By: Shaykh Faraz A. Khan
It is narrated with a sound chain of transmission that our Beloved Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Do not laugh too much, for verily excessive laughter kills the heart.” [Bukhari, Adab al-Mufrad; Sunan Tirmidhi; Sunan Ibn Maja; Musnad Ahmad]
And in some narrations, there is an addition, “For verily excessive laughter kills the heart and removes the light of one’s face,” or in another version, “For verily excessive laughter corrupts the heart.” [Bayhaqi, Shu’ab]
This latter version helps explain what is meant by the version of “killing the heart,” namely, that the death of the heart refers to its spiritual corruption. As Imam Mubarakpuri explains in his commentary of Sunan Tirmidhi, “For verily excessive laughter kills the heart, i.e., engulfs it in layers of darkness, akin to a dead person that cannot benefit from anything beneficial nor ward off from himself any harm. This is indeed from vast yet concise prophetic speech [jawami’ al-kalim].” [Tuhfat al-Ahwadhi]
Imam Munawi gives a more detailed explanation of the spiritual death of one’s heart as he states, citing various Imams, “Excessive laughter leads to a hardening of the heart, which in turn leads to heedlessness [of the Divine], and the death of the heart occurs not except by heedlessness.”
He further comments, “Getting accustomed to laughter distracts one from reflecting on matters of significance…one who laughs excessively does not have a respectful demeanor [hayba]; he does not command respect at all. One who is characterized by it has no meaningful thought nor worth.”
He adds, “Excessive laughter and excitement regarding worldly affairs is a lethal poison that flows in one’s veins and removes from the heart fear [of divine punishment], sadness [over one’s sins], and remembrance of death and the terrors of the Day of Arising; this, then, is the death of the heart. ‘And they rejoice over the life of this world, yet the life of this world with respect to the afterlife is nothing but temporary, paltry amusement’ (Qur’an 13:26).”
Elsewhere in his masterful commentary, Imam Munawi states, “Laughter that kills the heart is that which occurs due to rejoicing over this life and being prideful in one’s joy thereof. The heart has [spiritual] life and death—its life is by continuous obedience, while its death is by responding to the call of other than Allah, such as of one’s ego, stubborn whims, or Satan.”
Finally, Imam Munawi states that the reason why excessive laughter kills the heart is because the root of excessive laughter is love of this world, which is the cause of every sin; and once the heart is dead, it does not respond to Allah when He calls him [to obedience].[Fayd al-Qadir Sharh Jami’ al-Saghir]
A Point of Reflection
On a side note, with minimal reflection one can readily appreciate how contemporary Western society revolves almost entirely around excessive amusement which, as we noted above from Imam Munawi’s commentary, “distracts one from matters of significance.” The plethora of grave maladies and ills that plague us today—including wars, disease, famine, crime, economic crises, the waning of the planet’s resources, corporate hegemony, moral degradation, and the looming catastrophe of global warming and overall environmental damage—are all lightly brushed aside from public discourse and mass media to make room for reality TV shows, football games, and unending advertising.
As the late cultural critic Neil Postman so insightfully titled his book, we as a society are “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” i.e., to the extent that we fail to benefit from the beneficial nor recognize and ward off real harms such as those just listed. And as Chris Hedges has titled his own recent book on the subject, we have unfortunately become an “Empire of Illusion,” too distracted to give serious thought to real problems, let alone anything related to our Creator, the afterlife, or the death of our spiritual hearts.
Humor in Moderation: A Prophetic Sunna
Having said that, we must bear in mind that the corruptive element of such amusement and laughter is the fact that it is extreme, and the fact that it stems from love of this world. On the contrary, a cheerful countenance and humor in moderation is an established sunna of our Beloved Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him).
