After 9/11, the thought of setting up a Muslim comedy tour might have seemed as improbable as, well, attacking a country that had nothing to do with it. But two Muslim American comedians, Preacher Moss and Azhar Usman, decided to use their long practiced talents to engage the notions of what it is to be Muslim to audiences on both sides of the religious and ethnic divide. It was a difficult challenge, considering that Muslims aren’t known these days for artistic expression and creative freedom. The protests and violence stemming from the Danish cartoon controversy, the murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, and the Taliban’s shameful eradication of the Bamyan Buddhist statues all have underscored this unfortunate assumption.
However, the “Allah Made Me Funny” comedy tour that Moss and Usman set up has since travelled the world to rave reviews, culminating in the making of a documentary film produced by fellow comedian (and Muslim) Dave Chapelle. In a world where sickness abounds in Muslims and non-Muslims alike, Moss and Usman are determined to prove that laughter may indeed be the best medicine. Playwright and altmuslim correspondent Wajahat Ali recently sat down with the jet-lagged comedians to find out what’s so funny about being Muslim..
What was the inspiration for the “Allah Made Me Funny (AMMF) Comedy Tour”?
MOSS: A lot of people think that AMMF was an outgrowth after 9-11, it really wasn’t, man. Lot of people think it was a Muslim phenomenon, Muslim comedian phenomenon, or post 9-11 phenomenon – I mean that’s crazy, it didn’t come through that. I mean I was doing comedy back in ’92 with my kufi [traditional Islamic cap] on in the clubs. It came through the fact there was lack of dialogue missing within the Muslim community that we wanted to tackle and address, and of course later on there was an outgrowth that was brought on by 9-11. The issue was, “What was going to be the goals or understanding of having realistic Muslim expression here in the United States?” Myself being a comedian, talking about racism and attacking social causes, I thought humor would be the best way to put it together. In 2003, I started “Allah Made Me Funny” by myself, and in 2004 I brought in Azhar, and it became the brainchild of AMMF.
AZHAR: [Preacher] and I independently had very similar ideas. He had an idea to showcase the best Muslim comedians in the country, and he had the “Allah Made Me Funny” idea, he trademarked it and tried to make it happen. I had an idea, “Wouldn’t it be great if there was a Muslim version of ‘Kings of Comedy?’” But I hadn’t gotten any further than that, but I kept my ears and eyes open for possible partners to do it with. So, he called me out of the blue and asked me to join, but the idea was one that I had already warmed up to. He and I hit it off since our first phone conversation, and it was very much as if I knew this guy my whole life. He’s about 10 years older than me, and he is extremely experienced in the art of standup and in the Hollywood business. Immediately, he assumed his role as a mentor, and I was happy to fall in my role as a mentee. It was only 3 and a half years ago, but it feels like a lifetime. More often than not we talk almost every day, and I don’t think there has been 72 hours that have ever gone by without us talking. He’s like my big brother – a big brother I never had.
Last time we talked, [Preacher], you told me you have people coming up to you saying Azhar invited you to do this, assuming that you had no part in starting it
MOSS: You have those blinders on. You talk about being profiled and stereotyped, and it happens in your own religion!
It’s reminiscent of a speech I heard by Dr. Jeffrey Lang, a White convert to Islam, who discussed the racism in the Muslim community by relating an experience at a fundraiser. He said the speaker before him was an African American convert to Islam who gave an eloquent and beautiful speech, and afterwards he was greeted only by a handful of immigrant Muslim audience members. After [Dr. Lang’s] speech, which he said was mediocre in comparison, the entire audience came up to him and adulated him. He said it was completely race based. What are your experiences with this?
AZHAR: Clearly, there is a problem, a major and deep rooted, deep seated problem of racism within the American Muslim community. I think we should stop pretending it’s not there, and stop using disempowering rhetoric about [speaking in a thick immigrant, South Asian accent] “Islam is the solution to all racism!” It’s just talk, and talk is cheap. The fact of the matter is that in any given city the division between the African American mosques, the Arabs, the South Asian communities – they are very palpable, very pronounced, and often times on economic lines. The way we deal with it is not by being overtly political or provocative, but by virtue of doing what we do. You know, like Preacher and I, and now adding Mohammed Amer a Palestinian American comic from the Arab American community, we all being as close as we are and working together well and effectively like we do is the most powerful and most positive contribution we can make to addressing that problem.
