The Place of Joy, Happiness, Laughter, Recreation and Relaxation in Islam
“For, to speak out once for all, man only plays when in the full meaning of the word he is a man, and he is only completely a man when he plays.” (J. C. Friedrich von Schiller, Letters upon the Aesthetic Education of Man, Letter XV, 9)
As a follow-up to the the entry entitled Self-Discipline in Islam, I was asked “what is the place of joy, laughter, and relaxation in Islam, in comparison to self-restraint, discipline and control?”
A few preliminary remarks, before providing an answer:
- To answer this question, one would ideally have to have a good grasp of the general personality traits that are expected of the believer. Books have been written about each of these traits, so here is not the place to give a more detailed account. So simply to keep in mind the most important ones:
- Strong sense of community (direct neighbors, neighborhood, community, society and country; world)
- Importance of family ties
- Moderation in everything (belief and action, including eating, sleeping, speaking, playing)
- High moral character:
- Truthfulness; honesty
- Well mannered
- Well spoken
- Patience; resilience, perseverance
These general traits have to be the background against which this article is to be understood. In other words, nothing I will be saying here should be interpreted in a way that contradicts those traits, only complement them.
2. This is not a topic that has been addressed a lot directly, but indirectly, there is a lot of literature. Anyone who wants to address it directly in a serious manner therefore needs to spend time canvassing, extracting, compiling, interpreting, etc.
With these two points in mind, we can delve into the topic at hand…
One of the core tenets of Islam is its insistence on its compatibility with human nature. God created the universe, including human beings, and instilled various, even divergent faculties, traits, abilities, desires, instincts, etc. in them. Left to themselves, human beings allow some of these aspects of their nature to dominate others aspects, and this explains much of the oppression and corruption (committed against oneself as well as others) that takes place in the world. While certain philosophies, religions or ways of life have opted for repression of some of these natural desires and inclinations as a means to control them (for instance, celibacy in various religions, most notably Catholicism based on Matthew 19: 11-12), Islam teaches that these instincts, desires and faculties have all been placed in the human being by the divine hand for important purposes, in order to live a rich and fulfilled life, and as instruments to be used for a better afterlife. The condition however, is that these various aspects, faculties, and forces must be in complete harmony with each other, and that each is used as it should, in conformity with the circumstances and context, without transgressing any others. So using them appropriately (to maximize their benefits) is equated to using them in the manner in which God intended, and in the manner that pleases Him. The claim of Islam is that this is only possible by strictly following the teachings of Islam, which come from the creator of the human nature, and who alone, knows absolutely and perfectly the true needs and secrets of this human nature.
The need to play, to laugh, and to relax are instinctive, natural needs that are found in every human being. Given what we just said, it becomes valid to wonder, how are we to satisfy this need in a harmonious, balanced manner without falling into either end of the spectrum (too much or too little)?
The normal and expected state in life is one of hard work, perseverance, and seriousness. Rest and relaxation are a complement to the hard work by providing the required state to refresh the psyche and re-energize the mind, in order to return to the daily routine of life with renewed vigor and energy.
Despite the importance of relaxation and its function, if someone spends the majority of their time relaxing and resting, they will surely have wasted their life. The Holy Qur’an says:
“or do you suppose that we have created you without purpose, and that you will not be brought back to Us?” (23:115)
“Does the human being suppose that he would be left to futility?” (75:36)
“O human being! You will certainly labor toward your Lord laboriously, and (then) you will encounter Him.” (84:6)
There is no question that hard work and consistent effort are required to meet the necessities of this life, as well as to ensure happiness in the afterlife. But if you push yourself too much without rest or relaxation, you may end up causing harm to yourself, and damaging the ultimate results you are looking for. That is why we find that the Islamic tradition has not neglected playfulness, laughter and relaxation.
Various narrations from Prophet Muhammad and the Imams address the topic directly:
The Prophet said:
“Rest yourselves from time to time; because, if the hearts get tired they become blind.”
Imam Sadiq said:
“This religion is deep, so enter it with moderation, and do not make yourself dislike worship (by doing more than you can handle), then you will become like the one whose ride (i.e. horse, camel…) dies in the middle of the desert; he will not have completed his journey, and he will have killed his animal as a result of exhaustion.”
