Nasruddin’s Incompleteness Theorem: Can the “Great” Past/the Promised Land be Realized?

by Modaser Shah




Mullah Nasruddin, the wise fool of Sufism, had a narrative that was often obscure. Once when he left something incomplete and unexplained people asked him for more. He said, “The cause and effect cannot be in the same story.” He sounds like a postmodernist! Language cannot convey completion.

Every narrative must, it seems, remain incomplete. Just as every human being, every product of the human mind, every system of philosophy, every ideology, is incomplete.
Moses cannot get to the Promised Land. Perhaps as well for him, given the kind of bloodshed that ensues after him. Instead, Joshua gets to go as a conqueror, in the Old Testament narrative. A new narrative has to be created to separate cause and effect. (In the story of the lost keys, Nasruddin cannot, must not, find his keys, in the light or in the dark.) The Promised Land is not a peaceful Garden of Eden. It’s a mixed blessing.

The story is, will always be, incomplete. Lacan speaks of a surplus and a lack. There is always something unsaid in what is said. Derrida said, “There is nothing but the text,” yet the text cannot be without a lack. A surplus remains outside of our grasp. Meaning is always deferred. The subject is divided. Moses & Joshua cannot be in the same story. Moses was the beginning, Joshua the end. Yet, says the Kabbalah, “The beginning is in the end, the end in the beginning.” Nasruddin was medieval yet postmodernist.

Contrary to what he says about narratives, the Mullah continues to try to take on the challenge: of trying to say the unsayable. A Zen teacher said, “To do this practice (Zen), we have to give up hope.” Nasruddin seems not to give up the hope of completing what can’t be completed. He tries to disprove his own incompleteness theorem, but always ends up showing the futility of the task. He hopes, I think, that those willing to learn from a fool, will learn to find hopelessness and in it some hope and wisdom. Like the lost keys in the dark.

Ideological groups like ISIS (and also, for example, the demagogues, representing the shadowy side of US politics in the current US election cycle) attempt to defy reality as reflected in the Mullah’s theorem. They deny history and the passage of time with rhetoric and actions. Both Da’ish (ISIS) and Donald Trump are looking for the “great,” i.e., perfect, narrative to be found in some past period.

Tansen was  the royal musician in the court of Akbar, the great Mughal emperor; legend has it that his music could melt a stone. Can destructive rhetoric or actions melt time, turn back the clock, bring the “glorious” past back? Not, apparently, in the same text.

A Sufi saying: The truth is always somewhere else. Like Nasruddin’s lost keys.

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