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A Turkish Humorist And Sage: Nasr Al-Din Khodja
Oct 1, 1997

Nasr al-Din Khodja is one of the most famous philosophers of humour in world history. His anecdotes, told over a vast area from Germany to Japan, contain lessons aiming to highlight a human defect or weak spot and thereby improve people's understanding of it and cure it. Nasr al-Din Khodja is known by different names in different countries. He is known as Artin in Armenia, as Oylen Sipikel in Germany, as Mac Antash in Scotland, as Cuha in Arabia and by other names such as Ero, Coso, Iter Pejo and so on in other countries. This may be because in each country there was a counterpart of the Khodja or because the anecdotes of the Khodja needed to have some figure to whom they could be attributed.

A real figure or a product of the popular imagination?

As with almost every other folk hero, the life of Nasr al-Din Khodja is clouded in diversely remembered legends. However, researches done about him since the middle of the previous century are almost all agreed that he was born in Sivrihisar, a district of the province Eskisehir in central Turkey. According to the information O. Gokyay gives in the article he wrote in Islam Ansiklopedisi (An Encyclopedia of Islam) Istanbul, 1986), Fuat Koprulu (Nasreddin Hoca, Istanbul, 1918) writes that one of the late muftis of Sivrihisar called Hasan Effendi notes in his incomplete book entitled Majmu'a-i Ma'arif (The Encyclopaedia of Education) that Nasr al-Din Khodja was born in a village near Sivrihisar called Horto and served as imam (prayer-leader) for some time following the death of his father who had been an imam, migrated to Aksehir, a district of the province Konya in central Turkey, and completed his life there.

However, there are some assertions that Nasr al-Din Khodja is a later product of popular invention. According to such assertions, there was a man named Nasr al-Mahmud who acquired the confidence of Geyhatu, the then commander of the Mongol armies in Turkey, and prevented him from doing much wrong and bloodshed. Since that man was wise and loved by the people, his wise sayings led the people to create a Nasr al-Din Khodja. However, such assertions were refuted by serious researchers. Among them, Ismail Haqqi Konyali, who wrote a voluminuous book about Nasr al-Din Khodja and Aksehir called Nasreddin Hoca'nin Þehri Aksehir: Tarihi, Turistik Kilavuz (A Historical and Touristic Guide to Aksehir, the Town of Nasr al-Din Khodja), Istanbul, 1945, notes that there were four Nasr al-Dins who lived in the same period who did the same job as Nasr al-Din Mahmud, and the same claims could be made about them. Nasr al-Din Khodja can be none of them. He is one who really lived in Aksehir.

In his article 'A propos de quelques tentatives d'identification de Nasreddin Hodja' Internationaler Kongress der Volkszerzahlungsfarcher, Kiev and Kopenhagen, 1959). Pertev Naili Boratav writes that in some genealogies prepared in later times, Khidr Celebi, the famous qadi (judge) of Istanbul during the reign of Mehmed II and the father of Sinan Pasha, the author of Tadarru'name (A Supplication to God), is recorded to have been from Sivrihisar and descended from the family of Nasr al-Din Khodja. Boratav also notes that in a manuscript he found in Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, some of the anecdotes attributed to Nasr al-Din Khodja are also attributed to the people of Sivrihisar and a man called Khadji. Some Western researchers such as H. Ethe, M. Hartmann and A. Wesselski claim that the anecdotes attributed to Nasr al-Din Khodja are anonymous anecdotes told in almost every part of the world and that therefore Nasr al-Din Khodja is an invention. Some others like R. Basset and Christensen are of the opinion that the anecdotes attributed to Nasr al-Din Khodja are adaptations of the wise sayings and anecdotes ascribed to Juha, who lived in Iraq in the 10th century and became very famous. However, such claims arise from a defective generalization. As sages or wise men like Nasr al-Din Khodja may have lived in almost every country, the anecdotes of Nasr al-Din Khodja may have been transmitted to other countries through different ways of communication. It is certain that a man called Nasr al-Din Khodja, a very perceptive and wise man able to discern the weak spots and defects in human character who tried to cure them through humour and wit, really did exist.

Nasr al-Din Khodja's tomb is in Aksehir. Ismail Haqqi Konyali notes that he saw in person an inscription on one of the six columns supporting the inner dome. According to that inscription one of the soldiers of Bayezid I, the Ottoman ruler who died in 1403, called Mehmed, visited that tomb in 1393. And in a register of foundations and state lands ordered to be prepared by Gedik Ahmed Pasha, who conquered Aksehir in 1476 in the name of the Ottomans, there is the tomb of Nasr al-Din Khodja and a madrassa donated by him for public benefit.

Historical background and anecdotes

Most of the researches done on Nasr al-Din Khodja are agreed that he lived in the thirteenth century. In the epitaph inscribed on a grave stone belonging to the Khodja's daughter Fatima found in Sivrihisar, it is written that Fatima died in 1327. Lamii (d. 1533) writes in his Lata'if that Nasr al-Din Khodja was a contemporary of Shayyad Hamza, a folk poet who lived in the 13th century. Ismail Haqqi Konyali records that the Khodja was a contemporary of Pir Abi and Khadja Jihan and together with them was taught by Khadaja Fakih who died in 1221. According to these and other similar records, Nasr al-Din Khodja lived in the 13th century.

The thirteenth century is a very critical one in the medieval history of Turkey. The Mongol invasion after the Crusades put an end to the great state of the Seljuks, and caused Turkey to be torn into many parts. In addition, internal rebellions and conflicts made life very difficult for the people. So, in that critical period, we encounter three important, contemporary figures. Among them, Mawlana Jalal al-Din al-Rumi was a Sufi master very influential in city centres among the lettered and ruling classes. As a champion of Islamic love and tolerance, he left indelible marks in not only Muslim but also world history. Yunus Emre is the counterpart of Mawlana among the common people. He expressed in plain Turkish what Mawlana did in a very lofty style in Persian and served for the lessening of the pains of people and removing of internal rifts and enmities among them. Nasr al-Din Khodja, the third figure among those three, was a sage, a philosopher of the people, and a moralist. However, endowed with a very good sense of humour, he pointed out the moral deformation among people and, without hurting the feelings of anyone, he criticized people for their defects in a gentle and clever way. He retorts or anecdotes are full of witty remarks and moral wisdom.

It is impossible to accept that all the anecdotes attributed to the Khodja as belonging to him. It is a fact that fame usually appropriates what does not belong to it. That is, it is common tendency to attribute to a famous individual even what does not really belong to him. That is why a considerable percentage of anecdotes attributed to the Khodja cannot belong to him. For example, among those anecdotes there are some said to have taken place between the Khodja and Amir Timur, who defeated the Ottoman ruler Bayazid I in 1402 and invaded Turkey. However, it is impossible for the Khodja to have met Timur. Public imagination, over time, has attributed to the Khodja some anecdotes resembling those of the Khodja.

The anecdotes attributed to the Khodja have appeared in written form from the 16th century onwards. However, the first books to be compiled about the Khodja and his anecdotes were published in the second quarter of the last century. The first translations into European languages appeared almost a quarter century after their publication in Turkey. Of the most famous, La Literature Populaire Turque by Edmond Saussey (Paris, 1936} and Nasreddin Hoca et ses histoires Turques by Jean-Paul Gamier (Paris 1958) are particularly worth mentioning.