Laughter Is Fun, No?
We shall now examine the issue of laughter in an Islamic context by looking at the cartoons’ controversy in 2005. It began after twelve editorial cartoons, most of which depicted prophet Muhammad, were published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten on 30 September 2005. The newspaper announced that this publication was an attempt to contribute to the debate regarding criticism of Islam and self-censorship.
This led to protests across the Muslim world, some of which escalated into violence across the world. While a number of Muslim leaders called for protesters to remain peaceful, other Muslim leaders across the globe issued death threats. Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen described the controversy as Denmark's worst international crisis since World War II – such was the magnitude of the backlash.
To non-Muslims who know little about Islam, this was a very strange worldwide Muslim response – for after all, many unflattering cartoons about other religions (or their leaders) have been frequently printed. Owing to the traditions of aniconism in Islam, the majority of art concerning prophet Muhammad is calligraphic in nature. The Qur'an condemns idolatry and pictorial forms, particularly of prophet Muhammad, are seen as ostensibly close to idol worship.
The cartoons were printed in a predominantly Christian community to make a specific point about how Muslims should have a sense of humor. It is a demand for Muslims to explain themselves in a specific constructed way – obviously of the “Christian West” – with the assumption that Muslims do not have a sense of humor. This is exacerbated through traditions held by the religious authorities through their fatwas (legal edict) which Muslims are expected to obey. The over-reaching arm of religious authorities varies depending on the political construct of the country in which they exist. For example, the extensive influence of such authorities in Saudi Arabia and Iran is well known, whilst those in modern secular democracies such as Malaysia and Morocco are more integrated with the secular political agenda. Under the traditionally strict regimes of the former, fun and laughter are deemed “irreligious” and “sinful” and the hadith (exegesis) of prophet Muhammad who was recorded to have “laughed until his molars showed” was constructed in a self-serving way for the religious elites. All other actions that were deemed as bringing one away from God (such as merriment and music) were disallowed. To the outside world, it is easy to conclude that Muslims have no real sense of fun, what more humor and laughter.
What is the significance of fun and laughter such that they are both disdained? Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose gives an insightful look into this matter. Venerable Jorge argued that “a monk should not laugh. Only a fool lifts his head in laughter. Laughter is a devilish wind which deforms the lineaments of the face and makes men look like monkeys”. In true Hobbesian fashion, Father Williams retorted him by saying: “Monkeys do not laugh. Laughter is particular to man”. In Islamic tradition, many men of piety have engaged in the same principle of seriousness and solemnity in reaching towards God and demand others to follow suit – as if there was only one way to be close to and to reach the Lord.
If the populace body were allowed to have fun and engaged in laughter, that would pose a threat to the religious authority politically. When an individual is allowed to freely express himself and defy the sacred and solemn norms, soon enough the individual will realize that he does not need the holding hands of the religious authority to conduct his individual choices in life. The religious authority therefore, quickly assumes the role of political, spiritual and moral authority over the individuals and the community. It takes an iron grip of their hands in showing the way to righteousness and goodness. Without realizing that in doing so, they are committing the same secularist move that they are supposedly bent against. The religious authority in the community becomes the same expanding grotesque body as mentioned by Bakhtin, constructing the identity of the community by the death of the individual and the birth of the more religious community, and in this case, leading them towards transcendence.
What then defines a sense of humor? Does humor as constructed by the Western Christian notion or secular liberal politics apply to Muslims? Asef Bayat in Islamism and the Politics of Fun and Christopher Meichert in The Piety of the Hadith Folk have both examined various prophetic exegesis and actions of pious Muslims approving some sense of humor in their life. We will observe that such concept of fun or laughter or a sense of humor in a Muslim context are constructed in a certain way – which may not correspond with how other non-Muslims view them. This however, does not mean that Muslims do not have fun, or cannot laugh or do not have a sense of humor. For example, one may find it funny when seeing someone fall in the snow, whilst others find it pitiful and necessitates him to help. To put Muslims together in the liberal embrace of a common notion of “humor” or “fun” or “laughter” is to deny the subjectivity of the individual.