Today’s BBC News has a story with the headline “Does Islam have a sense of humour?” This is the kind of question that makes me want to cry. “Islam”, like any religion, will “have” whatever people read into it. For a Christian or Hindu apologist just about everything that Muslims do is “funny” in the sense of being different and looked down upon, although it is not funny to non-Muslim fundamentalists when Muslims practice their faith in ways that are dismissed as violent or antagonistic. Muslims do not generally take their own faith as a joke, unless they are in the Enlightenment-mentored mode of rationalizing away whatever fixed dogma demands about the power of Allah. Islam is not inherently funny, especially to those who practice it, but neither is it opposed to laughter. Humor is a pan-human trait and it is highly contextual. Yes, there are Muslims who have a sense of humor and those who do not. In the real world how could it be otherwise?

The article’s hook-line teaser notes: “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 is something quite different about looking for a sense of humor in an entire religious tradition compared to observing what individual Muslims do. To say someone else cannot take a joke is really just saying that the person who is the butt of the joke does not take it the way the one doing the butting does. A blonde who has heard the same dumb blonde joke a thousand times may at some point not want to take that joke. Victims of racial discrimination against African Americans may not find the watermelon-eating Amos and Andy radio smiles of the 1930s as funny as white folk might. A holocaust survivor may not appreciate the “black humor” in Mel Brook’s The Producers, especially if it had hit Broadway in 1946. Devout Muslims can understandably be as offended by gross cartoon characterizations of their Prophet as devout Christians are when the Virgin Mary is splattered artistically in a portrait with dung. The issue is seldom one of humor as mere entertainment, but the symbolic associations that are stirred up and the intent of the telling.

As Jeff Mirza, a British Muslim comedian, suggests in the article, Muslim women in hijab do laugh. Of course they do, because Muslim women and Muslim men grew up in families, where laughter is usually part of the glue that melds family members together. But all of us choose what we laugh at. A dirty joke about a prostitute may be very funny, but it is harder to laugh when the joke is about your mother or sister and the person telling it means it. Humor has boundaries, which are tested and often transgressed, especially in satire. But boundaries are necessarily cultural and learned, which is why some jokes do not translate across languages at all.

The BBC article discusses a number of British comedians who happen to be Muslim and appeal to Muslim audiences. This is a welcome commentary. Muslims are capable of laughing at themselves, as the Canadian sit-com “Little Mosque on the Prairie” well illustrates. But like everyone else I know, not everything is funny. “Muslim audiences,” notes Jeff Mirza, “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.” The Life of Brian, the gospel according to irreverent and commercial Monty Python, has made lots of Christians laugh and lots of money at the same time. But this has happened in a secular context where freedom of religion includes freedom to poke fun at religion (although with limits). Devout Christians tolerate such satire, some might even find themselves laughing, but beyond the toleration there is often a sense that this is the way the world is and such films prove that the world is going to hell. Muslims in secular states, Denmark for example, react the same. The newspaper that published the cartoons could do so legally, but the issue then becomes one of propriety. Was it a nasty thing to do? Does it point out a foible or is it simply an act of hate? Is drawing the Prophet Muhammad as a terrorist with a bomb in his turban like a chorus line of Gestapo agents singing “Springtime for Hitler” or more like a swatstika painted on a synagogue wall? For most people, only one of the above can be funny.

Comedian Mirza is right that some topics are taboo for the majority of Muslims. This is the will of the majority, though, not a small elite dictating what people must do. Love for the Prophet Muhammad is part of individual devotion, not an idea that is coerced overtly. But Mirza is wrong about the lack of Life of Brian humor among Muslims. Salman Rushdie’s acclaimed Satanic Verses is certainly at the same level of satire as Monty Python, even if it does not explode across the screen. In both cases the basic elements of humor, especially sarcasm and intentionally unsettling language, are played to the hilt. I doubt Monty Python was making a theological statement any more than Mel Brooks in The Producers. But Rushdie, born and raised as Muslim, is clearly exposing himself to the claim of apostasy, which still has a powerful hold in many Muslim communities. Had a Christian Rushdie done the same to Jesus in the 15th century, he would have been burnt at the stake by the church. While Christendom no longer has an overt political power to burn heretics, witches and Bible translators, it does not mean that Christians do not object to scandalous depictions of heroes of their faith. The secular nation state mandates tolerance, a turn-the-other-channel form of dealing with cheeky attacks on the faith. But don’t burn the flag and don’t make fun of the dictator.

Muslim comedians can thrive in secular contexts, even if they only appeal to fellow Muslims and are careful not to step on too many toes. Muslims outside strict regimes can laugh to their heart’s content. But in societies were Islamic law still carries political weight, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, comedy as satire is almost by definition seen as haram. Not surprisingly the forums for public humor are more limited, films and novels are heavily censored and comedy is driven underground. But it does not disappear. In those areas where certain jokes are frowned upon, a pragmatic person chooses what to laugh at. For a Muslim in Gaza, life is no joke, although humor thrives in everyday life. For a Muslim in Baghdad with the wrong kind of Muslim name, sectarian violence is no joke, although humor thrives in everyday strife. Don’t worry about humor as part of religion, consider what it means to survive in a world when you do not laugh at the same things someone else does. There are times when life is not a laughing matter.

Daniel Martin Varisco