Don’t Make Me Laugh:  There is such a thing as Muslim humor.  No, really

Kamal al-Marayati

Posted Aug 1, 2002      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
Bookmark and Share

I was asked to write about Muslim humor. What? Muslim humor? Now that is funny!

Jokes…about Muslims??? Isn’t that HARAM (forbidden in Islam)? Of course not. After all, we Muslims follow a Prophet who not only smiled often, but one who laughed so heartily that his teeth showed.

In our striving to make a difference in this world, we often forget that. Plus, in these difficult days, there isn’t much too laugh about. But laughter might just be the remedy that we all need. The image most Muslims have about comedy is that it makes light of serious situations and consequently trivializes things. It is true, comedy does make light of situations, but if it’s done right, it sheds light and perspective rather than trivializes. Even further, comedy brings wisdom in a way that straight commentary just can’t do. I’ve seen it myself countless times, as I’m sure you have too. But when it comes to Muslims and comedy, we seem to be lacking something. We’re afraid to laugh at ourselves.

When we cultivate the ability to laugh at ourselves, that also gives us a license to make ironic (and insightful) points about others. It’s one of the most effective methods of communication and understanding. Through humor, people learn about you. In a way, you become more human. I think I know more about Jewish culture and Jewish people from watching Seinfeld than I have by reading any book on the topic. But how many people think it’s funny that I found more than two seams on my ihram after I performed Hajj? Or my dad buying ten cases of “Islamic vinegar?” “Huh? No, Baba, it’s “balsamic!”

So who am I? Why should you care what I think about Muslim humor? Well, for starters, I’m an Iraqi, my wife is Indo-Paki and my son’s name is Zaki (now say that five times really fast). I was born in Baghdad (don’t laugh), reared in Phoenix (quit the snickering), and now I live in Hollywood (okay, will you guys just STOP?). I was your average high school class clown/drama geek. I lettered in speech and I wanted to major in theater in college. And, like your average class clown/drama geek, I was “strongly encouraged” by my dad to do something more practical. So, I became an engineer, reluctantly. Yet, even while I was being “practical,” the impractical (and unfulfilled) side of me sought out places to be creative. I auditioned for community theater, and took acting courses and loved it. I even got a gig imitating Jerry Lewis in an ice show at a major theme park (no, I didn’t skate. You’re still laughing, aren’t you?). I eventually wound my way to New York and received formal training at the Actors Studio. And now I’m an actor. An actor who happens to be an American Muslim—one of a small, but growing number.

Though I love to make people laugh (some would say I “need” to make people laugh), I consider myself an actor rather than a comic. But at Muslim functions, I’m always asked to do some sort of stand-up routine. And, since Henry V’s Saint Crispin’s Day speech wouldn’t go over too well at a Muslim fundraiser, I usually do a few impersonations and they usually love it.  At a youth camp, I once wrote and performed a skit called “Haram oooor Halal” (forbidden vs. lawful in Islam).  It was a game-show parody where the host would state a situation and the contestants would buzz in their answer whether it was “haram” or “halal.”

Q. A horse you are riding stops to drink from a trough that you know has alcohol in it. Haram oooor halal?
A. Haram because, if the horse sweats, the alcohol might transfer to the rider.

Needless to say, the skit created some controversy. Some people thought I was making light of the Prophet (PBUH), but my intention was only to parody our own zeal and preoccupation with minutiae. Others failed to even get the jokes and approached me afterwards concerned that they hadn’t known about some of the sins and wanted to clarify the rules so they could be sure to stay clear of them. I couldn’t believe it—talk about mired in the minutiae! Though I assured them that the skit was only a parody, something tells me there’s a whole generation of kids out there secretly nervous about riding on drunk horses.

So, my hope is that, one day, we (Americans in general, Muslims in particular) can say “no pork on my fork please” and it can be as funny and as part of our lexicon as saying gefilte fish. I also think we need to start writing and telling stories from our perspective rather than letting others tell us and the rest of the world who we are.

That’s my hope…and it’s also my goal as an American Muslim comedic actor, insha’Allah ... .

Insha’Allah ... Ever notice how often and how strategically we use that phrase—insha’Allah?

“The dinner will be at 6:00, insha’Allah.”

“I will do my best, insha’Allah.”

When my sister-in-law was a kid, she thought “Insha’Allah” meant “probably not,” as in: “Mom, can we go to Disneyland?”  “Insha’Allah.” Or: “Mom, can I have a pony?” “Insha’Allah.” ...(Now you can laugh).

Originally published on Beliefnet which is a wonderful site to learn about all religions.  You can visit them at  This was reprinted with permission from Beliefnet