Carnival of Caricatures

DEFENDING THE RIGHT OF DENMARK’S Jyllands-Posten to publish a set of caricatures that Muslims believed denigrated the Prophet Muhammad, its culture editor, Flemming Rose, argued that “humour, even offensive humour, brings people together. Because by making fun of people we’re also including them in our society. It’s not always easy for those concerned, but that’s the price they’ve got to pay.”

Rose is correct to observe that humour has an innate ability to unite people. Though the fact that a large number of people will laugh at the same jokes during an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm or a Woody Allen film for example, indicates only that humour can lure people into a false assumption that they have a lot more in common than they actually do in reality.

What passes for humour today, whether from sitcoms or stand-up comedians, is a chain of trite, oft-repeated jokes that are meant to “crack us up.” And if this serves to “bring people together”, it is no wonder that conflict resolution in our litigious society is a booming business. We are told to “lighten up” and take a “chill pill”, that is until we can’t take it anymore. We have created an industry out of humour and by doing so perverted it. Instead of making us happy it has made us frivolous.

In seeking to justify his decision to publish the depictions, Rose mentions two types of humour as if they were equal “humour” and “offensive humour.” Muslims can get downright silly when it comes to humour. After all, Islam has a rich humour tradition. In the post 9/11 years we have even seen a wave of Muslim comedians emerge and quickly gain prominence in both Europe and North America.

“Offensive humour” is a different story; it is irony that aspires to be humour and fails because it is a weapon forever aimed at someone else, never at oneself. Irony’s laughter wounds – it is sarcasm, parody, mockery, and ridicule. Irony’s laughter is cruel and it inevitably humiliates others because it holds everything other than itself in contempt. This genre of humour is alien to the Islamic tradition.
The Danish cultural intelligentsia, in contrast, holds that satire – which normally employs irony as its weapon of choice – is part of their national identity. Rose and others argue that when satire is used against a person or a particular group of people they should feel privileged, not insulted, integrated and certainly not excluded from Danish society. If this reasoning sounds loopy, chances are it is.

Offensive humour emerged and gained ascendance during carnival season, particularly in Europe, where the two-week festival leading up to Lent gave free reign to ritual spectacles, bacchanalia, comic verbal compositions and relaxed social rules that allowed bawdy and abusive language to be spoken openly. During the carnival season the comedian was allowed the freedom to mock, ridicule and scoff at those in authority as well as parody and laugh at the hegemonic ideals upheld by the rich and powerful.
The message of the carnival was undeniable – “so long as I can laugh at the rich and powerful, I am free.”

Carnivals not only nourished a culture of offensive humour, it gave it life beyond the carnival season. Publications embraced caricatures because they used artistic techniques to exaggerate a person’s physical features to make him or her look grotesque or ludicrous. Whether a person was literate or not he knew instantly that the person caricatured was to be scorned, ridiculed and reviled. Not surprising, in the 1 8th and 19th centuries the French and Spanish monarchs sent their caricaturists to prison, exile or, worse still, to the executioner.

As the tradition of journalism emerged and matured in Western Europe and the United States in the mid to late 19th century, newspapers gradually drifted away from caricatures and adopted what is known today as political cartooning. Cartoons resemble caricatures but they aim to specifically crystallize a point of social protest or sway public opinion. It is not all that surprising therefore that cartoonists are regarded as journalists in today’s mass media.

Thomas Nast (1840-1902) is regarded as the “founding father” of modern day political cartooning. His legacy includes the GOP Elephant, a standard symbol of the Republican Party in the United States, and an unrelenting attack against the corruption of William Marcy Tweed and the infamous Tammany Hall corruption ring in 1860s New York City.

Tweed despised Nast because Nast’s cartoons mobilized people who demanded the smashing of the Tammany Ring and the removal of Tweed from power. Tweed was eventually brought to trial and found guilty of 1 04 counts and sentenced to 12 years in prison. He appealed the decision and while awaiting re-trial fled the country.

