Humor and Religion: Humor and Islam
HUMOR AND RELIGION: HUMOR AND ISLAM
"Do not seek to put man in a cosmic dimension, but to humanize the cosmos, for there surely is laughter, and strength against tragedy" (Orfalea and Elmusa, p. 153). Thus the Arab American poet Eugene Paul Nasser neatly sums up the interdependency of religion and humor while acknowledging a certain inevitable tension between those of earnest and those of ironic inclination. Laughter, like music, dance, alcohol or drugs, love, and poetry, can be considered threatening to religion because of its powerful attraction. Although it can be co-opted, repressed, or embraced, it cannot be ignored. A Tunisian trickster tale was the author's introduction to the world of humor and Islam. Shared by an unlettered thirty-five-year-old North African mother of four over tea on a cold spring afternoon in 1967, the tale for some might humanize the cosmos a little too much, but for many over the centuries and around the Mediterranean Sea, it has borne an essential charm. In it the trickster Juha, not a religious figure, finds himself at odds with a religious practice and religious authority. He is annoyed at the noise of his small town muezzin's early morning call to prayer and the subsequent arising of his mother, who takes their only blanket for prayers. Juha's simple solution is to cut off the muezzin's head and pitch it down a well. Juha is unfazed by his deed, but his mother covers up for him by secretly throwing a ram's head down the well so it is what is discovered when the townspeople search for the missing muezzin. The punch line, yelled up by the investigator from inside the well, is, "Oh townspeople, does your muezzin have horns?" (Dundes, p. 310; Chanfrault, pp. 54–55).
To associate humor with Islam might disconcert readers of publications that stereotype Muslims as essentially humorless and incompatible with the West, members of "a different civilization" living in the "land of bloody borders" (Huntington, 258). And indeed some Muslims, like some Christians and Jews, are serious. Yet M. Conrad Hyers, in Holy Laughter, cautions that "the [religiously] over zealous, the fanatic, the excommunicator and executioner … are nearly always serious, contemptuous of frivolity and giggles" (Hyers, p. 245). He finds in religious humor the antidote to zealotry. Like the tale above, such humor tends to cluster around areas of social or personal tension or difficulty—in Juha's case, the challenge of required prayers.
The examples of Islam and humor that follow, selected from different centuries, regions, and classes and from both oral and written sources, tend toward breaking down hierarchies, creating liminal spaces that offer a chance to see facets of the Muslim experience afresh as they are played out in personal and congregational, micro and macro situations. In some examples secular humor is used to critique religion, whereas in others religious humor is used to highlight social ills. Some examples have been chosen for their Muslim subject matter, some because the Muslim humorist drew on humor for religiously informed ethical instruction, and some because the protagonist of a humorous joke or anecdote is represented as a religious figure and thus a lesson might be expected. Each is offered to crystallize a certain facet of Muslim artful managing of confluences of humor and Islam or to point to a locus where humor seems often to emerge within a religious context. No doubt other loci will occur to readers from their own experiences. (Nonreligiously referenced joking behavior of people who happen to be Muslim is beyond the scope of this entry.) Although women's humor as well as laughter in noninstitutionalized or marginal spaces is attended to here, more study of humor from the geographical, social, gender, religious, and class hinterlands from whence new thoughts and practices tend to emerge and the taken-for-granted interrogated needs to be done. Some examples of debate about the appropriateness of humor in Islam are offered in the conclusion.
Humor appears in religiously central Muslim texts, including the Qurʾān and ḥadīth s, in texts or oral traditions of specific locales, embedded in larger ritual and festival practices, and as a central expectation within certain antinomian Muslim groups. The joking behavior can be directed toward fellow practitioners or, as in the Juha story, to the arduousness of following the basic directives, or can emerge from a generational dissonance. For example, the son of a famous Ṣūfī irreverently refers to the formulaic and protracted exchange of greetings, compliments and blessings between his Ṣūfī father and members of his brotherhood as "ping-pong." Further, humor can ease tensions or comment on relations between Muslims and non-Muslims. These humorous incursions reflect but also overtly or obliquely comment on, evaluate, and reimagine shared and personal religious (and other) phenomena (Webber, 1987). A humorous look at religious practice can be a resource for vulnerable or marginalized Muslims, as in many trickster stories, providing a safety valve and sometimes protection for the subaltern, the old, the poor, and the young—especially young women or minorities—to resist power or to defend themselves by humorously calling attention to the fates of those who harm them. In all cases the cosmos is made relevant to the human condition.
Religion as Everday Life
Religion is a marked off category so that a certain comportment is expected in the presence of religious leaders, sacred texts, sacred performances and sacred space. Sometimes these expectations get in the way of what really matters and laughter can restore the balance.
Boundaries between the religious and the every day are often relaxed in the "little traditions," and this is a locus of criticism by the more conservative keepers of the "great tradition," itself in flux. The effects of this collapsing vary from one situation to another, but the incongruity catches the attention of the audience—in a narrative, an essay, a mawlid (birthday, anniversary), children's play—and opens up the space for insight or revelation.
