Looking for Islam in a Funny World

A couple of years ago I made the offhanded remark in an article that the real problem with religious extremists is that they hate sport and jokes. Nothing has more agitated good-natured Muslims recently than the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore in March 2009, and the subsequent ostracism of Pakistani cricket at an international level.

If you want to fuel the fires of terrorism, take away footballs and cricket bats and ask sixteen year olds to find something else to do with their spare time.

The last sentence was an example of irony, the kind that is wasted on religious zealots, because they hate humour more than they hate sports. Both (they think) are Unislamic. They seem to rely on an unfamiliar hadith that proves the Prophet never played football and never smiled. Historically, those who have thought religion was a serious business have not thought that life was a funny business. Frowns and smiles, after all, are symbols of two approaches to the human predicament. Am I right in thinking that the standard image of the Muslim, at least the gun-toting sort, is symbolized increasingly by the disapproving frown.

Humour as a means of stress-relief is a structured activity.The joke is its highest form, and the self-deprecating joke, whose payoff depends on a religious or ethnic punchline (Yiddish, “zinger”) made at the teller’s expense, is the most sophisticated level of the highest form. Generally speaking, in the hierarchy of humour, protestants of the Calvinist persuasion aren’t good at it. Catholics are, Jews are better, and Muslims–well, I’ll get to that in a minute.

The first recorded instance of the religious joke (if Genesis 2-3 isn’t a long one) is the tall tale of Abraham and Sarah in Egypt–a story so good it’s told three times, the last with Isaac and Rachel in the starring roles. It’s a cruelty joke, but the punchline is uproarious: You can almost hear the set-up from three thousand years ago:

Did you hear the one about Abraham and Sarah in Egypt? No? Abraham and Sarah are going to Egypt. Abraham says to Sarah, let’s tell Pharaoh you’re my sister, not my wife. He’ll say, “What do you want for her,” I’ll say, ” What do think is a fair price?” When I’ve got the goods, I’ll tell him the truth, he’ll have to let you go, and we’ll be rich.” Sarah says, “But won’t he be angry?” “That’s the best part,” Abraham says. “He’ll be so busy dealing with the plagues God’s going to send that it won’t matter.” (Genesis 12.10-20, 20.1-18; 26.6-9).

It’s all there: the wandering Jew, the deceit and cunning, the greed, and the punchline. Never mind that Pharaoh doesn’t do anything wrong. These are chosen-people-times. Pharaoh is a Putz who can ess drek und shtarbn. In fact the whole story is funnier in Yiddish.

Three thousand years later, the evolved form is this: A rabbi is driving down the street when he crashes into a car driven by a priest. Both cars are wrecked but amazingly neither driver is hurt. After they crawl out of their cars, the rabbi sees the priest’s collar and says, “So you’re a priest. I’m a rabbi. Just look at our cars. There’s nothing left, but we are unhurt. This must be a sign from God. God must have meant that we should meet and be friends and live together in peace the rest of our days.” The priest says, “I agree with you completely. This must be a sign from God.” The rabbi continues, “And look at this. Here’s another miracle. My car is completely demolished but this bottle of wine didn’t break. Surely God wants us to drink this wine and celebrate our shared good fortune.” So he opens the bottle and hands it to the priest. The priest thanks him, takes a drink, and tries to give the bottle back. But the rabbi politely urges him to have another drink, so the priest takes another. Then he tries to give the bottle back again, but the rabbi shakes his head. The priest asks, “Aren’t you having any?” The rabbi says, “No, I’ll just wait for the police.”

The two-thousand -year history of mordant humour even reaches into the death camps–on both the Jewish and the Catholic side: A Catholic priest, a homosexual and a Jew are scheduled to be executed at Auschwitz–a privilege only given to distinguished “guests.” They are asked what they want to have for their last meal. The priest asks for filet mignon, eats it, and is taken away. The homosexual asks for a ham sandwich, eats it, and is taken away for execution. The Jew asks for a plate of strawberries. The guards tell him strawberries are out of season. “So, I’ll wait.”

