#JeSuisSatire : Satire in Islam

Portions taken from an article I wrote for Elan in 2010 The Science of Satire
There's a fine line between satire and juvenile humor. Let's start there. Satire is specifically suited for adult minds. One needs to understand nuanced dialectics of satire to get any satisfaction from it. It's a thinking mans style. It requires cultural context and knowledge of tone. Whereas jokes or comedy for the sake of laughs, let's say fart jokes or slapstick, are for the easily entertained. Juvenile humor serves cheap reactions. Juvenile humor is suited for the minds of children. Satire is a different animal.

It is a mechanism of free journalism intended to suggest inherent breaks in institutional or ideological thinking. At it's best, satire is the only way to a free self-examining society and at its worst, like in the case of #CharlieHebdo, it's the catalyst that sparks a reform in the broken institution or ideology it satirized.

John Stewart says of satire, "The real outcome of satire is typically catharsis and whether that's positive or negative I don't know. The difference between a satirist and a demagogue is we're observers, we don't have the confidence to take the next step." The satirist lives somewhere between Mount Hope and the cliché tar pits of culture always trying not to get too high to fall too low. The mechanism they use to get back and forth, whether a pen, a guitar or newsrooms determine the type of satire. At least this was the explanation of satire pre‐millennium. We are so inundated with it from all sides that desensitization may be settling in. Nowadays, the heights are raised and the lows are deepened. When half of us speak in double meanings and the other half literally, miscommunication of this advanced satire is inevitable. I reckon some folks have no idea what is true and what isn't. The satire radar is out of batteries.

There are only a few rules which I’ll outline later. Most of it seems to be a God given gift and some of the people with the work, don't have the gift. When the New Yorker ran a satirical illustration of President Obama as an AK‐47 wielding Taliban, many Americans did not get the joke. The minority that did were even reserved in their reaction. The tragedy was that here we had the first African‐ American president in a land where senators were still calling for repealing Jim Crowe laws. The best satire is an emotional release to some while vulgar and abusive to others. The best satire approves what it mocks to disable it's stigma then comes back around with a social message. The New Yorker image didn't come back around. It charged the ones who saw it as a tragedy while those beyond the race issue, laughed for a moment. The joke still hasn't landed. So although, it's an old genre that has classical roots, even in Islam, when done incorrectly is a polarizing thing. To bring some context, I hearken back to the medieval underground of Baghdad.

Contrary to what Albert Brooks told you, there's a long standing Islamic tradition of comedic satire in many forms. The "hija" translated as satirical prose, is seen throughout the 9th Century used by one poet to mock another. In one case the poet As‐ Salami rips another, Abu‐Dalaf, calling him "...an experienced physician, yet a physician who does not usually enjoy success in what he practices. [Abu‐Dalaf] went to a sick man one day, and we commented, 'Cheer up! You have been bestowed the martyr's crown!'" Abu‐Dalaf responds, "As‐Salami has kept satirizing me, so I have said to him, 'Love of my heart, my dear one, my master, if you do not remember our intimacy at Ray, then remember your farting from beneath me at Baghdad." In this short example, taken from Thalibi's transcription, one poet boasts of the others faults, the catharsis of which being a juvenile fart joke with a pinch of eroticism. In the process, they sarcastically exalt each other in one line followed by the put down in the next.

However childish, each poet stuck to the meter of prose and kept the battle on paper even though according to the history this fiasco was continued by another set of Baghdad poets. When we search for a more nuanced satire in Islam we quickly discover the satirical rants of Jahiz who infused humorous paradoxes into the topics of the day (see "Book of Mobsters", "Book of Misers") His complex psychological, economic and scientific essays are hilarious in their sardonic tone incorporating hadiths and religious text with a delicate amount of self‐deprecating humor. In one story describing how his friend Ziyad found a competent storyteller he begins with, "The Prophet, Allah's peace and blessings be upon him, used to re‐sole his sandals and patch his clothing," and after describing how his peers had "leather patches" and "no new garment for anyone not wearing a worn out one," changes perspective to that of Zayid. Zayid says, "I went on finding out about people's intelligence through their food and what they wore on such a day [a scorching summer day] and I noticed that the people's clothes were new whereas his were merely enough for decency. So I assumed that he must be a man of discretion for we know that new things out of place are inferior to shabby clothing."

Here we see a delicate Islamic satirist at work. This nuanced combination regaled his 9th Century audience with stories of the Prophet and Jahiz' own friends. Even modern audiences can appreciate it but the same recipes when done wrong can lead to disaster. And, quite frankly, it has been done wrong more in the last twenty years then in all of Islamic history. The science of Islamic satire is a question of balance as Jahiz himself says, "Laughter has its due place and measure, as does jesting too. When one overdoes either, or does not allow them full play, over much of them turns into garrulousness and cutting them short ends in frustration."

- Cihan Kaan 01-08-2015



From the book Halal Pork and Other Stories By Cihan Kaan
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“Reminiscent of Ray Bradbury, the more outrageous satirical vein of Chester Himes, Amiri Baraka’s Tales of the Out and the Gone, or Sesshu Foster’s Atomik Aztex, Kaan’s Halal Pork is unique and essential reading, magically situating everyday debris in a cosmic drift that allows us to inhabit the universe.”
- Ammiel Alcalay, BOMB Magazine