He was known to have a wonderful sense of humor, as confirmed in many prophetic reports, yet without excess nor lying. Scholars mention that his intention thereby was always to please Allah Most High, as he would do so to cause happiness to enter the hearts of those around him; it was never for the sake of this fleeting life. [Muhammad ibn ‘Alawi al-Maliki, Muhammad al-Insan al-Kamil]
When our Mother Aisha (Allah be pleased with her) was asked how our Beloved Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) used to be when alone with her in the house, she responded, “He was the sweetest of people; always smiling and joyful.” [Musnad Ibn Rahawayh] Smiling and being in a pleasant mood are confirmed sunnas that are most pleasing to our Lord, to the extent that they are considered charity. Our Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Do not deem any good deed as insignificant, even if only meeting your brother with cheerful face.” [Sahih Muslim]
It is narrated in one of the descriptions of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) that he was “always in a cheerful mood and very easy-going, ” yet “not excessive in joking.” [Bayhaqi, Dala’il al-Nubuwwa] And sometimes the Companions would mention things they would do before becoming Muslim and laugh together, to which the Messenger would smile. [Sahih Muslim]
Laughter and Good Health
What you allude to in your question with regards to some of the health benefits of humor and laughter, such as reducing stress hormones and increasing endorphins and overall strength of the immune system, is interpreted in the light of the Qur’an and Sunna as the cheerful personality and balanced, moderate sense of humor taught to us by the Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him).
That is, one can attain such positive health benefits by practicing the Prophetic Sunna of a noble intention and moderation, without having to resort to the excessiveness and trivial nature of amusement that leads to the aforementioned spiritual vices.
Examples of His Beautiful Yet Moderate Sense of Humor
(a) A man once came to the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) to ask for a riding animal, to which the Prophet responded, “I will give you a child of a she-camel.” The man said, “Oh Messenger of Allah! What will I do with a child of a she-camel? [i.e., it being too small to ride or carry things on]” To which the Prophet responded, “Isn’t every camel the child of a she-camel?” [Sunan Tirmidhi, Sunan Abu Dawud, Musnad Ahmad]
(b) Our Beloved Messenger (peace and blessings be upon him) used to call his servant Anas, “Oh Possessor of two ears!” [Sunan Abu Dawud, Sunan Tirmidhi]
(c) An old woman once came to the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and asked him to pray to Allah to let her enter Paradise, to which he responded, “Oh Mother of so-and-so, verily old women do not enter Paradise.” So she left crying, and then he said to his Companions, “Tell her that she won’t enter it as an old woman, for verily Allah states, ‘Then We will make them [the female inhabitants of Paradise] virgins; loving; equal in age [i.e., young!]’ (56:36-7)” [Shama’il Tirmidhi]
(d) A woman named Umm Ayman once came to the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and said, “My husband wants to invite you,” to which he responded, “Who is he again? Is he the one with some whiteness in his eyes? [i.e., as if he had an eye defect]” She replied, “What Oh Messenger of Allah? By Allah, he has no whiteness in his eyes!” He said, “No, he does have whiteness in his eyes.” She replied, “No, by Allah!” He said, “Doesn’t everyone have some whiteness in their eyes? [i.e., the normal whiteness around the pupils]” [Ibn Bakkar]
(e) The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) was once with his two wives, ‘Aisha and Sawda, seated between the two. ‘Aisha had brought a dish of food that she had cooked, and said to Sawda, “Eat some.” Sawda refused, to which ‘Aisha responded, “I swear, you will either eat it or I’ll rub your face with it!” She still refused, and so ‘Aisha put her hand in the food and wiped Sawda’s face with it. The Prophet touched Sawda with his blessed leg and said, “Rub her face in return.” So Sawda did the same to ‘Aisha, and the Prophet started laughing. [Ibn ‘Asakir, Abu Ya’la]
To summarize, there is nothing at all wrong with light amusement and a balanced sense of humor, as such was from the noble character of our Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). Our intention therein should be to fill the hearts of our brethren with happiness, for the sake of Allah.
Such a noble intention, coupled with moderation and balance, will surely be a means of illumination of our hearts, as with anything from the Noble Sunna. Yet we should be careful not to overindulge in amusement and trivial things, and not to laugh excessively for the sake of worldly matters, as doing so leads to corruption and heedlessness of the heart, eventually resulting in its spiritual demise.
May Allah Most High fill our hearts with light, joy, and happiness for His sake, out of emulation of our Master and Liegelord Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him.
And Allah alone gives success.