Mock mockers after that
That would not lift a hand maybe
To help good, wise or great
To bar that foul storm out, for we
Traffic in mockery.

-W.B. Yeats

Religion is a common target of mockery, and mockery is one of the quickest ways to destroy reverence. Laughing at the sacred and making seemingly benign comments whose harm is difficult to explicate is subversive to our sense of the sacred. Mockery may be aimed at the institution of religion, sacred texts, or holy figures. While Muslims remain distinctive in upholding the sanctity of the Prophet Muhammad, it is common to find Muslims caricaturizing practicing Muslims as judgmental, hypocritical, backwards, and stupid.  Making fun of instances of hypocrisy and judgmental behavior would not be so bad as that would target vices and inconsistencies. The caricaturizing of all practicing Muslims as backwards, however, occurs when basic tenets and practices become linked to absurdities. We should not be surprised when Muslim entertainers do this given that they exist in a larger culture which detests the sacred and champions mockery of authority. Furthermore, it is myopic to support such figures as religious representatives when they do not care to uphold the sanctity of basic religious beliefs and actions.

A comedian today is a cultural authority holding a role akin to the public intellectual. However, the comedian is not responsible for the views espoused and can always backtrack and say ‘it’s just a joke.’ He is not held to decorous standards or expected to hold any positions, nor is he expected to rationally defend the positions he does hold. He is an outsider as a critic, but an insider when on your side. A comedian enters discussions on his own terms, appropriates and disowns, has no committed position, and can always point the finger. The comedian is a transcendental figure not beholden to any moral standard or class of people. He does everything under the canopy of laughter. Mockery is such a comedian’s favorite tool. Mockery requires no critique, and it’s not an argument; however, it’s an effective way of devaluing and dragging something revered down to a level of flaws and the mundane. It’s a sneaky tactic that asserts superiority without making an argument or inviting rebuttals.

A comedian today is a cultural authority holding a role akin to the public intellectual. However, the comedian is not responsible for the views espoused and can always backtrack and say ‘it’s just a joke.’Click To Tweet

The comedian can justify anything by referencing his ability to incite laughter. Laughter – what we consider funny – is determined by the spirit of the age. What was funny 50 years ago is not funny today. There is a relationship between morality and humor. What is comedic is produced in relation to our moral sensibilities. When sacrilege is normalized it becomes a function of comedy. Jokes about God would not have been funny 100 years ago, but now they are commonplace.

Jokes about God would not have been funny 100 years ago, but now they are commonplace.Click To Tweet

Mockery is comedy’s weapon against morality. Mocking an aspect of Islam is not an attack on the truth of it, rather it attacks the moral weight. Mockery is not a challenge on epistemic grounds: it’s a challenge of reverence. It removes the weight of veneration. Everything you believe religiously has an external correlate to how you interact with the world. If you mock a concept enough you will recreate it as a parody of itself. This is extremely corrosive for our faith. Mockery provides a material way of making religious practices look stupid. A common target is prayer. We can never materially prove that a prayer has been answered. It’s easy to view unanswered duas with cynicism and chalk it up to a spiritual interpretation of nothing happening.

If you mock a concept enough you will recreate it as a parody of itself. This is extremely corrosive for our faith.Click To Tweet

Recently, Muslim comedian Hasan Minhaj made a mockery of dua. Much like voting enthusiasts criticized Colin Kaepernick for ‘only kneeling’ or bureaucrats paint protesters as ‘noisemakers’ who don’t do anything ‘real,’ many Muslims have come to mock the idea of supplication bringing about change in the world. We should not accept any Muslim celebrity partaking in such mockery as it transgresses orthodox Muslim sensibilities and negatively portrays us for taking our rituals and worship seriously.  This is especially true when such figures are bound by the protocols of Hollywood “activism,” in which missteps of a different kind result in ‘listening, learning, and privilege checking’ rituals to prevent excommunication.

In his monologue We Cannot Stay Silent About George Floyd, Hasan addresses Keith Ellison, asking, “how many Muslim fundraisers have you and I gone to where we   ‘pray for the community…you gotta make dua…'[closing his eyes, raising his hands, as if imitating someone making dua].”  Hasan then says “we cannot just make dua.” His portrayal of dua here is that of being an empty ritual and a way of not dealing with problems.

