Can we laugh at Muhammad - or God?

No laughing matter …

Again, we have witnessed the horror of individual Muslims murdering the innocent as a response to the publication of cartoons mocking Muhammad.

Unquestionably, the brutal attacks in France this year are evil and inexcusable – however offensive the jokes directed towards Islam. No joke deserves death.

Nearly all Muslims would agree with me about this.

Vigilantism is considered un-Islamic, and Islam teaches that Muslims should obey the free speech laws of their lands.

At the same time, some question whether the legal right to make unrestrainedly offensive jokes about religion should not be tempered by the wisdom to ask what is achieved by such mocking.

Oxford philosopher Shabbir Akhtar challenges the morality of unfettered freedom to offend: “There is nothing honourable or right about a writer’s right to give offence. Absolute and unrestricted freedom of speech is morally a non-starter. Only losers think that it is the whole ball game. It is juvenile rubbish, the sort of thing that appeals to immature and rebellious adolescents as they battle against even wise parental authority.”

Asma Barlas asks whether the Charlie Hebdo cartoons are either genuinely satirical or funny: ” …it is difficult to see how anyone – not only a Muslim – could find a cartoon of the prophet as a terrorist/suicide bomber amusing without also treating terrorism itself lightly. After all, how many of us can laugh at a cartoon of a suicide bomber, irrespective of who that person is supposed to be? As for the purported irony of such representations of the prophet, what is satirical about these, when Muslims are already viewed as born terrorists-in-the-making?”

These concerns are worth taking seriously. Surely, some jokes are inappropriate. There are some lines even Western comedians won’t cross – like cruelly mocking physical disabilities. Isn’t the art of comedy knowing where that line is? Surely, too, satire is supposed to shift mindsets, not reinforce them.

Wisdom calls us to step back and ask: What is the right way to laugh about God – especially if there are Muslims in the conversation?

Religion and humour

Pious believers are not famous for their sense of humour about God. Historically, both Christianity and Islam viewed theology as far too serious and sacred a matter to risk trivialising with humour.

So, in The Name of the Rose, the Christian monk Jorge asks “Can we laugh at God? The world would relapse into chaos.” It is this sort of thinking that led the Puritans to ban comedies, with William Prynne claiming they “are sinfull, heathenish, lewde, ungodly spectacles, and most pernicious corruptions; condemned in all ages, as intolerable mischiefes to churches, to republickes, to the manners, mindes, and soules of men.”

Similarly, Ayatollah Khomeini famously taught that: “Allah did not create man so that he could have fun. The aim of creation was for mankind to be put to the test through hardship and prayer … There are no jokes in Islam. There is no humour in Islam. There is no fun in Islam. There can be no fun and joy in whatever is serious.”

Both Khomeini and Prynne express extreme positions that were doubtless ignored in the everyday joy of family and friendships in both Christendom and the Dar al-Islam. Nevertheless, they reflect the traditional theistic inclination away from laughing at God.

Thankfully, modern theologians recognise that both Jesus and Muhammad told jokes, and both the Bible and the Quran use satire. The writer of Ecclesiastes tells us there is a time to laugh. When we are discussing God, when is that time?

When to joke?

Deciding when to joke starts with recognising the various virtues, and vices, of humour.

Prime among humour’s benefits is that it promotes humility about our beliefs. The American Journal of Psychology suggested that humour’s “largest function is to detach us from our world of good and evil, of loss and gain, and to enable us to see it in proper perspective. It frees us from vanity, on the one hand, and from pessimism, on the other, by keeping us larger than what we do, and greater than what can happen to us.”

Joking, then, helps us to step outside rigid mindsets, and see things – including God – in new ways. This role in promoting religious humility was recognised by Roman Catholic journalist G.K. Chesterton: “Life is serious all the time, but living cannot be. You may have all the solemnity you wish in choosing your neckties, but in anything important such as death, sex, and religion, you must have mirth, or you will have madness.”

For humour to be good, it shouldn’t just be funny but fun – and fun for everyone involved. None of us enjoy being laughed at, and nothing good comes from it. Indeed, misplaced humour produces humiliation rather than humility, fury more than fun.

Just because we have a right to mock doesn’t mean we should.

C.S. Lewis argued that humour is most fun when it is respectful: “We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously.”

This need for humour to be loving doesn’t eliminate the possibility of satire. Sometimes we need to hear uncomfortable truths and sometimes the best way to hear them is through unsettling realisations that force us to laugh at ourselves and our pretensions. But if there is no fun in the satire – i.e. if we aren’t laughing – then it fails to achieve its purpose.

This recognition brings us back to our core concern. Just because we have a right to mock doesn’t mean we should. Satirising those who can’t, or won’t, laugh with you achieves little good. This wisdom is nicely summed up in one of my mother’s sayings: “If you can’t say something constructive, don’t say anything at all.”

Yes, conversations about God with Muslims are serious, but my experience is that if we take each other seriously, there is plenty of space for any sort of humour that opens new ways of thinking – just as long as everyone can join in the joke.

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