We have seen with our own eyes in certain cities where we try to deliberately reach out to those segments in those communities. The turnout we get at our shows is reflective of the diversity of the Muslim community. You also find out people in that room may have been living in that city for years, but they have never been in the same room together. So, bringing together the fragments of the Muslim community, it’s something we are very deliberate about, something we are very conscientious about, and a small part of our contribution to overall Muslim American community.
MOSS: Azhar is a beautiful brother, man. But others aren’t like him unfortunately. I remember, like, one time ISNA invited me to do a benefit, then they dis-invited me. They said, “People think you’re a racist.” I was talking about things that were real, and they thought I was racist. You can’t be racist if you’re talking about things that are racist. Part of my family is now South Asian, my wife is Indian, so I went through the racism in that scenario. I wasn’t surprised, but it still didn’t make it easier. I mean there is a rift between the African American and South Asian community anyway. It’s the whole idea of the immigrant community coming here filling up the vacuum of moral authority, and basically telling African Americans, “You’re experience is not valid, neither is your religion.”
Even though it’s the same religion?
MOSS: Yeah, they don’t realize your expression to Allah is valid. How and why would you do that? It led to so many problems, especially in the African American community. You know, the rise of the Salafi movement, the almost Black Wahhabism. I mean, it’s destroying families. You go to Philly, you got kids and parents that don’t talk to one another. It’s a big double standard. The phenomenon of the [immigrant] uncle that lectures you about the African Americans that are “doing this and that.” It’s interesting that you have people coming from Pakistan, India, you know coming from a project-caste system and coming here and recreating it here. It speaks a lot to the history of racial inequality here in the United States. People think as long as I’m not [black], I can do this. In 1995, you had major issues between the Arab and African American communities. No one wanted to talk about, no one wanted to address it. I mean I was the guy back in the day, a comedian, you know, in Milwaukee; I was going to all these different masjids [mosques] as a comedian talking about this. It points to a phenomenon where, you know, we can’t say, “[Muslims] are not as good as we’ve been telling everybody.” We go and poo poo on everyone else, but you know honestly, we are not that good yet. I mean we talk about “Muslim Unity,” and I’m not saying we won’t get there, inshallah we will. But we can’t talk with blinders on saying “We all get along,” when truth is we all don’t get along.
How has this “airing dirty laundry” through artistic expression, through comedy, affected not only you and Azhar, but also the AMMF tour?
MOSS: I don’t even think it’s airing dirty laundry, it’s there already. I don’t believe it’s airing laundry. I believe it’s been stinking, it’s been dirty, it’s been smudged for years, so it’s not even dirty laundry…it’s disgusting laundry. It’s filthy and it needs to be cleaned. People say, you know, “Why do they call us terrorists?” Well because some of us are! Some of us are terrorists –that is a fact. It’s like a black person saying, “Why do some people call us criminals?” – because a criminal is a criminal. You did 25 to life. You’re a criminal. You fit the profile. It’s the sad truth. There are too many people, in the context of Muslims, who want to be an authority. That is our biggest problem. They are too many people not practicing the deen [religion] for the good of themselves, their family, but they’re practicing because they say, “I want to be an authority. I want to be seen and admired this way. I want to be respected this way. I want it now.” How do you expect these people [Americans] to see you? I mean people say, “You guys [Muslims] are nuts!”
