Islam and Stress Management (Part 6): Relaxation and Humor

Posted on January 6, 2007


by Rafik Beekun at the Islamic Workplace blog

Sources: and compiled from “The Lawful and The Prohibited in Islam” – Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, p. 292, Sheikh Jamal Zarabozo’s article on ‘The Manner of Joking in Islam’ from Islam House, and an article from Islamway

At times, Muslims can take themselves too seriously, and present too austere or aloof a picture of Islam or of themselves. This also happens as one rises up the organizational ladder, and the scope of one’s decisions widens. It is easy for a senior executive to mishandle his/her pschological size, and intimidate his/her followers.  In a toxic, negative relationship, we experience stress which produces cortisol, a harmful chemical that interferes with certain immune cell functions (Daniel Goleman in his new book Social Intelligence, Bantam, 2006).  Positive interactions aid the body to secrete oxytocin, boosting the immune system and decreasing stress hormones.  Clearly, both the leader and his/her followers need to learn to step back and build positive relationships.  

The art of managing one’s psychological size was well understood by the Prophet (s). A stranger once came to him almost trembling out of respect. The Prophet asked the man to come closer to him and with a compassionate pat on the man’s shoulder told him: “Relax brother, I am only the son of a woman who used to eat dried bread.”

Positive leader-follower relationships also include joking and humor. Following the Prophet’s (s) example, his companions also enjoyed humour, play and sport. This allowed them to relax both physically and mentally, and helped them spiritually. Ali bin Abi Taalib (r) said, “Minds get tired, as do bodies, so treat them with humour.” Similarly, Abu al-Darda (r) said, “I entertain my heart with something trivial in order to make it stronger in the service of the Truth.”

Islam is a religion that encourages engagement in this life, not isolation, and the Ummah is described in the Qur’an as a ‘balanced Ummah’. Accordingly, Islam allows a Muslim to entertain himself in order to relax through halal activities and sports. However, the pursuit of relaxation and the pleasure it provides should not become so all consuming so that he then neglects his religious and other obligations. Nor should he joke in an inappropriate manner.

The Shari’ah outlines the parameters of proper behavior with respect to human social interaction.  For example, the Muslim is forbidden to joke and laugh about other people’s values and honor. Allah says: “O you who believe, let not some people mock at other people; it may be that they are better than you…” (49:11). Nor is it appropriate for the Muslim to tell jokes based on what is untrue in order to make people laugh. The Prophet (s) warned us against this, saying. “Woe to the one who says something which is false in order to make people laugh! Woe to him, woe to him!” (Collected by at-Tirmidhi)

As long as the above parameters are observed, humor and joking are permitted in Islam based upon the example of the Prophet Muhammad (s). Abu Huraira (r) said that the Prophet (s) was told, “O Prophet of Allah, you are joking with us.” He said, “I only say what is true.” (Tirmidhi).

Based on the example of the Prophet (s), joking is a Sunnah. Sufyan ibn Aiyna was asked, “Is joking prohibited?” He replied, “It is a Sunnah, but the point is that it must be done appropriately.” Many of the scholars agree. Umar said, “I admire a man who is like a child with his family (playful), and once he leaves them, he is more serious.” Thabit ibn Ubaid said, “Zayd ibn Thabit was one of the most humorous men in his home. Outside of his home, he was as serious as any man.” It is also related that Ibn Abbas asked some of his guests to have light and humorous conversation so that they would have a good time and not feel bored.

Here are some examples of joking from the Seerah of the Prophet (s) (source: ‘The Manners of Joking in Islam’ from Islam House):

  1. The Prophet (s) used to joke with his companions, Abu Dawood and Tirmidhi reported that a man came to the Prophet (s) and said: “Give me an animal to ride on” the Prophet (s) replied: “I will give you the son of a female camel.” The man said with astonishment: “What could I do with the son of a female camel?” (i.e., thinking that he would be given a camel too small to ride). Thereupon, the Messenger of Allah (s) replied: “What do female camels deliver except camels?” (i.e., that every camel, even if it is fully grown, is the product of a female camel). (Abu Dawood & Tirmidhi).
  2. Tabaraani reported that an old woman came to the Prophet (s) and said: “O Messenger of Allah! Supplicate that Allah permits me into Paradise” he (s) replied: “Paradise will not be entered by old women” then he went off to pray. When he came back, his wife ‘Aisha, (ra) said to him: “The old woman found what you said to be difficult” he replied: “Allah will bring all the women of Paradise to a young age before allowing them enter.”
  3. Bukhari mentioned in his book, Al-Adab Al-Mufrad, “The companions used to play by throwing watermelon skins at each other, but when it was time for seriousness, they were real men.”
  4. The Prophet (s) joked with and teased children. Anas (r), narrated: “The Prophet (s) used to joke with us; He would call out to my young brother: “O Abu ‘Umayr! (a playful nickname), what happened to your bird (a pet that he used to keep)?”” (Bukhari).