Tweed was later arrested in Spain because someone recognized him from a Nast cartoon. Before he died in prison a pauper, Tweed is reported to have said: “I don’t care what they print about me, most of my constituents can’t read anyway – but them damn pictures.”

From its genesis in the carnival, offensive humour has always been a blunt instrument in the hands of the common man to be used against the powerful. The Jyllands-Posten caricatures came from the intellectual elites that represent the dominant culture and targeted a harmless and marginal religious minority in Danish society. This is not what the tradition of satire was meant for.

A relatively intelligent person knows that humour, offensive or not, is culturally determined. What is funny to some may very well be an insult to others. Albert Brooks went Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World and nearly ended up sparking off nuclear armageddon between India and Pakistan. That’s hardly amusing, goofy yes, perhaps even stupid, but not necessarily offensive, unless you are an Indian or a Pakistani who doesn’t like to be characterised as triggerhappy. Some comedians, even Muslim ones, straddle the fence that divides humour from offensive humour. When they like something they use humour and when they don’t they use irony

A Muslim will never accept that humour can be at the expense of a person’s beliefs or ideals, whether the Muslim believes they are valid or not. A person who fails to laugh at a crude or racist joke might say ‘? don’t share your sense of humour.” That’s what a lot of Muslims should have said instead of torching Danish flags, storming embassies or banning Danish products.

Humour – the kind that defuses hatred, anger, resentment and fanaticism – is a virtue in both western and Islamic philosophy. While it is not one of the four main virtues identified in Islamic thought, it is impossible to be humorous without hikma or wisdom. When humour is present it leads to a balanced temperament. The ability to laugh appropriately, even at oneself, neither too much nor too little, at the right time and place, for the right things, is a sign of courage, good health and well being. This is the Sunna of the Messenger of God.

Humour, like all other virtues, is subject to the Aristotelian “golden mean.” Humour is a balance between two extremes; it arises neither from sense nor nonsense, but rather in the vacillation from one to the other. In other words, it occurs when meaning changes from absurd to meaningful or from serious to frivolous. Humour reveals the frivolousness in all things serious and the seriousness in all things frivolous. When it takes itself too serious it reverts to irony and if too frivolous, buffoonery.

According to Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics, happiness is the greatest desire of the rational mind. Without it a person might sink into anger, wallow forever in the misery of sadness. Ahmad Ibn-Muhammad Miskawayh in his Tahdhib al-Akhlaq explains that inner happiness must be given an outlet and that’s what humour is. In the Qur’an the word for happiness is ä« ‘ada.

Syed Naqib AI-Attas says that to understand what sa ‘ada means one must ponder on its opposite – shiqawa. Shiqawa, explains AI-Attas, is the condition of a person so mired in disobethence to God that his heart is perpetually in a state of anxiety, anguish, fear, grief, misery, and regret. The sum total of these symptoms is not merely a state of sadness, but one of “tragedy.” Shiqawa is a result of hubris, haughty pride, that prevents submission to the Creator.
In Imam Al-Ghazali’s philosophical schema, shiqawa is a characteristic of a person who is so overwhelmed by the seductions of this world that it costs him the pleasures of the next. Sa ‘ada, on the other hand, arises out of obethence to God for His pleasure alone.

A person may laugh or “play the fool,” watch endless hours of Comedy Central, yet deep in his soul there is a shiqawa that no amount of laughter can erase. On the other hand, a person of sa ‘ada may laugh little and weep much – a Prophetic ideal – yet deep in his soul the torch of happiness is flaming red. In other words, laughter alone proves (and provides) nothing.

Our blessed Messenger was the most balanced in all affairs. One of his names is ad-Dahhak, the Smiling One. He smiled because he embodied happiness. When he smiled, those who knew him tell us, there was no mistaking the radiant joy he created when he entered a room.

