Sanity Guides

Ludwig Wittgenstein's grave

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s grave (Photo credit: shaggy359)

by Modaser Shah

“Wer den Wegweiser findet, sucht nun nicht nach einer weiteren Instruktion, sondern geht,” said Wittgenstein.¹ My translation of this is as follows: When one finds a guide(post), one doesn’t look for further instruction, one just goes.

That is to say, once one has a guide, one just goes toward the destination—unless one were wary of getting there.  Without a guide or a plan, the destination may be elusive or deceptively simple. To quote Paul Simon:

“You know the nearer your destination
The more you’re slip slidin’ away”²

Take the case of Mullah Nasruddin. Once when his wife advised him to go on a walk, he walked away from home in a straight line without a destination or a plan.³ In other words, he busied himself in an activity, not in the attainment of a purpose or a destination. He busied himself in getting nowhere. Indeed, all of us sometimes and some of us all of the time are busy in some activity, without bothering about the purpose or the destination. In the story of his walk, the Mullah seems to fit this mold. Unless his point was that stated in the 18th century German writer Lessing’s dialectical saying, “He who on certain occasions does not lose his sanity shows that he has none to lose.”  So, Mullah Nasruddin, the comic hero of Sufism, by seeming to lose his sanity all too frequently, shows that he has lots of it. And perhaps in his purposelessness is an emphasis on purpose.

In contrast is the tragic hero of Sufism, Mansur Hallaj. He demonstrated an insanity of a different kind, an insanity that emanates from love. He was executed for shouting  repeatedly in public, “I am the Truth.” This expressed his inner state of union with God,  but did it have to be proclaimed loudly in public? Seemingly, it did. For one, we are still reflecting on its meaning hundreds of years later. Also, he had to proclaim it so that others  might  begin to think about destinations.

The Mullah and Mansur, the comic and the martyr, were carriers of important messages. Each was for us to witness and question and to realize that between comedy and tragedy lies fertile confusion. And that in this seeming confusion is where you find your identity and your sanity. This, perhaps, is the essence of these Sufis and in the persons of these two the message of Sufism intermingles the dialectical and the radical, the comic and the tragic…and more


1) Zettel, quoted in Deutungs-Kunst, by Wolfgang Loch, edition diskord, 1993

2) From the song Slip Slidin’ Away by Paul Simon, 1977

3) Nasruddin’s Walk: How to fail better

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