Lao Tsu and Sufism

Was Nasruddin wise or an idiot, or both or neither ?

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Putin and Nasruddin: a Question of Identity

” There is no place like home, not even home.” Adam Phillips,psychoanalyst.

No matter where you go, there you are. “

It seems that Putin,the Russian president had a tumutuous,traumatic early life, having been raised by a “surrogate” family. His parents “gave” him to his grandparents, who then passed him on to another family. He seems to be extremely introverted ( schizoid ), has always liked to project the image of a “tough”, macho man. He seldom talks re his wife and children ; love, even sex, seem to be foreign to his nature. It is not difficult to suppose that, he seems to lack a core sense of who he is and what his purpose in life is,ie., identity. Of course, external political and historical factors in his invasion of Ukraine are not to be dismissed, but we need to add a potential psychological perspective. He is a living, breathing human being, after all.

It is possible that he is so identified with Russia, its history, traumas, humiliations, that there is an inevitability to his need to restore its ” integrity ” and self respect. That is giving “Russia” something that he , feeling alienated, lacks in his soul. The questions about his ethnicity may reinforce these urges or impulses. The ” loss ” of Ukraine would be a personal injury, not just a national one. He would feel more at ” home ” with a Ukraine as part of Russia. I hope our leaders are enlightened enough, not to ignore these personal considerations and not dismiss him as ” crazy ” or demented. In other words, avoid narcissistic injuries or humiliation.

What has Nasruddin to do with all this ?

Born Seljuk, he travelled a lot, with his donkey, in search of something that is not always clear, but in part, attempting to help people break out of their all too fixed ways of thinking, illusions and delusions,

their ” false selves “, like a Zen master. But the inner search also seems to be for ” home “, namely identity, the way, let us say, Confucious, ( even Musashi, the well known Samurai swordsman ) during his first 40-50 years.

Emotional health, has to do with feeling at home; ie., according to Adlerian psychology, where one “belongs ” but is not submerged. Where one “ fits in ” but also ” stands out.

Home in this sense seems to point to one’s identity, at the deepest level. Thus we are all searching for a ” home “, which eludes most of us. In a sense, his donkey served as a symbol for Nasruddin’s ” true ” self. This is clear in the anecdote, where he loses the donkey. His friends are puzzled by his cheery demeanor. Whereupon, he explains that he is glad he was not riding the animal, otherwise, he would be lost as well. He and the donkey are as one, yet separate.

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The Detour

A Japanese proverb : “If you are in a hurry, take a detour, ,” isogaba maware.”

An obscure tappa goes: you have done a great deal of Musulmani, now become a kafir ( non believer or skeptic, or ,in more mystical parlance: disconnected, ungrateful ). Musulmani is a colloquial term, indicating the day to day ,practical, aspects of Islam, that a lot of us have to confine ourselves to, if mundane life has to go on. In other words, to achieve a deeper faith, take a detour through kufr or non belief or, great doubt,skepticism.. This does not, I think mean, that folks who practice day to day Musulmani, are not faithful, or Mu’amin. But a detour, through some troublesome times, with uncertainty, not knowing, are ,apparently, required to achieve Iman, at a different level. It can be compared to ,e.g., a Zen monk, achieving enlightenment and then returning to his quotidian existence.

Or that it is more difficult, if not impossible, to reach out to the ultra-mundane, without great struggles, a journey fraught with painful uncertainty, an existential crisis ( A well known example of this ,that comes to mind is that of Al-Ghazali, in the middle ages ). This struggle is , generally, spared those who are born into the faith.

The economist, Robert Heilbroner is quoted as saying:”What is interesting about logical thought.. is that one having been mastered, its rules master us.” This,it seems to me, applies to idealogy, above all, but also culture,traditions,dogmas,even routines, that have a logical structure..These rules, strictly and slavishly applied, may stop thought,or the capacity for it, especially of out of the box kind.