In July 1944 Father Josef Möller was sentenced to hang by a Nazi court for “one of the most vile and dangerous attacks directed at our confidence in our Führer.” The priest had told two parishioners this joke. “A fatally wounded German soldier asked his chaplain to grant a final wish: ‘Place a picture of Hitler on one side of me, and a picture of Goering on the other side–that way I can die like Jesus–between two thieves.’” If Jews can laugh at what is arguably the bitterest moment of their religious history, why are Muslims not producing any good Taliban jokes, because only if people who take themselves murderously seriously can be shown to be as ridiculous as the rest of humanity is there any hope of accepting them into the human race. No, I don’t expect the Taliban to write jokes in the privacy of their caves. But I don’t see other Muslims answering the call to satire either.

If there were an official litany of comedians who are good at self-mockery and religious satire dozens of names would leap to mind. On the Jewish side, Groucho, Milton Berle, Alan King, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Jack Benny, Lenny Bruce, John Stewart, Don Rickles, Joan Rivers, Steve Martin, Sarah Silverman, Jerry Seinfeld. An embarrassment of comic riches. With a little more struggle we can add the names of Catholic wits–Steve Allen, George Carlin, Bob Newhart, Kathleen Madigan, Dennis Miller, Dan Ackroyd, Bill Maher. But the subject was Muslim humor. Start with a joke which makes the rounds in Middle Eastern comedy clubs:

A man is taking a walk in Central park in New York. Suddenly he sees a little girl being attacked by a pit bull dog . He runs over and starts fighting with the dog. He succeeds in killing the dog and saving the girl’s life. A policeman who was watching the scene walks over and says: “You are a hero, tomorrow you can read it in all the newspapers: “Brave New Yorker saves the life of little girl” The man says: – “But I am not a New Yorker!” “Oh, then it will say in newspapers in the morning: ‘Brave American saves life of little girl’” – the policeman answers. “But I am not an American!” – says the man. “Oh, what are you then? ” The man says: – “I am Pakistani.” The next day the newspaper says: “Islamic extremist kills innocent American dog.”

First of all, this is not funny. It rates the same on the comedy scale as Borat’s attempt to learn how to be a stand-up comedian. Not. Second, the humour is not self-deprecating. It’s derisive, a sort of failed lampoon of western views of Muslims. Third, it’s violent. Never kill dogs in jokes if you can just throw a rock. The conclusion is: there is not much humor in the Muslim world, not much that would cause fits of hysterical laughter, and what there is is either clearly derivative or not very funny. Why is this so?

Start with the point that the Quran does not contain many stories. This is not a criticism but a fact: it arises out of an oral tradition in which hundreds of stories circulating widely and familiarly among Jews and Christians of the Middle East were also familiar to Muhammad and the brethren. There was no need to repeat them unless corrections to certain bits were being made, as sometimes happened. But the general habit in the Quran is that a simple mention or allusion is worth a thousand words. For example, the story of Noah (Nuh) in the Koran (surah 71) contains almost none of the details of the Genesis 6-8 account, but simply assumes that the story is known and accepted–torrents of rain and drowning unbelievers are mentioned–the serious stuff. But no mountains, boats, animal-pairs, doves, no postdiluvian drink-fest. The fun stuff. Not that the Arabs weren’t good story-tellers (you don’t survive the ways of the desert without entertainment), but it is not a significant feature of the Quranic tradition. Second, as I already said, religion is a serious business. Maybe if the Jews had spent less time laughing they would have listened to God more carefully. No wonder they drowned.

But anti-comedy goes deeper than that in Muslim culture. The eighth century caliph ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Azeez warned, “Fear joking, for it is folly and generates grudges.” The basic criticism of jokes and joking is that it is foolish, leads to hurt feelings within the ummah, wastes time that could be devoted to serious study, and “hardens the heart against Allah.” Joking is not quite sin, but it is a misuse of leisure and makes the joker appear frivolous and (frankly) not too smart. Islam developed as a religion that depended on chains of authority. So it no surprise that there is a chain of authorities (beginning with Abd al-Azeez) regarding jokes. In a famous hadith, preserved by Fath al-Baari the Prophet is said to have said: “If you knew what I know, you would laugh little and weep much.” al-Barri explains:“What is meant by ‘knowing’ here has to do with the might of Allah and His vengeance upon those who disobey Him, and the terrors that occur at death, in the grave and on the Day of Resurrection.”

