Allah Made Me Funny: Muslim Comedy

Muhammad was a joker. That's according to the Muslim comedy troupe Allah Made Me Funny, which has been touring the country getting Muslims and non-Muslims to laugh about painful topics such as terrorism and racial profiling. Jennifer Ludden talks with two of the troupe's comedians, Preacher Moss and Azhar Usman.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jennifer Ludden.

When The Improv club in Washington, DC, hosted a touring comedy troupe recently, they made a few changes. A door sign noted no alcohol would be served. There was no pork on the menu, no smoking, and the show was short. The three comedians were Muslim, and they said they'd keep their act to 90 minutes tops so as not to interfere with evening prayer.

(Soundbite of performance)

Unidentified Man: Salaam alaikum.

Crowd: (In unison) Alaikum salaa.

Unidentified Man: I notice we have some non-Muslim friends and family in the crowd, so I'll explain what that means. It means `We're gonna kill you.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man: I'm just kidding.

LUDDEN: The troupe is called Allah Made Me Funny, and they pride themselves in taking touchy issues head-on. They recently performed in England just after the July transit bombings there. Joining me now are two members of the tour. Azhar Usman is of South Asian descent and raised in Chicago, and Preacher Moss is from Washington, DC.

Welcome to you both.

Mr. PREACHER MOSS (Member, Allah Made Me Funny): Thank you so much for having us.

Mr. AZHAR USMAN (Member, Allah Made Me Funny): Thank you.

LUDDEN: So many of your jokes in this act play off people's fears of Islamic terrorism, and I want to play a clip. Here's a bit of you, Preacher Moss. And this was taped about a year ago.

(Soundbite of performance)

Mr. MOSS: Now for real, what is the deal, man? If you don't stand up, they're going to blame everything bad on Muslims, for real. A couple of weeks ago, I thought they were going to start naming natural disasters on Muslims, for real. I thought we were going to turn on the TV and the guy was going to be down in Orlando, `How you doing? This is Bob Johnson, Action News. We're down here in Orlando awaiting the arrival of Hurricane Abdul Malik.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MOSS: `It was supposed to be here eight hours ago, but you know how they are.'

(Soundbite of laughter and applause)

LUDDEN: Preacher Moss, this does sort of feel like comedy as therapy, if you will.

Mr. MOSS: Yes. Yes. I think laughter is one of the few things spiritual that you can say is free.

Mr. USMAN: Yeah.

Mr. MOSS: That's what we really aspire to do is put the smile back on people's faces, ...(unintelligible).

LUDDEN: Because it is a difficult time for Muslims.

Mr. MOSS: You know, it's a difficult time for Muslims, but it's a difficult time for non-Muslims. They're not sure, you know what I mean?

LUDDEN: Hmm.

Mr. USMAN: Yeah.

Mr. MOSS: You know, what's going to happen next?

Mr. USMAN: I think part of the reason why the tour has become kind of a phenomenon unto itself is because comedy and humor is really the antidote to fear. You know, we talk to people and through our show, particularly non-Muslims will come out and say, `God, you know, I had no idea that, you know, Muslims could be funny or, you know, that you have a humor tradition within Islam or, you know, that this is what Muslims are all about,' etc., etc. And it's because they feared something they didn't know.

Mr. MOSS: Exactly.

Mr. USMAN: And what I'm finding is that the opposite is also true. I just got back from a two-week trip to Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, spoke to a lot of indigenous Muslims in those parts of the world, and again, it's this idea that people fear America and Americans and, `The Americans are coming, and they're going to come and round us all up,' and I hear Muslims talking like this even in the United States. So this fear has begun to dominate in people's psychologies, and I think that people tend to fear that which they do not know. So if we can educate people, hopefully that begins to dispel some of that fear, and humor is a great way to do that.

LUDDEN: You mentioned a tradition of humor in Islam. Really?

Mr. USMAN: Yeah. Oh, absolutely.

Mr. MOSS: Yes.

Mr. USMAN: In fact, I wrote a paper which, thankfully, was asked to be part of an international academic journal called Humor(ph). And as I researched that paper, I began to discover that there's actually--there already is a humor tradition within the body of Islam dating back to the prophet Muhammad himself, who told jokes and played practical jokes.

LUDDEN: Really?

Mr. USMAN: Oh, yeah. He played practical...

LUDDEN: And how do you know this? I mean, is that in the Hadith or something?

Mr. USMAN: Yeah, it's actually--exactly. It's documented in the Hadith.

Mr. MOSS: It's written. It's written. Yes.

Mr. USMAN: There's an entire chapter in one of the canonical books of the Hadith which is called--of the Shematleh(ph), the Mamotunimi(ph). The Shematleh is the book that aggregates all of the characteristics of the prophet: the way he dressed, the way he walked, the way he talked. And there's two entire chapters. One of them is called the Book of When the Prophet Laughed(ph), and it documents all the times that we know of that are rigorously authenticated, meaning that they totally happened with certainty.