Minhaj juxtaposes two activities: human activity and prayer, and suggests that all Muslims do is the latter and it’s coming at the expense of the former. This juxtaposition suggests that the only way to take the former is to sacrifice the latter, which is untrue. We only act on our volition by the will of God. Seeking permission from The Creator who determined what we can do in the name of practical activity in a perfectly sensible thing to do.

Seeking permission from The Creator who determined what we can do in the name of practical activity in a perfectly sensible thing to do.Click To Tweet

Given that he cited such duas as occurring at specific fundraisers, we could have excused this statement as bad taste and getting carried away if it had been his only negative portrayal of dua. If Minhaj’s point was to poke fun at people using dua as an excuse to not act, the inconsistency of dua not substituting going to work or school for worldly success could have been pointed out.

In Minhaj’s follow up, Hasan And Keith Ellison On Justice For George Floyd, he portrays dua as inherently useless. In the episode, Minhaj shares the criticism he received from his last monologue, with Muslims asking “why did you have to go after making dua?” Minhaj then states that he wants to start the interview with Ellison with a dua, and he begins with a Quranic dua making it seem like he is going to make things right. He then pretends to pray with utter seriousness for what he means the audience to understand as frivolous. He nonchalantly tells his “white friends” backstage that they can “just participate” and before officially ending, asks Ellison if he wants him to make anymore “shout outs.”

Minhaj’s dua scene has several implications. It mocks the importance of dua and portrays religious Muslims as useless, frivolous, and unintelligent.Click To Tweet

Minhaj’s dua scene has several implications. It mocks the importance of dua and portrays religious Muslims as useless, frivolous, and unintelligent. It also suggests that dua has no capacity to change things, and because it won’t change things, we can make dua any way we want.  One message is that the ultimate point is to change things with your hands because dua has no real power to transform the world. This is used as way of criticizing Muslims for making dua and allegedly not taking action as if the two actions are at odds. Minhaj is also making the point in his mock dua that it makes no difference what we pray for because the act itself is inconsequential.  This portrayal removes the cosmic dimension of prayer and states ‘God won’t intervene in this situation, only you can do it!’ We should not accept tropes which divide prayer and action and presuppose an inherent divide which demands we limit prayer to intensify our commitment to action.

Furthermore, this scene suggests that when Muslims make dua, they are seeking refuge from ‘white women in yoga pants’ and other silly matters, which preoccupies them from doing any important work or having a positive impact on others.

His dua also seemed to be a response to his religious critics by mocking them, as if to say ‘religious people criticized me, so I’ll just show you how silly these religious people are and why they care about prayer, and then I’ll get on to the important matters.’

Dua further becomes an object of mockery when the name of Allah and an address to Allah become a comical address to the audience. In many places in the Quran, Allah glorifies the name of Allah. For example, Allah says

“Exalt the name of your Lord, the Most High” (87:1).

The name of Allah is itself sacred. Belittling the name of Allah or calling upon Allah, invoking His name in jest is a major sin. It is not absurd to ask Allah for trivial matters with seriousness, as the Prophet  told us “Let one of you ask his Lord for all of his needs, even if his sandal strap breaks.”

The name of Allah is itself sacred. Belittling the name of Allah or calling upon Allah, invoking His name in jest is a major sin.Click To Tweet

Prayer was foundational for both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. in their respective civil rights movements.  They did not belittle prayer and deem their struggles ‘too serious’ for prayer. For oppressed people all over the world, all they have is prayer. Prayer is the barrier between oppression and despair. When Talut’s (Saul) army was to meet Goliath most of his soldiers despaired, saying “There is no power for us today against Goliath and his soldiers.”

But the believers from among them, “those who were certain that they would meet Allah said, ‘How many a small group has overcome a large group by Allah’s permission. And Allah is with the patient’” (2:249). The Muslims were guaranteed victory for the Battle of Badr, and the Prophet  was making dua with his hands raised before the battle to the point of his shawl shaking off his shoulders. The Prophet  also made dua while walking to the masjid and when waking up in the morning.  Dua is not just the refuge of the desperate, it is a manifestation of one’s connection to Allah and the realization of one’s utter dependence. It’s a dependence we affirm regardless of circumstance. It is wrong to view dua as something to do only when we are in a bad situation.