I recall that it was an ordinary looking, conservative, deeply engaged in the day to day kind of faith, Mullah, who told me about the above tappa , when I was unable to grasp profundities of any kind. I was puzzled and remain puzzled, though when I learned about Zen Koans later on in life, I started to see a koan like element in it, although it is not in the form of a question. It,however, raises a number of questions. It seemed as though, this Khizr-like figure, wanted to shake up my mastery by logical thought, linear, either/or kind thinking and certainties. I have, unfortunately not solved this paradox ( as though, paradoxes of life, or faith or lack of it, are solvable issues ), and keep meditating on this , my task, at least, one of my tasks in life. Another man of faith, deep, I think, thought that atheists were God’s favorite humans, as they were, mostly, sincere, not motivated by desires for something or other, but solely by a search for truth.

In the above anecdote, the mullah and the man of faith, were ,it appeared to me, like Nasruddin, who uses humor, sometimes “crazy” ideas & attempts to bring thought and imagination,intuition,, living reality back into the picture.. A recent example of this is from ” The Nine-Sided Circle “, a very valuable Sufi web side: Nasruddin says to a group of pious people debating about the most important thing to do in daily life, pray,give alms,etc.. The Mullah simply said “stop breathing “‘ ( and you will have your answer ). In another version, as mentioned in a previous blog, he asked them to close their eyes and hurry home.

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Nasruddin and the Earnestness of Being Important

by Modaser Shah

Once, while traveling during his younger years, the Mullah found himself empty-handed, penniless, and unable to return home. He managed to obtain part-time employment at an inn. His job was to keep track of the number of beds and rooms available and to welcome guests at the entrance. He was instructed  on various aspects of the work, including how to adapt his welcome and greetings to the social and financial station of the guests, so that it could not be said of him that he was not conscious of class and not aware of the expectations of his employer.

One late night, exhausted after taking care of all  his chores, he was ready to retire. He did not expect his services would be needed, as there was only one vacant bed, and not a very desirable or attractive one, left at the inn. He fell asleep, worn out, and found himself immediately in the midst of dreams of better days, places, and circumstances.

His  pleasant, dream-filled sleep was interrupted by loud noises; someone was knocking at the front gate. His bed was located, conveniently, not far from the entrance. He woke up, annoyed at the inconvenience, and mumbling some unpleasant words, walked to the gate, not in a mood to welcome anyone, even a personage of high status. With a voice permeated with ennui and gruffness, he asked who was outside the gate.

A loud, booming response came piercing his ears, “You must have heard of me, whoever you are. Call the owner at once.” Taken aback, the Mullah became a bit more alert, fumbled, and again asked who it was so he could tell the owner. The man said, “Certainly, I am none other than the well known Ibn Sahar Abu Hayat Mohyiuddin Khan Khorasani…” The man was not about to stop without giving a full account of his importance. The Mullah, still not fully awake, tired, sleepy, cut him short, “Sir, I am very sorry, but we have a bed for only one person and couldn’t possibly accommodate so many people.” He went straight back to bed to resume his pleasant dreams.

The next morning, while on his way to the market, the place was abuzz with rumors and gossip. It seemed that the town had been visited by two extraordinary men. One was a notorious robber, who had wrought a great deal of damage on some residents. And a holy man, a Dervish, had also passed through, curing a number of people of their maladies and bestowing other baraka on a number of others. Some even wondered if, God forbid, the two were one and the same person. Perhaps, some opined, it was Khadhir, a friend of God, who had, according to tradition that the Mullah had heard while listening to Friday sermons, admonished even a prophet like Moses, the only man who had had the privilege of a direct conversation with The Almighty,  for  bragging about his eloquence.

What happened next remains uncertain, but it is said the Mullah laughed loudly and hysterically. Then, abruptly, he cried and wailed equally loudly, as he left the market place muttering to himself like a man transported and transformed. Something extraordinary, clearly, had taken place. He was, in short, a different man.

