Humour in Islam
Abul Hasan, Maulana Qamar Ilyas Attari al-Madani
Humour and smiling are inseparable; they either complement each other or act as cause and effect respectively. Muslims are instructed to follow the Muhammadan character, and smiling was an undeniable attribute of the final Prophet صَلَّى الـلّٰـهُ عَلَيْهِ وَاٰلِهٖ وَسَلَّم; a view supported by numerous hadith:
A Companion reported his personal observation saying, ‘I did not see anyone smile more than the Messenger of Allah صَلَّى الـلّٰـهُ عَلَيْهِ وَاٰلِهٖ وَسَلَّم,’ (Jami’ al-Tirmizi).
As the Quran declares the Prophetic model as the best and superior way (Q. 33:21), there is no doubting that it is the ultimate paradigm that we should aspire to. The final Prophet صَلَّى الـلّٰـهُ عَلَيْهِ وَاٰلِهٖ وَسَلَّم was sent as an exemplar to be followed and a teacher to perfect human character. This is why the rules of social interaction are learnt directly from his sunnah.
Although the idea of humour typically invokes scenes of uncontrollable laughter, the Prophet صَلَّى الـلّٰـهُ عَلَيْهِ وَاٰلِهٖ وَسَلَّم responded to humour and jokes with a dignified smile (Al-Tabassum); his laughter ‘was but a smile,’ (Jami’ al-Tirmizi).
Excessive joking and laughter can lead to undesirable situations. Sayyiduna Umar رَضِىَ الـلّٰـهُ عَـنْهُ warned people of how hatred suddenly enters the hearts through disproportionate humour. In fact, we know from sound traditions that excessive laughter ‘deadens the heart’ by depriving it of its spirituality. Furthermore, one must remember that ‘[loud] laughter (Al-Qahqahah) is from Satan while smiling is from Allah عَزَّوَجَلَّ.’
Many associate religiosity with austerity. Of course, a devout nature requires a whole-hearted, sincere manner rather than a grim, soulless attitude but not at the expense of appropriate humour. Although this world is a ‘prison’ for the believer, Islam does not deprive us of joy, good spirits, and merriment. Once, the Beloved Messenger صَلَّى الـلّٰـهُ عَلَيْهِ وَاٰلِهٖ وَسَلَّم commented on seeing the noble Safina carrying a heavy load by saying, ‘You are a ship (Safina),’ (Musnad Ahmad).
This type of light-hearted play on words was not uncommon for the Beloved Messenger صَلَّى الـلّٰـهُ عَلَيْهِ وَاٰلِهٖ وَسَلَّم whose subtle humour was witnessed by the noble Companions. Relationships are maintained and strengthened through positivity; appropriate humour contributes to the growth of social bonding by eliciting positive emotions. It might be a clever pun, a light-hearted comment, or even quick wit which brings a smile to someone. Some have a natural aptitude for using words and observations to create humour and this rarely goes unnoticed.
Once a man sought a mount from the Messenger of Allah صَلَّى الـلّٰـهُ عَلَيْهِ وَاٰلِهٖ وَسَلَّم who said: ‘Indeed, I will let you ride on the offspring of a she-camel.’ The man replied, ‘Dear Messenger of Allah, what will I do with the offspring of a she-camel?’ The Beloved Prophet صَلَّى الـلّٰـهُ عَلَيْهِ وَاٰلِهٖ وَسَلَّم remarked, ‘Are camels born from other than she-camels?’ (Tirmizi)
The humour of the Companions رَضِىَ الـلّٰـهُ عَـنْهُم was witnessed and accepted by the Beloved Prophet صَلَّى الـلّٰـهُ عَلَيْهِ وَاٰلِهٖ وَسَلَّم. One of the famous incidents involved the companions Nu’man and Suwaybit رَضِىَ الـلّٰـهُ عَـنْهُما:
Sayyiduna Abu Bakr رَضِىَ الـلّٰـهُ عَـنْهُ once travelled to Busra (Syria) with Nu’man and Suwaybit رَضِىَ الـلّٰـهُ عَـنْهُما, both participants of Badr. Nu’man رَضِىَ الـلّٰـهُ عَـنْهُ was responsible for provisions and Suwaybit رَضِىَ الـلّٰـهُ عَـنْهُ was a man who joked a lot. The latter asked the former to feed him but Nu’man رَضِىَ الـلّٰـهُ عَـنْهُ insisted that he would not do so until the return of (Sayyiduna) Abu Bakr رَضِىَ الـلّٰـهُ عَـنْهُ.
‘Then I will have to annoy you’, remarked Suwaybit رَضِىَ الـلّٰـهُ عَـنْهُ.
Thereafter, they passed by some people, and Suwaybit رَضِىَ الـلّٰـهُ عَـنْهُ approached them saying,
‘Will you buy a slave from me?’
