“Why can’t Muslims take a joke?”

Aaminah Y.

The world of entertainment has played its part in recent attempts to tackle institutional racism. As artists stepped down from voicing non-white characters and streaming sites removed scenes featuring racially insensitive content, a much needed line was redrawn in determining what is acceptable humour. 

Yet, one area still subject to ridicule in the mainstream is religion. From the blasphemous Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, to cartoons such as South Park and Family Guy depicting God in bed entertaining women and Jesus snorting cocaine, criticism of religion is upheld as a fundamental of freedom of speech. 

Today, with Muslims consistently associated with images of war and violence, many have come to see humorous portrayals of Islam as the key to societal acceptance. By showing that Muslims, too, can laugh at themselves and their beliefs, they seek to dismantle the age-old, orientalist belief that “fun” is against the puritannical religious ethos [1]. Budding Muslim comedians are celebrated as helping break the glass ceiling of representation and showcase a more relatable image of the Muslim community.

So do Muslims need to lighten up? To what extent can we use humour as a route to acceptance or increased awareness of Islam?

The sacred under the secular

Overt secularism seeks to diminish the role of religion in society by its literal removal. In East Turkestan, the demolition of the masajid, mass imprisonment, and sterilisation are all being conducted with the hope that Islam will not be passed down to the next generation. In France, the ban on religious symbols, including the hijab, sends a symbolic message that religion should have no place in the public sphere. 

However, secular societies also undermine religion by removing the sacred status of its symbols of faith. Islamic ideals are stripped of their transcendental values and manipulated to make room for that which is in clear conflict with traditional norms, whilst maintaining the ‘Islamic’ label. 

If something is sacred, its value transcends that which one can afford; one must operate around its immovable, mighty status. To remove the sacred nature of something is to gain control over it, and for the right price, it can be traded, sold, and manipulated to fit into whichever narrative or framework one desires. It can be co-opted by any individual or ideology for their own means. It becomes powerless.    

Shared emotions towards the sacred bind people into communities and cults. Eliade notes that Western modernity is a historical aberration in how it has formed a desacralised profane society; however, sacredness can never be completely removed, societies simply assign sacredness to a new God, be it consumerism or freedom of speech. [2]

The ease with which one can satirise and manipulate the Christian faith exemplifies the decline of its sacredness in the Western world. Caricatures of Jesus (AS) are largely unchallenged, deconsecrated churches are rapidly converting to clubs and Christmas has become yet another consumerist holiday, devoid of spirituality. When Karl Lagerfield designed a dress embroidered with an ayah of Surah Kahf, the head of Indonesia’s ulemaa described it as an insult, threatening Chanel’s exports to the Muslim world. Chanel apologised and vowed to burn the dresses [3]. In contrast, the sacred Crucifix features widely in fast fashion as a trendy motif. 

Yet, resistance from Muslims has been weakening.

The desacralisation of Islam 

With the expansion of Muslim communities in the West, Islam’s sacred tenets have become increasingly threatened under the guise of freedom of expression, as evident in the recent republication of the despicable Charlie Hebdo cartoons of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. But when outraged Muslim around the world protested the initial publication in 2015, they were met with calls from fellow Muslims to focus on themselves and reflect on their reactions; why is our faith so weak that we are triggered by such harmless sentiments, it was asked. 

Yet these arguments fail to recognise that it is the strength of our faith and conviction that leads to our fury and pain when what we hold most dear to us is mocked. We should feel an innate disturbance when the sacred is ridiculed, and if not, there is a deeper issue with our iman that needs to be addressed. 

This implicit adoption of the standard of freedom of speech has contributed to a growing desacrilisation of Islam by Muslims. 

The much celebrated U.S. comedy-drama Ramy featured a scene referring to the Qur’an as “barz”, whilst platforming an ex-pornstar who wore the hijab in her sex work. American-Muslim comedian Hasan Minhaj recently made a dua in which he casually referred to Allah ﷻ as the “man upstairs”. Hijabi representation has become exclusively for those who break stereotypes, and preferably remove their hijab mid-season, usually after falling in love with a non-Muslim boy, or in Netflix’s most recent release, after joining a twerking dance group. [4]

In fighting back against the portrayal of Muslims as ‘extreme’, Muslims have justified participating in an industry where religion features in the context of subverting traditional norms. They are creating a culture that attempts to make Islam palatable to the West, but at the cost of undermining its teachings, desecrating its tenets of faith and breaching the divine boundaries.

And if you ask them, they will surely say, “We were only conversing and playing.” Say, “Is it Allah and His verses and His Messenger that you were mocking?” [9:65]

The Qur’an was sent down to bring forth mankind from darkness into the light. This mighty book will intercede for us as we shake in fear on the Day of Reckoning. [5] No other words hold such power; how then can we speak of it as if it were a song on Billboard’s Top 100

Dua is a mercy from Allah ﷻ; a direct connection to the Almighty with the promise that if we call upon Him, He will respond. It is the only tool at the disposal of the helpless. The most pertinent matter, though, is one of Aqidah (creed). Allah is not the “man” upstairs. He is Omniscient. The Ever-Living. He is al-Khaliq, The Creator, and al-Mumeet, The Destroyer. On His command there is life and death; nothing occurs without His will. Can man do that?

The commodification of the hijab has reduced it to a mere cloth, exploited in discourse centred around identity. The concept of hijab goes beyond just a head covering; its sacredness lies in the fact that it is a divine commandment. The overlooking of this aspect is offensive enough, and yet to top it all, ‘hijabi’ representation in the media is cringeworthy.

One may point out that these acts are not always badly meant. However, such individuals would undoubtedly think before making a comment that would upset their fanbase, render them ‘cancelled’, or jeopardise their careers. So why do we not have this consideration for the Most High? 

