Does Islam have a sense of humour?
20 November 2007
Muslims are often depicted as people who can't take a
joke. But as a stand-up comedy tour showcasing Islamic
talent arrives in the UK, is that fair?
"There's nothing better than having a laugh. I love
going to see comedy, but people seem to have this
impression that Muslims and comedy don't go together;
that somehow we can't reconcile humour with our
Keen comedy fan Tosifa Mustafa nails a widely-held
stereotype, before dismissing it in the same breath.
It's "just not the case," she says.
Protests over cartoons satirising the Prophet Muhammad
combined with images of Muslims criticising frivolous
aspects of Western culture have left the impression
for some that Islam and comedy are incompatible.
And as with most stereotypes, there is a kernel of
truth. In some Islamic societies entertainment -
music, film and comedy - are forbidden.
No one knows that better than Muslim stand-up Jeff
An old hand on the British comedy scene, having done
live stand-up and television for the last decade,
Mirza encountered hostility when he started out.
"Some would come up to me and say what I was doing was
haraam (forbidden). But it didn't put me off because I
know people consider things as 'bad' when it's
something new and unfamiliar," he says.
"We have to stop having knee-jerk reactions to
Mirza believes there is a big appetite for comedy
among Muslims. "They want to be entertained, just like
everyone else - women in hijaabs do laugh you know."
He is by no means alone in that belief.
Ibrahim Mogra, chairman of the interfaith Muslim
Public Affairs Committee and an imam in Leicester,
says Islam and comedy "have a long history" and
"religiously there is no reason why Muslims can't
enjoy a laugh".
And it's not something that needs to be reserved for
the stand-up circuit, he says.
"I use comedy when I make speeches; a few
mother-in-law or football jokes always go down well,
they help break the ice and put people at ease."
Azhar Usman is one of three Muslim comedians who are
helping to challenge the stereotype as part of a
touring stand-up show. Called Allah Made Me Funny the
travelling show returns to the UK this week.
But he recognises that the image of Islam and comedy
remains an odd one and blames both protesters and the
"Muslims are not a monolithic people, they're every
class, colour and creed and it's not surprising that
some believe that comedy is 'wrong'," he says.
"The cartoons are the single flashpoint that has
defined the Islam and comedy debate and I think that
it's a result of the fact that Islam has become
politicised. Some people think that being Muslim is
about going out on to the streets and waving placards
about rather than connecting with God and their faith
on a personal level.
"I don't go shouting in the street, I get up on stage
and make jokes about it."
But Usman also blames the media for misrepresenting
Islam. "The fact is that within Muslim culture there
is a strong tradition of storytelling, joking and
He says the relationship between Islam and comedy goes
to the roots of the religion.
"Muslim communities have a comedic tradition, in fact
the Prophet Mohammed actually had his own jester and
the Prophet himself was known to enjoy jokes and
But those who believe comedy is funniest when it's at
its most searing may be disappointed by the
restrictions that Muslim comics work within.
"We don't do anything that would offend our families,"
says Usman. "We don't want to be blasphemous."
Ibrahim Mogra agrees there are "parameters... As long
as that comedy doesn't create hatred, blaspheme
against any religion or is unnecessarily cruel, it has
a place in Islam."
The general rule of thumb observed by Usman is that
Islamic culture can be satirised, but not the
religion. Politics is another rich source of jokes,
and there's many a laugh to be had out of the more
universal themes of marriage, mothers-in-law and even
When it comes to alcohol, however, which for many
comedy club regulars is a key ingredient in a night
out, it remains a no-no. That doesn't stop Muslim
comics from appearing at mainstream venues, but for
those Muslims that want to see comedy in a "halal"
environment, there is a lively scene in community
centres and at Muslim gatherings.
While Muslim comedians seem confident about poking fun
at their culture, non-Muslims often skirt the issue of
Islam itself for fear of the reaction.
"With comedy, if you 'own' a space, in other words if
you're from a particular faith or background, it
grants you a licence to poke fun at it," says Marc
Blake, a stand-up comic and comedy tutor at London's
"But comics at the moment are more fearful of poking
fun at Islam because of the culture of political
correctness than they are of any backlash from Muslim
So might we see Islam mocked in the way that
Christianity has been? Jeff Mirza says an adamant no.
"Muslim audiences love satire and poking fun at the
establishment as much as the next person. I can't see
there being a Muslim version of something like Life of
Brian anytime soon."
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