I always tell people that if I wasn’t Muslim, hadn’t studied it, didn’t know anything about it, in the year 2007 I would think Muslim are a bunch of crazy, insane, Tali-boning, fundamentalist, extremist types obsessed with violence and covering up their women
MOSS: (Chuckles.) One time in South Africa, a guy said, “Allah Made Me Funny” is making fun of Islam, and it’s haram [forbidden.] He sent out emails and boycott messages to lists. This is interesting, because this cat never met us, never called us, but in his manifesto he said our “morals were below those of monkeys and pigs.” Without knowing us, our morals were below those of monkeys and pigs… “putting on a shaitan-istic [devilish] play.” Now, when you say things like that, I’m not coming to discuss anything, I’m coming to whoop your tail. You’re gonna’ catch one. I’m gonna’ be the Negro you worried about from BET (Black Entertainment Television). I feel like you are putting me in harm’s way. You are saying things in a closed vacuum knowing the audience you are catering to is probably nuts too. You are trying to set their environment, and you’re not willing or accountable to what might happen because of that.
Like the Danish cartoon controversy in Amsterdam. I mean the whole issue with that was a frenzy, so people were so emotional, they felt we can defile the natural laws and order of life that Allah has blessed us with, and someone can go kill this guy [Theo Van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker murdered by a Moroccan Muslim extremist.] Like this cartoon recently where someone drew the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), I heard some Muslim guy saying, “I will kill him! I will kill him for drawing this. I will defend the Prophet!” and I’m like “Your behavior is disrespecting the Prophet.” I mean, this is an example of people playing to that fever pitch. That’s how Malcolm X got killed. Farrakhan didn’t pull the trigger, but even he has to admit he contributed heavily to an environment that wasn’t healthy. You want to ask people, “What kind of Islam are you practicing?” We’ve become a parody of ourselves. You can’t have a Muslim movie without an explosive or a clock, you gotta’ have explosives and some kidnapping. On the flip side, we’re a parody. I mean I joke I’m going to wake up some day and see some effeminate guy doing show-tunes in a Broadway musical about Islam. Some gay, non-Muslim guy will win the Tony on Broadway for the musical called “Muslim.”
Azhar, some people can pass off as an Al-Qaeda recruit, but if no one knew you, you could pass off as an Al-Qaeda trainer
AZHAR: Awww, yeah! (Laughs.)
How does that play out not only in your comedy but also in your life as a South Asian Muslim post 9-11, specifically regarding the way you look physically?
AZHAR: Well, this is a very layered question, and you know the forums for this piece are probably the right place to discuss this. Most media that we do, they are not willing to get beyond the obvious, but I would suggest this is a great venue to discuss a deeper problem. In the mind of the average American, first of all, the category or label of a “Muslim” has become an undefined, undifferentiated category. What I mean is they are not really concerned with people who are Muslim, but rather they are concerned with people who fit that stereotypical image in their mind that they believe is Muslim. The problem with that is the term “Muslim” in the public discourse has become both under- inclusive and ironically over-inclusive.
As far as under-inclusive, for example, Average Americans when they hear about Muslims, they never conceive a guy like Preacher Moss, you know, a black guy doesn’t even approach the conception they have of a Muslim. Just from a statistical perspective, 33% of Muslims in America are African American. But, also, it has become over-inclusive. Because a guy like Axis of Evil comedian Dean Obeidallah, they think he’s Muslim because of his name. Or, they think of Sikhs, because they wear turbans and have beards, they suddenly think they are Muslims. They see me and I fit much more of an exaggerated stereotyped image in people’s minds. Ironically, whether or not more people are conscious or not, I mean, I joke about it – if I was really a fundamentalist, Muslim extremist, this is not the disguise I would go with. The people are scared of the clean shaven ones [Muslims], the ones who are trying to fit in, you know not in a pejorative way, but the ones not looking too different from anyone else, they are the ones that people are scared of. Gee, they think, I mean if anyone is going to do anything it’s probably going to be someone like that. I’m more interested in this idea of first, “How real is the fear in the minds of people in America?” Secondly, I really want to explore these “Categories.” I mean racism in American has a long history.
The term “Muslim” in the minds of Americans has become a racial category, and it’s not a race, it’s a religion. It’s a faith. But on the ground, there has been the reality that a “Muslim” racism has emerged. We have to get our minds around it, and I don’t think anyone in the media has done that yet. People have not really figured out or ferreted it out. Why are Arabs in American being conflated into the same category as Muslims, even though the majority of the Arabs in America are not Muslims but are Christians?
What has been the fiercest criticism, who are the fiercest critics, and how have you dealt with them?