Don’t even smile. Judgment is no laughing matter, which is why in the Middle Ages, when Catholics still believed in it, there were very few jokes, and why in the twentieth century when many fundamentalist Christians still believe in it, there are very few jokes. The louder you laugh, the less likely you are to hear the summoning trumpet. The big joke is on the people who miss the wake up call. Plenty of time to laugh then.

The Quran was especially fond of “warners”–which is why the stories of Noah and Jonah (Surah 21 and 37) are both preserved. There is also, with due seriousness, a strong emphasis on destruction or judgment stories like Sodom and Gomorrah (Quran, surahs 57-77) and the killing of Korah (Numbers 16-21; Quran 76-82). Another hadith records the Prophet saying, “Do not laugh too much, for laughing too much deadens the heart.” (Saheeh al-Jaami’, 7312). In other words, laughter develops a certain callousness–and leads one to disrespect himself and to lose face due to the perception that a man is puerile and jejune (Umar ibn al-Khattaabith).

There have been loads of psychological studies showing that the morphology of humor is related to the morphology of cruelty, so there is wisdom in some of this. But there is little recognition that laughter also serves as a coping mechanism, locates the source of otherwise incomprehensible injustice not just in what “other people” think about Catholics, Jews and Muslims, but in the images they have projected of themselves, their customs, and their beliefs. The Muslim tradition of “satire” lampoons (as far as I can tell) other people’s images of Muslims. Creating images from within the tradition that can then be satirized–images that can be the targets of wordplay, self-ridicule and irony–that has not happened on a large scale.

Maybe some of the problem has to do with proportion. Islam is a very big religion (1627.61 million), getting bigger, and wants to be taken seriously. The momentum of history seems to be on the side of its rather grim view of human destiny and purpose. The religions that have developed a strong tradition of self-mockery are not flourishing. Judaism is a very small religion (ca. 14,000,000), growing smaller through attrition and assimilation, historically and culturally important far beyond the numbers of Jews alive today, or in any era. True, religious Jews take a very serious view of history as well (and something tells me do not joke very much), but in general Jews have told jokes because they have a different view of success and of destiny.

A perfectly respectable Islamic website states this: “Nowadays, although the ummah needs to increase the love between its individual members and to relieve itself of boredom, it has gone too far with regard to relaxation, laughter and jokes. This has become a habit which fills their gatherings and wastes their time, so their lives are wasted and their newspapers are filled with jokes and trivia.”

There may be a reason why Islam, along with some small sectors of Christianity and Judaism, still regard salvation as a humorless business. It’s a matter of how seriously you take God. The Seinfelds, Woody Allens and Bill Mahers of this world don’t. And in a presumptively secular world where even “religious” people don’t take heaven, hell and judgement as dinner table topics, they are fit matter for jokes. No amount of persuasion is going to convince a religious citizen of the post-religious world otherwise. Even comedians who consider themselves religious can’t let religion or their religious eccentricities off the hook.

In his gentler days, George Carlin used to ponder out loud that Catholic cheerleaders had to be smarter than other cheerleaders, “because they have to be able to spell Immaculate Conception High School.” Jackie Mason asks if people realize it was Jews who invented sushi. “Who else,” he asks, “would buy a restaurant with no kitchen?”

The failure of Islam to produce a comic tradition–there is pantomime and unbearably dumb slapstick in the Muslim world, most of it so broad it can’t have amused its creators–may seem a small thing. But I think that the anti-laughter culture of Islam is a significant thing. It bespeaks a mindset that leads to beheadings, public floggings, the stoning of “miscreants,” It comes from the same place that the torching of girls’ schools and video stores comes from. The high seriousness of Islamic doctrine is the public declaration of religious exceptionalism. Only rarely–among the medieval flagellates and the New England puritans– has laughter been outlawed and the sources of laughter been regarded as satanic. In both cases, history and contact with corrective forms of the Christian religion had a leavening effect on the morbid fear of fun. I do not hear that conversation happening in Islam, not yet. For it to happen, however, Muslims who want to see a healthy, this-worldly, socially engaged Islam need to do something, as Eric Idle intones in The Life of Brian as he’s being crucified: “Look on the Bright Side of Life.”

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