He also said:
“My father saw me exhausted from worship while I was young, so he told me ‘my son, when God likes his servant, He is satisfied with little worship from him.’ ”
There are those who wish to make rest and playfulness the objective of their lives. They spend every moment looking for the next recreational activity to occupy themselves and relax. Such people will most likely leave this world with a heavy heart, because they were never able to find the absolute rest and play that they were longing for, because such an absolute state of relaxation and rest does not exist in this world. As for those those who view life as serious business, but who also know that there is a place for rest and recreation in their life, their outlook is much more balanced and compatible with their own nature. So long as the general map of your journey in life is one of hard work and perseverance, and the portion you allocate to relaxation and play does not interfere with it in manner that delays or prevents you from reaching you worldly and otherworldly objectives, then there is no harm in enjoying life, be it in recreational activities, hobbies, sports, travel, socializing, playing games, or even sleeping.
In one narration, Islam teaches us to organize our time in this manner:
“Divide your time into four parts: one part to speak with your Lord; and one part for work and livelihood; and one part for socializing with family and friends; and one part to satisfy your desires without committing sins.”
Rest and play beyond permissibility
In Islam, any thought or action can fall into one of five categories: obligatory, recommended, permissible, discouraged, and forbidden. While most people will expect the discussion on playfulness, laughter and the like under the heading of permissible acts, the truth of the matter is that they should be discussed in the recommended actions, and some may be surprised to learn that they can even be considered as lighter forms of worship.
Acts of worship are simply actions whose main purpose is to strengthen the ties with God. And while there are ritual prescribed acts of worship that are obligatory (the five daily prayers, fasting the month of Ramadan, etc.) or recommended (fasting outside of Ramadan, performing additional prayers, keeping the streets of your neighborhood clean, volunteering at the homeless shelter, etc.) some actions can be performed with the intention of worship even though they have not been explicitly mentioned as acts of worship.
An example to illustrate this notion: drinking a glass of water is simply a permissible act. But if I am about to die from thirst and I know that drinking the water saves my life, then drinking the same glass of water becomes obligatory. If I know that an animal or a person around me is more thirsty than I am, then drinking the water instead of giving it to them becomes discouraged (or prohibited, if their life is in danger). If the glass or the water belong to someone else and there is a possibility that they do not want anyone else to have it, then drinking it without their permission becomes forbidden because it is someone else’s property. The desirability or undesirability of the same action will therefore change depending on the intention and circumstances around the action.
So if I am simply drinking the glass of water because I feel thirsty, it would be deemed a permissible action. But if I drink the water with the intention of feeling better and stronger, so that I can undertake other good actions, such as praying, or helping others, this definitely becomes a recommended action for which I will be rewarded by God, because of the ultimate intention behind it.
Rest, relaxation, laughter, play, etc. are all permissible in Islam. However, when we keep in mind that they prevent depression, get rid of boredom, and inject energy and vigor back into our lives and the lives of those around us, and as a result we can take better care of ourselves physically, psychologically and spiritually, and better perform our duties towards ourselves, others, and God as a result, of course they become recommended and encouraged.
The place of humor
Many have criticized Jesus, the Bible, and religions in general as lacking humour and laughter, and used this as at least a partial reason for rejecting religious belief [see for instance Adam Lee’s article]. This is the same line of thinking that has made some thinkers say those a nation that doesn’t know how to enjoy playing can’t be trusted, or that a man who doesn’t smile and is serious all the time is a dangerous man (Shakespeare in Julius Caesar, Act 1, Scene 2). Regardless of the many problems and weaknesses with the argument being made against the Bible and religion [too many reference to name here, but you can read The Humor of Christ, and Between Heaven and Mirth for now] the objection itself does highlight the importance of humor and lightheartedness as a natural human need. In other words, there is something disconcerting and unhealthy about lack of humor and too much seriousness, because it is incompatible with the human nature that everyone finds in themselves directly.
The Holy Qur’an tells us in many verses that one of the main objections of the disbelievers is that they do not want to follow a mere human being, and would rather follow an angel for instance. The Qur’an rejects their argument because the point of sending human beings as divine prophets and messengers is so that people have concrete examples to follow in their daily lives. Prophets and messengers are people who eat, and sleep and fall sick, and die. Their greatness lies in their ability to become what they become in spite of their human limits. Angels with no desires, no instincts or needs, could never become models for humans… and humor is part of human nature. In that sense, their objection is valid that if it is true that there is no place for humor, laughter, playfulness in religion, then it is incompatible with human nature, and they are not interested in it.
