Humour is the result of particular cognitive experiences provoking laughter and providing amusement. Such experiences can be elicited through the written word, drawings or pictures, action or simply through expression. Humour comes in different forms. Higher forms of humour include wit, irony, satire, turn of phrase, the use of pun, exaggeration, an element of surprise, or simple cleverness. Lower forms of humour use stereotyping, insult, mimicry and mockery.
Whatever the case, humour is an essential part of the human condition. It provides relaxation, social bonding, relief from the burdens of the daily grind and of course provides social and political commentary – as we see locally with Loyiso Gola, Pieter Dirk-Uys or Zapiro. Humour serves as an effective lubricant for social interaction – by breaking down barriers to communication. It is also an effective way of making a point in a less threatening way.
For ancient Greeks well-being, health and emotion was determined by the balance of fluids in the body, termed the four humours. These four fluids were blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile, each representing different characteristics. For example black bile represents melancholy and from phlegm comes our description of a phlegmatic person who is defined as calm, thoughtful, patient and peaceful. The balance of these four determines personality and mood, according to the paradigm of humoral medicine – whence derives the term humour.
Humour is a universal phenomenon – appealing to all ages, cultures, genders and traditions. However it is also individualistic. We all vary in our humoural sense. So humour is decided by personal taste, culture, geography, language, education levels, age and historical period. The humour of one period may not be appreciated by another generation. British and American humour varies widely; our sense of humour is different from our children. Some of us enjoy slap stick comedy, others cartoons and others satire. Thus humour is contextual and individual.
There are many theories about humour and the role it plays. Some claim that humour cannot or should not be explained. This view is aptly described by someone: “Humor can be dissected as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.” The other side to this argument – which took centre stage in the protests against “offensive” cartoons invite the dissection of humor or its lack, by aggrieved individuals and communities. This process of dissecting humor does not necessarily banish a sense of humor but begs attention toward its politics (including sub-texts) and assumed universality.
The relevance of this topic should be obvious to all: Muslims have been accused of lacking a sense of humour in their reaction to the cartoons either depicting the Prophet (in the case of Zapiro) or in lampooning him in the case of the Danish Cartoons for Charlie Hebdo. Of course this is not true. One only has to attend any of our social functions or just mingle with people outside this mosque after the Jumuah prayer to realise that we have a tremendous sense of humour. In fact we sometimes are extremists in our humour. More importantly, is that we have divine sanction for balanced humour.
Our history has its epic figures who spread their wisdom through humour. The most reknowned being Mulla Nasruddeen or Nasruddin Hoja, the Turkish mystic whose humourous wisdom are found in numerous collections, most notably the one by Idris Shah.
Sufyān ibn `Uyaynah (d 814) was a prominent eighth-century Islamic religious scholar from Mecca from the third generation of Islam referred to as the Tābi-ut-Tābiʻīn, He specialized in the field of hadith and Qur’anic tafsir and was bestowed the title shaykh al-Islam. Sufyan ibn ‘Uyaynah said: “Joking is Sunnah, but only for those who know how to do it and do it at the appropriate time.”
Divine sanction also comes from the Quran where Allah (SWT) says: “And so we have made you a balanced nation” (2:143).
And thus we have made you a balanced community that you will be witnesses over the people and the Messenger will be a witness over you (Q:1:143)
We are balanced in the sense that we seek a path of moderation. we are warned to refrain from extremism in all forms. But not only is there a balance, but we are commanded to find it. We find this balance in the example of the Prophet who was referred to as the Uswatun Hasanah (the best of examples). His disposition was always set to moderation. His gentleness is also referred to in the Holy Quran: ( 3:159).
So by mercy from Allah , [O Muhammad], you were lenient with them. And if you had been rude [in speech] and harsh in heart, they would have disbanded from about you. So pardon them and ask forgiveness for them and consult them in the matter. And when you have decided, then rely upon Allah . Indeed, Allah loves those who rely [upon Him]. (Q:3:159)
By all accounts in the books of Sirah, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was warmhearted and friendly and occasionally, he joked with the people around him. However when he did make jokes and pleasantries, he always behaved moderately like he did in every aspect of his life. Related by Abu Hurairah, when some of his companions said to him: “O Prophet Muhammad, you also joke with us!” He replied: “Yes, I do. But I only tell the truth.” This case reveals that the most important thing about a joke is that it should tell the truth and not be offensive. Few Prophets or religious historical figures demonstrated the levity of the Prophet – who in doing so did not detract from the seriousness of his message. His beard would still be wet from crying before his Lord in the early morning prayer.
