IT IS Friday night at the O2 arena in London and the crowd is hearing a confession from Preacher Moss, a black American convert to Islam: “I’m not going to lie about the things I did before I became a Muslim,” he tells the audience. “Like have fun.” Amid appreciative guffaws he continues in the same vein. When he gave up boozing and womanising, he confides, his mother thought he was gay.
Comedians like Mr Moss have a difficult job. Islam and humour seem an unlikely combination. Unflattering cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad have led to death threats, riots, and most recently the firebombing this month of a satirical French weekly after it published an issue featuring Islam’s founder as “guest editor” with the promise: “100 lashes if you don’t die of laughter!” To many, that chimes all too well with Ayatollah Khomeini’s apocryphal statement that “there are no jokes in Islam”. Even the most daring Islamic comedians rarely if ever joke about the faith itself. Some countries ban jokes about religious leaders.
Yet Muslim comedians are thriving. Mr Moss, with two other devout American Muslims, has a stand-up comedy act called “Allah Made Me Funny”. Britain’s Shazia Mirza has a strong following too. And though stand-up comedy may be a Western genre, Islam has a rich tradition of humour. The Hadith, Muslims’ second-most-sacred text, details every joke Muhammad ever made, such as: “Why are there no old women in heaven? Because they become young girls when they get there.” (Nothing comparable exists in Christian holy texts.) Arabic, Persian and Turkish literature feature a Sufi sage, known as Juha or Mullah Nasreddin, notable for buffoonery, wit and wisdom.
Western Islamic comics such as Mr Moss have been well received in the Muslim world, and a local stand-up comedy scene is emerging there too. At the Amman Stand-Up Comedy Festival, held each year in Jordan since 2008, many routines are in Arabic. (One skit is about a Muslim vampire who fears pork instead of crucifixes.) Clips on YouTube featuring a Saudi comedian, Fahad Albutairi, gain over 1m hits. With two other Saudis, he took part in Yemen’s first-ever stand-up comedy show in March last year. Two Indonesian television channels have launched stand-up comedy programmes and a Comedy Café in Jakarta gives aspiring comics a live audience.
Muslim comedians do not just ridicule their fellow citizens’ foibles. Satire bubbles up in even the most repressive regimes. Syrian television dramas have long lampooned the security forces, joking about corruption and restrictions on free speech. The residents of Homs, the country’s third city, are traditionally the butt of jokes (How do you keep a Homsi busy all day? Put him in a round room and tell him to sit in the corner). Now Homsis are playing on their reputation for buffoonery to make spoof videos ridiculing the crackdown. One shows men shooting aubergines ineffectively out of metal pipes, lampooning the regime’s claim that the city’s peaceful protesters were using weapons against Syria’s security forces.
Since September 11th 2001, terrorism and the West’s reaction to it have provided rich pickings for Muslim comics. Gags about Osama bin Laden and jihad abound. But comedians also feel a sense of urgency. Mohammed Amer, part of Mr Moss’s trio, says Muslims have made a “terrible job” of communicating with the outside world. Humour, rather than earnest diatribes on the peaceful nature of Islam, is the best way of defusing suspicion, he says.
But at Allah Made Me Funny’s show in London only a few atheists and a lone Jew identified themselves in response to a good-humoured request from the stage. The vast majority of the audience were Muslims. Outsiders will not get the joke if they are not there to hear it.
Correction: This article originally suggested that Omid Djalili is a Muslim comedian. In fact Mr Djalili is a member of the Baha'i faith. This has been corrected online. Sorry.