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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