The religious behaviors of children provide unexpected, amusing examples of interweaving of the sacred with playfulness. In 1968 in a Tunisian kindergarten little boys sometimes used the school's dolls to play funeral—with procession and improvised prayers—causing the Muslim teachers to gasp and laugh. In 1985 in a mosque in Toledo, Ohio, startled smiles were elicited from adults who noticed little boys lined up between their fathers for prayer bowing forward contrapuntally to the grownups to play peekaboo with their small friends to their left and right in the row of worshippers. In such circumstances children innocently play the part of outsiders, the uninitiated, and thus remind adult adherents of the constructedness of religious practice.
Memories of childhood religious rituals from an adult's perspective are also a source of humor and perhaps problematize that ritual. In "Theft in Broad Daylight" the scholar Abdulaziz Abbassi recalls the day as a young schoolboy in his Moroccan hometown that he was tricked into his Muslim-ordained circumcision:
And why were the barbers [at his friend Hassan's house]? Was it to cleanse or purify you before you were allowed to play with Hassan's [pet] rooster? Or, was it to cleanse and purify you after the incident … when a female cousin on the verge of womanhood tricked you into playing body-intertwine with her? Were these people going to let the rooster's blood or yours? … All efforts to struggle out of their tight grip proved futile. The last thing you remembered before fainting was biting desperately at someone's arm. Later you found out that poetic justice had prevailed. It was rumored that it took Hassan's father months of doctor's visits, frequent dressings, and medication before the bite healed. (Abbassi, pp. 226–227)
Postmenopausal women are both powerful and supposedly naive and thus able to commingle the religious and religiously abjured without the communal censorship that any others except young children, holy fools, or the simpleminded might incur. The following joke about an old lady returning from pilgrimage going through Egyptian customs takes this to extremes. Each duty-laden item in her bag is respectfully forgiven by the customs official due to its religious import (e.g., the imported television she claimed she needed for the sermons of a well-known religious leader, the tape recorder to listen to Qurʾanic recitations) until the customs official finds the whiskey. "Whiskey, oh ḥājja (pilgrim)?" She explains that as an old lady the circumambulation of the Kaʿbah was too much for her. Thus, she says, "I drink two glasses, and the Kaʿbah goes around me!" (Ibrahim, p. 207). This joke critiques the use of the ḥājj as a shopping trip (a kind of money changers in the Temple critique) and religious hypocrisy, while appropriating the hajja's deployment of her old lady status to evade a younger male authority figure.
Passion within marriage is considered necessary, and it is not out of bounds for women to allude to it humorously even in some religious settings. So, one afternoon in the late 1970s in Tunisia women and children were sitting in the shrine of a walī (Sidi Ahmed) celebrating with feasting the recovery one woman's husband from an accident. At this ziyāra (visit) to a local walī tomb, some women in the cool, dusky shrine were getting semi-permanent small, lacy decorations of harcous, a black, smoky and clove-scented cosmetic painted on their hands or feet. Admiring the intricate scented decoration on her little finger, a young wife laughed, "I am putting this right next to [my husband's] nose tonight" (Webber 1991, p. 188)—yet another example of bringing the cosmos home.
The convergence of the sacred and sexual, especially as it relates to women's desires, seems to be less problematic for the Muslim community than for Judaic or Christian communities. The Qur˒ān itself does not ignore God-given desires or their human and humorous consequences. In the Joseph Sura v. 30–32 the wife of Potiphar, the Egyptian who bought Joseph, has attempted to seduce him and her lady friends are condemning her. Thus follows an amusing scene when she invites the women to dine. As they are peeling fruit she has Joseph appear unexpectedly and her guests are so affected by his beauty that they lose control of their knives and, en mass, knick their hands instead of the fruit, intimating that they might have behaved no better than she had they been in her situation. Again, this humor in the Qur˒ān collapses the distance between the sacred and the everyday, brings some Muslims closer to God and even helps believers not fear death (Mir, 1991).
Female modesty can also be a locus of humor when juxtaposed with a new technology. In an 1874 cartoon in an Istanbul journal, a veiled woman instructs her photographer, "above all … I want a good likeness." (Georgeon, p. 109)
Muslims in the West
Sometimes a participant observer finds the juxtaposition of sacred and profane humorously and touchingly jarring. The poet H. S. Hamod finds himself next to a busy South Dakota highway as his father, grandfather, and father's friend have insisted that he stop his car so they can pray on their Navaho blanket-turned-prayer-rug as night falls:
me, driving the 1959 Lincoln ninety miles an hour "STOP, STOP this car." … I stop … car lights stream by more than I've ever seen in South Dakota … they discuss which direction is East after a few minutes it's decided it must be that way they face what must surely be South they face their East …. Three old men chanting the Qurʾān in the middle of a South Dakota night Allahu Ahkbar Allahu Ahkbar … more cars flash by malik a youm a deen. … I'm embarrassed to be with them en umta ailiy him … people stream by, an old woman strains a gawk at them willathouu leen. … I'm standing guard now. (Orfalea and Elmusa, pp. 165–168)
The refusal of the older men to acknowledge "mundane" difficulties to fulfilling prayer requirements puts the worldlier poet into a betwixt and between situation, striving to mediate for himself and his readers religious and everyday, East-West perspectives.
