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March 26, 2006

Religious humor

As an MOT, I'm very familiar with the whole genre of Jewish humor. Much has been written on the subject, and you can get a short version of it from this Wikipedia article. I'm not totally satisfied with the explanation it gives, but here's a summary:

Jewish humor is rooted in at least two traditions. The first is the intellectual and legal methods of the Talmud, which uses elaborate legal arguments and situations often seen as so absurd as to be humorous in order to tease out the meaning of religious law. The second is an egalitarian tradition among the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe in which the powerful were often mocked subtly, rather than attacked overtly -- as Saul Bellow once put it, "oppressed people tend to be witty." Jesters known as badchens used to poke fun at prominent members of the community during weddings, creating a good-natured tradition of humor as a levelling device. (Parallels in other cultures include Tall poppy syndrome and Jante Law). Rabbi Moshe Waldoks, a scholar of Jewish humor, argued: "You have a lot of shtoch, or jab, humor, which is usually meant to deflate pomposity or ego, and to deflate people who consider themselves high and mighty. But Jewish humor was also a device for self-criticism within the community, and I think that's where it really was the most powerful. The humorist, like the prophet, would basically take people to task for their failings. The humor of Eastern Europe especially was centered around defending the poor against the exploitation of the upper classes or other authority figures, so rabbis were made fun of, authority figures were made fun of and rich people were made fun of. It really served as a social catharsis."
Jewish humor goes way, way back. In the Torah, for example, we have a wonderful play on words -- though not exactly a stand-up comic's joke -- in Genesis 21, in the story of Sarah's banishment of Hagar. Abraham gives Hagar and her son some bread and a container of water, and they depart. When the water runs out, Hagar places her son under one of the bushes and sits far from him so she doesn't have to see him die. In verse 17, God hears the boy's cry, and an angel/messenger of God calls to Hagar from heaven and says to her, "What's wrong, Hagar?" In Hebrew, the word for angel or messenger is "mahl-ACH" (where the "ach" is gutteral and pronounced as in German). The words for "what's wrong" are "mah-LACH." So the mahl-ach says mah-lach. See? (I know. It's not a side-splitter, but I smile whenever I read it.) What makes it more amusing is that mah-lach could be translated, more colloquially, as "what's up with you?" or "what's happenin', babe?"

Even in the Talmud there's humor. Again, we're not talking about side-splitters. But you can get an idea of the type of humor in this article.

Christian humor is a little harder for me to understand. But here's a good one: A Christian man calls his mother and tells her that he's very sorry. He knows how much she wanted to get together with the family over Thanksgiving, but an important business matter has come up and he won't be able to be there. She tells him it's OK; she understands.

I guess that's cheating. It's actually a Jewish joke in disguise.

What got me thinking about all of this recently is that there doesn't seem to be a lot of Muslim humor out there. In fact, to those of us in the West, it's not at all clear that Muslims have a sense of humor at all. And I don't mean like this:

Ahmed: Hey, Mohammed, is that a bomb in your turban, or are you just happy to see me? No, wait! Don't behead me!

Or even this kind of stuff, which was what got me hooked on Jeff Goldstein in the first place.

Nor do I mean this.

So my question is: Is there a kind of Muslim humor out there that I am simply not aware of? And: Is it any good?

I suppose this is a start. And this one's almost funny, because it reminds me of a certain type of Jewish humor: "Q. A horse you are riding stops to drink from a trough that you know has alcohol in it. Haram or halal? A. Haram because, if the horse sweats, the alcohol might transfer to the rider."

So if you have any good source materials for Muslim humor, please post them in the comments.