by Idries Shah: The Pleasantries of the Mulla and The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasruddin.

M. SHAHID ALAM is professor of economics at Northeastern University and a contributor to The Politics of Anti-Semitism. His last book, Poverty from the Wealth of Nations, was published by Palgrave in 2000. He may be reached at m.alam@neu.edu.

Visit his webpage at http://msalam.net.




M. SHAHID ALAM is professor of economics at Northeastern University. This is an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism (Macmillan, November 2009). Contact me at alqalam02760@yahoo.com.

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