COOL CLASSES: “From Malcolm X to Dave Chappelle: Islam, Humor, and Comedy in America”

The class traces the history of African American comedy and situates it specifically in relation to the civil rights struggles and the politics of African American Islam.

Course Name: “From Malcolm X to Dave Chappelle: Islam, Humor, and Comedy in America”

Taught By: Assistant Professor of Religion Guangtian Ha and comedian Musa Sulaiman

Says Ha:

The class traces the history of African American comedy and situates it specifically in relation to the civil rights struggles and the politics of African American Islam. We explore a range of notions such as the entanglement of religion and comedy (vicars, priests, rabbis, and imams as preachers-cum-comedians, sermon as stand-up, etc.), comedian as a special type of social critic, and the entwinement of Islam and Black politics.

The class involves multiple workshops with comedians based in Philadelphia, D.C., and Los Angeles, and included a comedy event—Muslim Kings of Comedy—in downtown Philadelphia. The event, which took place on March 24, was a sold-out show that was practically a community event for African Americans in Philadelphia and beyond. We also invited Kairi Al-Amin, son of H. Rap Brown, and Basheer Jones, the first African American Muslim councilman in the Cleveland City Council, to visit the class and speak to the students.

There are a number of things we—I am co-teaching this course with Musa Sulaiman, a renowned comedian based in Philadelphia—hope students will take away from it. First is a deeper understanding of the role of Islam in contemporary Black culture, from music to literature to comedy. While many Black people are not Muslims, Islam has cast a long shadow culturally on Black life. There is a certain “Islamicate” nature to much Black culture. We examine why this is so, and what the main factors or organizations (such as the Nation of Islam) are that created this entanglement.

The second thing we wish students to learn is the internal mechanisms for producing a comedy show—from writing the script, to reading the audience, to crafting an improv. Comedy has its own rules, and laughter is a complicated phenomenon that binds the physical to the spiritual, the sacred to the profane. We want students to have some idea of how this is done in actual comedy performances.

Students in the class stand and kneel around Professor Ha, seated on a high stool, in front of a red velvet curtain onstage at World Cafe.
The class pose together at the Muslim Kings of Comedy event. Professor Ha is seated in the center of the group. Photo by Adib Salaam Photography/YoWithTheCamera.

Lastly, we want students to get involved in doing something for the community whose stories and histories we have been reading. Thus all of them participated in producing the comedy event in Philadelphia, and all of them were introduced on the stage on the night of the show. We want them to understand that the ultimate purpose of learning is to cross worlds and build solidarity, to understand where one is in the world and what it means to occupy said position. We want them to embrace the communities without whom this class would not have been possible.

Bathed in purple stage lights the students stand in a line onstage and one holds a microphone that she is talking into.
The class onstage during the show at World Cafe. Musa Sulaiman is on the far right. Photo by Adib Salaam Photography/YoWithTheCamera.

I have been interested in comedy and religion for quite some years now as a side project. For the past two years I have been involved in The Contest of the Fruits, another project funded by the John B. Hurford ’60 Center for the Arts and Humanities (HCAH) and the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. That project also explores the intrinsic connection between the sacred and the satirical, focusing more squarely on the Islamic traditions in Asia. I realized a significant piece was missing: When we speak of Islam and humor, rarely do we consider the African American humorous tradition. Malcolm X was a brilliant speaker, provocative but also unbelievably funny. Dave Chappelle, despite all the controversies and his deliberate refusal to discuss Islam in his stand-ups, is also a Muslim and proud to be one. I sensed that at the site of comedy one witnessed another manifestation of the marginalization of Black experience in Islamic studies. Being a Muslim minority myself—in the sense of being a Muslim of Chinese origin who is necessarily a minority among MENASA (Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia) Muslims—I felt I had a responsibility to raise the voices of Black Muslims.

Musa Sulaiman, my co-professor, was a participant in The Contest of the Fruits. I was struck by his insightfulness and dynamic personality. He is a natural and his talent is so obvious you are taken in by his charm within the first five minutes. He is not only a first-rate comedian, but also a multi-talented speaker and filmmaker. I convinced him to co-teach with me—he had to refuse multiple invitations to perform so he could devote his time to teaching at Haverford.

Learn more about other offerings in the Department of Religion.