What Happened To Our Sense of Humour?

In the Quran, when the Jews were forbidden to catch fish on the Sabbath, it is related that they would often walk along the shore and watch as the fish, no doubt relieved not to have to hide, popped their heads out of the water as though to say, “Haha! You can’t catch us!” The thought of those fish, bobbing in and out of the water, having fun at the expense of the Sabbath-keepers, has for some reason always made me smile. It’s a deliciously comical scene, and full of irony.

There is a similarly comedic scene that takes place in the idol-temple, where the young monotheist Ibrahim, determined to show his community how ridiculous their belief in idols really is, uses an axe to smash all of the idols in the temple except the largest idol of all. He then places the axe on the shoulder of the one remaining idol and returns home. Later, the idol-worshippers see what has happened and become mad with rage. Later, after suspicion falls on Ibrahim, he is brought to the temple to explain. “Who did this?” they cry. “Who did this to our gods, Ibrahim?” Ibrahim smiles and points to the only stone statue left standing. Pointing to the axe hanging from the statue’s shoulder, Ibrahim says, “He did it! Ask your gods and they’ll tell you – if they can speak, that is!”

I’ve always found this to be a biting but extremely witty response. It does what the very best comedy does, which is to expose the stupidity that lies beneath the pompousness of human beings.

Humour is a gift, and the ability to make people laugh is a skill. Of course, moderation is always necessary: too much laughing, like too much crying, can deaden the heart quicken than anything else. But laughter, like tears, is given to us by our Creator, who says explicitly in the Quran that it is He who make us laugh and makes us cry. And one only has to think of great classical comedians and jokesters like Mulla Nasruddin (Nasrettin Hoca), al-Jahiz and Wahab b. Amr (aka ‘Bahlul’) to realise that using comedy to expose the follies and the silliness of human beings is a time-honoured element of Muslim cultural life. It’s a pity that modern Muslims – and modern Muslim scholars in particular – seem to have forgotten how to laugh.

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