Written by Modaser Shah

Photo by Ali Hammad

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Sufi Lives: Adhem (Sufi and the Shriner)

by Ali Hammad

There was once a man within whom resided dreams, such that it was hard to tell where dreams ended and real life began, or vice versa. Life, it seemed, was a set of questions, and dreams were where one found answers.

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In the early 8th century, Ben Adhem was born in a life of dream: the prince of Balkh, in Central Asia. He grew up a pensive young man, given more to contemplation befitting a sage than conviviality expected of a youthful prince.
“How does one get to God?” he thought and spent many a night awake in his sleeping chambers considering this question. One night, in a state somewhere between dream and awakening, he thought he heard someone on the palace roof. He called to inquire.
“I am looking for my camel here,” said the person on the roof.
“You are looking in the wrong place, my friend,” said Ben Adhem. “How can a camel get to the roof?”
“Fool,” said the voice on the roof, “how, then, do you look for God while lying in your golden bed and comfortable in your silken pyjamas?”
The voice on the roof left Ben Adhem shaken. Days later, as he held court, the voice was still ringing in his ears. Along entered a man, bearded and tall, locks flowing, beating down the marble floor with his staff ahead of every step he took.
“Who are you and what do you want?” asked Ben Adhem of the man.
When the man spoke his voice reminded Ben Adhem of the voice on the palace roof. “I’m a wayfarer and I’d like to stay in this inn for a few days,” said the man.
“This is not an inn,” said Ben Adhem. “This is my palace and you are in its audience hall.”
“Who owned this before you did?” asked the man.
“My father.”
“Who before him.”
“My grandfather.”
“And before him?”
“A sultan from another dynasty.”
“And before that?”
“His father.”
“Then, indeed, this is an inn, and you merely a wayfarer, not much different from me, and not here for terribly long either,” said the man, then tapped his staff on the floor and disappeared.
Who was that? An apparition? A dream? An epiphany? Ben Adhem didn’t know, but the message had sunk in: that his time on earth was short and the meaning of life and nearness to God may be hard to find in the comfort of a palace.

Continued on the next page

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Nasruddin’s dialectic and the fear of freedom


by Modaser Shah

There have always been, whether in religious or secular domains, two ways of thought: the scholastic,  where thinking is limited to what has already been “decided” or determined by eminent texts or thinkers, who came before. Here thinking is “permissible”only within set boundaries but not beyond, because then faith might be questioned or become shaky and chaos might ensue, choices have to be made. This can be felt as an unbearable burden of freedom, one might say, a la Sartre or Erich Fromm (Escape from Freedom).
The other approach is to let thought roam free, beyond the bounds of acceptability and comfort making some sense in terms of human reality,  accessible in some way even if not altogether “rational.”  Of course, there are risks involved, in both, of extremism, i.e., loss of balance. Rigidity provides a certain sense of safety and comfort, but its dangers may be less obvious to the “orthodox” . The notion of a flat earth provides a sense of stability and safety, whereas a round earth feels, or at least did, precarious. We are marooned from our firm foundations. But a deeper reality-rooted look ought to convince one that both are equally precarious or secure, in the ultimate sense. It sounds strange to think that somehow, the Almighty  was somehow, less able (nau’zubillah!)  to provide the necessary  degree of security and safety, depending on the geometry of the earth.

At first blush, these two may seem, like the proverbial East and West, subject to “never the twain shall meet.” However, like everything else that has to do with life, matters are more complicated than a simplistic binary; that is the two opposing currents, overlap, intertwine and “inform” each other. That is to say,   there is a dialectical relationship between them, as between faith and doubt, freedom and bondage.

