In our time, where people know very little about the difference between the prevalent parody and the real comedy, come the three musketeers of humorsim. “Allah Made Me Funny” comedy tour members employ “the word instead of the sword" to make people laugh at the flaws and discrepancies of Muslims but not for the sake of entertainment only but, and most impotently, for the sake of enlightenment.
The message of the tour is “to make a comprehensive effort to provide effective, significant and appropriate comedy with an Islaamic perspective, which is both mainstream and cross-cultural”, but when it comes to the action, you will laugh until cheeks will hurt, as one of audience once said.
The stand-up comedy tour has three members: Azhar Usman, an American Muslim from an Indian descent. Azhar always says: “I'm not Osama Bin Laden's evil twin brother, I'm his cousin! You can just call me Bin Laughin!”
The other two comedians, Preacher Moss and Azeem are African-Americans. Preacher Moss actually says: “I'm African American and a Muslim which basically means that when I'm pulled over by the police, I get two tickets instead of one!” Azeem, who was once “so green about stand-up comedy” thinks that the challenge is to teach people without making them feel they are in a classroom.
I-MAG met the three talented comedians to learn more about their message and their efforts to vanquish cultural, religious and ethnical stereotypes and prejudices.
1. So Allaah made the three of you funny, but the question is when and how did each one of you discover that Allaah gave him this gift, and how did each one of you develop it?
P. Moss: I feel like I could always make people laugh, but the question was if I could do it consistently, and subsequently professionally. I was blessed to have a supportive family, and at the time a very supportive comedy community. I started out working as a comic with a jazz band out of Chicago “PI” (Pre-Islam). I continued to develop the idea of communicating concepts, and being a solid storyteller. Fortunately, Allaah has imparted in my soul the idea of ’sabr (patience) and humility.
Azeem: The way I realised that I was funny was when my ex-wife’s best friend and my worst enemy (Azeem smiles) and I were at work and she told me that I keep everyone laughing and that I should give stand-up comedy a try. I was so green about comedy that I didn’t even realise that there were comedy clubs! So she gave me the name of a club, I went out to their open mic, people laughed, I caught the joke bug, and the rest is history.
Azhar: I have always been the class clown and the joker of the group. Once I decided to pursue stand-up comedy seriously, I put my craft first and became a student of the art. Subsequently, I decided to pursue it full-time, as a career, and that required making an even more serious commitment to writing, editing, and growing myself as a professional comedian.
2. Inspiration or perspiration? Do you work a lot on your performances and plan for them or is it a piece of cake because of your gift?
P. Moss: It is a combination of both. My favourite saying states: “Everyone has a talent, but it takes skill to get noticed for your talent, and it takes discipline to maintain the skill.” I would refer this question to my last answer. Allaah knows the balance of things, and His messenger is the example He gave of how hard we must work to attain any level of excellence.
Azeem: I for one have to work at my skill, because although I do have the gift of making people laugh, there is a big difference between making someone laugh versus making someone laugh for a particular purpose. I reflect on the Holy ’Qura~n, wherein Allaah says that He created us complete and yet incomplete, which shows that what He has deposited in each of us is already there but it will take time for it to grow into its perfected state. I believe that we all have a gift that Allaah blessed us with, but it is up to us to cultivate that gift into that which He intended it to become.
Azhar: Yes, absolutely. Inspiration is the raw talent part, which is necessary. However, thereafter, one must work very hard to turn talent into skill. And the skill together with discipline is what creates a sustainable career in the entertainment industry.
3. How did the three of you meet each other? And how was the tour established?
P. Moss: I had known Azeem from five years back. I met him at a comedy club in Madison, Wisconsin. I was headlining, and he was opening. He was very talented, and of course we clicked as Muslims in a non-Muslim environment. I approached him in the formulation stages of the tour. I was introduced to Azhar via a mutual friend. I spoke with him at length about joining the tour and taking up some of the business development aspects of building a tour. He is very astute as a former lawyer, and could provide the business infrastructure the tour would need to sustain itself. Truthfully, I felt like I had known these brothers all my life. We openly refer to each other as family.
Azeem: Well, Preach and I met in a comedy club in Madison, WI, about five years ago, and realised we were both Muslim, and hit it off. Azhar and I met through Preach, and we all agreed that working together under the concept presented by Preacher (Allah Made Me Funny) would be a worthwhile effort.
Azhar: Preacher Moss knew Azeem from the comedy club circuit for a few years. Preach reached out to me after hearing my name thrown around the Muslim circles. Once he and I met, we hit it off immediately and the rest, as they say, is history. So far, we’ve proven to be the brothers no one believed we could be.
4. What is the philosophy behind the name of the tour “Allah Made Me Funny”?
P. Moss: The philosophy behind the name is ta’qwa. On my best day, Allaah is in control, as Allaah is in control on my worse day. The title is an acknowledgement as to Who has given us our skills, and it serves as a moniker to the Muslim, and non-Muslim communities that we have validated ourselves, and our own self-worth. We have not waited for the media or even the Muslim community. Our self worth comes from Allaah, and we act accordingly. Comedy is a very powerful tool in self-expression. This project is organic because it is from the Muslim community, endorsed by the Muslim community, but appeals to the world community.