In Umberto Eco’s famous novel The Name of the Rose, murders take place at the hands of monks who kill people who get too close to Aristotle’s book On Comedy, in which the latter talks about humor and laughter and its philosophy. Comedy and laughter are of course portrayed as evil, and therefore dangerous by the Church, so they eliminate those interested in such corruption. Although mostly fictitious, this book is pointing, in a genius manner, to a serious issue with many religious people (and this is not limited to Christianity by any means) who actually do have such tendencies of viewing humor and laughter as corrupting, and damaging to piety and religiousness, and that it is therefore inappropriate.
Søren Kierkegaard, the father of Christian existentialism, thought that the reason sexuality had become a problem in Christianity (he called it “institutional Christianity”) was because Christianity had fixated on it, and made it into a problem and an evil. He also explained that for a human being to find true fulfillment, they must go through various stages, namely: the aesthetic stage, the ethical stage, and the religious stage. And it is only once we reach the last stage, according to Kierkegaard, that we become authentic, and truly appreciate that all the pleasures of life and the goodness of creation are gifts from God to be enjoyed in the right way. There is something to be learned from these insights, as we must all know religious people who think that being religious means being serious at all times, even short tempered, grumpy…
Leniency, good mood, smiling and playfulness…
The good manners of Prophet Mohammad are legendary. When it came to laughter, it is well known that “his laughter was his smile”, nothing more. He was never heard actually laughing out loud. But at times, he would smile to the point where his teeth would show as well, and that is when people around him knew that he is finding something very funny. The Prophet and the imams were exemplary in all of their behavior, including their playfulness and good demeanor.
Prophet Muhammad would say
“Pleasant demeanor takes hatred away from one’s heart,” and when asked to give advice he would add “and greet your brethren with a smiling face.”
Imam Sadiq said:
“There are three traits each of which will secure paradise for you: giving charity while you have little to spare, smiling in the face of everyone you meet, and being just even against your own self.”
Imam Baqir or Sadiq said:
“Doing good actions towards others and having a pleasant demeanor ensure that you are liked, and this will get you into paradise; greediness and constant frowning will push you away from God, and will end up getting you into hell.”
Imam Sadiq said:
“There is no believer who does not carry playfulness.” He was asked about to explain playfulness, so he said “jesting.”
Imam Sadiq once asked one of his companions: “How much playfulness is there among you?” the man replied: “little.” The Imam said:
“Playfulness is part of having good manners, and it enables you to make your brother happy. The Messenger of God would joke with those he wanted to make happy.”
The Prophet said:
“The believer is playful and jesting. The hypocrite is dry and angry.”
In other narrations, he said:
“The believer is easy going, with a good demeanor.”
“Jesting from the believer is worship.”
“Whoever makes a believer happy, God will fill their heart with happiness on the Day of Judgment.”
In addition to such sayings, we also have many reports of actual stories from the lives of the Prophet and the Imams containing humor…
- Once Imam Kadhum was asked about pleasantries and joking being exchanged between his companions, so he replied: “there is no harm in it so long as it doesn’t lead to obscenity.” He then added: “There was an Arab nomad who would come visit the Prophet from the desert and bring him a gift. Once the prophet would take it, the man would say ‘where is my payment for the gift I brought?’ and the Prophet would laugh.
- One of the companions of the Prophet, An-Nuayman, was a well known joker. Every time he would come to the city, he would take something good to eat from one of the merchants, and bring it to the Prophet as a gift, without having paid for it. When the merchant would see him, he would ask him for the value of what he took, but the companion doesn’t have any money, so he would ask the merchant to follow him to ask the Prophet to pay for it. The Prophet would tell ask him: why did you take it if you don’t have any money? He would reply: “It looked so good that I wanted you to have it.” The Prophet would laugh and pay the merchant… The Prophet would say about him: “He will enter paradise laughing, just like he used to make me laugh.” Imam Kadhum says that the prophet would be sorrowed, he would ask about him, saying ‘I wonder where is the nomad. I wish he would come visit us.’”
- It is also said that once a women named Um Ayman came to the Prophet and told him “my husband is inviting you.” The Prophet asked her: “is he the one with white in his eye?” (an indication that one has gone blind). She said no. The Prophet insisted: “sure, there is white in his eye.” She replied again: “I swear there is no white in his eye!” The Prophet said: “everyone has white in their eye!”
- A women once came to the Prophet and asked him for a camel to ride. He told her “instead, we will give you the son of a camel to ride.” She replied “what use is the son of a camel if he can’t carry me?” The Prophet said “Was there ever a camel who was not the son of another camel?”
- The Prophet would also play and joke with children whenever he saw them. He would give them nicknames, and give them a lot of attention. There are known reports that he would pull out his tongue to show it to his grandsons, who would laugh when they would see it stick out.