Al-Qurtubi described the Prophet in this way: [The Prophet], upon whom be peace, would smile most of the time. On other occasions he would laugh a laugh that was more intense than a smile but less intense than a full-blown guffaw in which the palate becomes visible. In rare cases, when he was exceedingly affected he would sometimes laugh until one could see his molars.
This generation of Muslims was the most pious – yet they interspersed their lives with humour. Some found this combination of piety and playfulness discomforting and verbalised this angst as evidenced by this narration:
From Hanzala al-Usayyidi, one of the scribes of the Messenger of God,
who related: Abu Bakr met me on the street one day and inquired: “How are
you, Hanzala?” I replied (nafaqa Hanzala): “Hanzala is a hypocrite!”
“Praised be to God, what are you saying!?” asked Abu Bakr.
I explained: “We are often with the Messenger of God, may God’s peace and blessings be upon him, and he preaches to us of the Fire and of the Garden with such vividness that one’s eye can see it. Afterwards, I go back to my house and play with my children and dally with my wife.
Abu Bakr responded: “Why, I have done the same myself!”
As we continued walking along, we encountered the Messenger of God. I
exclaimed: “O Messenger of God – Hanzala is a hypocrite!” and I told him
[what I had told Abu Bakr]. And Abu Bakr backed me up, saying: “I, too,
have done the like.” [The Prophet] responded: “O Hanzala! By Him in whose
hands lies my life, were you to remain constantly in the state in which you
find yourselves when you are with me or when you mention [God], the angels
would take your hands as you lie in your beds and as you walk by the way
But rather, O Hanzala: now this and now that, now this and now that, now this and now that” (Muslim). In other words ‘there is a time for this and there is a time for that”
He (pbuh) also said: ‘refresh your heart from time to time’.
The Prophet was comfortable about who he was, as he was comfortable in the mercy, grace and generosity of his Lord. Piety did not equate with harshness; extremism was not an indication of righteousness. He carried his spiritually lightly, his Prophethood with moderation and his family and social life with generosity. He said, as narrated by Ibn Masud: “Mix with the people on the condition that your Deen is not jeopardized, and be jestful with the family. This narration is part of Sahih al-Bukhari in a chapter titled “To be cheerful with the people”.
What is interesting is how Muslim historical scholarship attempted to undermine the Prophet’s levity. Ze’ev Maghen, whose brilliant article, and which I have relied on enormously for this talk, titled THE MERRY MEN OF MEDINA: COMEDY AND HUMANITY IN THE EARLY DAYS OF ISLAM deconstructs the linguistic gymastics that scholars attempted in order to demonstrate that the Prophet only smiled, that he never laughed although numerous narrations clearly indicated that he laughed until his molars showed. They interpolate the term tabassama (smile) for dahika (laughed) even where the text is clear in its use of the word dahika. They also attempt to reconstruct the Prophet’s facial features and dentitian for their purposes – proposing that the Prophet had such a wide smile that when he smiled his molars showed! This contortion demonstrates however that such historical works contrived to reconfigure the personality of the Prophet. The intention, no doubt, was about preserving his dignity and honour.
We are all too well aware of how he loved his grandchildren and was playful with them and with other children:
The people he joked with the most were obviously his grandchildren Hasan and Hussein. He would hold their hands, place them on his feet and then lift them to his bosom, hug and kiss them. Sometimes he would even carry them on his shoulders.
One day while Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was going to a meeting, he ran into Hussein who was playing on the street. He stopped in front of him, opened his arms and called him. But Hussein did not want to come to him and he ran away playfully. Then the Prophet ran after Hussein laughing and caught him. Then he kissed and petted him and gave him his blessings.
Once Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was playing with his grandsons Hasan and Hussein. The kids were sitting on his shoulders. When Umar saw this he told the children: “What a fine horse you are riding on!” The Prophet replied: “They are fine riders as well. But their father is even better than them”(with reference to Ali).