And a figure like Nasruddin, a wise fool, is needed to loosen the unfree, rigid, framework, to enable us to glimpse chaos, the  insecurity of not knowing, so that there is some capacity for a dialectical or transitional space, a la Winnicott, the  psychoanalyst, where thinking can expand and freedom can be glimpsed, savored.  Which can be pretty frightening to most “sane” or ordinary mortals, even angels, apparently,  except for, perhaps,  Satan,or Iblis; but that is a whole separate subject.  Suffice it to say that the figure of Nasruddin  rises to the challenge, but removes some of the fear and loathing, with the use of levity and humor, sneaking in the idea of choice under the guise of good cheer and “madness” or foolishness, reducing the terror that otherwise might scare people away.

His is, I think, an invitation to us to experience the security of not knowing, i.e., being uncertain, in other words becoming  human, an apparently impossible goal. Could this be the wisdom of the foolish Mullah? The impossibility for man to be human (Insaan), was noted also  by Ghalib, the well-known Indian Urdu poet, who lived in the 19th century and struggled throughout his life with existential dilemmas.

Sufism is an attempt to find an alternative way of knowing, and thinking, not theoretically but empirically, through direct experience. “Polishing the heart”, a Sufi trope, with meditation and other exercises, prepares the mind for the experience. But this requires the ability to tolerate not knowing or partial knowing. And balanced thinking.

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The 84th problem

by Modaser Shah

This is a story related about the Buddha, considered by some Muslim scholars in the Middle Ages as one of the myriad prophets sent by God to various nations.

A farmer came to the Buddha, having heard many stories about his amazing ability to assist people to free themselves from  suffering, looking for help with his never-ending problems. He liked farming but hated that it depended on the whims of nature: rain or no rain or too much rain, each producing different results. He was fed up with his nagging wife and ungrateful, tiresome children.  And there were also unfriendly neighbors and merciless tax collectors and greedy merchants. What were one to do?

The Awakened One listened patiently and said,” I am sorry but I cannot help you. ”

The farmer couldn’t believe his ears and asked for explanation.

The Buddha explained:” Everyone has 83 problems. When you fix one, another crops up.”

The man interrupted,  furious, “You are supposed to be a great teacher.  I  had great expectations.”

“Maybe I can help you with your eighty-fourth problem.”

Incensed, the man cried: ” You are adding to my problems! What kind of help is that?”

Calmly, with a kindly tone, the Buddha said, “It is simply this: that you don’t want to have any problems.”

It is not related how the farmer reacted; perhaps, one hopes, he was silently enlightened, able to face life as it comes, without illusions.

Life without problems! What a dream, but alas,  only a dream. To paraphrase Rumi: problems are like cracks in  the walls, which let the light in, illuminating the inner darkness. As Carl Jung said: “There is no coming to consciousness without pain.”

Of course,  the acceptance of  the notion that  life comes with problems and changes beyond one’s control, the ultimate being death, must not be understood as passive acceptance, but, what one might call, effortful acceptance, as struggling with difficulties is part of life.   Mark Twain (in what I would refer to as a Nasruddinesque moment) said,  “My life has been full of misfortunes, most of which never happened.”


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A Unilateral Peace

by Navid Zaidi

St. Catherine’s Monastery, officially Sacred Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount Sinai, is the oldest monastery in the world (est. 565 AD). It is located at the foot of Mount Sinai near the town of Saint Catherine, Egypt.  It is a world heritage site with its library possessing a huge collection of Christian historical icons, second only to Vatican. It is a treasure house of Christian history that has remained safe for 1400 years under Muslim protection.

In the year 628 AD, a delegation of monks from St Catherine’s Monastery came to Prophet Muhammad in Arabia and requested his protection. The Prophet responded by granting a written charter of rights with protection and other privileges to the Christians. Scribed by his cousin Ali Ibn Abi Talib, it is sealed with an imprint representing Prophet Muhammad’s hand.

According to the tradition preserved at the Monastery, the Prophet knew and frequently visited the Monastery, building relationships with the Sinai monks.

Historically known as the ‘Ashtinameh of Muhammad’ or the ‘Peace Covenant of Muhammad’, the document is preserved at the library of St Catherine’s Monastery and is reproduced here:

The Promise to St. Catherine:

This is a message from Muhammad ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them.

Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by God! I hold out against anything that displeases them.

No compulsion is to be on them. Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries. No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims’ houses.

Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God’s covenant and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate.

No one is to force them to travel or to oblige them to fight. The Muslims are to fight for them. If a female Christian is married to a Muslim, it is not to take place without her approval. She is not to be prevented from visiting her church to pray. Their churches are to be respected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants.

No one of the nation (Muslims) is to disobey the covenant till the Last Day (end of the world).

The striking feature of the covenant is that it imposes no conditions on the Christians for enjoying its privileges.

In other words, it is a unilateral peace charter clearly protecting the Christians’ rights to property, freedom of religion, freedom of work and unconditional security without demands of anything in return.

These rights are inalienable, eternal and universal. The Prophet boldly declares the Christians, all of them, as his allies and equates ill treatment of Christians with violation of God’s covenant.

Unilateral peace may have a bad reputation in world history, but if the Prophet’s example is any guide to the Muslims of the world, as it must be, the knowledge of this charter can have an enormous impact on Muslim behavior toward Christians.

As Dr Muqtedar Khan, director of Islamic Studies at the University of Delaware, once said:

‘Muslims and Christians together constitute over fifty percent of the world. If they lived in peace, we will be half way to world peace.’

Now, the promise to St Catherine was not the first time the Prophet of Islam engaged in unilateral peace efforts in tribal Arabia.  The same year, 628 AD, he entered into a peace treaty with the powerful tribe of Quraysh of Mecca.  Known as The Treaty of Hudaybiyah, the terms of the signed document were considered by the companions of the Prophet to be demeaning and filled them with dismay to the point of rebellion and mutiny.  The negotiations for peace and a unilateral withdrawal brought depression and stretched their loyalty to almost beyond what they could bear. The Prophet, however, was willing to try something entirely new for his times by choosing the road to peace.

What’s more, the Prophet seems to have made a specialty of drafting peace charters.

Six years earlier, in 622 AD, soon after his arrival in the city of Medina, the first Muslim State was founded in the security of a social contract, called the Constitution of Medina. The constitution promoted peace and freedom by establishing the rules of a Free State for a pluralistic community composed of Muslims, Jews and pagans.




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To Teach or Not to Teach

by Tabassum Saba

Many years ago a colleague helped me open my first email account. Those were the days when internet technology had just arrived to the mainstream and opening an email account was considered a great technological skill. The person made me promise that I will teach five more people to open an email account because he himself was fulfilling his own promise to the person who had taught him this skill.

If you are fortunate or content enough to achieve your career or family goals by the middle age then a question pops up:  ‘Is this all there is?’

This is perhaps the best time to pass down the knowledge and lessons of life to others, but many of us don’t find confidence in or the significance of doing this. We feel this contribution is as little as teaching someone to open an email account.

A teacher is a person who is confident, has a better control of his or her emotions, and is wiser and maturer. It’s his or her job to guide others by bringing out the best in them. The true leaders knows that they can teach by setting an example. It is also an opportunity for our own emotional growth because life is giving us another chance to straighten up our acts with wisdom and emotional regulation which comes with experience. The wise elders are empaths who can put themselves in others shoes and can have a glimpse of their struggles.

In a way, it becomes our obligation to pass on to others the knowledge and skills we have gained. Says Maya Angelou:

When you learn, teach. When you get, give.

Ashfaq Ahmed, Pakistani Sufi writer, in his masterpiece play “Mun Chaley ka Soda” describes a state in which a student is stuck in the role of a seeker and wants to stay in that role forever.  The student is scolded by his Sufi master who informs him that he cannot be a student all his life and has to step up and assume the role of a teacher. The seeker is afraid of taking this step. In a way it is much harder as it brings more responsibility and personal accountability.