Nevertheless, some scholars have prohibited joking and they are supported by some ahadith. It is related that the Prophet said,  “Everything has a beginning and hostility begins with joking.”

So how are we to bring together between these two views? Al Hafeth said, “What is prohibited is exaggerated or continuous joking as it distracts from worship of Allah and being serious about religious matters. This often leads to hard-heartedness, envy and loss of respect. Useful joking, which aims to calm people or entertain or relieve them for a short time is permissible.”  This view is consistent with the latest scientific understanding and Goleman’s research on social intelligence showing that positive interactions can reduce stress, and boost the immune system.

Types of Joking:

According to ibn Hayan, there are two types of joking: the first type is preferred, and is a positive kind “which Allah has permitted, which commits no sin and does not lead to separation between people.” The second type is the negative harmful kind, which  “causes hostilities and sadness, and creates disrespect amongst people.”

Etiquette for humor and joking in Islam:

  • Joking should not deviate from the truth. The Prophet Muhammad (s) said, “I only say what is true.”  (Tirmidhi and Bukhari in his book Al-Adab Al-Mufrad).
  • Joking should not involve verses from the Qur’an, Prophetic sayings, or any of fundamentals of Islam. Allah revealed a verse about a hypocrite who was engaged in this type of ‘joking’: “And if you ask them, they will surely say: ‘We were only conversing and playing.’ Say, ‘Is it Allah and His verses and His Messenger that you were mocking? Make no excuse; you have disbelieved [i.e., rejected faith] after your belief. […].” (At-Tawbah: 65-66). Indeed, inventing jokes about the religion of Allah may have dire consequences–as stated in the following hadith: “A servant (of Allah) would utter a word, without paying attention to it, which pleases Allah and which results in Allah elevating his rank in Paradise; And a servant (of Allah) would utter a word, without paying attention to it, which displeases Allah and which results in him going down into the Hellfire.” (Bukhari).
  • Joking should not become consistent and entrenched in a person’s manner, for seriousness is also a virtue. Muhammad ibn Ar Rashid said, “The issues of Islam are more serious than to be dealt with jokingly. Smiling, joking, relaxing and laughing are certainly welcome at appropriate times and places. But at times of work, seriousness is called for.”
  • Bad language or reference to improper topics of conversation may not be subject of jokes.
  • Joking must be at the appropriate time and place.  Dr Adel Shuweikh said, “Humour is most welcome after the Fajr prayer. He is supported by what has been related by Sammak ibn Harb, “I asked Jaber ibn Samra if he spent time with the Prophet and he said, “Yes, the Prophet would often not leave the mosque after the Fajr prayer until the sun rose. They would be laughing and he would be smiling.” (Muslim). He also said, atha another appropriate time for humor is after the ‘Isha prayer.”  It is up to the person to decide whether the time is right for humour.
  • The result of a joke is warmth and a relaxed environment, not shrill, cacophonic laughter. In the great work on the Prophet by Al-Qadi Iyad (d. 1149), Al-Hasan, son of Ali [r] asked his uncle Hind, son of Abu Hala about the hilye [description] of the Prophet of God (s). Part of Hind’s answer about the Prophet (s) was: “When he was full of joy he would lower his eyes. Most of his laughing was as smiling; when he did laugh, it was not loud, and he would show his teeth a bit like they were hailstones.”
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Overall, then, it is the subject matter of humor and its effects, which determines whether or not it is permissible by Islam. Imam Nawawi said, “Joking is prohibited when it is excessive and consistent. It becomes ineffective and causes the heart to harden. It distracts a person from worship of Allah and concern with religious issues. It often causes harm, envy and disrespect. If these elements are absent from a joke, then it is what is permissible by Islam. The Prophet would use humor to reach people and draw them together.”

