Of God and Ayatollahs: Theological Implications of Contemporary Iranian Jokes

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King's University College--Univ. of Western Ontario
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Mahdi Tourage, PhD (2005), University of Toronto, is currently Assistant Professor of Islamic in the Department of Religion and Philosophy, King’s University College, University of Western Ontario. He is also Book Review Editor of the American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences (AJISS). His book entitled Rumi and the Hermeneutics of Eroticism was published in 2007 (Brill) and his publications have appeared in Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, and Iranian Studies. His areas of interest are Islamic religious thought and Sufism, classical Persian literature, gender and postmodern theories.

One of the results of political oppression in contemporary Iran has been the proliferation of jokes about Islam, God and the ruling clergy.  This paper will argue that the function of these jokes exceeds their political content.  These “religious” jokes express more than politically subversive ideas that are censored by normative socio-political mechanisms, they express popular religious views with far reaching theological implications.  Using postmodern theories of humor I will argue that these jokes mobilize cognitive versatility that serves two functions: they intend to make participants smarter about the ruling clergy’s hypocrisy, and more importantly, they probe Islam’s religious/spiritual claims.
These jokes and their functions are not new phenomena, many similar examples can be found in the archives of Islam.  Hence, this paper will offer some historical backgroundfor these “religious” jokes that date back to the inception of Islam.  Highlighting inconsistencies in Islam’s religious worldview was historically limited to isolated satirical works of renegade literary figures.  However, contemporary Iranian religious jokes are unique in their forceful popularization of inconsistencies in the very nature of faith and belief.  Therefore, I argue that these jokes are not carnivalesque parodies of an otherwise somber façade of Islamic beliefs and practices represented by the ruling clergy.  They point to the absurdity at the core of literal conformity to these beliefs and practices. 

Academic Discipline : 
Religion/Classical Persian Lit
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