- One of the companions of the Prophet, Suhayb, was suffering from a conjunctivitis (pink eye). When the Prophet saw him eating dates, he said “Are you eating dates with this infection in your eye?” Suhayb replied “I am eating on the other side.” The Prophet found this so funny that his teeth were showing.
- Once, a man came to Imam Ali and told him that he saw himself in a dream performing forbidden acts with his own mother. The man thought that this was punishable so he was confessing the contents of his dream publicly to Imam Ali. The Imam ordered that the man stand in the sun, and that, as punishment, his shadow by lashed.
When we canvass the life of the Prophet and the Imams, we notice that most of their joking and pleasantries were with those who were considered weaker in their societies: foreigners to make them feel at home, poor people, women and children, etc. In addition, the narrations are clear that their humor is not an end, but always a means, to make others happy and make them feel comfortable and at ease.
Joking should therefore never include backbiting, lying, making fun of someone, scaring anyone, committing blasphemy or cursing anything that may be sacred to someone, doing anything that may anger someone, or using humor in the wrong context.
These traits from Prophet Muhammad and the Imams were emulated by Muslims throughout the centuries and until today.
For instance, Ash-Shaby, who was the jurist of Kufa during his life was known to have very good humor. One day he entered into the public baths, and upon seeing a man who had almost nothing covering his body, closed his eyes and continued walking. When the man saw him he asked him: when did you become blind? He replied: since the day God stripped you of your dignity.
One day, a man asked him: am I allowed to scratch an itch on my skin while performing the pilgrimage? He replied: itch away. So the man asked again: what is the limit? To which he replied: until you hit the bone.
And on another occasion, a man told him: I married a woman thinking that she was perfectly abled, but realized that she has a limp. Can I divorce her? He replied: if you were planning on using her for racing, yes.
Thousands of such stories can be found in various books that are also considered as representative of the original Arabic and Islamic cultures. Examples of works that may indirectly fall under this category of indirectly addressing this topic:
- Kitab Al Bukhala (Book of the Misers) by Al Jahidh (776-869) see here
- Akhbar al Hamqa Wal Mughaffaleen (The Reports of the Fools and the Dupes) by Ibn al Jawzi (1113-1201) see here
- Al Mustatraf Fi Kulli Fannin Mustadhraf (Witticisms from Every Enjoyable Art) from Al Abshihi (1387 – 1447) see here
But since I do not think that these works are accessible in English translation, I will add four books from Idries Shah that may be enjoyed by English readers in that same vein:
- The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin (1966)
- The Pleasantries of the Incredible Mulla Nasrudin(1968)
- The Subtleties of the Inimitable Mulla Nasrudin(1973)
- The World of Nasrudin (2003)
Are humor and rest contradictory to religiousness?
There is a misconception among many religious people that religiousness means saying no to anything and everything that this life has to offer, and to live the most materialistically minimalist and ascetic life possible. This of course, extends to one’s general mood and outlook on life, and goes against tendencies towards laughter, playfulness and general enjoyment of life. Though seriousness and asceticism in this sense have their benefits, it can not in any way be considered the Islamic position on how to live your life, as was made clear by the life of the Prophet himself and the Imams.
Furthermore, Islam says that the real purpose of creating human beings can only be attained in the afterlife, and that this life is a means and a path to the afterlife. That said, the Qur’an is clear that asceticism cannot mean ignoring your share of life completely:
“Seek the abode of the Hereafter by the means of what God has given you, but do not forget your share of this world. Be good [to others] just as God has been good to you, and do not try to cause corruption in the land. Indeed God does not like the agents of corruption.” [28:77]
Nor does religiousness and piety in Islam mean abstaining from anything that looks good, or tastes good, or feels good…
“Say: ‘who has forbidden the adornments of God which He has produced for His servants, and the good provisions and sustenance?’ Say: ‘They are for the faithful in the life of this world, and for them only on the Day of Resurrection.’ Thus do we elaborate the signs for a people who have knowledge.” [7:32]
“O you who have faith! Do not prohibit the good things that God has made lawful to you, and do not transgress. Indeed God does not like transgressors.” [5:87]
Imam Kadhum says
“Give yourself a portion of this worldly life by granting it what it desires so long as it is lawful and as long as it doesn’t harm your honor and isn’t wasteful … he is not of us one who neglects his life for his religion, or his religion for his life.”
There is no shame in having desires or in wanting to satisfy them through lawful means. The problem occurs when these desires control us and start dictating our thoughts and actions.