Azeem: The concept behind “Allah Made Me Funny”, is that comedians are always given the praise of being so funny, or “brilliant”, or “cutting-edge”, or the “king of comedy”, but as men who fear Allaah, we know that we are not the originators of our gifts, for we are only the conduit through which that gift is expressed, and therefore we know that to Allaah belongs the praise. So this is why we say that: “Allah Made Me Funny”.
Azhar: Allaah comes first. Period. And everything we have is a gift from God.
5. Does each one of you write what he is going to personally perform or do you write for each other too?
P. Moss: We all write our own material, but we do not hesitate to offer suggestions on ideas we think can help another person’s act. The team is only as strong as the individuals on it. We want the overall product to be professional, and express the excellence of this “deen” (religion), and our community.
Azeem: Well, we all are creative, and knowing that no one person can see all the angles of an object, we work with each other to add spices to different jokes.
Azhar: Each comic writes his own act. But then each of us will offer suggestions and critiques to one another. Preacher Moss is the most senior comedian in the group, so his advice is highly sought after and valuable. But I’ve managed to write a few jokes for him as well, which have actually ended up in his act – so that’s a feather in my cap.
6. You all come from ethnic groups that are not well represented in the American media. Did that arise curiosity and help promoting your message or was it a barrier?
P. Moss: It served as inspiration. We had to overcome some of these issues, but it was in the advocacy of human development and providing a model of unity. It was interesting, as we had to at times put ourselves in environments we were not particularly familiar with. We had to introduce ourselves to different aspects of the diversity of Islaamic culture. I feel it did help promote our message, and our own personal understanding of Islaamic culture.
Azeem: I think it actually helped our tour in that America has built its reputation on controversy. So people will always look at ideas that are outside of the norm.
Azhar: Generally, it’s been a source of great interest for the media.
7. In the beginning it might sound paradoxical, but – and correct me if I’m wrong- your comedy is a “serious” one. You want people to laugh, but I’m sure you want them to laugh in order to ponder over certain issues. What are the main themes that you tend to cover, and the key misconceptions you aspire to dispel?
P. Moss: Again, comedy is a serious tool as self-expression, but it is serious because people are exposed to that expression. Therefore, you must also be responsible. Our themes tend to cover the ideas of how do we bring mutual importance to the aspect of contemporary Islaamic life, from all aspects of living, and have them balance out to be relevant. There is a beautiful side to being a Muslim, and the -sometimes - not so glamorous side. We have to be seen as human in either context.
Azeem: The fact is that with comedy, you have the opportunity to teach, but you also have the challenge of teaching the people without them knowing that they are in a classroom. I tend to focus my comedy on the everyday issues that go on in a Muslim household, such as marriage, children, etc. This way the person who is listening to the show, on a sub-conscious level, learns that Muslims are just like other people; they have real life issues. Their children drive them crazy, their wives are always right.
Azhar: Great comedians have always made audiences laugh and think. I’d love for my audiences to get a window into my mind, what I honestly think about – and that includes things as important as ethnic profiling, terrorism, or religious fundamentalism, to things as mundane and insignificant as the sign on the mosque’s bathroom wall. Anything is fair game.
8. What do Islaamic scholars say about your works? Did anyone object?
P. Moss: The scholars we’ve spoken to have given general approval, and more importantly seen our work as more than just jokes. We’ve been able to reach a larger audience than just the average Muslim. We have seen that the community has embraced the idea, and given it value we never expected. The support from scholars, and Imaams has been a mercy of Allaah. We are truly blessed in that aspect. Some objected, but never bothered to see the show. We don’t fret it; everyone is entitled to his or her opinion.
Azeem: We have been blessed to have major support from scholars throughout the Islaamic community.
Azhar: All of the religious scholars (’ulamaa-) have all been overwhelmingly supportive of our work. This is a blessing from God.
9. Are there roots for fun and comedy in the Islaamic history that we can use to reply to the gainsayers who oppose using comedy to spread the message?
P. Moss: Islaam is a religion of peace and submission to the excellence of Allaah. There are many related ‘hadeeths speaking of the Prophet’s smile, and his beautiful sense of humour. He laughed, smiled, and gave us a proper understanding of why we do these things. This is a great religion. It’s meant to be enjoyed. Think of the many things we enjoy, and try not to smile. We are beings of emotional dogma. Laughter is an element of our spiritual and Islaamic DNA.
Azhar: First of all, comedy need not be used to spread anything. Comedy can simply be acknowledged as a part of life. This is why we find that the Prophet (P.B.U.H.) himself laughed and joked, as recorded in all of the blessed collections of traditions (’hadeeths), including specific dedicated chapters in the “Shama-l of Alimaam” Attirmith>y, and elsewhere. Also, the Prophet’s companion, Nu‘aymaan bin ‘Amr (may God be pleased with him), was known as “The Jester of the Prophet” and was known to be a real prankster who regularly made the blessed Prophet laugh. Do we really need to look any further than that?
