Humor is a feature of almost all civilizations. Some developed it into a separate art form, while with others it remained a marginal sphere of their daily lives and folk tales.
Archaeologists often discover ancient humorous drawings. In some ancient Egyptian temples, for example, drawings were found of a wolf shepherding a flock of sheep, and others of an army of rats besieging a fort manned by cats!
Satire has always been a form of dissent against political leaders and socio-religious taboos, exposing hypocrisy and corruption, and promoting the truth.
Humor is a human need as well, an outlet for people to vent and discharge negative emotions.
But while humor is a universal trait among humans, each culture has developed its own traditions and modes of expression.
Muslim scholars attempted to chronicle humor all the way back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad.
“The companions of the prophet used to jest among one another,” wrote Sudanese thinker al-Taher al-Mahdi, quoting Muslim historians and hadith scholars such as al-Bukhari.
The history of the Arab world under various ruling dynasties is rife with stories about the gatherings of Caliphs and their courtiers entertained by storytellers and jesters, and similar jocular gatherings at taverns and even homes.
The Arabs knew many forms of humor and farce for entertainment, including jokes, riddles, pranks, clowning, puns, and tong twisters, most notably in the Abbasid era or the Muslim golden age in Baghdad.
The Abbasid era was also a golden age for comedy and humor in Arab-Islamic history. The boom in the arts and literature, the proliferation of luxurious lifestyles, and the growth in intellectual and religious freedoms – and conflict – helped foster the spirit of irony and sarcasm among the writers of that era.
In the then-emerging urban center of the Arab world, new ways to make a living appeared, including through mercenary writing and poetry, as well as jesting and the so-called tufailis (jocular gate-crashers).
These types played on the contradictions among the various communities and classes of Abbasid society, in which poets and drunkards coexisted with clerics and princes, soldiers and craftsmen.
“Every aspect of life in that era became the target of ridicule, no matter how serious or taboo,” says Dr. Wadia Taha al-Najem.
Silly teachers and naïve preachers
Teachers were mocked mercilessly, and were the subject of much of the punchlines of the jokes of the time. Renowned medieval Arab writer al-Jahiz dedicated entire books to jokes and anecdotes about teachers.
Classical linguists were also mocked a lot for their pedantry and fondness for using pompous language.
Another segment targeted by the humor and satire of the time were religious preachers, with their exaggerated display of piety and devotion, knowledge, and austerity, and their naiveté, ignorance, ambition and greed.
“If a man dies drunk, he shall be buried drunk, and resurrected drunk,” one preacher says in an anecdote from the era, to which a worshiper replies: “By Allah! He must have had a very good wine!”
The Bedouins as the butt of jokes
Many classical jokes targeted Bedouins, for their simple manners, superficial understanding of religion and crudeness as compared to the urban dwellers.
“Humor in the Abbasid era was a façade that hid a great deal behind it, a rough expression of social, political, and intellectual trends and attitudes in that multi-cultural society,” says Dr. Wadia Taha.
Al-Jahiz is perhaps the pioneer of comedy in classical Arabic literature. He left many works that had a sharp tone and a keen eye interested in the characters and flaws of the people of the time. His works include The Book of Misers, The Book of Eloquence and Demonstration, and The Book of Animals.
Many other classical books were also keen to record jokes and anecdotes, such as: The Unique Necklace of Ibn Abd Rabbih; The Book of Songs by Al-Asfahani; and Meadows of Gold by al-Masoudi and many others.
The Arabs also knew many famous comic characters, like Bahlul, Jiha, Abu Dulama, and al-Shamaqmaq, many of whom pretended to be fools as a way of social satire.
Indeed, the history of humor in the Arab world is as old as the Arabic language itself.