The benefits of play and rest and their deeper meanings
As for the benefits of playfulness, play, rest and recreation, as well as the deeper philosophy behind them, these would require a thorough study from various angles.
Johan Huizinga wrote a book in 1938 entitled Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture in which he explains the role and function of play in culture and society. In fact, the main thesis of the book is that culture is only possible as a result of play. (Although the word play can’t cover the entire sematic sphere of Ludens…)
Eugen Fink, a German philosopher who studied under Edmund Husserl, also wrote a few works on the philosophy of play. In English, one can read Play as Symbol of the World (especially An Oasis of Happiness: Thoughts toward an Ontology of Play) in which he follows a movement that goes from “child’s play” to “cosmic play” to show that play is much more than mere idle amusement.
There have even been serious works on the formative, spiritual and mystical role of humor and laughter, such as Patrick Laude’s Divine Play, Sacred Laughter, and Spiritual Understanding.
All of these works, and many others like them represent a good place to start exploring the philosophy and significance of play at a deeper level, especially before saying that laughter, playfulness, and the like, are discouraged or incompatible with strict religiousness.
Why would Prophet Mohammad joke around, and laugh, and make others laugh? Is he not a perfect human being, fully contented by his relationship with his beloved Lord? Was his prophetic mission not one of utter seriousness, and taking place in very difficult circumstances? Yet, he was playful. Why? The author goes on to explain that it is because he was an educator, whose role was to teach others. And he wanted to ensure that those around him knew not only that it is okay to laugh, but that it is important to do so.
So he taught others to be playful, and pleasant, and lighthearted, and not to take things too seriously, and to always be smiling, and to make those around us happy, especially those who need it most. While the dignity and the full weight of the constant divine presence prevent the prophet from ever laughing more than simply smiling while showing his teeth, those around the prophet were normal people, as are we today. History tells us that they would laugh out loud, and even laugh until they fell on their backs. We have clear and multiple reports that his companions would make fun of each other in good humor, playfully throw melons on each other, play tricks on each other, all of this in the presence of their prophet, who would smile at their behaviors.
Playfulness, recreation, laughter… are all indicators of a healthy psychology. Physiologically, many studies have explained its benefits on the muscular, nervous and even adrenal systems. The endorphins that are released during laughter relax the nervous system and help with the general health of the body. The opposite state cause stress and produce cortisol, which ends up harming nerves and joints and causing inflammations as well. And today, we also know that those who stress their nerves more are at higher risks of dementia and Alzheimer’s, and consequently have shorter lives, or at least a diminished quality of life.
Some of the benefits of laughter…
- Acts as a major coping mechanism;
- relieves anxiety and tension,
- serves as outlet for hostility and anger,
- provides healthy escape from reality, and
- lightens heaviness related to critical illness, trauma, disfigurement, and death.
- Lessens the hierarchy between individuals,
- establishes rapport, and
- decreases social distance.
- Helps convey information;
- opens the door for communication by allowing one to bring up a secretly serious subject to see how it will be received while providing an ‘out’ such as “I was only joking;”
- aids in negotiation;
- defuses hostile conversations.
- Increases respiratory activity and oxygen exchange.
- Stimulates heart rate and blood pressure followed by a relaxation phase;
- Increases production of catecholamines resulting in increased levels of alertness and memory;
- enhances learning and creativity.
- Immunoglobulin A found in significantly increased levels of saliva with stimulation of humor and laughter;
- increased spontaneous lymphocyte blastogenesis, a natural killer of cell activity.
- Stimulates muscles and relaxes muscle tension, often resulting in diminished pain.
- Laughter stimulates both hemispheres at the same time, coordinating all the senses and producing a unique level of consciousness and a high level of brain processing.
- Internal organs massaged resulting in increased peristalsis,
- improved digestion.
- Production of tears provides exocrine response, carrying away toxins found in cells under stress. (see K. Buxman references below)
It is unfortunate that some religious scholars want everyone to abstain even from telling jokes, because they are “lies”. All of art and most of the science rests on imagination, and the ability to create and manipulate notions and scenarios in one’s mind and express them to the world… They also insist that laughter is discouraged, and that it kills the heart and takes away one’s dignity and intellect…
Our religion is one of moderation and realism. Its teachings cover all aspects and circumstances of life. One must therefore be careful when reading the various narrations and sources not to generalize too much teachings that are meant to apply to certain situations and not others…
It is perfectly acceptable for us Muslims to be serious people who also know how and when to laugh.
As always, your feedback and comments are welcome. Keep smiling!
Some TED talks…
Why we Laugh