Ḥijābs (head scarfs), sometimes a focus of cultural tension in both east and west, can also be mediated through humor. In a comedy club in the United States, Tissa Hami, an American stand-up comedian who is "covered," lets her scarf introduce part of who she is to her audience as she jokes about the marginality of Muslims in the United States. "It was scary growing up Iranian in this country," she tells her audiences, "but when other kids teased me, I threatened to take them hostage" (Potier, p. 2). Another joke told by contemporary American Muslims not only collapses together religious and secular concerns, but also comments on U.S. religious diversity, assumptions about Muslims, immigrant name changes, and immigrant fears about generational divisions and loss of identity. A Muslim immigrant named Mohamed starts his first day of school in his new country. As the youngsters introduce themselves, the teacher tells him that Mohamed is not an American name. They will call him Mike. That night when his parents ask how his day went, he doesn't answer, until finally he announces that they must now address him as Mike. He is spanked for being insolent. The next day his teacher asks him how his first day in America had gone. He grouses, "One day in America and I'm attacked by two terrorists."
Powerful Words and Impetuous Iterations
In curses the sacred and profane are often collapsed together, and Muslim profanities can be a locus of humor. Many, probably most, curses are not meant seriously, and Muslims do not feel that an impulsive curse is binding or effective but a momentary loss of control that can bring laughter in the appropriate context. In 1996 in Tunisia an extended family was socializing while a fragile old auntie was praying in the midst of them, as women often do. Small children disrupted her by their tumbling on and around her prayer mat—oblivious to her or a sacred space and moment. She stopped in the middle of her prayers, roundly cursed them and then continued praying. Youths and other adults in the room then had to step quietly outside, muffling their laughter. (Laughter in prayer time, as opposed to, say, a smile, invalidates the prayer.) In literary collections as well, humorous accounts of inappropriate behaviors during mosque prayers or attempts to repress one's laughter in the holy site abound. However, this particular example might also be likened to the singlemindedness of the old men praying on their Navaho rug by the side of a superhighway in South Dakota. For most, these incidences of less-than-perfect prayer performances offer occasions to celebrate the lives of the prayers and the unexpected gift of a good story.
In 1967 the author and another Peace Corps volunteer were team teaching with two teenage Muslim women in a Tunisian kindergarten. One day the Muslims remembered the curse "[When you die] may you be buried in the graveyard of the Christians" and "cursed" their Christian counterparts with giggling glee. During the colonial period, just ended at the time, this was a bitter curse "othering" a fellow townsperson who might be a bit of an "Uncle Ahmed." Using it in a new context, among friends, conveyed a good bit about the new leveling of hierarchies. Similarly parents quite often rain curses down on the heads of their misbehaving young children only to shift their ire to any other adult who would dare to intone, "amen" (Webber, 1991, p. 189, n.18).
Even when a curse works, it is sometimes cause for, if not unabashed laughter, a satisfied snort. In a Tunisian town a descendant of a well-known walī [holy person] had a philandering husband. After enduring years of his roaming, she finally cursed him with a deadly disease, and he caught it and died. As time passes and the story is told and retold, the regret for the death recedes and the local community wryly takes note of divine justice for a woman seemingly without recourse.
Impetuous words that cannot legally be unsaid are the cause of laughter for all but the miscreant who is caught with his or her self-control down. Conflation of the sacred, secular, and sexual often results in humorous moments. According to sharī ʿah, once a man swears thrice that he divorces his wife, she is divorced, and they cannot be remarried unless she is first married to and divorced from another. Mirth and good stories arise from cases in which a divorced wife is wed supposedly temporarily to a friend of the former spouse, who she then decides she prefers. It is a cautionary tale that depends for its effectiveness on humorous sexual humiliation.
Subaltern Resistance, Humor, and Islam
Muslim authorities recognized the vulnerability of their religion to the condescension of nineteenth-century colonizers of Asia and Africa. The Orientalist impulse to appropriate the East's intellectual heritage included an assumed mastery of and thus right to critically interrogate its religions. Foreign scholars found fault with Islamic and other religious practices of the colonized. For their part, the colonized, made marginal to their own religious traditions, could through religious-based humor resist, mediate, and educate across religions and cultures. In his work on the Egyptians of the early 1800s, Edward Lane strives to document Egyptian (usually Cairene) lifestyles with little regard for individual personalities or humanity. But in the few cases in which Egyptians are quoted, readers glimpse witty, appealing Muslim individuals. In one anecdote an Egyptian Muslim friend learns that another Egyptian has asked Lane for his watch (saʾah ). Because saʾah also means "hour" or "period of general judgment," Lane's friend suggests that Lane return an "equivocal and evasive answer" taken from the Qurʾān: "Verily the saʾah shall come: I will surely make it to appear" (Lane, pp. 280–281). Whereas Lane uses this humorous riposte to illustrate what he sees as an unfortunate Muslim tendency to confound the sacred with the everyday, readers might rather glimpse an appealing personality in the unnamed Egyptian friend, a man steeped in the witty culture of Muslim literati (udabaʾ ) that often depends for effect on a shared knowledge of the Qurʾān.
