“I was once riding behind the Prophet (upon him be peace) and I recited to him one hundred couplets from the poetry of Umayyah ibn Abī aṣ-Ṣalt al-Thaqafī. Each time I recited a couplet, the Prophet (upon him be peace) would say to me, “Recite more!” until I recited one hundred couplets, whereupon the Prophet said, ‘He nearly embraced Islam.’”
By now, it appears the whole world knows that Will Smith assaulted Chris Rock during the live broadcast of the Oscars. And if it weren’t for one of the most strenuous branding campaigns in modern show business, the public might have taken the unfortunate incident at face value: Will Smith lost control over his emotions and unjustly slapped Chris Rock for an ill-conceived joke. However, in the process of building a multi-media empire, the Smiths have opened intimate and sometimes unsettling details about their personal lives. As a result, social commentary on the incident has framed Will Smith as everything from a vengeful cuckold trying to reassert his masculinity to a tutored soul, reliving the trauma of watching his mother suffer domestic violence. The carousel of public opinion continues to spin: biting, satirical, pseudo-therapeutic but very rarely introspective. For the Muslim community, I see two issues of interest here. First, should we even care about this? Does concern about what happened between Will Smith and Chris Rock represent an unjustifiable descent into the inane and vulgar? Secondly, as opposed to either aimless schadenfreude or psychological quackery, is there anything we can learn about ourselves and our tradition from this incident?
The Prophetic tradition above is recorded in ash-Shamā’il al-Muḥammadiyyah, the famed collection of Imam at-Tirmīdhī. At first glance, the tradition appears to contain little more than a normal interaction between the Prophet (upon him be peace) and Ash-Sharīd (the narrator of the tradition—by way of his son). However, commentators suggest that this narration—among other things—displays the Prophet’s cultural literacy. The Messenger of God (upon him be peace) was aware of pre-Islamic poet, Umayyah ibn Abī aṣ-Ṣalt, indulged ash-Sharīd’s reading of his poetry, and even commented to ash-Sharīd—who was clearly a fan—that, ‘Umayyah nearly accepted Islam.’ Before reading this tradition, I would feel slight embarrassment at playing the “Is so-so Muslim” game. Someone would begin, “Do you know if this or that celebrity took their shahadah? And I would always conceal my interest in the topic and respond with something affectedly high-minded and sanctimonious like, “If (insert potentially Muslim celeb) has embraced Islam then that is a blessing for him/her just as it would be a blessing for anyone.” As opposed to shunning ash-Sharīd’s interest in Ummayah ibn Abi aṣ-Ṣalt, a celebrity in the pre-Islamic era of ignorance (Jahiliyyah), the Prophet (upon him be peace) shared information that might have even served to make Umayyah more endeared to ash-Sharīd.
Celebrities, many of whom have captured our imaginations on account of their talent, matter to us—for better or worse. Their personas and performances represent the social trends that shape our lives. This doesn’t mean that we should participate in a baseless culture of celebrity worship or take them as moral guides. God forbid. Nonetheless, the cultural significance of celebrities is undeniable. Their performances, political stances, and even public statements and behavior draw the lives of celebrities into our conversations and social commentary. Stated differently, obsession with the lives of the people in the public eye—the whole of which are increasingly on display—does hint at troubling personal emptiness and misdirected focus. However, awareness of the world around us—of which celebrities are often a symbolic part—and an informed opinion about popular culture is natural and one might even say, sunnah.
Edward G. Robinson was an actor during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Among other things, he was known for his diminutive stature and impressive range—on screen and stage. In an interview, when questioned about his range and ability to successfully and convincingly assume a number of dramatic and comedic roles, he responded, “To what do I attribute my range? Well, I don’t know exactly. I guess it’s because nothing human is alien to me.” I’ve always appreciated this. One, because of the obvious rhetorical flourish expressed in the juxtaposition of the categories “human” and “alien” in talking about relating to people. Two, I have always believed that an enhanced ability to identify with other people is the most important quality for useful social commentary.
As such, when a high-profile person like Will Smith loses control and commits a regrettable act of aggression, what do we see? Do we see a failure to display a level of self-control so elusive that we’re currently engaging in a month of abstinence from food, drink, and sexual activity in order to approximate it? Our tradition is replete with references to fasting as a direct intervention in the pursuit to gain control over our most visceral, primal urges. In his Iḥyā, Ghazālī is explicit: Much of what contributes to our spiritual degradation, including anger, also emanates from the viscera or pre-conscience. And if I’m being honest, I cannot offer a solemn: “There, were it not for the grace of God, go I.” Unfortunately, I’ve been there a lot. Witnessing Will Smith, on an occasion that should have represented his crowning achievement, humiliated by way of unresolved inner turmoil and a lack of self-control, should add some urgency to our devotion this Ramadan. Without self-control, what we stand to lose is graver than public adulation or membership among some film cognoscenti.
Are we reminded of the gravity of roasting? In Sūrat al-Ḥujurāt God says:
O you 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… [49:11]
This is not a defense of Will Smith or condemnation of Chris Rock. Rock was definitely within our cultural boundaries; which not only permit such jesting but even regard with contempt those who “take themselves too seriously” to enjoy or at least tolerate it. But is that culture beyond reproach? The Islamic legal guidelines on this question are illuminating. For the most part, in Islamic law, anything goes in terms of roasting as long as both parties are cool with it. This is known as ḥukm ar-riḍā or the rule of mutual allowance. However, if either side begins to feel uncomfortable or takes offense at the joking, it becomes impermissible. That being said, I still think it’s reasonable for a comedian to assume that people sitting in the audience during a set are ok with being roasted. Nonetheless, ḥukm ar-riḍā is instructive in that it makes the feelings of the person being joked about the only relevant criterion in assessing the appropriateness of the joke. It doesn’t matter if other people thought the joke was mild or innocuous or that the setting is one in which joking happens all the time.
This is a major shift away from the popular conversation. Indeed, it suggests that the personal insecurities that make certain jokes or statements hit differently at different times must be respected. To be sure, in Islamic law the offended party doesn’t have the right to assault the offender. Rather he/she is responsible for simply disclosing that they don’t appreciate the joking. However, by the same token, saying that the offended is only upset for some ulterior reason, and not the joke itself does not exculpate the joker. If someone takes exception to the joke, it’s impermissible.
Accountability is one of the watchwords of our time. Every act of public wrongdoing is met with calls to hold the perpetrator accountable. And to be sure, accountability is a necessary step en route to restorative justice. However, some of our calls for accountability strike me as hollow. It’s as if we, a culture that nearly deifies celebrity, get some perverse joy from chopping down our external ‘idols.’ And this is good; all idols must be broken if we desire an unadulterated encounter with the Real (Glorified and Exalted be He!). But the big one is holding the axe!