When I was young, a teacher came regularly to my home to teach me Quranic Arabic. Almost every kid in my community had a religious teacher or went to a Muslim Sunday school — and frankly, most of my friends couldn’t wait to “age out.” Sunday school was a drag, a miserable waste of a gorgeous weekend. But oddly enough, not for me. I thought about Sunday all week long. I practiced like crazy, waited impatiently for each lesson to start, listened in rapt attention throughout, and thought it the greatest honor to make my teacher happy.
Was it his impeccable Arabic pronunciation? The unsullied purity of his lineage? The perfect length of his beard? What was it about this man that made a 6-year-old want to do her homework?
I’ll let you in on the secret: It was his deep rolling belly-laugh.
My teacher knew a cardinal rule of moral instruction: Never take yourself too seriously. That master of pedagogy, the great poet-saint Rumi, reminds us that “the true teacher knocks down the idol the student makes of him.”
We may not all be religious teachers, but we all teach, many times a day. From showing your daughter how to tie her shoelace, to teaching her the difference between right and wrong, teaching is a subtle art. At some time or another, in the middle of some grand pontificating, the teacher will trip and fall flat on his face. The Quran tells us that it is God who causes our laughter and our tears (Quran 53:43). That means, echoing Ecclesiastes, that there is a time when only laughter will do.
A teacher who can laugh at herself is the red sulfur that every alchemist seeks. For laughter is an act of great mercy and wisdom. When I laugh at myself, I hold a mirror to my imperfections. With that one small act, I can see myself as others see me — well-intentioned and ever so slightly ridiculous. Laughter lets me off the hook, just enough to learn, recoup and get back in the game. If I can’t laugh at myself, can I really show mercy to others?
Laughter is humility. Picture the sweet story of the Prophet of Islam (upon him, peace), down on all fours with his two little grandsons on his back, exclaiming: ‘What an excellent camel your camel is, and what a wonderful load you two are!’ The Prophet was, in the words of a disciple, Anas b. Malik, “among the merriest of men.” Once, some close disciples complained about another disciple who they thought joked too much. “You may be surprised to know,” the Prophet replied, “that he will laugh all the way to heaven.”
Laughter humanizes. There is a very good reason that the most beloved Islamic teaching tales feature the trickster and the holy “fool” — call him Amar Ayyaz, Nasreddin Hoja, Bahlul or Juha — whose only job is to mock the pompous airs of the religious teacher. It is because we instinctively know that moral instruction rooted in arrogance is, in the wise words of the sage Luqman to his son, no more edifying than the braying of a donkey (Quran 31:19). (And at least donkeys are endearing, whereas pompous scholars… not so much.)
Nasreddin Hoja is the Muslim world’s all-time favorite holy fool. He pops up in the literature of every Islamic folk tradition, be it Bengali, Bosnian or Chinese, a potbellied punster, perched on the back of a little donkey and grinning slyly at the world. Hoja loves to take aim at self-styled guardians of morality:
Once, a renowned religious scholar was traveling through Nasruddin Hoja’s village looking for a good place to eat. Hoja suggested a place and the scholar, eager for intellectual conversation, invited Hoja to join him. Much obliged, Hoja accompanied the scholar to a nearby restaurant, where they ordered the special of the day: fresh fish.
A few minutes later, the waiter brought out two cooked fish, one much smaller than the other. Hoja immediately took the larger fish and put it on his plate. The scholar gave Hoja a scornful look and told him that what he had done was not only terribly selfish, but that it violated the principles of almost every known moral, religious and ethical system. Hoja listened patiently to the scholar, and when he was done with his lecture, Hoja asked, “O shaykh, what would you have done?”
“I,” said the scholar pompously, “Would have taken the smaller fish!”
“Here you are,” Hoja said, and placed the smaller fish on the scholar’s plate.
Boom! With just three words, Hoja knocks the scholar clean off his pedestal. The true teacher loves stories like these, the ones that remind us that the focus of learning is not the teacher but the truth. Moral guidance is a path from one heart to another. Laughter softens the heart. Sometime very soon, we will each teach someone, whether a student, a friend or even a stranger who falls into our lives for a single conversation. Next time we teach, let us be humble and joyful. Perhaps we too will, God willing, laugh all the way into heaven.