MOSS: Muslims. Yeah, the fiercest critics of our product have been Muslims. They came at us through the safest ways, you know, email, blogs, mailing lists. I guess that a pre-requisite of being a critic of “AMMF” is that you cannot absolutely talk to anybody in the tour or see the show. That’s the only way it’ll work, you cannot see the show. You cannot have any information about the subject matter – that’s what makes you an authentic critic. We don’t respond anymore, it’s like water rolling off your backs. Lot of people don’t like us, because they didn’t do this first. A lot of people can’t handle that me and Azhar get along, we take care of each other. He calls me big brother and I call him little brother. We’re a family. We took hits trying to put up a project that we thought a) would bring back the beauty to Allah’s name using creativity and humor, and b) something that would rise up and lift up the spirits of Muslims and get them into a space of dialogue.
You have some communities in these cities where they don’t talk to one another. It’s like gangs. It’s like spiritual gangs. “I follow so- so,” well, “I follow so and so,” and I’m like “I follow Allah.” I’m not here to hear you politicking or cry the blues, but I’m trying to get from point A to point B. Azhar and I have to be the brothers no one expects us to be. We don’t argue or bicker or talk about which one is better. I’ve seen brothers come up and try to pit us against each other, you know, tell me the order of the show, “We really like it if Azhar closed the show,” and I’m like, “Are you part of the tour? Did you help put this together? Are you telling me how to run my business?” You know, I’m the oldest guy here, I have the most experience. I don’t have a problem with letting other guys close, but that’s the way it is – especially when we went overseas. The audience was predominantly Desi, Asian, or whatever. They gave me heat not because I wasn’t funny. Lot of people said, “You shouldn’t be in the spot.” I mean I worked the hardest and the longest. I walked away from Hollywood to do “AMMF.”
AZHAR: Muslims, of course, no doubt, are our biggest critics. The biggest problem is the nature of our community, we are not able to get ahead, because we are our own worst enemy. But, you know, you don’t dance with it. We let our work speak for ourselves. We let the response of people who matter, people like the fans, Muslim leaders, Muslim scholars even, we let their support of our work speak for the work itself. As a result, those who raise objections or doubts or critiques, often we find at the end they are standing alone. They miss the point of what we’re all about. Most often, those critiques have been borne out of ignorance – either ignorance of the show, not knowing anything of our show, just making assumptions. Or, ignorance about what the religion is really about. When people speak on the religion but through ignorance and not knowledge, then it’s not our obligation to take these people seriously or respond to them. We are not accountable to haters, we are accountable before God.
Some people can counter and say that your content and the fact you walk hand in hand with religion is explosive, irregardless of the intention. So, how do you walk that fine line and still be a proactive, educational, family show?
AZHAR: Well, some of those assumptions that a political show has to be “explosive”, or just because we are involved in a Muslim community and being proactively involved with that makes it all the more edgy – I question these assumptions, and I don’t think they are necessarily true. I think good comedy in the history of standup in this country, by in large, has always been related to politics. It’s commenting on the political or social realities that underpin American society. That’s what good comedy does or always has done. Our show is all about 3 guys getting on stage, talking in a real, honest, authentic and very sincere way about issues that matter most to us. It just so happens that we share those concerns with a lot of other people, so people respond to us. In general, audiences respond to a comic and standup who is authentic and real.
Preacher, you have 20 years experience in this business. How does the industry crush or poison the spirit, the creative soul for not only Muslims but also people of color?
MOSS: The first thing Hollywood wants to know is how far they can push you without you breaking. What I’m saying is Hollywood is about everyone else’s interests. You see a guy up on stage doing jokes or whatever, there is an agent or manager getting paid. When you a movie or T.V. show – it’s the same thing. It’s a pimp or be pimped atmosphere. In that you throw in the fact that not everybody is that creative or talented. So, that puts even more emphasis on “how can I spin this situation, how can I leverage this to my advantage?” It’s not a team atmosphere. It becomes problematic early if you want to do the right thing, because no one wants to work with someone who just wants to do the right thing. You know, like work hard to get ahead. That’s stupid. (Laughs.) People say, “Why would I work so hard to be ethical?” – cats aren’t worried about being ethical. They want to get paid, they want immediate gratitude. That’s what the business is.
