The “sacred fool” in Islam

This article is also available in: Italiano

Taking a cue from Alessandro Bausani’s collection of essays “The” sacred fool in Islam “, we will make a real journey into the Islamic world, analyzing some of the most interesting cultural aspects. First episode on the “sacred fool” in Islam.


In this essay, taken from the collection of the same name, Alessandro Bausani illustrates the category of the “sacred fool”, an element that is always present within the Islamic world, but which deserves further study due to the variety and depth of themes made available. Following the pattern of the book, we will focus on: the Malamatiyya, “mystics of the obscene”, on Bahlul and Nasreddin Khoja, the “cunning fools” and finally on the figure of the Devil in all this.

The Malamatiyya, the mystics of the obscene

The Malamatiyyas are a group of mystics active in the 9th century in the region which can now be defined as “Great Khorasan“. In these lands so far away, one of the most particular groups flourished that the whole of History, at the same time incredibly faithful and extraordinarily heretical, perfect example of “sacred fools”; their name comes from the Arabic word “malama”, or “guilt”, the constant object of their desire. In fact, following an incredibly Taoist principle, the latter considered the struggle more than the dialogue with God, thus differentiating themselves unequivocally with the Sufi world, the true backbone of Islamic mystical thought.

In literature, the legendary Abdul Alhazred of H.P. Lovecraft, could be inspired by the Malamatiyya

The central features of this school, in particular, were: the constant quarrel with the Divine, strong joy in breaking laws, conveniences and morals and finally a real reversal of values, with an incredible joy for being tortured or even killed (according to them by God himself). The most legendary figure of this group, or Meshreb, on the other hand, seems to leave no room for analysis with this sentence, definitely representative of the Malamati:

“God does not love the sinless, he loves sinners. So I will now commit an obscene sin; if the man of God will then make me hang and die, better that way”

This initiatory path, therefore, leads the faithful to voluntarily become “mad”, encouraging him to perform increasingly heretical and foul actions just as an exercise in drawing closer to God, something very different from the “madman to the Nasreddin Khoja”.

The fool-smart

The latter, in fact, places his story and his figure on very different characters, more related to the culture of the marabouts but definitely more similar to an “unrepentant guru” rather than to a “scourgeist of sin”. In fact, this madman has more the characteristics of a “cunning buffoon”, someone completely free from the constraints of taste and morality, which tends to break, however, precisely because of the carelessness due to his condition as an “overman“. Such subjects, in fact, are not “in search of sin or evil”, finding themselves, indeed, often and willingly on the side of Good, thus becoming an essential aid for the protagonist in the many stories in which they are present.

Nasreddine Khoja

Taking this comparison with the right pliers, it could be said that this figure is also present in the Quran itself in the figure of al Khidr, a character who will repeatedly find himself performing impure acts in the presence of Moses but who, however, is clearly superior to him in terms of faith. From a purely literary point of view, then, Naguib Mahfouz’s “Nights of a Thousand and One Nights”, in which one of the protagonists acquires exactly this function, cannot fail to be mentioned.

The madman as the devil’s alter ego

Last chapter, certainly the most thorny, concerns the figure of the Devil who, for many Muslim authors, represents the madman who, too much in love with his Lord, chose eternal damnation rather than betraying his own ideal. According to these authors, in fact, when Shaytan refused to prostrate himself before Adam, it was not out of arrogance, but because of the promise that the latter had recently made to his God or that of not submitting to anyone but Him.


Read in this light, the figure of Shaytan then acquires a value much more similar to that of the Malamati, but with elements that are deeply connected to the group of Nasreddin Khoja. Indeed, he does not aim to commit sin but it is God who, conscious of the loyalty of his servant, will make him stumble, thus forcing him to adapt to the situation of sin. In light of this, it then becomes clear how, in the Islamic world, the Devil is not so much in contrast with God, who is his Lord as much as he is for men, but against the lineage of Adam, undeserving of the role reserved for him by the Divine. In the Islamic tradition, however, there are also figures such as jinns who, in certain cases, can inherit the function of the “cunning devil” or the “trickster”, but are mainly linked to fairy tales rather than faith.

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