In another story Lane challenges a Muslim friend concerning the propriety of a certain book that when closed has a page relating a scene of debauchery covering a page of prayer. His friend jokes that Lane could simply turn the book over so that the prayer page would cover the debauchery—the sin would then be covered by forgiveness. To Lane the incident proved Egyptians hypocrites. "The generality of the Arabs," Lane concludes, are "a most inconsistent people" (Lane, p. 280). Readers might find, however, that the Muslim's urbane witticism provides proof of a more subtle, multinuanced world than the one Lane perceived.
Muslim tricksters, like the Mediterranean Juha, who is also sometimes Jewish or Christian, are humans whose humorous escapades only intermittently attend to religion. Juha's religiously linked escapades are irreverent and collapse hierarchies so that Juha in some narratives can even outsmart or bargain with God, much as he outsmarts the rich or the learned. Two other tricksters are Nasruddin Hodja or Mullah Nasruddin—poor, rural, low-level religious teachers or scholars, sometimes judges. They, like Juha, are at least quasi-legendary with times of birth and death and place of burial contradictorily noted in various sources. Sidi Khadir, like some walī s and walīyya s, has supernatural powers and is trickster-like, causing confusion through his miracles (Webber, 1991, pp. 143, 160, 189). Like Juha, Nasruddin Hodja or Mullah Nasruddin are found in various transformations around the Mediterranean. Perhaps because the rough and tumble antics of Juha are tempered in the latter two tricksters by the quasi-respectability endowed by their religiously evocative honorifics, the latter two tricksters take on somewhat more respectable personae. They are comic geniuses, folk philosophers, and a bit less messy and more socially acceptable than Juha. Depending on the listener's or reader's acceptance of the trickster protagonists' credentials, the stories might be expected to offer a religious or ethical life lesson even if the narrative itself is not overtly religious. In adab (Arabic corpus of belles lettres) tricksters are often a humorous Sancho Panza–type sidekick or a master of disguise, but again their escapades only incidentally involve religion.
The following Nasruddin account, one of thousands, could be used as the opener to a speech to raise charitable donations or in a conversation with a family member who is borrowing or lending money. Like most of the hodja and mullah stories, it addresses topics of communal tension, such as haves and have-nots, money, and judgmental individuals. The story's seeming senselessness amuses and intrigues the listener or reader long enough that some underlying recurrent cultural and communal quandaries can be confronted:
The Mullah went to see a rich man. "Give me some money." "Why?" "I want to buy … an elephant." "If you have no money, you can't afford to keep an elephant." "I came here," said Nasruddin, "to get money, not advice." (Shah, p.13.)
Why the impulse in the Abrahamic traditions toward humorous human tricksters like Till Eulenspeigel, Pedro de Urdemalas, and Juha? A trickster in human form, it seems, has a different cultural role than trickster as animal or as god (or as animal-supernatural being). These legendary, lower-class tricksters, rogues, and fools are not so other as magical or supernatural tricksters: their behaviors, however foolish, quirky, or outrageous, can be identified by listeners or readers with their own curtailed impulses or moments of whimsy but writ large and run out to their logical (illogical) conclusions.
In many trickster escapades involving encounters with the religious establishment, tricksters violate the most basic rules of Islam. Thus, their reverently irreverent behavior is reminiscent of that of socially vulnerable antinomian Ṣūfīs, dervishes and holy fools and their real-life uses of humor and taboo breaking. By definition these trickster-like religious figures, like the storied tricksters, violate social norms and embrace unconventional and liminal behavior including disregard of Islamic ritual practices and contravention of religious law (Karamustafa, pp. 17-18). Poverty, of course, accentuates perceptions of deviance and sometimes antinomians even gave up great wealth to embark on their antinomian way.
Ahmet Karamustafa's (1994) intriguing work on the antinomian dervishes, wandering Ṣūfī groups that spread from Egypt to South Asia between 1200 and 1550 bce, illustrates some of the behaviors of the religious groups known for mirth and merrymaking and assessed as riffraff by the elite, who felt that "Islam was at the mercy of spiritual delinquents" (Karamustafa, p. 9). The boisterous commentary of these "men of good humour" actually puts the dervishes in danger from the establishment, religious and otherwise, by their trickster-like behaviors—combining mirth and merrymaking with dance and ecstasy, wine drinking, hashish smoking, homosexuality (or chastity), "dependence on love to the point of disregarding reason," and so on (Karamustafa, p. 72). Evoking the image of a holy fool, the leader of one group, the Abdals, brought merriment when he "danced like a bear and sang like a monkey" (Karamustafa, p. 1). Thus, like the tricksters, the antinomians tend toward a motley of dress, ignoring of boundaries—social, temporal, and spatial—and amorality, exhibition of human-animal dualism, and so on.
