Sacred Laughter of the Sufis

Sacred Laughter of the Sufis

Sufi teachers know that humor is an especially effective teaching tool, for laughter opens our heart so that insights are able to penetrate more deeply. “If you want special illumination,” says the thirteenth-century mystic Rumi, “look upon the human face; see clearly within laughter, the essence of ultimate truth.” And the fourteenth-century sage Hafiz wrote, “What is this precious love and laughter budding in our hearts? Listen… It is the glorious sound of a soul waking up!” Of all the spiritual practices taught to me by my Sufi parents and other teachers, the most beneficial was the gift of laughter, thanks to these humorous teaching stories.

There are, of course, different kinds of Sufis, and some are more liberal than others. But overall, Sufis have one thing in common: They laugh a lot! Over the centuries, from this sustained laughter has emerged the mythical Mulla Nasruddin. The Mulla agrees with Sufi teachers that there is much to laugh about in the bewildering and hilarious mysteries that we encounter in our spiritual lives. For example:

•If God wanted, He could have sent full-blown enlightened be-ings to Earth, but He chose to send imperfect beings like us.

•How astonishing that God hides from humanity, creating wild speculations and crazy strife. As Rumi exclaims, “The lover visible, the Beloved invisible: whose crazy idea was this?”

•All traditions that mention God proclaim that Divinity is genderless, yet the holy books and practitioners insist on calling God by a masculine pronoun.

•No human being who has arrived here from the mysterious realms has ever come with a mandate or mission statement, yet some of us talk and argue as if we know why we are here, and others talk as if they don’t care.

•None of our revealed holy books has ever been accompanied by footnotes, yet we argue as if we know the real meanings.

•We are all afraid that one day we shall pass away into nonexistence. But if the truth be known, nonexistence is trembling in fear that it might be given human shape.

•When we go over to the other side and look back at our dramas and melodramas, we shall laugh and laugh. So why don’t we laugh right now?

The Mulla is a village idiot and sage rolled into one. Although he has no formal education, he wears a turban, signaling that he is a person of learning. His wisdom appears to emanate from a source beyond book learning. The most popular image of the Mulla is the picture of him riding backward on his donkey, sometimes followed by adoring students. In this picture, many metaphors abound.

The Mulla has tamed his donkey ego—it knows in which direction to go. The Mulla does not believe in hierarchy and faults religious institutions and clerics for their rigidity and lust for glory and power. Rather than turn his back on students, he prefers to face them. Most of all, he is happy to break conventional patterns of thinking and being. The Mulla does not care what you think of him; he does not seek your approval. Without a reputation or image to uphold, he laughs at his foibles and invites you to join him. He has a rare readiness to admit his mistakes. Because he does not aspire to be a teacher, he is a true teacher.

The faithful are mirrors to each other, said the Prophet Muhammad: What we like or dislike in others is a reflection of what we appreciate and disapprove of in ourselves. Similarly, the eccentricities that amuse us in others often have their counterpart in our own behaviors. But our peculiarities are no laughing matter! Ours are meaningful, and we are attached to them. We enjoy our complaints and the sympathy they elicit. Why let go of them, when they are so rewarding? We complain of our maladies, but delay or refuse treatment for them.

We are like the Mulla, who complained to his family and friends that his sleep was disrupted because he kept dreaming every night that he was having wrestling matches with donkeys. Finally, they persuaded him to see a famous healer for treatment. The healer prepared a special herbal mixture, read some Qur’anic verses over the medicine, and said, “Take this tonight and rest assured that your donkey dreams will disappear forever.” The Mulla expressed gratitude but asked, “Can I take this tomorrow night?” “Why not tonight?” inquired the healer. Replied the Mulla, “Because tonight I am scheduled to wrestle in the finals of the championship match!”

In another story, the Mulla took his donkey to the marketplace and put it up for sale. But every time a customer approached, the donkey kicked and bit the potential buyer. Finally, someone asked the Mulla how he expected to sell his donkey if the animal exhibited such difficult behavior. To his surprise, the Mulla replied, “Actually, I have no intention of selling my donkey. I just want people to know what I have to put up with all day long!”

Sometimes we manipulate universal human eccentricities to our advantage. To earn extra money, the Mulla took to begging in the town square. Soon he attracted a large crowd. People from faraway came to witness a strange phenomenon. No matter how often people offered a large and small coin, he always chose the smaller piece. People shook their heads in disbelief and laughed heartily at his foolishness.

One day a kind man came to him and whispered, “Mulla, you should take the larger coin. This way you will have more money and you will not be a laughingstock of the town.” The Mulla whispered back, “Actually, if I took the larger amount, people will stop offering me money. They continue to give me the money only to prove to themselves that I am more idiotic than they are!”

There is another eccentric trait we have to be mindful about. When we first receive urgently needed help, we are happy, relieved, and grateful. When the help continues, it is amazing how quickly we take it for granted and consider it our entitlement. Sometimes we, like the Mulla, take advantage of that kind of help whether it comes from individuals or institutions. The president of the Mulla’s factory called a meeting and told all the employees that from next month the factory would be completely automated. There were gasps of disbelief and people shouted, “But how will we feed our families?” “Please don’t be alarmed,” the president said. “All of you have been loyal employees. You will no longer work here, but here is the fantastic news. Because of the increased profits, you will be paid as usual with annual increments! You will continue to enjoy the subsidized cafeteria and sports facilities. All you have to do is to come in on Fridays to collect your pay.” There were sighs of relief, tears of joy, and much laughter. After a while, the Mulla raised his hand and asked, “That’s great, but not every Friday, I hope?”

My hope in compiling this collection of stories and insights is that they will touch your heart with new insights of your own and inspire you to live those insights as you evolve spiritually into your higher self.

Excerpt is from Sacred Laughter of the Sufis – Awakening the Soul with the Mulla’s Comic Teaching Stories & Other Islamic Wisdom 2014 by Imam Jamal Rahman. Permission granted by SkyLight Paths Publishing, Woodstock, VT,

Like and Share!

The Sacred Laughter of the Sufis

Jamal Rahman
Jamal Rahman

Jamal Rahman is a popular speaker on Islam, Sufi spirituality, and interfaith relations. He has been featured in the New York Times, CBS News, BBC, and various NPR programs. Co-founder and Muslim Sufi minister at Seattle's Interfaith Community Sanctuary and adjunct faculty at Seattle University, he is a former host of Interfaith Talk Radio and travels nationally and internationally, presenting at retreats and workshops. He is the author of Sacred Laughter of the Sufis, Spiritual Gems of Islam, The Fragrance of Faith, and co-author of Religion Gone Astray, Out of Darkness into Light, and Getting to the Heart of Interfaith: The Eye-Opening, Hope-Filled Friendship of a Pastor, a Rabbi, and an Imam. More at