SHAFAQNA – The Islamic College in London hosted a mildly controversial but very important seminar on ‘Humour in Islam’ this week. The evenings guest speaker, Yasmin Amin, explored primarily the Ahle Tassanun’s Muslim Hadith literature and its traditions and records of Prophetic humour. Her presentation explored Muslim humour across the ages. It began by looking at modern texts and websites; then proceeded to an examination of anecdotal literature referred to as the nawadir genre; and concluded with an exploration of hadith. Yasmin, who is finalising a PhD at the University of Exeter on “Humour and Laughter in the Hadith”, obtained a post-graduate diploma in Islamic Studies from the American University in Cairo in 2006 as well as an MA in Islamic Studies from the American University in Cairo in 2010; her dissertation was on the hadiths narrated by Um Salamah.
The Western mainstream media’s often insensitive handling of ‘insulting’ so called humour in relation to the Holy Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) has proven to be a major minefield for secularist and Muslim relations over recent times. With a series of violent reactions to Danish cartoons and Charlie Hebdo’s offensive depictions of the Holy Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) the impasse between the two worldviews was laid bare. Freedom of expression cited by one side and immoral blasphemous abuse by the other. The rift has not really healed but is merely simmering away under the cosmetic counter extremism legislation which serves to further demonize Muslims as violent and dangerous whilst encouraging right wing racism and secular atheist militancy.Muslims today are therefore increasingly stereotyped as humourless. Grim images of gun totting, long bearded men, beheading, suicide bombing and slave trading are printed over and over again to represent Muslims. As a result, an entire civilization and culture is regarded as merciless and also devoid of humour. The myth of Islam’s promotion of violence let alone terror is in itself a source of humour for any reasoning human but the seminar set out to see if Islam really is humour free or indeed opposed to it.Yasmin thinks this Islamophobic narrative certainly neglects the abundant evidence of humour in Islamic countries for many centuries.
The moral and ethical limits to humour suggested by Islamic tradition are indicated in the following verse of the Holy Quran: “O you who have believed, let not a people ridicule [another] people; perhaps they may be better than them; nor let women ridicule [other] women; perhaps they may be better than them. And do not insult one another and do not call each other by [offensive] nicknames. Wretched is the name of disobedience after [one’s] faith. And whoever does not repent – then it is those who are the wrongdoers.” (Al-Hujurat 49. This verse reflects the importance of society being empathetic and mindful of what is said whilst engaging in what the English might call banter. According to ibn Hayan, there are two types of joking. The first is preferred and defined as, “That which Allah has permitted, which commits no sin and does not lead to separation between people.” The second is the negative harmful kind, which is defined as, “Causes hostilities and sadness, and creates disrespect amongst people.”
In contrast to the many purported hadith sanctioning humour there are those that urge moderation: “ Joking should not deviate from the truth. The Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him said, “I only say what is true. It is also reported that the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Do not laugh too much. Verily, too much laughter will deaden the heart.” : Source: Sunan Ibn Mājah 4193
It is, however, said that an immigrant community has not truly become confident or “arrived” in its new environment until it is capable of laughing at itself. Muslim stand up comedians are indeed becoming mainstream and the new generation is definitely able to laugh at its own idiosyncrasies in the West but laughing joking or making fun of sacred scripture is unthinkable for the majority. Undoubtedly secular atheists are uncomfortable with any red lines being drawn around their freedom to deride the sacred and the skirmishes around this fault line between orthodox Muslims and dogmatic secular atheists is a clear and present danger for social harmony across the West. Films like Monty Python’s ‘The Life of Brian’ would be blasphemous to most Muslims and it is bad enough that the Holy Prophet Jesus (pbuh) has been demeaned with other cultural signatures such as the Last Temptation of Christ but to do any such thing to the Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) would still be a step too far and likely trigger violent reactionary emotions among Muslim masses akin to the infamous Rushdie Satanic Verses saga.
During the lively question and answer session he issue of hadith authenticity was also raised and the indiscriminate selection of humorous hadith from Ahl Tassanun literature without ascertaining their level of validity was discussed and the need to historically contextualize Yasmin’s research was also acknowledged. Muslims have already had many of their terminologies such as jihad and sharia hijacked by neoliberal religious engineering psyops according to some Muslim activists but they can be reclaimed and given a positive spin through their deployment in political satire, social sarcasm, stand-up comedy gigs, jokes, films and graphic novels – the creative potential for taking ownership of the Islamic narrative through humour is undeniable. It was pointed out that humour is essentially story telling and given that humans think in metaphor it is clearly a powerful medium of imaginative communication, one which, if used wisely, could become a great bridge builder but one which is also capable of inflicting great social damage if abused.
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