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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 November 2007, 12:20 GMT
Does Islam have a sense of humour?
Muslim woman

By Yasmeen Khan

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's nothing better than having a laugh. I love going to see comedy, but people seem to have this impression that Muslims and comedy don't go together; that somehow we can't reconcile humour with our faith."

Keen comedy fan Tosifa Mustafa nails a widely-held stereotype, before dismissing it in the same breath. It's "just not the case," she says.

Protests over cartoons satirising the Prophet Muhammad combined with images of Muslims criticising frivolous aspects of Western culture have left the impression for some that Islam and comedy are incompatible.

A few mother-in-law or football jokes always go down well, they help break the ice and put people at ease
Ibrahim Mogra
And as with most stereotypes, there is a kernel of truth. In some Islamic societies entertainment - music, film and comedy - are forbidden.

No one knows that better than Muslim stand-up Jeff Mirza.

An old hand on the British comedy scene, having done live stand-up and television for the last decade, Mirza encountered hostility when he started out.

"Some would come up to me and say what I was doing was haraam (forbidden). But it didn't put me off because I know people consider things as 'bad' when it's something new and unfamiliar," he says.

"We have to stop having knee-jerk reactions to everything."

Mirza believes there is a big appetite for comedy among Muslims. "They want to be entertained, just like everyone else - women in hijaabs do laugh you know."

Ice breaker

He is by no means alone in that belief.

Ibrahim Mogra, chairman of the interfaith Muslim Public Affairs Committee and an imam in Leicester, says Islam and comedy "have a long history" and "religiously there is no reason why Muslims can't enjoy a laugh".

Cartoon protesters
The cartoon protests have defined Islam as against comedy, says Azhar Usman
And it's not something that needs to be reserved for the stand-up circuit, he says.

"I use comedy when I make speeches; a few mother-in-law or football jokes always go down well, they help break the ice and put people at ease."

Azhar Usman is one of three Muslim comedians who are helping to challenge the stereotype as part of a touring stand-up show. Called Allah Made Me Funny the travelling show returns to the UK this week.

But he recognises that the image of Islam and comedy remains an odd one and blames both protesters and the media.

"Muslims are not a monolithic people, they're every class, colour and creed and it's not surprising that some believe that comedy is 'wrong'," he says.

"The cartoons are the single flashpoint that has defined the Islam and comedy debate and I think that it's a result of the fact that Islam has become politicised. Some people think that being Muslim is about going out on to the streets and waving placards about rather than connecting with God and their faith on a personal level.

Prophet's jester

"I don't go shouting in the street, I get up on stage and make jokes about it."

We don't do anything that would offend our families [or] to be blasphemous
Azhar Usman
But Usman also blames the media for misrepresenting Islam. "The fact is that within Muslim culture there is a strong tradition of storytelling, joking and laughing."

He says the relationship between Islam and comedy goes to the roots of the religion.

"Muslim communities have a comedic tradition, in fact the Prophet Mohammed actually had his own jester and the Prophet himself was known to enjoy jokes and wordplay."

But those who believe comedy is funniest when it's at its most searing may be disappointed by the restrictions that Muslim comics work within.

"We don't do anything that would offend our families," says Usman. "We don't want to be blasphemous."

Ibrahim Mogra agrees there are "parameters... As long as that comedy doesn't create hatred, blaspheme against any religion or is unnecessarily cruel, it has a place in Islam."

Dry venues

The general rule of thumb observed by Usman is that Islamic culture can be satirised, but not the religion. Politics is another rich source of jokes, and there's many a laugh to be had out of the more universal themes of marriage, mothers-in-law and even toilet humour.

Jeff Mirza
Familiar face at the Edinburgh Fringe: Jeff Mirza
When it comes to alcohol, however, which for many comedy club regulars is a key ingredient in a night out, it remains a no-no. That doesn't stop Muslim comics from appearing at mainstream venues, but for those Muslims that want to see comedy in a "halal" environment, there is a lively scene in community centres and at Muslim gatherings.

While Muslim comedians seem confident about poking fun at their culture, non-Muslims often skirt the issue of Islam itself for fear of the reaction.