We would not tolerate jokes by non-Muslims which paint Muslims as buffoons and idiots. The fear would be that the negative portrayal would affect all Muslims.  When ‘religious Muslims’ are mocked by Muslims themselves however, it’s easy to stand outside of it as one of the enlightened ‘good ones.’ This leaves those who are hanging on to beliefs which are already mocked open to further mockery.

The Poets 

And the poets, only those in error follow them. Do you not see how in every valley they wander? And that they say what they do not do? Except those who believe and do righteous deeds and remember Allah much. And they avenge [the Muslims] after they have been oppressed.  And the oppressors will soon know to which place they shall be returned (26:224-227).

In this verse, Allah faults the poets as having no grounding in principles or beliefs. They go to and fro without commitment and say whatever they feel like or whatever helps achieve their personal aims. After a general rule, Allah mentions the exception of righteous and believing Muslim poets. The Prophet Muhammad told some of his poets to respond to poems of the polytheists which denigrated them by making poems denigrating the polytheists.  He told his poets that such poetry is harder on them than being hit by an arrow.  The Prophet  made dua for his poet Hassan ibn Thabit that Allah

subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He)
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assist him with Jibrael
'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him)
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in his poetry against the polytheists. Poetry was used as a tool to elevate and defend Islam and denigrate the polytheists.

Poetry was used as a tool to elevate and defend Islam and denigrate the polytheists.Click To Tweet

Comedy is potentially a positive tool, but we cannot be naive about its nature and the hurdles one has to overcome to make positive use of it. Excessive joking and exaggerated speech are faults of the tongue, and excessive laughter kills the heart. Joking occasionally or being cheerful is not analogous to making a career out of comedy. It is naive to think we can ‘Islamicize’ a medium by changing the content. Mediums which are intrinsically problematic like entertainment will win out and shape the content. This is especially problematic in the mainstream where industry standards push one to speak in a way that is not grounded in beliefs, conviction, or reverence. When a comedic standard is mockery and religion is often targeted, we cannot expect Islamic sanctity to be respected.  Jokes which depend on mockery are only funny if you buy into hidden premises, which are often predicated upon deliberate misunderstandings of their object. If you don’t buy into the premises, the jokes are revealed to be mean, insulting, and condescending

We must move beyond ‘halal and haram’ discussions on comedy and educate ourselves as to how comedy is used. Poetry is halal, but we are warned about it because it can pull us along to places we shouldn’t go emotionally and tug on certain heart strings. Likewise, in comedy, someone might make fun of an ideal in the religion, or a fiqh ruling by making it sound absurd, such as “why do Muslims have an aversion to just one bite of pork but eat plates full of fried food?” The false equivalency of “permit this, but prohibit that” is a common comedic schema for mocking religion. Such jokes are harmful because by coming in the form of a joke, they can get you to implicitly agree without realizing it, and once you laugh along you are entertaining the premise. This is how meaningful acts turn into heartless rituals.

The entertainment industry is very aware of its influence and will use its entertainers to propagate messages in support of its aims and ideals. This is an age-old tactic and we should not be surprised when we see Muslim entertainers used to propagate what we know is explicitly haram as being open to interpretation to begin a major change in the Muslim mind.  For example, five years ago, Reza Aslan and Hasan Minhaj wrote us an open letter in which they state their disagreement of homosexuality being haram.  This letter is intended for Muslims who seem to view Islam as a cultural identity primarily.

Unfortunately, many Muslims will overlook the anti-Islamic messaging in what they perceive as pro-Muslim messaging.  The desire for representation, safety, and acceptance overpower their desire to protect our religion. We should be happier to not have Muslim representation in the field than having Muslims who fall victim to vile industry norms and then want the same for us. However, we can promote comedians who do not engage in the mainstream. We should also expect Muslim organizations to not support or promote those who do mock our faith. Representation, normalization, and acceptance cannot become idols we create to rival God.

