Nasruddin's donkey: Children's stories from Islam
As told to Auckland Unitarian Church, September 15, 2020
In the course of campaigning for secular education I had a number of pleasant surprises meeting New Zealand Muslim leaders. One was meeting Sultan Eusoff, president of the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand at the time. I phoned him asking if he would support state schools having secular education about multiple faiths and he said yes.
But my next big surprise was that during our phone conversation he invited me to have a meal with him next time I was in Wellington. So I made an excuse to visit Wellington and he took me and my wife Marion to a restaurant on the waterfront with another Muslim leader. I was going to order some wine, when I wondered whether Muslims drink wine. I discovered that they don’t; and learned more things about Islam since then than I had in all my life up to that point.
But during the meal, Sultan said one of the best ways for children to learn about Islam would be to read them Muslim children’s stories. And I found there were dozens of them.
Here are three of them:
Should you lead a donkey, or ride it
The first one is about a teacher Nasruddin who told dozens of stories, mostly about donkeys.
One day, Nasruddin was walking to town with with his grandson, and he led the donkey with a rope, and the grandson sat on the donkey.
They hadn’t gone far before they met a group of men who said, “What a badly-raised little boy. He shows no respect for his old grandfather.
Nasruddin felt ashamed, so he asked the boy to lead the donkey, while he rode for a while.
They hadn’t gone far before a group of women met them and said: “Poor little boy, having to walk, while his mean old grandfather rides.”
So Nasruddin lifted the boy off, and they both led the donkey along the road.
Soon afterwards, they met some men who said: “Look at those stupid people. What is the use of owning a donkey if you don’t ride him?”
So Nasruddin and his grandson both got on the donkey, and went riding in to town.
But they hadn’t gone far before another group of bystanders complained: “How cruel. Donkeys have feelings too, and that load is far too heavy for him.”
So Nasruddin and his grandson stood and wondered. What else they could do?
Eventually Nasruddin had another idea. He cut a branch from a tree and made a long pole. Then he tied the donkey’s front feet to one end of the pole and the donkey’s back feet onto the other. And he and the boy carried the donkey down the road, one holding each end of the pole.
Unfortunately, when they came to a narrow bridge the donkey got stuck, broke free and fell into the water.
Then Nasruddin had another brilliant idea. He said to his grandson: “You can never please everybody. Sometimes you just have to do what you think is right.” So he put his grandson on the donkey and led them to town – just like when they had started.
Nasruddin sorts out a pesky neighbour
Another occasion, Nasruddin had a knock at his door and it was his neighbour asking if he could borrow the donkey for the day.
Nasruddin didn’t want to lend it, but he didn’t want to be impolite so he said to the neighbour, “I’m sorry; I lent him to my brother-in-law today.” So he shut the door, and the neighbour started walking home.
But just then, the donkey let out a loud hee-haw. He was in the back yard.
The neighbour knocked on the door again, and said: “You lied. Your donkey is at home.”
Nasuddin said: “What makes you think that?”
The neighbour said: “I heard him. He said ‘Hee-haw.’”
Nasruddin laughed: “How stupid. Would you believe the word of a donkey rather than a man."
Nasruddin fools the toll collector
Yet another time, Nasruddin was leading a donkey with a load of hay back to town, through the toll gate. And the toll inspector said: “What have you got hidden in that load of hay.” (If it was something valuable he would have to pay a toll.)
“Nothing,” said Nasruddin, “Just hay.” The inspector made him unload the hay, and he checked, and sure enough, it was just hay.
This happened a dozen other times over the years. Eventually the inspector retired, but he still wondered how Nasruddin had been tricking him.
So one day he met Nasruddin in the street and said: “Well you won. I can’t charge you now. I’ve retired, so tell me what you were smuggling in to town.”
“Donkeys,” he said.
(I’ve read other versions of that story, but I think Nasruddin sounds a plausible author for it.)
Nasruddin grows up
Nasruddin wasn’t always a witty old man. He used to be a witty little boy. And whenever his father asked him to do something he would always do the opposite.
His father was quite smart too, so he hit on the idea of asking Nasruddin to do the opposite of what he wanted. He’d say to Nasruddin: “I don’t want you to do the dishes today,” and Nasruddin would grin and do them. (My son Craig was like this too.)
But on Nasruddin’s 14th birthday, he was taking turns with his father leading the donkey, when they came to a river, and his father said: “Don’t lead the donkey through the river.” So Nasruddin did lead it through the river.
Halfway across, the load on the donkey started slipping off to the left-hand side.
His father yelled: “The load is slipping off. Push it to the left.”
And Nasruddin broke his usual practice. He pushed the load further to the left, and it fell off into the river.
His father was furious, and said, “Why have you started obeying me at the worst possible time?”
And Nasruddin replied: “I just remembered it’s my 14th birthday, so I thought it was time I started acting like a man.”
Not everybody would think these stories are inspiring; inspiration depends on the listener’s point of view. As a Christian, I have endured countless Christian stories, that nearly all end with the advice to always put other people first. Some of these people are very tedious, so for me it was inspiring to think there is sometimes a time to do the opposite: to be assertive and do what you think is best.
A few years ago, I read a Facebook post from a young Christian woman who had learned this lesson the hard way. She had been getting therapy for depression for several years. One day she posted that she had just finished her therapy, and was feeling great - and said: “I can’t wait to go out and annoy someone.”
Having suffered depression myself I can say "Amen, sister": Nasruddin is a good remedy for those who have had an overdose of altruism.