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French Version

Before the cartoon controversy, a tradition of Islamic humor going back to the Prophet

The furor sparked by the satirical cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad may have reinforced the view of Muslims as austere, po-faced and puritanical - an image far from everyday reality. Muslims are just as keen on jokes, witty remarks and bawdy stories as anyone else. Even in the ultra-conservative Taliban heartlands, you can find Afghan comics making fun of the bearded mullahs, checking that the audience has obeyed the edict on shaving their armpits.

Humor has always played an important role in the Arab-Muslim world.

From the back streets of Iraq, Ramallah and Cairo to the souks of Algiers, Tunis and Beirut, humor provides a cathartic way of taking revenge on corrupt politicians and idle bureaucrats or letting off steam at the myriad frustrations of daily life.

As a result, comedians like Egypt's Adel Imam and Algeria's Mohammed Fellag are hugely popular.

Once, at a one-man show watched by the Algerian president and the military, Fellag apologized to the women in the audience about the way Algerian men treated them.

"Forgive us," he pleaded. "You can dress how you like now. You can even not get dressed at all."

Religion, death, sex, sultans, morals - all go under the knife and the wit is often acerbic.

But what the West often ignores is that this humor has its roots in a long tradition said to go back to the founder of Islam himself, who urged the faithful: "Lighten your hearts every now and then because when hearts are weary they become blind."

The Prophet Mohammed even left some choice witticisms for posterity, albeit very decent ones, according to Moroccan-born writer Jean-Jacques Schmidt, who recently published an anthology of Arab jokes.

"The Prophet liked cracking jokes," confirmed anthropologist Malek Chebel, whose books explore topics like Islam and desire, Islam and drunkenness, and Muslim enlightenment.

"Some people think Arabs are austere and puritanical but they have a well-developed flair for irony and risque jokes," explained Schmidt.

A joke doing the rounds in Damascus at the moment recounts how a ravishingly beautiful actress with an eyebrow-raising reputation dies and is given a key by the fearsome angel Azrael.

She tries to unlock the door of Hell, convinced that that's where she belongs, but it won't open. So she tries the door of Heaven but the key won't turn there either.

Puzzled she turns to Azrael for an explanation. "That's the key to my room," he grins.

"Even religion is mocked, via its representatives," continued Schmidt.

As in the joke about the imam who declares that Allah will call men to account on Judgement Day and is told by a relieved worshipper: "We'll be alright then because someone who's good and generous doesn't have scores to settle!"

Or the one about the poet who gets in trouble when the Caliph finds him with a bottle of wine in his hand.

"It's milk!" the poet insists. "But when it saw you, the Commander of the Faithful, it was so intimidated it blushed."

"Islam doesn't rule out humor," said Chebel, "even if it does set limits ... because you can't make jokes about God."

Islam also has several stock figures of fun who have been around since the Middle Ages.

These naive but wise characters, who include the Persian world's Mullah Nasruddin and North African's Djeha, are vehicles for comments on all kinds of people and absurd situations, often with double meanings.

One story recounts how Mullah Nasruddin would sit in the street on market days. Locals would come and offer him a large and a small coin for the fun of seeing him always take the small one.

When a kindly man advised him to take the bigger coin, he answered: "But if I do that, people will stop offering me money to prove that I'm more stupid than them."

"Humor is human and to pretend that Muslims don't laugh is tantamount to saying they're not human," concluded Algerian playwright Slimane Benaissa.

Sometimes it requires a degree of ingenuity though, in the face of challenges such as conservative Sunni Islam's ban on representations of the Prophet Mohammad in human form.

Benaissa struck on an innovative way of doing this in his recent play "Prophets without God." Moses invites Jesus and Mohammad to a meeting on the state of the world. But Mohammed, who daren't show himself in human form, doesn't turn up at all.

Beirut,03 27 2006
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