LUDDEN: Uh-huh.

Mr. USMAN: And then, secondly, another chapter called The Time the Prophet Joked(ph). And that tells all...

LUDDEN: Oh, OK. So can you give me a joke the prophet made?

Mr. USMAN: Sure. I mean, this is a really--you know, once this woman, this old woman, had lost her husband, and she came to the prophet Muhammad and she said, `Please, oh, messenger of God, can you make a prayer for me that I go to heaven?' And then he said, `Well, there'll be no old women in heaven.' And she began to cry. And then he said, `No, that's because they'll all be young,' like, there's no concept of aging in heaven.

LUDDEN: Preacher Moss, so are there--I mean, today, again so many of your jokes are coming after 9/11 and playing off that. Are there still, though, some jokes you just can't make?

Mr. MOSS: I don't look at jokes you can't make; I look at jokes you can't make successfully. And I think that's the criteria for everything we do on the tour. You know, we don't want to offend anybody. Is it true? Is it relevant? Have you done your homework? You know, before you put a joke out there, have you worked this out someplace, you know. You know, this is not open mike. You know, one mistake--one mistake in the wrong place and the wrong time, you know, this is--you know, there are people that want to see this tour do well, there are people that want to see this tour stop.

LUDDEN: You've been accused of--What?--doing something offensive to Islam, or what?

Mr. MOSS: Oh, you know, Islam or...

Mr. USMAN: Offensive to Islam?

Mr. MOSS: Yeah, that's the easiest part of it.

Mr. USMAN: Yeah, you'll be--I mean, again, it's all a matter of perspective. Right? So you'll have somebody sitting in our show, hears my act, for example, and because of their own predispositions and preconceptions, walks away and say, `Oh, Azhar Usman is a sellout, man. He's an America lover. He's a Bush lover.'

And then on the flip side, you'll--you know, there's Web sites that have called me a Islamist, you know, a radical and, you know, I'm a friend of the Taliban. And, you know, I might share some grooming habits with the Taliban. I mean, we probably use the same conditioner maybe on our beards, something along those lines. But that's about where the similarity ends.

LUDDEN: Let's hear a clip from your act, Azhar. And we'll note here, as you hinted, you have a full, long beard and you wear a skullcap.

(Soundbite of performance)

Mr. USMAN: Imagine what it feels like looking like me walking into the airport. (Laughs) Heads turn simultaneously. And security guys are going, `Right there. We got Muhammad, 4:00, right there.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. USMAN: And, of course, imagine what it feels like the moment I get on the plane. (Laughs) People can't believe it. In the middle of conversations, it's like--(gasps; exhales)--`I'm gonna die.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. USMAN: And then, of course, everybody's real nice to me once the plane safely lands. I'm just waiting for a real honest passenger at the end of the flight, you know, just come up, `Excuse me, sir. (Laughs) I thought you were gonna kill us. (Laughs) Sorry about that. (Laughs) Remember when you got up to go to the bathroom? I was gonna stab you! (Laughs) For cryin' out loud!'

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: OK, this is very funny. But, Azhar, let me ask you, seriously, I mean, aren't you also scoping out the passengers when you fly?

Mr. USMAN: Oh, probably at some level; it's very subconscious. You know, I sort of like to--like, I like to tell myself that hopefully I'm not an ignorant person. I try to be educated about people and about the world and about differences. And so, you know, if I see someone that looks a little different to me and makes me feel uncomfortable or makes me feel suspicious, I like to ask myself, `Well, why am I feeling that way?' And if I can't come up with a really good reason--I mean, certainly if they're--you know, if they've got an AK-47 in their lap, maybe that's a different reason to feel scared. But if it's just because they have a big beard, it's sort of absurd to think that someone who is planning to hijack a plane would show up looking like Osama bin Laden's evil twin brother. I mean--and by the way, I'm not his evil twin brother.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUDDEN: Azhar Usman and Preacher Moss are part of the comedy troupe Allah Made Me Funny.

Thanks so much to both of you.

Mr. USMAN: Thank you.

Mr. MOSS: Thanks so much for having us.

(Soundbite of performance)

Mr. MOSS: I feel that we as Muslims living in the West should be excited to exercise our rights to vote in a democracy, 'cause I don't know if you guys know this; there are still a lot of Muslim countries that have kings. (Makes noise) What is this, the 15th century? Actually, it is, according to the Islamic calendar.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MOSS: That's a good point. That's a good point, yeah. But nevertheless, can you imagine living in a country where they choose the leader based on who his daddy was?

(Soundbite of laughter; applause)

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