Traditional Adab, Religion, and Humor
What comprises adab has varied over the centuries, but its core genres might be defined at any one time and place as those established udabaʾ (masters of adab ) choose to include in their broad repertoires: knowledge of philosophy (Greek, Roman, Persian, Arabic), history, manners, theology, sermons, travel narratives, biography and autobiography, sex manuals, proverbs, riddles, tall tales, humorous narratives; a keen assessment of middle-class society; and the ability to write engagingly about such topics according to or challenging aesthetic norms. Although adab shares plots, themes, tales, motifs, and genres with popular aesthetic culture, a central distinguishing feature of adab is that it is written and transmitted by a renowned author living the lifestyle of an artist who was, even in the fairly recent past, sometimes on the fringes, less frequently in the center, of a rarified court lifestyle (Allen, p. 170). Basic to all scholars was their thorough knowledge of religious texts—beginning with Qurʾān memorization. In many cases this training continues in the twenty-first century.
Being able to write humorously was an important talent for the udabaʾ, especially during those times when they were dependent on wealthy patrons, so humorous incidents about misreading or misuse of Qurʾanic verses are drawn on as accessible to most everyone. In early adab ridicule also surfaced in debates over the relative merits of other religions, especially Zoroastrianism and Christianity. Franz Rosenthal does not see this early humor as an attack "upon the established religion or expressions of a liberal and skeptical spirit" but comic relief on notice of unexpected deviation from well-known "literary expressions and ritualistic practices" (Rosenthal, p. 28). Some adab humor, however, definitely seems to express the liberal or ironic outlook of a jaded, bohemian community. In his satiric debate "The Pleasure of Girls and Boys Compared," for example, the Basran adib Jahiz (c. 776–868 ce), who was also a religious scholar, has his fictional debaters cite verses from the Qurʾān to bolster their sexual preferences for boys or girls. Such quotes from the Qurʾān as those of Jahiz and the quote from Lane's friend cited previously are humorous because they are frivolous applications from a sacred source. Mistakes in use of Qurʾanic references, which most people knew so well, could also cause laughter: "Abu ʿAlgamah mentioned the name of the wolf who ate the Biblical and Qurʾanic Joseph, and when he was told that Joseph was not eaten by a wolf, he said that the name he had mentioned, then, was the name of the wolf that did not eat Joseph" (Rosenthal, p. 10, n. 5).
Inability to recognize a common Qurʾanic quote can also cause laughter. The adib Abu al-Faraj al-Isfahani (d. 967 ce) notes an occasion in the mosque when the imām recited, "And why should I not serve Him Who created me?" (Qurʾān 36:22), a witty effeminate, al-Dalal, responded, "I don't know," and caused most of the worshippers to laugh and invalidate their prayers (Rowson, p. 683).
A theme that runs though earlier adab is attribution of humorous, daring statements to the Prophet, seemingly again humanizing the cosmos. The early poet Hassan ibn Thabit observes "that the Prophet was not as puritanical as some people imagine" (cited in Mir, p. 162). Sexual banter is attributed to the Prophet in the form of ḥadīth (Rosenthal, p. 29). And class-based humor also invokes the Qur˒ān as when Yusuf Shirbini, cited by Nelly Hanna, quotes the ignorant commoners' ʿulamā˒ as claiming to have a copy of the Qur˒ān in the author's handwriting, or as asking for a summary of the Qur˒ān since the original is too difficult for his students (Hanna, p. 77).
The practice of listing ḥadīth transmitters is also made light of. Rosenthal reports that the famous early adib Ashʾab, on being advised by religious critics that it would be more becoming for him to transmit traditions than tell his inappropriate jokes, offered this ḥadīth, "I was told by Nafiʾ … on the authority of Ibn ʿUmar that the Messenger of God said: 'A man in whom there are found two qualities belongs to God's chosen friends.'" When his critic then complimented Ashʾab and asked what these two qualities were, he replied that Nafiʾ had forgotten one and he, Ashʾab, had forgotten the other (Rosenthal, p. 117).
The five pillars of Islam—profession, prayers, almsgiving, fasting, and pilgrimage—also are resources for udabaʾ wit. "A man on pilgrimage was glaring at a slave girl as though she were a heathen in the pulpit. Her arms were bare, her skin was as white as palm-core and she was mouthing one obscenity after another. 'How dare you talk like that on pilgrimage! It's not me on pilgrimage, stupid, it's my camel! Can't you see that I'm the one sitting and it's doing the walking?'" (Colville, p. 206).
Not surprisingly given the number required each day, speedy prayer is also a source of humor. Udabaʾ report their protagonists—buffoons, tricksters, and effeminates—drawing upon quotes from the Qurʾān and ḥadīth for proof that making long prayers is a sign of false piety or accusing the slower prayer of having an inordinate number of sins to assuage.
