The Heart of Prophetic Humor

The Heart of Prophetic Humor on

Mohammed Saleem

The Messenger of God ﷺ gave us comprehensive advice on dealing with others when he said, “Facilitate ease for people and do not make it difficult, calm them (سَكِّنُوا sakinuu) and do not repulse them.”1 The meaning of the word "سَكِّنُوا" is to bring tranquility, calm, and reassure, emphasizing that we must instill a sense of peace in those around us, from our closest family members to strangers on the street.

We can elicit this peace in others by giving them good news, making it easier for them, and when appropriate, keeping it light with humor by putting a smile on their face and relaxing them. The Prophet ﷺ was the master of this. The Prophetic atmosphere was one of profound spirituality and knowledge—and also humor. There are countless stories of his lightness and ever-present smile, from jokes with others to even food fights with his wives2, perfectly balanced with his seriousness in religion and stand for justice. 

Take the well-known race with Aisha, for example.3 We tend to forget that this was a man in his fifties who did this. How many of us would do that? Today we take ourselves too seriously. It’s not uncommon to spend time with people who seemingly equate piety with being uptight, boring, and not wanting to have fun. They and we frown, often with a noble intention thinking we are empathizing with the downtrodden state of our ummah—after all did not Salahuddin vow not to smile as long as the Holy Land was occupied? It’s a way of asserting our credibility on the Muslim street. Our conversations are filled with doom and gloom, discussing local and global controversies along with our personal complaints and problems, driving hope—and energy— away from our discourse and gatherings.

That of course is not the beautiful balance of the Prophet ﷺ. He did not bore people to sleep, but he awakened their hearts.  He drew people closer and did not push them away. Keeping it light with humor helps put people at ease, and ultimately makes them more receptive to hearing and understanding the truth. Moreover, modern psychology tells us that humor also benefits us in our own well-being in several ways:

1. Resilience

Studies show that people with a sense of humor rebound from adversity better and have a more positive orientation to life, responding to stressful situations with positive productive emotions, instead of fear or anger.4 When this is tied to our religion, and when we understand that Allah is in control and not us, nothing will faze us. We'll be flexible and optimistic. We are relaxed, not obsessing about the little things that don't matter, and forgiving and generous to one another.

2. Humility

 A person who doesn't take themselves too seriously will typically not see themselves as better than others, and that is essential in fostering healthy social relationships. The willingness to learn from one another and cooperate is derived from this positive humility where humor plays a role.

3. Self-efficacy

A sense of humor is connected to self-efficacy, a person's belief in themselves to complete tasks and reach goals. The Prophet ﷺ was the best exemplar, always maintaining an optimistic, confident and cheerful outlook. He accomplished the most, and in doing so he was always smiling, and even would joke. As Abu Hurayrah even said to him in near amazement," ‘O Prophet, you joke with us! ‘, to which the Prophet replied, ‘Yes I do, but I only tell the truth.’ "5

I only tell the truth. When you are on the truth on the inside, like the Prophet ﷺ, you will only speak the truth.  When the heart is smiling because it knows God, and is connected to God, how will it look on the outside? That's the element of the physical smile of the Prophet that we overlook. We rightly say “Smile, it’s sunnah” but in doing so we must also realize the internal reality behind that smile. It’s a smile that is rooted in, and connected to, the deeper joy of contentment of the heart with Allah. Humor should evoke heedfulness of the soul, not heedlessness of it. It’s not a pre-meditated exercise engineered for the pleasure of others, but a natural externalization of the spiritual contentment within.  The implication then for the gloomy affective display our community exhibits today is clear—it is but a manifestation of the somber reality of our hearts.

Today we are caught between two extremes—the “pious” legion of gloom on one hand and the excess, foolishness, and irreverence of the modern comedy culture on the other. Neither is ours because our Prophetﷺ and our way is the middle path, the path that soothes and calms, not the one which disturbs or excites. It was said of the Companions of the Prophet that they “used to throw melon-rinds at one another, but when the matter was serious, they were the only true men.”6 They were true rijaaal, men of justice, honor, dignity, and a few laughs as well. Cultivating our internal connection to the Divine will lead us to that same external balance—keeping it light, and always doing right.


1. Narrated by Anas ibn Malik, Sahih al-Bukhari 6125. Other variations of this text, most famously in the Prophetic advice to Abu Musa and Muadh ibn Jabal use the wording “and give glad tidings”.
2. Reported by Ibn ‘Asakir and Abu Ya’la. "The Prophet was once with his two wives, Aisha and Sawda, seated between the two. Aisha had brought a dish of food that she had cooked, and said to Sawda, “Eat some.” Sawda refused, to which Aisha responded, “I swear, you will either eat it or I’ll rub your face with it!” She still refused, and so Aisha put her hand in the food and wiped Sawda’s face with it. The Prophet touched Sawda with his blessed leg and said, “Rub her face in return.” So Sawda did the same to Aisha, and the Prophet started laughing."
3. Reported in Ahmad. “Aisha said: That she accompanied the Prophet on a certain journey. At that time she was a mere girl and was neither fat nor bulky. The Prophet asked the people to move on, and they marched ahead. Then the Prophet said to me, "Come on, let us have a race." 'A'isha says that she ran and remained much ahead of him. The Prophet kept quiet for some time. Later on when A'isha grew fat and loose bodied, and she forgot the previous incident. Again she accompanied the Prophet on some journey. The Prophet again asked the people to march ahead, and they moved ahead. Then the Prophet again asked her to have a race with him. This time the Prophet defeated her and she lagged behind. Now the Prophet laughed and said, "This is in reply to our previous defeat." 
4. Larry Hughes, “A Correlational Study of the Relationship Between Sense of Humor and Positive Psychological Capacities,” Economics & Business Journal: Inquiries & Perspectives 1 (October 2008): 46-55.
5. Reported in Tirmidhi.
6. al-Adab al-Mufrad of Imam Bukhari, reported from Bakr ibn Abdullah who said:
حَدَّثَنَا صَدَقَةُ، قَالَ‏:‏ أَخْبَرَنَا مُعْتَمِرٌ، عَنْ حَبِيبٍ أَبِي مُحَمَّدٍ، عَنْ بَكْرِ بْنِ عَبْدِ اللهِ قَالَ‏:‏ كَانَ أَصْحَابُ النَّبِيِّ صلى الله عليه وسلم يَتَبَادَحُونَ بِالْبِطِّيخِ، فَإِذَا كَانَتِ الْحَقَائِقُ كَانُوا هُمُ الرِّجَالَ‏.‏


By Mohammed Saleem , 31 Mar 2014

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