by Ali Hammad
In The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether, Edgar Allan Poe relates the story of a lunatic asylum where the patients have taken over, but the visitors to the asylum are unable to discern the switch. The narrator of the story is unable to recognize that the superintendents are the actual inmates, and vice versa.
The story, I think, is a call to examine the relativity of sanity and, too, of truth itself. That truth may be relative isn’t a new idea. Many have propounded it. Protagoras, an ancient Greek, may have been one of the first ones. Some of his views are documented in an eponymous dialogue within Plato’s Dialogues. But the views that I find the most engaging are those of the Sufis.
Here’s a Sufi tale. Once a prophet told a man of an impending change in the nature of fresh water that will drive its consumers insane. The man was a little incredulous, but nevertheless, quite sanely, hoarded water in case something like this were to happen. The day foretold did arrive and all consumers of the maddening water (the only kind now available) turned insane. Our man was happy drinking from his secret supply of untainted water until he realized that everyone around him thought he was the insane one. Upon that realization, he reluctantly broke all the pots of good water, partook of the spurious one, and lived happily ever after.
One more story, one that belongs to Mullah Nasruddin, the sagacious comic of the oral Sufi tradition. To the ruler of a city state who was obsessed with only letting truthful people into his city, Mullah Nasruddin once said, “What we perceive to be the truth is generally only relative truth.” The ruler, who had set up a Truth Police to examine people for truthfulness, asked the Mullah to leave the city and then enter through its font gate, allowing for examination by the Truth Police before entry.
Next to the front city gate was set up a gallows. The truthful ones, as determined by the Truth Police, were allowed to walk in through the gate, the liars went to the gallows.
“You there, where go you?” asked the haughty Chief Truth Inspector as Mullah Nasruddin approached.
“To the gallows,” said the Mullah.
“That is a lie. You can’t deliberately be walking to your death.”
“Send me to the gallows, then, for lying.”
“But that will make your statement true, and you eligible for entry into the city.”
“Allow me in, then.”
“But that will make your statement false, and you eligible only for hanging.”
Having made his point, and leaving the Chief Inspector scratching his head, the Mullah sauntered into the city.
Lesson: Truth (like sanity) is relative. Hanging on to one’s beliefs and convictions is commendable, but enforcing the same convictions upon others—sometimes at the point of sword—is not. One man’s, even one nation’s, truth may be another’s lie. The humble understand this, the haughty don’t.
Is there also absolute truth? Protagoras, the ancient proponent of relativism, may disagree but the Sufi’s answer is a resounding “yes.” Indeed there is Absolute Truth. It is always the object of a Sufi’s quest, and the path to that Truth—God—is a direct one: no dogma or ritual or third-party endorsement required.