Islam and Humor: Critiques and Dialogue
Humor in religion introduces a bit (or more) of the chaotic into what some feel should be a sober and controlled cultural domain—hence attempts to control the uncontrollable. Some joking behavior might be acceptable only among insiders. Some Islamic leaders in colonial Cairo felt that the kinds of humor incorporated into the mawlid festivals, the levity and buffoonery, made Islam appear ridiculous in Western eyes and so attempted to manage them. Censorship of religious humor, like that of certain mullah tales in Iran following the fall of the shah, results in risky humor retreating to oral and private venues.
And yet there are apologists for some joking behavior even on the fault lines of religious sectarianism. "The joking is not a problem," one middle-aged family man told the author in 1986 about the jokes Muslim and Coptic neighbors in Cairo tell on each other, "It's time to worry when the joking stops." Laughter might be troubling but also allows space for insight or creativity. Altogether most Islamic leaders viewed joking and laughter relatively positively, although bringing in examples from the behavior of the Prophet and his companions would be taboo for some. Only hurtful, mocking laughter is consistently criticized.
Still debates about the place of humor in Islam surface in times of change or crisis, and sometimes this results in harsh treatment of the perceived irreverent. For example, an imām of the early fifteenth century, Ibn Sudun al Busbugawi, wrote in Egypt during a time of failing economy due to the costs of a large army, of recurrent plague, and of famine. Religion and humor were not his principal preoccupation (rather perhaps food and hashish), but in his work The Diversion of the Souls: Bringing a Laugh to a Scowling Face, after presenting his favorite rice recipes, he mildly joshes Muslim potion sellers about the efficacy of their products as well as Muslims who claim exclusive access to heaven: "He who eats two platefuls [of the rice] after lunch and two platefuls after dinner for forty years on end … will never fall sick, unless from some disease, and he will not die, except when his allotted time is up; and if he should die a Muslim he will enter Paradise" (cited in Vrolijk, p. 28). Indeed he also penned a loving, rather humorous poem about his mother upon her death—behavior that was (and still is) criticized later by more conservative Muslims but which is evocative of some contemporary memorial services or of wake reminiscences. He remembers, "When I ran away from my teacher and my dad was chasing after me to send me back, my mother always found me a hiding place" (Vrolijk, p. 45). And he jokingly reproaches her for her choice of heaven over him: "You've gone up to heaven to God who forgives all / How on earth could it please you to leave me / you were never like that before" (Vrolijk, p. 134). Again, a familiar approach collapses the distance between the cosmos and the quotidian and thus between the son and his missed mother. Perhaps the hard times account for that fact that Ibn Sudun's humor and decadent behavior displeased both his father and Cairene religious authorities to such a degree that he was exiled to Damascus near the end of his life.
Another incident of attempted repression of humor occurred in 1877, when the Ottoman parliament debated the issue of press humor during wartime. More conservative members—Muslims and non-Muslims alike—felt that humor was frivolous and dangerous, whereas others felt that it was religiously encouraged even though printing presses at that time (like the Internet of the twenty-first century perhaps) had made a much broader dissemination of humor possible. In fact the Egyptian Boulaq Press had already, almost fifty years earlier, published a collection of Ottoman Turkish Nasruddin Hodja tales. The great majority of deputies defended humor as having a social utility.
Whatever is officially decided in any one time or place about the relation between humor and Islam, humor will accrete to Islam and to its texts and practices, and Muslims will be the first to find, through irreverence, a means to point out the dissonances between Islamic ideals and the practices of those claiming to adhere to them (Sultan-Qurraie, chap. 4). In Casablanca in the last decade of the twentieth century, the new Hasan II Mosque, a pet project of the king of Morocco, had just been completed in a slum area by the Atlantic Ocean. It is absolutely lovely and drew on the talents of Moroccan artisans for stonework, woodwork, and mosaics. It has the tallest minaret in the world. The problem was that the middle classes especially felt that their financial contributions (the mosque cost $800 million) were more extortions than contributions and that, besides the sewage and flooding problems the mosque has exacerbated in the slum, the contrast between the opulence of the mosque and the poverty of its surroundings jars on some of the faithful. Thus jokes about the mosque abound in the realm of private, verbal art of the local Muslim community. Most popular seemed to be an ironic caution about standing outside one's local mosque during crowded Friday noon prayer time waiting to get in to pray. "Let's go home," goes the punch line, "'he' might decide to build another one."
Abbassi, Abdelaziz. "Theft in Broad Daylight." In Remembering Childhood in the Middle East, collected and edited by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea, pp. 222–231. Austin, Tex., 2002.
Allen, Roger. An Introduction to Arabic Literature. New York, 2000.
Ammann, Ludwig. Vorbild und Vernunft: Die Regelung von Lachen und Scherzen im mittelalterlichen Islam. Arabische Texte und Studien Band 5. New York, 1993. A thorough look at the development of Islamic attitudes about humor deriving from scholarly and folk considerations of the Qurʾān, the sunnah, and pre-Islamic Arab, Persian, Greek aesthetics. Ammann also considers differences between theories about joking behavior and its practice in everyday medieval life and in adab. Contains a complete index and bibliography.