The Prophet has encouraged and exemplified kindness and levity with children.
We are also aware of his playfulness and lightness with his wives:
According to a transmission by Ibn Abbas, someone once asked him about the kinds of jokes Prophet Muhammad made and he replied: Once the Prophet made one of his wives wear a very long dress and told her; “Wear this dress and be grateful to Allah and walk like a bride dragging her skirts.”
Aisha narrates: Once the Prophet and I were on a journey. I was thin back then and I was not fat. The Prophet told the people around him: “Go ahead. We will catch you.” When we were left behind far enough he told me: “Let’s race!” We raced and I won. He did not mention it again until I gained some weight. Meanwhile I completely forgot about this incident. During another journey he told the people around him to go ahead. When they went far away, he said to me, “Let’s race!” This time he won and started to laugh saying “we are even now.”
From Numan b. Bashir: “Once Abu Bakr wanted to ask for permission to enter the presence of the Prophet. While he was waiting outside, he heard his daughter shouting at the Prophet. When he entered, he marched over to his daughter in anger. Then he scolded his daughter saying: “I heard you shouting at the Prophet. What kind of a behavior is this!!?” Then Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) intervened and defended his wife. When Abu Bakr left he asked Aisha: “Did not I protect you from your father?” Few days later Abu Bakr came to visit the Prophet again. When he entered the house, he saw that the Prophet and Aisha were getting along very well.” Then he said: “Wonderful, let me share your peace as you made me share your fight.” Then the Prophet replied: “That’s exactly what we are doing” (Abu Dawud).
The Arabs, particularly the bedouin were known to be rough: Sufyan al-Kilabi, an ugly, mis-shapen man, once came to see Muhammad and said: “I’ve got two wives, each one better looking than this little redhead here (Aisha). Shall I divorce one on your behalf?” Aisha was sitting with them and listening and she asked: “These wives of yours: are they prettier than you?” “No, no,” he replied (lapsing into typical jahili pride), “I am far handsomer and more noble than either of them!” And the Prophet laughed.
When Mary the Copt was married to the Prophet, he lavished a great deal of attention on her and spent nights with her when he was slated to be with other wives. This is the background for the following exchange related by Aisha: When Ibrahim (the son of Muhammad and Mary the Copt) was born, the Messenger of God came to me and said, “See how much he resembles me!” I said, “I see no resemblance.” The Messenger of God said, “Don’t you see how white and robust he is?” I replied, “Anyone would be white if he received so much semen”
The Prophet’s levity with women in the community
Hasan related that an old lady from the Ansar came to the Prophet and told him: “Please make a dua for me that I go to heaven.” The Prophet replied: “Did you not hear it? Old women cannot go to heaven.” The old lady became upset upon this. Then the Prophet said smiling: “Did not you read the verse: “We have created their companions of special creation and made them virgin-pure and beloved, equal in age” (Q56:35-37). Then in a pleasant manner he explained to the old lady that old women would go to heaven as young girls and thus he cheered her.
Once Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) told a lady that her husband has a white spot in his eyes. The woman came to the side of her husband being very sad and related what the Prophet had said. Her husband told her that the Prophet had joked with her and that he actually meant that everyone has a white spot in their eyes.
His Jokes with Male Sahabis
Narrated Jabir ibn Samurah: Simak ibn Harb asked Jabir ibn Samurah, “Did you sit in the company of the Messenger of Allah?” He said: Yes, very often. He (the Prophet) used to sit at the place where he observed the morning or dawn prayer till the sun rose or when it had risen; he would stand, and they (his Companions) would talk about matters (pertaining to the days) of ignorance, and they would laugh (on these matters) while (the Prophet) smiled.
As related by Anas b. Malik: Once a man came to the Prophet and wanted to give him a ride on his camel. The Prophet replied: “We should give you a ride on a camel’s baby then.” “But Prophet Muhammad, how can I ride on a camel’s baby?” The Prophet replied: “Are not all camels the babies of a mother camel?”
The Prophet’s playful relationship with his inner circle is demonstrated by the fond names her bestowed upon them:
Anas b. Malik was a companion who had served the Prophet from the age of ten. The Prophet sometimes joked with him by saying: “Ya za’l-uzunayn (O you with two ears).” Then he would pull Malik’s locks lightly and pet him.
