If you’re like us, there’s just one word that comes to your mind when someone says the word “Islam:”
There’s simply no doubt about it, Islam is hilarious, and Muslims love to laugh. Muslims will joke about absolutely anything, and no topic is taboo.
“But Muzzfeed,” you’re no doubt saying. “With so many great Muslim comedians out there, how can I possibly keep up with them all? As a Muslim, I prefer simply being told what I should believe. It would be great if I just had someone to tell me who the biggest Muslim comedians are. ”
Well, we don’t know if you really said that, but in any case, here they are!
#4: Dean Obeidallah:
The “Dean of Comedy,” American Muslim Dean Obeidallah is a Muslim comedian you absolutely have to know. Obeidallah’s groundbreaking comedy uses satire and observational humor to dispel common notions about Islam and Arab-Americans, which infuses his comedy with a social message as well. He was responsible for organizing the “Muslim Funny Fest,” which brought together several Muslim-American comedians to help humanize Islam and Muslims.
Obeidallah’s stand-up commentary is funny, but even funnier are his political commentaries where he pretends that all criticism of Islam is rooted in Islamophobia and bigotry.
Says comedy critic Saul Benedetto, “He’ll do this thing where he’ll pretend to get really offended when, like, a Muslim woman gets bumped from a flight to Chicago or something. And then he’ll pretend to be completely ignorant about the plight of women across the Muslim world. Then, when people will call him out on it, he calls them Islamophobic. It’s a brilliant bit, the audience just eats it up. Dean is just so hot right now.”
#3: Nouman Ali Khan:
Appealing to adults and children alike, Nouman Ali Khan has been making audiences laugh with his hilarious expressions and deadpan dry humor for years. Kids love him because of the goofy faces he’ll come up with on the spot throughout his act, while adults love how he can keep a straight face when saying such ridiculous things.
Says Benedetto, “Nouman Ali Khan, or ‘NAK’ as his fans like to call him, is the hardest working comedian on the circuit. He’ll do all the big shows, ISNA, ICNA, the international festivals. But then he’s also doing the smaller shows, and workshops for younger, up and coming comedians.”
“NAK (pronounced naaaak) is super committed to the joke at all times,” continues Benedetto. “He’s got an entire satirical brand called ‘Bayyinah TV‘ which is a humorous but accurate send-up of religious educational programming, lifestyle advice, and spiritual musings.”
The word is some people have actually mistaken Bayyinah TV for a serious operation and have tried to sign up, which just makes it all the more hilarious. No word on if NAK is giving them refunds though. Come on, NAK! But it’s just so hard to be mad at him. Look at that face!
#2: Hamza Tzortzis:
2015 was the year of Hamza Tzortzis in the world of Muslim comedy. He simply owned it, and every other Muslim comedian was simply renting space from him. First, he pulled of the gag of the year when he “got caught” trying to set up an affair on Ashley Madison.
“His Ashley Madison bit was absolutely priceless,” says Benedetto. “Nobody knew what was going on. Everyone was like ‘was he hacked? or did he really sign up for the cheesiest hookup website on the planet?’ Either way, it played perfectly with the pure, sanctimonious, philosophical ‘know-it-all’ public persona he had so carefully crafted throughout all his comedic performances.”
As if that wouldn’t have made any ordinary comedian’s year, he raised the bar even higher when he started doing bits about the Qur’an “not being scientifically accurate.”
“The first time I heard that line,” says Benedetto, “My jaw hit the floor. I mean, does anyone in this day and age still think that the Qur’an has anything to do with science? But that’s where the joke is, the notion is just so ridiculous. Nobody could have thought of this. But then here comes Hamza Tzortzis who brilliantly plays it off like this is some new information he’s giving everybody, like it’s a big deal and everyone is going to have to ‘come to grips with this,’ when in reality, even 10 year olds who have been properly educated know this already. The bit worked perfectly.”
“And his range, that’s what’s impressive. How does one pivot so easily from the Ashley Madison joke, to jokes about the Qur’an not being scientific? It boggles the mind,” raves Benedetto. No doubt, as the youngest comedian on our list, Hamza Tzortzis has a bright future ahead.
#1: Zakir Naik:
We apologize to Muzzfeed readers for the lack of suspense, but fans of Muslim comedy know that there is simply no other choice for the top spot. “Zakir Naik is in a completely different universe from all other Muslim comedians,” says Benedetto admiringly. “He’s so far ahead of everyone else, it’s almost like he’s gone full circle and is actually behind everyone else now. That’s how far he’s gone. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
You all know the story behind the “Dr. Zakir Naik” character by now. Back in the 1980’s, two friends in Los Angeles, Ali Durrani and Joshua Bernstein, developed the concept for a “bumbling physician turned Islamic scholar” character that would pretend to prove complete non-sequiturs using “logic” that only HE could understand. Their idea took off when, in early 1991, actor Ashok Agarwal heard about the idea and tracked them down and begged to read for the part.
“At first we were skeptical, we wanted a bigger star for the part,” says Bernstein, who sold his stake in the Zakir Naik franchise to a private equity firm in 1995, but stayed on as a head writer.
“But Ashok took our idea for Zakir Naik and brought him to life. Zakir Naik as you know him today simply doesn’t exist without Ashok Agarwal.”
At first, audiences were kind of confused, because nobody had ever seen anything like the Naik character before. But before long, they caught on, and people all around the world have been laughing right along with Agarwal ever since.
Of course, long-time fans and devotees of Naik will remember that from June 1997 to September 1998, the Zakir Naik character was briefly played by British stage actor Permal Dashti, while Ashok Agarwal renegotiated his contract with Jahilliyah Productions, which had by then acquired a controlling stake in the company.
Fans still flocked to see Zakir Naik, but there was simply no denying that by that time, audiences had come to see Agarwal’s outrageous delivery as an integral part of the Zakir Naik persona, and were not as impressed with Dashti’s more nuanced interpretation of the character.
Fortunately, Agarwal and the execs at Jahilliyah Productions settled their differences. Agarwal received a hefty raise, and set off on a record-breaking run of making audiences of all faiths laugh. If you’ve ever seen a Naik show- and if you have not, trust us, stop reading this article right now, do a YouTube search, and clear your schedule for at least 2 hours- you know that the key to all Zakir Naik performances is Agarwal’s incredible rapport with audiences. He gets them involved, makes them part of the act.
“I swear, if I didn’t know any better, I would think the audience is in on it,” says Benedetto, “but that’s just how well the Zakir Naik character works. The audience has an idea what to expect of course, but they never know how the laughs are gonna come, or when.” Every insider we spoke to said the same thing- as unbelievable as it sounds, the audience reactions are all unscripted and genuine. None of it is pre-arranged.
“His exchange with that atheist kid was the stuff of legend,” continues Benedetto. “That’s the kind of thing that would have made any other comedian’s career. But with Naik, he’s been creating magic like that for decades now.”