Babcock-Abrahams, Barbara. "'A Tolerated Margin of Mess': The Trickster and His Tales Reconsidered." Journal of the Folklore Institute 11, no. 3 (1975): 147–184.
Burke, Peter. Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe. New York, 1978. See chap. 8 for a lengthy description of Christiandom's attempts between 1500 and 1800 to repress local religious "irreverent" culture. The adib, with his capacity for the impudent and the heretical, seemed better able to avoid repression. Rabelais might be the closest in early modern Europe to the irreverence and voracious interest in popular culture of some udaba˒ (although lacking the equivalent of the religious training of the adib ).
Chanfrault, Bernard. "Jeha (Djoha) en Tunisie: De la tradition au modernisme; Approche socio-historique de l'anecdote orale." Revue du Monde Musulman et de la Méditerranée 77–78, nos. 3–4 (1996): 51–59.
Christen, Kimberly A. Clowns and Tricksters: An Encyclopedia of Tradition and Culture. Oxford, 1998. Short descriptions of almost two hundred trickster figures, including Juha, Khadir, Mullah Nasruddin, and Nasruddin Khodja. Includes references and further readings.
Colville, Jim, comp. and trans. Sobriety and Mirth: A Selection of the Shorter Writings of Al-Jahiz. London, 2002. Jahiz was a specialist in adab who humorously considered the prejudices and inequalities in Basra and in the comfortable cosmopolitan world of imperial Baghdad. He humorously and irreverently considers misers, the pretentious, exploiters of homosexuals and eunuchs. Quite often his setting for a humorous account of inappropriate behavior is a mosque or during a religiously prescribed event, such as pilgrimage, fasts, prayers.
Dundes, Alan, and Taoufik Bradai. "Tales of a Tunisian Trickster." Southern Folklore Quarterly 27, no. 4 (1963): 300–315. See p. 310 for a thorough discussion of the muezzin's head tale included in this entry and consult the article for an extensive bibliography on the Middle East and North African trickster and connections of his stories with similar international motif and tale types.
Georgeon, Francois. "Rire dans l'Empire ottoman? " Revue du Monde Musulman et de la Méditerranée 77–78, nos. 3–4 (1996): 89–109. A consideration of laughter and attitudes about laughter within the Ottoman Empire. The author concludes that laughter, especially religious laughter like that of the Karagoz puppet shows put on during religious "occasions" such as circumcisions and Ramadan, was extinguished with the demise of the empire.
Hanna, Nelly. In Praise of Books: A Cultural History of Cairo's Middle Class, Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century. Syracuse, N.Y., 2003.
Huntington, Samuel P. The Clash of Civilizations: Remaking of World Order. New York, 1996. Historical study indicates that theories of the inevitability of civilizational clashes can become self-fulfilling prophecies. Issues with borders would better be addressed by attention to how, when, why, and by whom certain borders were established rather than assuming the culpability of Islamdom.
Hyers, M. Conrad, ed. Holy Laughter: Essays on Religion in the Comic Perspective. New York, 1969.
Ibrahim, Amr Helmy. "La nokta egyptienne ou l'absolu de la souverainete." Revue du Monde Musulman et de la Méditerranée 77–78, no. 3–4 (1996): 199–212. This article on Egyptian jokes briefly considers the power of laughter as the power to stop revolutions.
Karamustafa, Ahmet T. God's Unruly Friends: Dervish Groups in the Islamic Later Middle Period, 1200–1550. Salt Lake City, Utah, 1994. A fascinating reappraisal of the social roles of antinomian dervishes. Situates levity in the midst of other deviant behaviors, such as drug use and motley dress, and investigates their religious, political, and class significances. Excellent bibliography, index, and notes.
Kilpatrick, Hilary. "Review of Vorbild und Vernunft by Ludwig Ammann." Der Islam 76 (1999): 177–180. A useful review of Ammann's book that covers in detail its contributions to the topic and notes that the complexities of adab literature's treatment of humor need to be more thoroughly addressed.
Lane, E. W. An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians (1836). New York, 1978.
Long, Burke O. Imagining the Holy Land: Maps, Models, and Fantasy Travels. Bloomington: Ind., 2003.
Marzolph, Ulrich. Arabia Ridens: Die humoristische Kurzprosa der frühen adab-literatur im internationalen. Frankfürt, Germany, 1992. This is a consideration of early adab humor in the context of world literature. Because Marzolph is a folklorist, he extensively considers the material using both the Aarne-Thompson tale type index and also Thompson's motif index, thus bringing in similar humorous material from other parts of the world, especially Europe. He considers the reshaping of anecdotes as they fit into different cultural times and contexts, both Muslim (Persian, Afghan, Berber, and so on) and otherwise. His bibliography, citing references from early Persian and Arabic to the twentieth century, is particularly useful.