The desire for representation, safety, and acceptance overpower their desire to protect our religion. Click To Tweet

When it comes to Muslim celebrities in general, whether activists, politicians, entertainers, or even religious figures, gaining acceptance in the mainstream is often bartered for key Islamic principles.  This is seen as negotiable to liberal secular Muslims who do not believe in the inviolability and honor of the sharia as an eternally sacred institution. They may root their path to success in being Muslim and self-tokenize as Muslims, and while they are okay with weaponizing the oppression capital of Islam and using that as a stairway to fame, will mock institutional ideas of Islam to appease liberal secular sensibilities. They will challenge centuries old views of Islam in order to refashion Islam into the image of secularity. ‘Extreme’ and ‘balance’ are then defined by their own golden mean which is their own comfort level. The Prophethimself, who remains revered, will be reimagined in a way which suits their own sensibilities and parts from his life which do not suit these sensibilities will be ignored. They do not view the Prophet as the ideal person whom we need to adjust our frames to understand, rather they center their own sensibilities as the perfect criterion.

In this reshaping, Islam is only good when it fits a secularism where we may mock religion and key ideas- just as American Christians mock Christian prayer. The tradition of Islam (opposed to very key tenets and values) become burdensome, and the fluid terms of ‘extreme’ and ‘balance’ will be alternated at will to justify this new approach to Islam.

In this reshaping, Islam is only good when it fits a secularism where we may mock religion and key ideas- just as American Christians mock Christian prayer. The tradition of Islam becomes burdensome.Click To Tweet

Knowing all this, we should not be surprised when Muslims in the mainstream make fun of Islam.  When someone else mocks us, it’s easy to view it as a clash and a challenge to what we believe, which evokes a defense. When we mock ourselves, it makes us indifferent and numb to its consequences.

Ghayra

إن أصل الدين الغَيْرة ومن لا غيرة له لا دين له فالغَيْرة تحمي القلب فتحمي له الجوارح فتدفع السوء والفواحش، وعدم الغَيْرة 

تميت القلب

The root of religion is ghayra. The one without ghayra has no religion. Ghayra protects the heart and protects the limbs and repels evil and lewdness. And a lack of ghayra kills the heart
Ibn Qayyim

Ghayra, which may be described as a sense of protection, honor, and love for something as sacred and inviolable will often better protect one’s religion than a rational understanding. Someone with ghayra for Islam will not laugh at sacrilege.

We exist in a broader culture, which when coupled with lack of knowledge may lead to a default assumption that Islam agrees with what we know of other religions or from our own cultural values. What is ‘good’ as defined by the broader context whether religious or cultural becomes what is ‘Islamic.’ Furthermore, for many, notions of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ vary between what religious authorities say about Islam and what their internal sense of right and wrong is, which is also negotiated within the broader context and mitigated by their own sense of what is or is not a serious issue.

‘Seeing both sides’ to sacrilege relates to its normalization. In a culture where comedy is meant to scoff at everything, a person sounds like a hardliner for affirming a unique status to religion. A point of mockery is to establish that nothing is exceptional and above mockery. Even as Muslims who understand making fun of religion is wrong, while existing in a broader culture where religion is the target of comedy, we understand that making fun of religion is a ‘different norm.’ One way to combat this, in addition to not watching such comedy, is to say astaghfirullah every time we hear such jokes, so the hate in our heart for sin remains and we don’t grow numb to sacrilege.

The tendency to uphold the honor of something comes with the tendency to feel disturbed when something is mocked. If you want a sense of ghayra for the sacred you also have to feel disturbance for its disrespect. The fact that we feel disturbed is a good sign.

All over the Muslim world- as well as inner-cities in America- the drunkard, the criminal, and the reprobate who has submitted to his own desires will have enough ghayra to draw a line at mocking Allah and His Messenger. He himself would not tolerate that disrespect, let alone engage in it.

A common complaint by liberals is the unacceptability of mocking the Prophet Muhammad . They are bothered by the honor and reverence Muslims maintain for their Prophet and want us to be able to see such mocking as benign. Although their aims will persist, we have to remain uncompromising regarding the sanctity of our Prophet  and not let any Muslims be the gateway for this.