"With comedy, if you 'own' a space, in other words if you're from a particular faith or background, it grants you a licence to poke fun at it," says Marc Blake, a stand-up comic and comedy tutor at London's City University.

"But comics at the moment are more fearful of poking fun at Islam because of the culture of political correctness than they are of any backlash from Muslim people."

So might we see Islam mocked in the way that Christianity has been? Jeff Mirza says an adamant no.

"Muslim audiences 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."

Below is a selection of your comments.

Muslims have everything including a sense of humour, just like any other nation. Islam is not only a religion, it's a culture as well, and it's just the matter of the west to think Islam as a culture as well not just religion, which encompasses art, music and humour. It's time for west, to open hearts and minds to understand muslim religion and culture.
Sajjad, California, US

Islam definitely tolerates humour. The one who says it doesn't, represents HIS own view, not Islam's.
Sadiq Ali Bohra, Hyderabad, Pakistan

I strongly feel that the ability to laugh at one's own culture and religion is paramount in having a really good sense of humour - not taking yourself too seriously is key. Although I'm sure that Muslims like a laugh and a joke, I'm still not convinced that they have a particularly developed sense of humour. Jeff Mirza's closing statement about the unlikelihood of a Muslim Life of Brian bears this out.
Steve, UK

This is exactly why stereotypes continue to exist. Look at the title of this article- "Does Islam have a sense of humor?" What kind of question is that? Aren't Muslims just people, like everyone else? And most people- Muslims, Shintos, and atheists alike- enjoy a good laugh. Why must we continue to paint Muslims as some other type of human, rather than the funny, smart, stupid, emotional, crazy, serious, mean, generous type that ALL of us are? Why is this even news?
Uduak, Philadelphia, PA, USA

Muslims are often depicted as people who can't take a joke. Well that all depends what the Joke is, Muslims make Jokes, they laugh and cheer all with in a limit. And somethings are off the limits, period.
Zeeshan Ahmed, Calgary, AB

I think these are good points. Islam isn't a rigid, oppressive force but a way of living and comedy is part of that. It's good for the heart and the spirit.
Amir , Atlanta, USA

Why is this not something we see more of? If it takes humor instead of politics to see that people from other cultures are just like us then why not?
Patrick, Charlotte, NC

I find this article to be a bit idiotic. There are over 1 billion Muslims in the world. 99.99% of Muslims enjoy laughing and humour and joking. The media such as the BBC likes to show otherwise.
Jacobin Duplai, San Francisco

Lack of humour is characteristic of fundamentalists of all faiths - Christians and Jews as well as Muslims. The world would be a more peaceful place if religions took themselves less seriously.
Ralph Lorenz, Columbia, MD

Clerics and fundamentalists maybe don't have much of a sense of humor in any religion. At least in public. I think that's probably as true of Islam as it is of any other religion.
jack brown, California, US

Does Christianity have a sense of humour? Monty Python's "Life of Brian" was banned in several city councils in the UK upon release, banned in the Republic of Ireland for eight years, banned in Norway for a year, and not released in Italy until 1990 (Eleven years after initial release). People in glass houses should not throw stones.
Josh Holman, Charleston, SC USA

What a refreshing article and lovely pictures too!
Paula Tome, london

It must also be recognized that it's not right for a non-Muslim to ask a Muslim comedian to forsake values so he can conform to the west's idea of 'funny'. In the same vein, it's not fair for a Muslim to ask a non-Muslim comedian to refrain from making jokes about Islam. I think media glare on the cartoon scandal highlighted a sense of defensiveness about the non-Islamic world's 'right' to poke fun at whatever it desires.
Melissa, Alberta, Canada

I attended "Allah made me funny" last night in Hammersmith. I found it hilarious at some points and thoroughly enjoyed the evening. Usman was the most amusing comic but also had the most sensible views/ideas about these issues discussed above. Although one can poke fun at Jews and Christians without fear of any reprisal Muslims (for better or worse) have a reputation for responding to satirical/comic remarks towards their culture with outrage and anger. There is a difference between harmless banter and deliberately goading people to cause offence. As always the line must be drawn somewhere.
Oliver Shuffrey, London, UK

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