/ 28 May 2010

Muslims do have a sense of humour

I disagree with Zapiro’s recent cartoon on two grounds. First, his contention that Muslims have no sense of humour is not supported by the evidence. While part of the Muslim establishment might present a particular dour image, the Muslim community in general is blessed with a fairly decent sense of humour.

We know how to laugh as much as anyone else. The presence (and success) within our community of comedians such as Joey Rasdien and Riaad Moosa is testimony to this. That they often perform for Muslim audiences and constantly poke fun at Muslims as well as Islamic rituals and practice provides ample evidence. When one listens to the response, it is nigh impossible to tell whether the raucous noise is Muslim or non-Muslim laughter.

Second, Muslims do not have a monopoly on humourless fundamentalism, as Zapiro suggests. History illustrates that unsmiling individuals (even of the violent type) are curses of the Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and atheist varieties too. Zapiro’s couch should be large enough to hold an entire congregation of “prophets” — including Karl Marx and Leon Trotsky.

That being said, I admit that, after Zapiro’s cartoon was published, some South African Muslims went out of their way to validate his contention that we are a humourless bunch. It is a great pity.

As is often the case, the cartoon sparked an over-reaction, with it (and Zapiro and the Mail & Guardian) being accused of Islamophobia, insulting the Prophet (Muhammad), attacking Islam and being enemies of Muslims. None of these calumnies is true. I must confess that when I first saw the cartoon, I didn’t think it was Muhammad portrayed; it looked like some old Taliban-type dude with a beard and turban. (And God knows that if anyone needs therapy, they do!)

Calling Muslims humourless (whether true or not) does not qualify as Islamophobia. Nor can an argument about the cartoon being an “attack on Islam” effectively be sustained. And, I must confess, as hard as I looked, I could not see the “insult to the Prophet”. If anything, I thought it was quite complimentary to him (if it was, indeed, him that was being portrayed). The lament in the cartoon (and despite what some Muslims might say, no one believes that those were actually the Prophet’s words) was that his community was not following his sunnah (example).

Muhammad not only smiled and encouraged smiling as an act of charity, played with children as if he were a child, but also — horror of horrors — laughed and had a great sense of humour, making jokes with both men and women, even about matters as serious as the ritual prayer. That ability of the Prophet to so easily laugh is one that many Muslims have, unfortunately, not perfected.

One criticism about the cartoon is that it “insults” Muhammad because it shows him on a couch talking to a psychiatrist, as if he “is mentally unstable” (according to some critics) or “he has issues” (according to others). The reality is that the Prophet was a human being and, leading a community of tens of thousands of people, he most definitely did have anxieties.

His “therapists” were usually one or other of his wives. Initially, Khadija was his pillar of support who consoled him when the burden of revelation was too heavy. At the famous Treaty of Hudaibiyah, after the Muslims had been prevented from performing the pilgrimage, the Prophet ordered them, nevertheless, to perform certain pilgrims’ rituals. When none of them obeyed, being angry at what seemed like a sell-out deal that the Prophet had made, he complained to his wife Umm Salamah, who listened (like a therapist) and advised him on how to deal with the matter.

On one occasion, having argued with his wives, he left his house and slept on the roof. If he had anxieties with regard to his wives and followers with whom he directly interacted, I can see that he would certainly be anxious about his followers 14 centuries later who believe there is virtue in undermining Muhammad’s advice to smile, laugh and have a sense of humour.

Indeed, the cartoon portrays a man who is compassionate, humane and concerned about the lack of these qualities in those who follow him.

But even if the cartoon was insulting to the Prophet, the death threats, threats of violence and all manner of irrational rage, spitting and screaming — as we are seeing — are not the ways Muhammad himself responded to insults against him. Even in the face of such verbal attacks, he followed the Qur’anic advice: “And the servants of the Most Merciful are those who walk upon the earth easily, and when the ignorant address them [harshly], they say ‘Peace’.”

On one occasion, the Prophet walked by some of his detractors who slyly greeted him “As sam alaikum” (Death be upon you), attempting to pass it off as “As salamu alaikum” (Peace be upon you). He simply responded “Wa alaikum” (and on you) and walked on. His wife ‘A’isha responded as some Muslims have responded to Zapiro, yelling: “May the curse of God be upon you, and his punishment, and his —” Muhammad stopped her, saying: “Calm down, ‘A’isha, calm down. There is not gentle­ness in anything, except that it becomes more beautiful, and there is not harshness in anything except that it makes it ugly. So be calm, ‘A’isha.” For all those who feel offended by the cartoon, Zapiro, and the M&G, “calm down” is good advice.

Of course, we can (and should) debate how freedom of expression must be balanced with respect for people’s beliefs. When we do, however, we must realise that the latter is a minefield. If Muslims can claim offence by a cartoon of our Prophet and therefore undermine free expression, can Christians claim offence and call for the banning of the Qur’an because it rejects the Trinity? Can Jews claim offence and call for the banning of material that refers to the West Bank as anything other than “Judea and Samaria”? (In that case, Zapiro will again be in the firing line!) Can any of us citizens (or groups of citizens) claim free expression rights to offend others while denying those rights for those who offend us?

We religious people must accept that the actions of a person who “insults” the Prophet, or even God, is responsible for his own deeds. She will be responsible for what she draws, says or writes. What I, as a religious person, regard as prohibited might not be regarded as such by another. It is not my responsibility either to try to legislate against him or to beg or whinge ceaselessly. Yes, religious people should defend our beliefs — by teaching people what those are and helping to create an environment of understanding, compassion and solidarity.

Cartoonists too have a role to play in creating understanding, and Zapiro’s cartoon has moved us to try and understand better who Muhammad was, and why he would be unhappy at humourless, unsmiling and hateful followers.

Na’eem Jeenah is the executive director of the Afro-Middle East Centre and former chief editor of the Muslim community newspaper Al-Qalam

Everybody draw Zapiro
The Facebook initiative “everybody draw Muhammad” may not have gone down well, but the spirit of freedom of expression cannot be quashed easily. Blogger Azad Essa sent in a few cartoons of Zapiro that people have drawn.