Narrated Sahl bin Sa’d: There was no name dearer to Ali (r) than his nickname Abu Turab (the father of dust). He used to feel happy whenever he was called by this name. Once Allah’s Apostle came to the house of Fatima but did not find Ali in the house. So he asked, “Where is your cousin?” She replied, “There was something (a quarrel) between me and him whereupon he got angry with me and went out without having a midday nap in my house.” Allah’s Apostle (s) asked a person to look for him. That person came, and said, “O Allah’s Apostle! He is sleeping in the mosque.” So Allah’s Apostle went there and found him lying. His upper body cover had fallen off to one side of his body and so he was covered with DUST. Allah’s Apostle (s) started cleaning the dust from him, saying, “Get up, O Abu Turab! Get up, Abu Turab!”
Zayd bin Thabit was called Abu Ruqad (father of sleep)
The name Abu Harayra, meaning father of cats, was bestowed upon him by the Prophet because of this companions love of felines
His daughter Zaynab assumed the dimunative Zuwaynab. In a similar vein Anas became Unays.
His wife Aisha was Humayrah (because of her red hair)
Bilal was Bilal Umm Hubayn (or Bilal big belly)
These names were not meant to be insulting, but rather of fondness and familiarity.
When giving advice to the Sahaba the Prophet was gentle and humourous. Consider these narrations:
Abu Hurayra reported: “A man came before the Prophet and said: ‘I am ruined, O Messenger of God!’ ‘And what is it that has ruined you?,’ asked the Prophet. The man replied: ‘I had sex with my wife during [the fast of] Ramadan.’ ‘Are you able to free a slave in expiation’ asked Allah’s Apostle. ‘No,’ said the man. ‘How about feeding 60 poor people?’ Again, ‘No.’ So the Prophet sent someone who returned with a basketful of dates. ‘Take these and give them to charity,’ he said to the man . ‘To poorer people than ourselves?,’ asked the man, and continued: ‘There is no household between the two lava plains [of Medina] more in need of it than us!’ The Prophet laughed until you could see his canine teeth, and said, ‘Go and feed your family with it.’”
Amr bin al-As related that I had a nocturnal emission on a cold night during the military expedition where he was the commanding general. I was afraid that if I performed the full body washing [in order to purify myself from this] I would meet my death (of cold) . So the following morning I performed tayammum (rubbing with sand in place of ghusl), and prayed the dawn prayer with my comrades. i informed them about this and they reported my actions to the Prophet, who later confronted me: “O Amr! You performed the salat with your comrades while you were sexually polluted!” (tayammum is not authorized when water is available regardless of circumstances. So I explained to the Prophet what had prevented me from executing an acceptable ghusl, and I added that I had heard that God, , had directed His believers (Q. 4: 29): la taqtulu anfusakum; inna Allaha kana bikum rahima). “Do not kill yourselves, for God is ever merciful unto you!” And the Prophet laughed, and said nothing.
Aisha related that Sahla bint Suhayl came and said: “O Messenger of God! I can see in his face that [my husband] Abu Hudhayfa disapproves of the way [my male friend] Salim keeps company with me” The Prophet advised: “Nurse him!” – (thereby turning him into a “milk relative” with whom a woman may associate). Sahla protested: “But how can I nurse him – he’s a grown man!” The Messenger of God laughed and said: “Don’t you think I know that he’s a grown man?” Sahla went home, (told her husband of the Prophet’s suggested solution) and then returned and said: “Abu Hudhayfa no longer objects [to Salim keeping my company].”
Adi bin Hatim said: When the verse ‘Until the white thread of dawn appear to you distinct from its black thread’ was revealed, I took a white rope and a black rope, and placed them beneath my pillow; and then I looked at them, but they were not clear to me. So I mentioned it to the Apostle of Allah. He laughed and said: Your pillow is so broad and lengthy; that (what is being referred to) is blackness of night and whiteness of day.”
These examples demonstrate the levity, generosity and gentleness of the Prophet in dealing with his community, even when they committed errors.
The Prophet’s companions had a similar approach to guiding the community:
A man hauled another man before Ali and fumed: “This man claims that he had a wet dream about my mother!”. To this Ali made a ruling: “Take the accused out into the sun and execute the hadd punishment (i.e. eighty stripes) … on his shadow.”