10. How do you prioritise the issues you wish to campaign? You have the WASPS (White Anglo-Saxon protestant) to relate to, and you also have a commitment to self-critique to the Muslim community in the West that has a lot of maladies. Did the 11th of September make you concentrate more on the “other” than on the “self”?
P. Moss: The focus of this tour is raising the awareness of simple things. How we live, grow, and interact as believers, and servants. This is a pre-9/11 issue. We are firm to point out that this tour is not a response to 9/11 but a call to action for Muslim, and non-Muslim communities to take action in bringing humanity to the forefront of daily living. Our tour is for everyone. Our themes are universal enough for everyone to get it. The religion itself emphasises the other over the self so we have simply been consistent in presenting ourselves that way. On and off stage we have modelled this example for ourselves, and our community.
Azeem: No. 9/11 actually made me focus more on the “self”, because I have come to realise that if I become a better reflection of that which Prophet Muhammad (P.B.U.H.) taught, I could affect a change in the world overnight. So introspection is of more importance than trying to define what is wrong with others. And in truth if you find what is wrong within yourself, you will be able to assess the problems outside of yourself.
Azhar: Again, I don’t really see my work as any sort of campaign. I would generally prioritise self-criticism as the number one goal, because it is my belief that God requires us to rectify ourselves first and foremost, not others. The obsession that some people have with the “Other” is a modern product of nihilistic thought of our age, but has nothing to do with traditional religious piety, which always asked, “What is wrong with me that God has forsaken me?”
11. I learnt that you refuse to perform in places where liquors are served. Has your performance ever been cancelled because of owners’ insistence on serving liquors?
P. Moss: We have made it a condition of our contracts that no alcohol, or pork be served at our venue. Our performances have never been cancelled due to this stipulation. It is a battle though. Some owners have tried to violate this agreement for different reasons, but Allaah knows best. It has made the tour stronger, and kept it in line with our beliefs.
Azeem: No. In fact clubs have been surprised that you can actually make as much money on food, because Muslims can do damage to a grill!
12. Politics is interwoven in our daily life, how do you choose what political topics to tackle and do you avoid certain topics or people?
P. Moss: It seems the events of the day, or politics choose us. We all have our own influences as to what is relevant, and we express it. We all have our specialties, and it is endorsed on the tour to cater to your strength. We only avoid certain topics, because we may not be informed enough to truthfully speak on the topic. In the end it is an individual decision.
Azeem: I choose any political topic that is in contradiction to freedom, justice, and equality. I feel that this is needed because so many people are afraid to say how they really feel, but comics are known for saying what others are afraid of saying. I for one don’t see the point of doing comedy if I am going to be the same cookie-cutter comedian who is only interested in what the majority feels or says. If you’re looking for a cheerleader, go to a football game. If you want comedy that is a symbol with substance, check out “Allah Made Me Funny.”
Azhar: No comment. I choose to avoid tackling that topic.
13. What are the main barriers your tour faced?
P. Moss: We’ve faced financial hardships at times. Business wise, we are a first year start-up company. Nobody on this tour joined to get rich. We started this tour to make a difference, or be part of change in the Muslim, and non-Muslim community. We have had the challenges of being professional, business savvy, and still remaining a community project. The expectations are high, as are the risks. We have put a lot on the line by being a voice from the Muslim community…and we’re not scared, or intimidated by the current atmosphere. I carry a huge personal responsibility as the senior member of the tour. I have the responsibility of making sure my younger brothers are protected, healthy, and able to provide for their respective families. We must not only maintain or identity as Muslims, but promote the Muslim identity/concept of self-validation, as well.
Azeem: All praise is due to Allaah, we haven’t faced any.
Azhar: The main struggle is one of the spirit. Can three up-and-coming comics really put ego and pride aside to come together for a greater good? People don’t believe it’s possible – and when they see us do it, there is a spiritual triumph for all involved.
14. When are we going to see the tour in the Arab world? And what subjects will your performance tackled?
P. Moss: In shaa- Allaah, we will see this tour in the Arab world soon. Our subjects will still be on the aspect of defining the concept of contemporary Muslim identity, and a sense of unity around the identity. They often ask bout our American Muslim identity, and we have to be willing to share that with them, but they also want to see a project like this because it represents a lot of the values they hold important.
In shaa- Allaah we will be able to do that tour soon. The topics will be the same for the most part, but I will work on dealing with the oppression of women and with females in Islaam.
Azhar: God willing, soon, I plan to talk about Arab greatness of the past and Arab backwardness of the present. I speak the truth, as the ’Qura~n instructs me to, as a witness for God, even if it be against my own self. The truth can sometimes be a real bitter pill – so the comedy helps people swallow it. Let’s hope so.
To learn more about the tour:
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