Saturday, August 21, 2010

On Humor and Islam

Solemn humour for jumah

We are often presented with a rather clinical view of the early Muslims as those who suffered, who endured, who were constantly challenged and overcame obstacles. Yet, if any human being truly lived in such a way non-stop they would go mad as even in suffering people always find happiness. I’ve compiled a selection of hadith which illustrate that they to, just like anyone else, would also participate in entertainment by way of humour and practical jokes. After all the Prophet did once say, “Refresh your hearts regularly, for if they become dull, they will become blind…”
Aisha said that she once served Harirah (a type of drink) to the Prophet. She also invited Saudah but she refused. At this Aisha said, ‘Take it or I will smear your face with it’. Still she refused. So she smeared Saudah’s face. Seeing this the Prophet laughed. He then caught Aisha with his hands and asked Saudah to smear her face to balance things up. When this was done, again he laughed.
The Prophet’s wives were known as ‘the glass vessels’. Anas recorded how he and Umm Sulaym had been in the company with the Prophet’s wives while they were travelling in howdahs. As time was short, they were being hurried along by Anjasha’s singing. The Prophet cried ‘Gently, O Anjasha,’ to the camel-driver. ‘Be careful – these camels are carrying delicate glass vessels. Don’t break them!’
[It was common practice that at the head of any caravan of camels/animals in the desert, there would be someone at the front singing a song, poems, prose. It would often be sung to a rhythm to which the pace of travel would be set, fast-slow beats etc]
Any lady who was had the name ‘barrah’ (meaning: good) was asked to change her name. He explained the reason saying that if they did not, he would never be able to say goodbye, for it hurt him to say bye to the ‘good’
[One of the customs of early Islam was that when a person accepted Islam, if their name had a negative meaning, they would change it to one with a better, more positive meaning. The above was more of a joke, but practical examples include nick-names, such as Abu Huraira, meaning, father of the little cat, as when he worked as a shepherd, he used to keep a kitten; or
Abu Turb, meaning father of dust' which was given to his son-in-law Ali who, whenever he had a disagreement with Fatima, he would throw dust on himself.]
Once when an old lady asked about heaven the Prophet said that there would be no old women in heaven.  His reply caused her immediate upset but he quickly continued to say that all old people would be made young again. So there would in fact be no old people in heaven as the residents of heaven would be younger, in their prime.
When digging the ditch before the battle of al-azhab, one of the keenest diggers Amr ibn Suraqah (Juayl) was nick-named ‘the little bee’. While they were digging, someone started to synchronise the digging with a rhythm with the following two line song “His name he changed from Ju’ayl to Amr, giving the poor man that day his help”. As they carried on digging to this song, the atmosphere became more intense such that as the couplet was sung, the Prophet would repeat each line in such a way as to make the people laugh.
[Singing was common place with many activities, as a way of setting rhythm and pace. This scenario was no different, but to keep spirits high the Prophet added a twist. The modern day equivalent may be someone listening to their ipod, singing aloud to the music]
When Umm Ayman asked if she could have a camel, the Prophet replied saying that he would only mount her on the offspring of a she-camel. Umm Ayman was not impressed pointing out that it would not be able to support her weight. Again he repeated the statement. Then it hit her, he was joking with her as all camels, young or middle aged or old, are the offspring of she-camels.
Abi Malikah says that he once heard Aisha utter some humorous words before the Prophet (pbuh). At this Aisha’s mother said to the Prophet, ‘O Messenger of Allah! Some of the pleasantries of this tribe trace their origin in the tribe of Kinanah’. At this the Prophet said, ‘This tribe itself depends on our humour’.