They are bothered by the honor and reverence Muslims maintain for their Prophet ﷺ and want us to be able to see such mocking as benign. Although their aims will persist, we have to remain uncompromising regarding the sanctity of our Prophet ﷺ and not let any Muslims be the gateway for this.Click To Tweet

Comedic license

The Prophet Muhammad  joked with his companions. His humor involved word play and making matters light while always speaking the truth. In Arabic, such joking is called mu’da’ba, which has a connotation of lighthearted humor that is not offensive. It was not undignified or an exaggerated joking like ‘mizaah.’ As some say, the Arabic word mizah for exaggerated jokes is named such because it expunges truth (إنَّمَا سُمِّيَ الْمِزَاحُ مِزَاحًا لِأَنَّهُ يُزِيحُ عَنْ الْحَقِّ).

Moderate humor is praised in books of tasawwuf.  It is often compared to salt in food, where too much or too little can be harmful. Buffoonery is blameworthy, as Aristotle mentions “The buffoon, on the other hand, is the slave of his sense of humour, and spares neither himself nor others if he can raise a laugh, and says things none of which a man of refinement would say, and to some of which he would not even listen” (104, Nicomachean Ethics).

Popular comedy is often viewed as an expression of truth unbound to convention. It’s a free time to delve into taboo and transgressions. Propriety takes a backseat to unfiltered expression. We do not believe the rules are suspended during comedy hour. Comedic license is not a license to mock, blaspheme, or indulge our caprice.  The Prophet  gave severe warning against using comedy as an avenue to falsehood.  Here are two hadith on the topic:

Verily a man will speak a word to make those in his company laugh and will plunge by it further in the fire than Pleiades

and

“Woe unto the one who speaks then lies to make the people laugh. Woe unto him. Woe unto him.”

Comedy does not give one license to commit sacrilege.

Many times in the Quran, Allah

subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He)
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tells us the perils of taking His signs in jest, for example “That is because you took the verses of Allah in ridicule, and worldly life deluded you” (45:35).

Comfortable as strangers

“Islam began as a something strange and it will return to being strange, so blessed are the strangers” (Muslim).

We need to get comfortable as non ‘normalized’ religious people. As a religious group, we will have many things which set us apart from larger society, and that is okay. A numbness to blasphemy and sacrilege, mockery of Prophet , or disparaging comments about Allah will spiritually kill your heart. We are better off in this world and the next for upholding the sacred. Being labeled boring and prudish is a small price for what awaits us in reward- God willing.


You will surely be tested in your possessions and in yourselves. And you will surely hear from those who were given the Scripture before you and from those who associate others with Allah much abuse. But if you are patient and fear Allah – indeed, that is of the matters [worthy] of determination Quran 3:181

Allah tells us that we will hear much abuse from disbelievers. Not a casual snide remark, nor a microaggression. Much abuse. In the face of that abuse, we are told that being patient and having taqwa are from the great matters of this religion. The earliest known example of such patience and taqwa in America is that of African slaves who fasted Ramadan while being forced to work on plantations.  They performed their salat, even if they had to hide behind trees. As Sylviane A. Diouf explains “The slaves were, as a rule underfed and overworked. Yet these extremely brutal conditions notwithstanding, Muslims fasted.” She goes on to share the description of a slave Salih Bilali by his owner James Hamilton Couper as “a strict Mahometan; [he] abstains from spirituous liquors, and keeps the various fasts, particularly that of Ramadan” (66). This description indicates that Salih fasted non-obligatory fasts despite his horrific conditions.

These Muslims did all they could to uphold their religion and worship their Creator. They were oppressed and even in bondage displayed a nobility many Muslims throw in the garbage for the sake of being ‘normalized.’Click To Tweet

These Muslims did all they could to uphold their religion and worship their Creator. They were oppressed and even in bondage displayed a nobility many Muslims throw in the garbage for the sake of being ‘normalized.’ As we combat Islamophobia, we must ask ourselves, do we want to be a normalized faith group at the expense of our actual faith? Are we going to dishonor the legacy and struggles of our predecessors who in the most oppressive circumstances imaginable clung on to their religion and venerated their Lord?

As we combat Islamophobia, we must ask ourselves, do we want to be a normalized faith group at the expense of our actual faith? Are we going to dishonor the legacy and struggles of our predecessors who in the most oppressive circumstances imaginable clung on to their religion and venerated their Lord?Click To Tweet

The post Mockery: Comedy’s Weapon Against Morality appeared first on MuslimMatters.org.

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Source: Muslim Matters