He used to say “I joke but I always tell the truth.” His wife ‘A’isha is reported to have said “the Messenger was always making us laugh at home.” He also said “Those who sin while laughing will enter hell crying.” It is a sin in Islam to lie, deliberately insult, mock, ridicule, or revile others.

An old woman came to the Messenger to ask him a vitally important question: “Will I go to paradise?” The Prophet said, “no, old people don’t go to paradise.” Dejected, the woman looked up at the face of the Messenger and saw him smiling and quickly realized that what he told her was in jest. He then comforted her, “God will restore your youth before you enter paradise.”

The humour of the Messenger of God was contagious. He was once sitting with two Bedouin women who had raised their voices in the presence of the Messenger demanding spoils of war when ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab passed by and overheard them. He knocked on the door of the Prophet’s home and was asked to identify himself after which he was given permission to enter. He saw the Prophet sitting alone and asked who was with him. At which point the Prophet identified the two women who had gone into hiding. ‘Umar chided them: “Do you hide from ‘Umar and you raise your voice in the presence of the Messenger?” The women responded: “Yes, indeed, because you are rough O ‘Umar and the Messenger of God is gentle.” The Prophet laughed. He had to break this standoff between ‘Umar’s poignant observation and the women’s reasonable fear of ‘Umar. He said: “Indeed ‘Umar, even if Satan was coming down a road and encountered you, he would take another path.”

One of the central comedie characters in the time of the Prophet was the companion Al-Nu’ayman ibn ‘Amr. To put things in perspective, Nu’ayman fought with the Muslims during the battles at Badr, Uhud and Khandaq. Nu’ayman had an infectious laughter. He once convinced a merchant to send honey on his behalf to the home of the Messenger. When the merchant demanded payment from Nu’ayman he directed him to the Prophet. The Prophet was surprised that the merchant was asking for payment since he was told that Nu’ayman had sent him the honey as a gift. Nu’ayman showed up to explain himself and insisted that since the Prophet had eaten the honey he should pay for it. Laughing at Nu’ayman’s prank the Prophet paid the merchant. Nu’ayman later said that he had done two good deeds: he got the Prophet to eat his favourite food and he made him laugh.

There are many legendary Nu’ayman pranks. Nu’ayman played a significant role in Medina. There is no record of the Prophet forbidding him to cease his pranks even though some of them were slapstick. This indicates that Nu’ayman had Prophetic sanction. It is reported that he only stopped laughing and playing pranks when the Muslim community was rocked with internal dissent during the reign of Mu’awiya.

If Nu’ayman didn’t exist Muslims would have had to invent him. Any culture where humour does not exist lacks the virtues of humility, generosity and mercy. Scratch the veneer of seriousness and you will find extremism and fanaticism. Humour peels away at self-deception and the glum satisfaction that the pious-looking bearded and turbaned brother is better than the one without.

Nu’aymaniyya became the springboard for a flourishing tradition of humour among Muslims. Today Muslim parents and teachers narrate the tales of Mulla Nasruddin in order to establish simple truths with their children. Humour, because it can only laugh at what it loves or respects, is a useful tool that should be used to teach others about our tradition.

Muslims have to stop making rage their first instinctive reaction to an offence. Members of Quraysh poked fun at the Prophet by making reference to him as “Mudammam” (a play on Muhammad) which means ugly. This offensive humour, irony if you wish, was done at the expense of the real name of the Prophet and so it was exceptionally painful to his companions. Muhammad was a unique name in Mecca at that time and it means “the one who is praised.” It is the most popular name in the world today. The companions complained to the Prophet with tears in their eyes. His response was that they should ignore the mocking laughter associated with “Mudammam” because his name is Muhammad and “Mudammam” can only be someone other than Muhammad. He defused the irony, neutralized it, pulled the rug out from under it, with gentleness, wit, and humility. Muslims too could have looked at the offensive depiction and simply said: “That’s not our Prophet.”

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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