Depicting realistic portrayals of the everyday Muslim can serve to some benefit in fighting against the deeply ingrained stereotypes. However, content creators and influencers must understand that representation does not supersede the boundaries of our religion. Why do Muslims desire a seat at the table of faithless modernity when its very approval delegitimizes our beliefs? If our eyes and ears will testify to what we have witnessed, why are we willing to showcase indecency to the masses? 

We all connect to faith in our own personal way, but this cannot be used as a justification for expressions of faith that contradict Islamic teachings. We are eager to talk about our rights, but how often do we consider the rights Allah ﷻ has over us? The rights of Allah ﷻ over humanity are met through acts of devotion, the right to be revered, worshipped and obeyed in the way He prescribes. 

The Islamic Ethos

Surely there was a good example for you in the Messenger of Allah, for all those who look forward to Allah and the Last Day and remember Allah much. [33:21] 

Imam at-Tirmidhi explains that the ‘good example’ in the Prophet ﷺ reveals to us in which manner we should show reverence to our Lord. [6] When the Prophet ﷺ spoke in jest, he would often play on words with two meanings so that he would not actually tell a lie:

A man once came to the Prophet ﷺ to ask for a riding animal, to which the Prophet ﷺ responded, “I will give you a child of a she-camel.” The man said, “Oh Messenger of Allah! What will I do with a child of a she-camel?” To which the Prophet responded, “Isn’t every camel the child of a she-camel?” [7]. 

Similarly, we read how the Companions (RA) followed the Prophet’s ﷺ example, speaking in the most beautiful words, protecting His honour, and preserving His religion. 

Yet in recent years, we have seen a proliferation of social media based dawah content that does not mirror the Prophetic etiquette. Complex issues that traditionally require in depth study are discussed haphazardly in the digital sphere and we see many Islamic issues reduced to easy-to-watch, controversial video wars by engaging personalities. The rise of reaction videos and refutation culture, where adab and akhlaq are often forgotten, is peppered with crude language and tasteless jokes, all for the sake of a few laughs. 

Hisbah (accountability) is a duty and naseehah (advice) should be given, even harshly if necessary. But much of the discourse that takes place in the public sphere serves more as a form of entertainment and drama than actual dawah or defense of the deen

Imam al-Nawawi said that the forbidden type of humour is that which is undignified and excessive. So why are we accepting of such standards, especially by those who actively represent Islam? Is using ilm to ‘own’ rather than guide, and clickbait titles for YouTube views, not another form of commodification? 

Ibn Mas’ud reported: The Messenger of Allah ﷺ said: The believer does not insult others, does not curse others, is not vulgar, and is not shameless. [8]

Balance in every sphere is key. The fascinating world of Muslim memes, from relatable cringeworthy jokes to absolute howlers, can on occasion spiral into sectarian unwholesomeness or mix Islam into unholy contexts. One can jest from an Islamic perspective – shared attitudes and experiences can make humour a means of increasing love between believers. However, we must be cautious not to lose sight and denigrate the sacred. It is not ‘just a joke’.

Upholding the sacred

The Prophet ﷺ was cheerful and engaged lightheartedly with his Companions (RA), who claimed to have never seen someone smile more than our Beloved Rasul. [9] Portraying Islam as an unrelenting faith and placing humour diametrically opposite is conveniently disregarding the Sunnah and our rich Islamic tradition. Ibn al-Jawzi, a decidedly orthodox scholar, was of the thought that anything that took one’s focus away from worship required justification. He justified his occupation with jocular elements in his writings from a pedagogical stance, that stories of fools will prepare folks against foolishness; spiritually it will move them to be grateful to Allah ﷻ for their intellect and most importantly, that humour serves as a natural relaxation. [10] 

Islamic civilisation was not shaped by theologians alone; the poets and polymaths, architects and artisans all contributed heavily in their own spheres of life. Our Imams may give us our shot of spirituality during the weekly Jummah sermon, but outside the masajid, we all play an active role in shaping what is essentially ‘Islamic culture’.

We have the responsibility to uphold the sacred, and support and curate a culture that is halal. We can pontificate over the horrors of the media and technology, but it is inescapable. We must criticise that which does damage whilst also utilising this force to create alternatives which stay within the bounds of Islam. 

Occupying oneself with lighthearted musings comforts the heart and mind from the fatigue of life. The intricacy of humour is dependent upon balancing jest and judgement. However, it must be guided by a higher code cognisant of Islamic principles and ideals. 

As Muslims, we must have higher standards of our reverence of Allah and His religion. We should take pride in this label of the ‘other’ if it means that, in a society engulfed by the flames of secularism, we maintain the sacred and do not treat God and religion as others do. 

May Allah forgive us for falling short in our reverence to Him, for what we may have said in error and for our well intentioned mistakes, and guide us.

Aaminah Y. works in Cardiology and dabbles in Islamic studies on the side. Her interests include History, Politics and community development. She is currently based in London.  

References:

[1] Rosenthal, F. Humour in Early Islam

[2] Eliade, M., The Sacred and the Profane

[3] The Independent – Chanel apologises to Muslims for ‘Satanic Breasts’ dress

[4] Middle East Eye – Turkey orders Netflix to remove French film Cuties from its site

[5] Sahih Muslim, Book 6, Hadith 302

[6] Iyyad, Q., Ash-shifa

[7] Sunan Abi Dawud, Book 43, Hadith 226

[8] Sunan Tirmidhi, Hadith 1977 

[9] Al-Tirmidhi, Shama’il Muhammadiyah

[10] Ibn al-Jawzi, Akhbar al-hamqa wal-mughaffalin

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