The fear of becoming a teacher in our personal, professional and spiritual lives (all of which are inter-related) can be paralyzing. We may think we don’t know anything and are not good enough. Indeed, even the greatest spiritual teachers and prophets go through this feeling of inadequacy and reluctance.

The honor of assuming the role of a teacher is sometimes not even possible because in many cultures there was, and still is, a monopoly over this role which is granted based on caste, social status, or gender.

Teresa of Avila (1515- 1582) is such an example. She was allowed to be a nun but as a woman she was not allowed to study theology. She was required to take constant guidance from the theologians, all of them were men, many of them much younger than her. They would often tell her that some of her spiritual experiences and ideas were the work of the devil. She believed them until she was in her late 40’s. At age 47 she had an epiphany that she was fully capable of understanding, analyzing, and implementing her experiences and did not need validation from male theologians.

Teresa of Avila found that inner strength. This phenomenon of support and confirmation occurs when we finally discover who we really are.

Teresa let her fears go as she began the great works of the later part of her life, she proclaimed:

Not a fig do I care for all the devils in hell. It is they who will fear me!  “Oh, the devil! The devil!” we say, when instead we could say, “God! God!” and make the devil tremble. I am sure I fear those who are terrified of the devil more than I fear the devil himself. For the devil cannot harm me at all, but they, especially if they are confessors, can upset people a great deal.

After finding the confidence to have faith in herself, a different woman emerged. We now know her as Saint Teresa of Avila, the one who was a leader and a teacher of her order for her remaining years that turned out to be the most productive years of her life.

By the way I still use that email address after two decades. It is not only a collection of thousands of emails but also a journal of ups and downs of my life which reflect the life-lessons learned over the course of these years. I am thankful that someone had the courage to teach me how to open that account.



  1. Mun Chaley ka Soda (in Urdu) by Ashfaq Ahmed
  2. Fakir Rung (in Urdu) by Sarfraz Shah
  3. Dark Night of The Soul  (Explanation by a Psychiatrist) by Gerald G. May, MD
  4. Sacred Contracts by Caroline Myss



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The Mullah and Trump: Losers and Winners


by Modaser Shah

Susan Sarandon, the well known Hollywood star, is reported to have said that (the American) people were more awake because of Trump. This reminded me of a story about Mullah Nasruddin, the wise-fool of Sufi lore. I heard it from Kamran Zafar, our esteemed colleague on this site, who deserves the title of “Practical Sufi” with which he is affectionately known to us Sufi seekers. The gusto and verve with which he related this teaching tale is hard to reproduce in the written word, but I will try, at least, to convey its essence.

At one time in his life, Nasruddin got into the business of quick enlightenment. To those seeking enlightenment (of which there are many in each age and all times) he announced an easy and cheap way to gain insight into existence and reality.  All they had to do was to join him in a morning assembly and to follow him in procession as he walked around town while imparting to them the spirituality they sought. Nothing could have been simpler! The seekers of quick and easy enlightenment grew by leaps and bounds.  The Mullah would be at the head of the throng, incanting holy chants, intoning unintelligible phrases, and seeming always profound and powerfully mysterious. The procession would march from one end of the town to the other, at which time the Mullah would stress continued effort, offer prayers, and allow the crowd to disperse.

At first the crowd grew rapidly, then levelled, and then (as many grew tired of the humdrum routine) started to tail off.  The Mullah who gloated over his success when the crowds were growing seemed even more ecstatic when they were dwindling. He claimed success of his method even as people were leaving him. Everyone was puzzled over Mullah’s happiness over thinning crowds.  Some wondered if he was losing his grip on reality. Finally, someone asked him how he could claim success if people were leaving him. He laughed and then cried, at their simple-minded confusion, wondering why they could not see what was so plain to see: the successful ones were the seeming “losers,” the ones who left the throng of Mullah’s mindless followers.

One wonders if a similar moment of enlightenment and spiritual growth awaits some people who are blindly, i.e., in the grip of false consciousness, following Mr Trump and his promises, explicit and implicit.

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