Nasreddin Hodja is one of the most important cultural figures in Turkish literature. For generations, Turkish children have grown up listening to the satirical wisdom of this quick-witted hero. Tales starring the Hodja are often absurdist as well as satirical, featuring humorous yet contemplative lessons about life, morals, and society. But the folklore of the Hodja is not limited to Turkey. He is just as widely known in most of the Muslim world, albeit with slightly different variants of his names. In the Middle East he is known as Joha, which is transformed into Guifa, in Sicily and Southern Italy. In the Indian Subcontinent, he often goes under the monocle, Mullah Dopiaza (‘two onions’). In China’s his name appears in Uyghur translation as Afanti, while in Central Asia he is simply Afandi. The Hodja also has a unique place in Slavic literatures – Russian, Bosnian/Serbian, Bulgarian, and Czech.
The Hodja is a philosopher, a wise man, a fool, Sufi sage and a comic all rolled into one; and, as the title Hodja indicates, a teacher. He is the protagonist of thousands of stories, anecdotes, parables, paradoxes and witty remarks. What is interesting about Hodja stories is not just that they have been adopted by so many cultures, but that his character has been embraced as a transcultural icon who speaks truth to reason and power, across time and space. In some cultures, such as the Swahili and Indonesian cultures, where he is known as Abunuwasi, he is confused – or, should we say, blended – with other historic personalities: in this case, with the eighth/ninth century poet Abu Nawas. And, of course, Hodja’s Turkish origins notwithstanding, each culture claims him as their own.
But what are the origins of Nasreddin Hodja? By all scholarly accounts, the Hodja was a real thirteenth century historical figure. Turkish scholars suggest he was born in a village called Hortu in Sivrihisar in the Eskiserhir Proivince of Turkey. He moved to Aksehir, and later to Konya, where he died around 1275-85. Other scholars suggest that his origins can be located in West Azerbaijan, Iran, that he studied in Khorasan, and eventually ended up in Herat, where he was taught by none other than the great polymath and pioneer of inductive logic, Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (1149-1210). The overall consensus is with Turkish scholars who suggest that he was an Imam of a local mosque, and served as Qadi, a judge and ombudsman.