You should also remember that different people have different thresholds and triggers: some enjoy jokes, others do not. Try to understand the people you interact with, in order to decide whether or not it is appropriate to joke with them. Such was the way of the Prophet (s), for he would not joke with all his friends. Similarly, Ad-Dhahabi related that Khalaf ibn Salim said, “We were at Yazeed ibn Haroun’s and he made a joke. Ahmad ibn Hanbal cleared his throat, and Yazeed said, ‘Who cleared his throat?’ When he found out who it had been, he put his hand on his forehead and cried, ‘Why didn’t you tell me Ahmad ibn Hanbal was here so I would not joke?”

By contrast, as serious as the Prophet (s) was on so many issues, he himself could take a joke. Here are two examples of jokes that one of his companions, An-Nuayman ibn Amr (r), played on him:

  • Once an-Nuayman went to the suq and saw some food being sold which appeared to be tasty and delightful. He ordered some and sent it to the Prophet (s)as if it were a gift from him. The Prophet (s) was delighted with the food and he and his family ate of it. The vendor of the food then came to an-Nuayman to collect the price of it and an-Nuayman said to him: “Go to the Messenger of God it was for him. He and his family ate it.” The vendor went to the Prophet (s) who in turn asked an-Nuayman: “Didn’t you give it to me?” “Yes,” said an-Nuayman. “I thought you would like it and I wanted you to eat some of it so I had it presented to you. But I don’t have any dirhams to pay the vendor for it. So, pay, O Messenger of God!” The Prophet (s)enjoyed the joke and so did his companions. The laugh was at his expense, literally, for he had to pay the price of the unsolicited gift. An-Nuayman felt that two benefits came out of the incident: the Prophet (s) and his family ate food that they enjoyed and the Muslims enjoyed a good joke.
  • A man once came to the Prophet (s) on a delegation and tethered his camel at the door of the Masjid. The Sahabah noticed that the camel had a large fat hump and their appetite for succulent tasty meat was stimulated. They turned to Nuayman and asked: “Would you deal with this camel?” An-Nuayman understood what they meant. He got up and slaughtered the camel. The nomad Arab came out and realized what had happened when he saw people grilling, sharing out and eating meat. He shouted in distress: “Waa ‘aqraah! Waa Naqataah! (O my camel!)” The Prophet (s) heard the commotion and came out. He learnt from the Sahabah what had happened and began searching for an-Nuayman but did not find him. Afraid of being blamed and punished, an-Nuayman had fled. The Prophet (s) then followed his footprints. These led to a garden belonging to Danbaah the daughter of az-Zubayr, a cousin of the Prophet. He asked the companions where an-Nuayman was. Pointing to a nearby ditch, they said loudly so as not to alert an-Nuayman: “We haven’t found him, O Messenger of God.” An-Nuayman was found in the ditch covered with palm branches and leaves and emerged with dirt on his head, beard and face. He stood in the presence of the Prophet (s) who took him by the head and dusted the dirt from his face while he laughed. The companions joined in the mirth. The Prophet (s) paid the price of the camel to its owner and they all joined in the feast.

The Prophet (s) obviously regarded an-Nuayman’s pranks for what they were light-hearted sallies that were meant to create some relief and laughter.   He as our role model clearly appreciated the humor in the two examples I have cited (source: Companions of the Prophet from The Alim Software).

At other times, joking may cause a person to lose his/her dignity. Ibn Hayan said, “Whoever jokes with an inappropriate person will lose that person’s respect, even if what he is saying is true. One should be selective with whom he jokes.”

Joking pointers for Muslims/Muslimahs:

  1. Is this time right time to joke?
  2. Is this an appropriate person to joke with? Can this person take a joke?
  3. Is this an appropriate topic to joke about?
  4. Is this the right place?

One final joking pointer: Do not insult others when joking since it could cause harm. Allah says, “O ye who believe! let not some men among you laugh at others: it may be that the (latter) are better than the (former): Nor let some women laugh at others: it may be that the (latter) are better than the (former): nor defame nor be sarcastic to each other nor call each other by (offensive) nicknames: Ill-seeming is a name connoting wickedness (to be used of one) after he has believed: And those who do not desist are (Indeed) doing wrong.” (Al-Hujuraat: 12).

In conclusion, always show respect to the person you are joking with, as the Prophet Muhammad (s) did when he told a man he was joking with, “In the eyes of Allah, you are great.”

This article is copyrighted 2006, Rafik Beekun.  Please do not cite, reproduce on another website, or quote without permission.