In another case a man came to Abu Hurayra and said: “I was fasting, and I went to visit my father, and he had some bread and meat with him, and I ate until I was satiated.” “May Allah feed you!,” responded Abu Hurayra. “Then I left and went to the house of so-and-so,” continued the man, “and he had a milch camel, and I drank of its milk until my thirst was quenched “May Allah irrigate you!,” Abu Hurayra chimed in. “Then I returned to my house and took siesta, and when I awoke I called for some water and drank.” Abu Hurayra said, “O son of my brother! Methinks you have yet to get the hang of fasting.
Finally I will end with the clown of the Companions: one Nu’ayman al-Ansari. In this story the comedy is meant to overshadow the cruelty. It seems that on one occasion Nu’ayman was present when a blind old man by the name of Makhrama b. Nawfal rose from his prayer and prepared to pass water where he stood, in the back of the mosque. The other worshippers raised a hue and cry, and Nu’ayman, noticing the disturbance, approached the old man and offered to help him find a more appropriate venue for answering the call of nature. His offer having been accepted, he guided his elder to the very center of the mosque, and said, “There you are: sit right here [and relieve yourself].” Nu’ayman then fled the scene, and the venerable shaykh urinated and was immediately pounced upon by the furious congregants. Afterwards he asked those present, “Who was it brought me here?” “Nu’ayman,” he was told. “May God do all this to him and more,” swore the old man, “if I do not find that miscreant and beat him with my cane to within an inch of his life!” Sometime later Uthman bin Affan was praying in a corner of the mosque. Nu’ayman approached the sightless Makhrama and said, “Didn’t I hear that you were looking for Nu’ayman?” “Yes, yes,” exclaimed the furious patriarch, “where is he?” “Come with me,” said Nu’ayman, and led the old man to the place where Uthman was praying, positioning him directly behind the caliph’s back. “He’s right in front of you!” whispered Nu’ayman, and, as usual, took to his heels. Makhrama gripped his cane tightly with both hands and gave Uthman such a wallop that he fractured [the stick? The people shouted, “You have beaten the Commander of the Faithful Uthman!” Uthman, however, knew who the real culprit was and said: “God damn that Nu’ayman!”
During the lifetime of the Prophet Nu’ayman would constantly “purchase” trinkets and delicacies he thought the Prophet Muhammad must have, and tell the seller to bill the Prophet. Challenged by the latter, Nu’ayman would explain that “I didn’t have the money to pay for it, but I really wanted you to have it!,” and “the Messenger of God would laugh and direct that the merchant be paid.”
These brothers and sisters are merely snippets of the real lives of the Prophet and Sahabah – contained in a wide range of literature and a variety of settings.
My intention here is not to paint the picture of the early Muslim community as one of constant jocularity nor of the Prophet as a stand-up comedian. Rather, within the seriousness of his mission he found time for humour, jocularity and lightness of spirit. We foremost remember that the Prophet has said that “nothing is more beloved of God than two drops – a tear-drop shed in fear of God and a drop of blood fighting in his way’.
My intent is to paint a picture of a balanced nation – a community that has ‘time for this and a time for that’. For the Prophet told Abu Hurayrah ‘laugh little, for too much laughter kills the heart’. But the context of that was that Abu Hurayra, a constant companion of the Prophet was known to be unrestrained in his jesting at times.
On the other hand there was among the Companions of the Messenger of God a funny fellow. The companions came and described his activities to the Prophet in a condemnatory tone and the Prophet said: “You may be surprised to hear that he will laugh all the way into heaven”.
In conclusion brothers and sisters, Islam was a living religion for the Prophet and his companions. This included lightness of spirit and humour within the seriousness of God’s message. The humour was based on truth, not insulting nor demeaning nor vulgar. It served as a welcome relief from the harshness of life. In this is a lesson for us. That we carry our religion lightly, that we learn to laugh at ourselves and that we have mercy on others – even those who have committed wrong.
Our window to the world displays harshness, violence and extremism. We all have a duty to counter this narrative that runs against the very spirit of our beloved Prophet (may the peace and blessings of the Almighty be upon him).