‘Muslims can’t take a joke’—remarked many Western observers. They were commenting on recent occasions when some Muslims reacted violently, oftentimes with tragic consequences, to what others viewed as instances of freedom of expression in comical caricatures: the Danish cartoons (2005), the Charlie Hebdo caricatures (2015) and the most recent resurgence resulting in the murder of a French schoolteacher and others (2020). I hear this remark and laugh. It is funny, primarily in a specific sense that the Islamic tradition preserves: ‘the worst affliction is that which causes laughter’ (sharr al-baliyya mā yuḍḥik). Have we sunk to comic lows?
Of course, there is much pain in reflecting on this remark as well. Recalling that among the definitions of the human being is that she is a ‘laughing animal’ (al-ḥayawān al-ḍāḥik), it seems that there is an implication—if unintended—that Muslims, in their enmity to humour, are excluded from the universal condition of humanness. But aside from moral outrage, these charges simply make no sense. Before the advent of modernity, Islamic civilisation was the most expansive human experiment to date: geographically, demographically, and culturally. No civilisation could have prospered as much for so long without tolerating humour; much of what we go through as humans, whether in the mundane details of daily life or the grand schemes of history, merits little more than a good joke.
Nevertheless, these observers are probably onto something. Just as humour is a universal human trait, its opposites and contraries, such as being earnest, serious, solemn, sad, angry, and vengeful, are equally human responses. As a result, throughout Islamic history many learned voices were uncomfortable with humour. More often than not, they appealed to religion as the moral justification for their various criticisms of what they saw as the invocation of inappropriate jokes and an invitation to unacceptable laughter. This is not to say that their position was at any point a majority view, but they clearly left a mark on the tradition as a whole.
For Muslims, the Prophet is the best moral example. Whether the best is synonymous with the perfect is a different question; whether it implies absolute sinlessness and total infallibility, are questions we leave to earnest theologians! The Islamic tradition, in its full confessional diversity, imparted sayings from the Prophet in which he praises humour and establishes its benefits. The tradition also preserves anecdotes that clearly show him engaging in gentle humorous exchanges. Muhammad’s sense of humour crossed ethnic, social and gender lines: with Suhayb, a poor companion of Greek background who was suffering from ophthalmia; with an elderly lady who was anxious about whether she will enter paradise; with Aisha, Muhammad’s competitive wife trying to beat him in a camel race.