‘Yes,’ they replied.
Suwaybit رَضِىَ الـلّٰـهُ عَـنْهُ expressed that his ‘slave’ spoke a lot (was persuasive) and thus may say to them that he is a free man; so if they end up freeing him after hearing his claim then they should not bother buying him.
‘We will buy him from you,’ they said.
So they completed the trade in exchange of ten she-camels and then placed a rope or turban around the neck of Nu’man رَضِىَ الـلّٰـهُ عَـنْهُ who protested that he was a free man not a slave and this was the joke of his companion.
‘He has already told us about you,’ they replied to the frustration of Nu’man; and they set off with him.
When Sayyiduna Abu Bakr رَضِىَ الـلّٰـهُ عَـنْهُ returned and discovered what had happened, he went after the caravan, returned the camels, and brought Nu’man رَضِىَ الـلّٰـهُ عَـنْهُ back. When the Beloved Prophet صَلَّى الـلّٰـهُ عَلَيْهِ وَاٰلِهٖ وَسَلَّم and the Companions were told about this incident, it amused them for a whole year, (Sunan Ibn-e-Majah).
Once, an elderly woman came to the Beloved Messenger صَلَّى الـلّٰـهُ عَلَيْهِ وَاٰلِهٖ وَسَلَّم requesting that he pray to Allah عَزَّوَجَلَّ for her entry into Paradise. The Holy Prophet صَلَّى الـلّٰـهُ عَلَيْهِ وَاٰلِهٖ وَسَلَّم first remarked that no old woman shall enter Paradise, but when he witnessed her weeping (as she did not understand his subtle humour), he comforted her by citing Quranic verses (Q. 56:35-37), explaining that she would enter Paradise as a young lady, (Al-Shama’il al-Muhammadiyyah).
Since preserving the honour of believers is one of the six core aims of Islam, humour can never be offensive. The Quran forbids abusive name-calling (Q. 49:11) and so such an element has no place in acceptable discourse. In fact, once a Companion placed a rope near another sleeping companion who was startled by it (thinking it was a snake) which amused those who were present. The Beloved Prophet صَلَّى الـلّٰـهُ عَلَيْهِ وَاٰلِهٖ وَسَلَّم then said: ‘It is not permissible for a Muslim to scare another Muslim,’ (Abu Dawood).
As some resort to conventional humour to forget the sorrows of life they soon discover this approach is not the most effective. Boundaries are not set and courtesies are often exceeded, in fact, the audacity to challenge social decorum fuels this somewhat offensive approach in the name of joking. So when the smoke clears, do the effects of personal distress lessen? More often than not, the answer is no. Laughing about serious matters or sensitive aspects may be a temporary escape mechanism but it does not remedy underlying challenges and problems. The pains of emptiness and discontentment are momentarily forgotten rather than healed.
Self-deprecating, rather than self-defeating/disparaging, humour may improve psychological wellbeing (humility in Islam)–people burden themselves with expectations so a light-hearted perspective can relieve some tension. Accepting that as humans we do err, fail, and even misjudge can alleviate the burdens of expectation; and if we can embrace the challenges of life and also experience moments of light-heartedness without sarcasm or cynicism, we can bring positivity into our lives.
Mufti Ahmad Yar Khan Na’eemi رَحْمَةُ الـلّٰـهِ عَلَيْه explains that a statement which creates happiness for the speaker and listener is humour (Mizah) and that which offends another like mocking him is ridicule (Sukhriyah); the former is good and the latter is bad, (Mirat al-Manajih).
Some people have a social phobia, marked by a lack of trust and a deep-rooted fear of social interactions. Misjudgement and social anxiety often make such people see every smile with contempt as they feel they are being ridiculed. The existence of such a condition reiterates the importance of unoffensive humour. Unfortunately, in the aforementioned case, even positive gestures may be misconstrued so a different approach would be required to alleviate any self-inflicted stress. The general guidelines in Islam teach us to be considerate of varying emotions and mentalities to aid the psychological or emotional wellbeing of people.
So humour should not be a mechanism of heedlessness to escape the challenges that life brings. Rather, it is a means of bringing joy and making people smile without compromising morality or undermining people’s right to be respected. Humans are notoriously unforgiving when acceptable social norms of interaction are flouted, becoming somewhat disengaged and reserved. So moods need to be elevated through the right type of interaction. There is sufficient guidance related to social etiquette within the hadith so let our humour be appropriate, positive, and guided by the sunnah. With the Grace of Allah عَزَّوَجَلَّ, this will improve our social cohesion.
 The freed slave of Umm-e-Salamah رَضِیَ الـلّٰـهُ عَنْھَا who served the Prophet صَلَّى الـلّٰـهُ عَلَيْهِ وَاٰلِهٖ وَسَلَّم.