Marzolph, Ulrich. "Molla Nasr al-Din in Persia." Iranian Studies 28 (1995): 157–174. Discussion of the place of the mullah and Juha in Persia, past and present, with attention to the issues of censorship of his stories by clergy, examples of the intermingling of Arabic, Persian, and Turkish stories, and extensive bibliography on related figures like Juha, Bohlul, and Nasruddin Hodja in the Ottoman tradition.
Masliyah, Sadok. "Curses and Insults in Iraqi Arabic." Journal of Semitic Studies 46, no. 2 (2001): 267–308.
Mir, Mustansir. "Humor in the Qurʾan." Muslim World 81, nos. 3–4 (1991): 179-193. Mir observes that humor in religion can be an object of suspicion because humor collapses the distance needed to evoke "reverence and awe" (p. 180). On the other hand, Qurʾanic humor, especially ironic humor, can inspire religious insight or "elucidate a theological teaching" (p. 180). Mir cites Sarah and Solomon laughing and several amusing scenes involving Moses. He points to caricatures of a Meccan leader and of Medinan hypocrites. He concludes that the attempt to collapse distance between sacred and profane may in itself be humorous.
Orfalea, Gregory, and Sharif Elmusa, eds. Grape Leaves: A Century of Arab-American Poetry. New York, 1988; reprint, 2000. Contains Arab American poetry of Christians, like Nasser, and Muslims, like Hamod.
Redfield, Robert. Peasant Society and Culture. Chicago, 1956. The little traditions–great traditions split was parsed by Redfield in this work (see pp. 83–86, 99–100 for his discussion of Islam in particular) and modified by Burke and others. It is a problematic split because the process of negotiating "reality" is much the same for each. Also see Karamustafa's discussion of the "methodological poverty of the two-tiered model of religion" (Karamustafa, p. 10) and Burke's discussion (Burke, pp. 26–28).
Rosenthal, Franz. Humor in Early Islam. Philadelphia, 1956. This work provides an extensive bibliography especially good for the Arabic sources.
Rowson, Everett K. "The Effeminates of Early Medina." Journal of the American Oriental Society 111, no. 4 (1991): 671–693. The "effeminates" (probably transvestites) were useful as musicians and go-betweens. The article is concerned with what can be learned about the effeminates' roles in society during the early Islamic centuries. Clearly they often played central roles as artists, wits, and intellectuals and as confidants of both men and women. Also clearly they were at times censured, banished, and even put to death during less-permissive times for their representations of self, or their sexual stances as well as their irreverence.
Rowson, Everett K. "Review of Arabia Ridens by Ulrich Marzolph." Journal of the American Oriental Society 115, no. 3 (1995): 493–496. A thorough review that also points out some possible weaknesses in Marzolph's work.
Rowson, Everett K. "Review of Vorbild und Vernunft by Ludwig Ammann." Journal of the American Oriental Society 115, no. 3 (1995): 491–493. Rowson concludes that Ammann's "picture of both life and literature in medieval Islamic society is … on the whole considerably grimmer than what the evidence actually suggests" (p. 493).
Scott, James C. Weapons of the Weak. New Haven, Conn., 1985.
Shah, Idries. The Pleasantries of the Incredible Mulla Nasrudin. London, 1968.
Sultan-Qurraie, Hadi. Modern Azeri Literature: Identity, Gender, and Politics in the Poetry of Moʾjuz. Bloomington, Ind., 2003. Chap. 4 is an important contribution to discussion of the Azeri Muslim tradition of humor and satire.
Vrolijk, Arnoud. Bringing a Laugh to a Scowling Face: A Study and Critical Edition of the "Nuzhat Aljj-nufus Wa-mudhik Al-ʿabus" by ʿAli Ibn Sudun al-Basbugawi (Cairo 810/1407–Damascus 868/1464). Leiden, Netherlands, 1998. The mid-fifteenth-century "Cairene lowlife character" Ibn Sudun, a trained theologian known also as a buffoon and hashishi was exiled finally from Cairo to Damascus by judgmental Mamlūk authorities. His work is in the adab tradition, showing facility with diverse literary styles. The first part, "Serious Poetry," is only half as long as the second part, "On Pleasantries," which contains numerous examples of humor and Islam. Chap. 3 of Vrolijk's work contrasts the broader outlook of Ibn Sudun's libertine attitude with that of contemporary Egyptian and Western critics. A 178-page Arabic, critically edited synthesis of several redactions is included.
Webber, Sabra J. "The Social Significance of the Cairene Nukta." American Research Center in Egypt Newsletter 138 (1987): 1–9.
Webber, Sabra J. Romancing the Real: Folklore and Ethnographic Representation in North Africa. Philadelphia, 1991.
Wesselski, Albert. Der Hodscha NasruddinWeimar. Duncker, Germany, 1911. An early compilation of the Nassredin stories, including Turkish, Berber, Arabic, Maltese, Sicilian, Calabrian, Croatian, Serbian, and Greek jokes and stories.
Sabra J. Webber (2005)