work in progress in social theory and cultural sociology

talking of swimming

05.29.2013 · Posted in Uncategorized

Idries Shah, who plays up Nasrettin Hoca as clever and witty Sufi master … and who starts his seminal work The Sufis with a swimming metaphor, advises us to go beyond the official claims tales and anecdotes like that of Aesop (and I assume that about Nasrettin Hoca as well) and see what else we can learn – as there tends to be a spiritual meaning.

Here’s a tale of Nasrettin Hoca to do with boating and swimming:

The Hoca once made his living as a ferryman, setting people over a river in a ramshackle little boat. Once he set over a scholar who pestered him with questions such as: “Have you ever learned this and this?” to which the Hoca kept replying “no, I haven’t” and the scholar replied: “Then you have wasted half your life”. Now while the Hoca’s been rowing and the scholar talking, the leaky boat kept filling up with water, prompting the Hoca to ask the scholar: “Have you ever learned to swim?”, to which the scholar replied “No, why?” and the Hoca said: “Then, my friend, you have wasted not just half, but all of your life.”

Now the surface meaning is obvious: don’t waste your time with acquiring knowledge for the sake of knowing while neglecting knowledge that is of practical relevance. We can imagine a spiritual dimension, maybe alluding to  Yunus Emre’s famous dictum that the Law (şeriat) is like a ship on the ocean that is Reality (hakikat) and that we need to be able to plunge from the ship of Law into the ocean of Reality (which sort of presupposes an ability to swim). Idries Shah doesn’t use this story in his book [that’s not correct – see update below] – but if he did, probably we’d also learn from it how enlightenment cannot be gained from book learning alone but must be gained from guided immersion (for which learning to swim of course is an excellent metaphor). But we may also turn this back against self-proclaimed spiritual guides (and it’s not as if there weren’t an abundance of those around nowadays, nor that academics were completely immune against falling for their claims to healing powers). How about this:

Beware of the spiritual guide, healer, educator, wise man who promises to help you (here: get to the other side of the river) despite the suggested ways of doing so lacking all plausibility (here: their boat is leaky). If things go wrong (the boat sinks, you drown) they always will know how it was your own fault in the first place (you can’t swim, silly). 


update 6th June 2013

I was wrong – actually Idries Shah starts his chapter on Nasrettin Hoca mentioning this story – here’s his version

‘Nasrudin, ferrying a pedant across a piece of rough water, said something ungrammatical to him. “Have you never studied grammar?” asked the scholar. 


“Then half of your life has been wasted.” 

A few minutes later Nasrudin turned to the passenger. “Have you ever learned to swim?” 

“No. Why?” 

“Then all your life has been wasted – we are sinking!” 

He goes on to comment (as I assumed he would), by pointing out the un-formal way of Sufi learning:

This is the emphasis upon Sufism as a practical activity, denying that the formal intellect can arrive at truth, and that pattern-thinking  derived from the familiar worldcan be applied to true reality, which moves in another dimension.’ (Shah 1969: 58)


Being a Sufi master himself – of course the notion that you shouldn’t trust a Sufi master doesn’t occur to Shah as a possible interpretation – so no mention about the fact that a boat that starts sinking just like that must be ramshackle…


Shah, Idries (1969) [1964]: The Sufis, London: Jonathan Cape

Comments are closed

Skip to toolbar