Abu Bakr went to the city of Busra on a trade mission with Nuaiman and Suwaibit, both of whom had fought at the battle of Badr. Suwaibit was in charge of the provisions of the caravan and when Nuaiman asked him to give him food, he replied, ‘Wait here a short while until Abu Bakr comes’. Now, Nuaiman was a witty and humorous fellow. He went to a group of men who had brought some animals and said to them, ‘Will any of you purchase a slave?’ They replied in the affirmative. Nuaiman said, ‘That Arab slave (pointing towards Suwaibit) is a plausible fellow and it is just possible that he might say that he is not a slave. If you leave him because of his words then do not blame me and do not break our sales transaction’. The traders agreed to this and bought him for the price of 10 she-camels. Nuaiman brought the she-camels and pointing towards Suwaibit told them that he was now their slave. The traders said to Suwaibit, ‘We already know that you will say that you are not our slave’ so they tied him by his neck to take him away, all the while he was in shock wondering what had happened, he was after all a free man. In the meantime Abu Bakr came there and he was informed about what just happened. Abu Bakr and his companions when to those merchants and returned them to their she-camels. Thus they bought back Suwaibit. Later on when the Prophet was informed about this incident, he laughed. The Prophet and his companions continued laughing over this incident for the whole year.
[To the vast majority of us the idea of slavery, and joking around the subject of slavery is alien, and may even be viewed as reprehensible. However in context, slavery at that time in Arabia was common place, to the point that some commentators claim that up to 80% of the citizens of Arabia at that time were in fact slaves']
Prophet Muhammad once went to Abu Talha’s house where he saw Abu Umair. Seeing that he was upset the Prophet started joking with him to cheer him up, but it didn’t work. When he asked what was wrong, the other people there said, ‘O Apostle of Allah, his red beaked bird with which he used to play, has died’. Realizing this, the prophet expressed his sympathy asking, ‘O Umair, where is the Nughair (a red beaked bird)?’
Rabiah Ibn Uthman says that a certain Bedouin came to the Prophet. He seated his she camel outside the holy Mosque and himself went inside to meet the Prophet. Some of the companions of the Prophet said to Nuaiman Ibn Amr, ‘If you slaughter this she camel and satisfy your hunger, the Prophet will pay its costs’. So, the narrator relates, Nuaiman slaughtered the she camel. When the Bedouin came out of the Mosque and saw what happened, he began crying out, ‘O Muhammad! Some one has slaughtered her!’ He came out and asked the people who was responsible for this! So they told him, Nuaiman. The Prophet went out to search for him and found him in the house of Dabaah, who was the daughter of Zubair Ibn Abd. Realising that he made a mistake, he found a spot in her house and hid himself behind branches and dry barks and leaves. When the Prophet came in, someone cried out that he had not seen him all the while pointing in the direction of where Nuaiman was hiding. The Prophet pushed aside the leaves and pulled him out of his hiding spot asking him why he slaughtered the camel? He replied, ‘O Messenger of Allah! These very men who had told you about my whereabouts, had asked me to do that’. The holy Prophet began removing the leaves and barks from his head and face, realising they were playing a practical joke, and started laughing. The narrator says that they went back to the bedouin and paid his asking price for the she-camel.
[Culturally, probably not the sort of practical joke that most of us can relate to. Still, context and relevance is key as what worked then wouldn't necessarily work today]
When Qarrah asked Ibn Sirin if the companions of the Prophet played jokes on one another he replied ‘They too were humans beings and nothing else’
One day when they were digging the Ditch before the Battle of al-Ahzab the Prophet fell asleep from sheer exhaustion, and Abu Bakr and Umar stood guard over him keeping the labourers away so that he could sleep in peace. Zayd b.Thabit, who was just sixteen and preparing for his first experience of battle, also fell asleep. Umarah b. Hazm played a practical joke on him, stealing his clothes and tools, and hiding them. Thus Zayd earned the nickname Abu Ruqad (the ‘Sleepy One’ or ‘Father of Dreams’).
Prophet Muhammad one said, “The dearest of you to me are those who have good manners; the most offensive to me are the most boring and the long-winded!”
May we all be blessed with better balanced personalities, jumah mubarak