You can’t be a man in this business. You can’t be your own man. The first thing you learn in Hollywood is how to compromise.
What’s the biggest compromise for a black man or a Muslim man in Hollywood?
MOSS: Hollywood says, “I want you to sell your soul. I want you to suspend all reality and reason and historical understanding of yourself. And, I’m going to give you a little bit of money to make it easier.” I mean Martin Lawrence – people said he went crazy. I say, “Do you know what the stress and the strain is here?” I mean that’s a strong brother, Martin Lawrence is a strong brother. He used to box. I know him from when I was 15. I used to play basketball against him. But, I mean he bounced back, but this thing – it’s a killer.
The issue with Dave Chappelle, they put his show out there, but they didn’t think much of it, and they didn’t put much money behind it. But, it caught on, a lot of people got it, they really enjoyed it. And the first thing that happened was the same people who had no faith in you, [the industry] said “A: We told you so. B: We are geniuses. C: We’re going to prove it.” I mean, how are you going to prove it? It’s no different from the people who say, “The problem with Islam is …” I mean there is no problem with Islam, it’s the people around it. The religion is perfect, but you get people in the mindset that say, “Hey, I can improve this thing” which is absolutely nuts. You never want to be in a conversation with someone that says this. People are jumping to be a moral authority and I want to talk to that person who told you that you can do this.
Azhar, let’s talk about your path. You graduated from law school, passed the Bar, and practiced law. You did all the right things according to the South Asian checklist. Why do you go mess it all up by becoming a comedian?
AZHAR: (Laughs.) I got a law degree, but I didn’t practice law after law school, I actually did a dot com start up. I turned down 6 figure salary offers to pay myself $35,000 working for my own dot com. So, I was already violating the Muslim, South Asian rules. So, becoming a comic was just a continuation of the “rebel without a cause” mentality. I never really planned to become a comedian. I folded the dot com business. I started practicing law briefly as a solo practitioner, and I did stand up for fun, as a hobby. Suddenly, my hobby began to take a life on its own, and as there was more demand, I was able to spend more time on it. The more I did it the more I fell in love with the art of stand up comedy. Once it got to a point where I knew I could make a living as a comedian, that was around the same time Preacher Moss reached out to me to start the AMMF tour. The timing couldn’t have been better, because I was already thinking about quitting my legal practice.
What’s up with all these lawyers quitting law to do comedy?
AZHAR: I know a couple of hundred lawyers, and of that entire group I only know a handful, maybe a dozen or so, that are actually happy practicing law. A vast majority are miserable, or they don’t practice law anymore, or they are actively looking for a way out. Most people end up in law school without an idea what they want to do with the rest of their lives. And they also end up in law school without an idea of what a lawyer actually does. When they figure it out, it’s too late, and they’re stuck. I wasn’t miserable, but the fact was that I wasn’t doing something I really loved. When I was building my business from scratch, I was being an innovative entrepreneur – I was thriving on that, I loved it. So, to go from that to something mundane and uninteresting like the practice of law was taking its toll on me. I knew I couldn’t do it forever, and I was just biding my time.
Now you go to moms and pops and say, “Guess what – surprise! I’m a comedian!” What was their response?
AZHAR: When I did all that, truthfully, I was already married with one kid and the second on the way. So, the biggest concern was what does my wife think about this? (Laughs.) My wife was cool with it, alhamdulilah [Praise be to God.] My parents were concerned about me just paying the bills and meeting my obligations. My dad is a big champion of being a self made man and following your dreams and passions, but to make sure you’re doing it in a way that is ethical and responsible. Their biggest concern wasn’t a loss of prestige, but their biggest concern was, “Are you out of your mind? How are you going to take care of your family?” My wife has been skeptical always that I would be happy as a lawyer. She is a lawyer, and like most lawyers, I married a lawyer. (Laughs). She was cut out to be lawyer, she has a much better pulse for it, but she knew my personality and always thought I’d be miserable at being a lawyer. She always encourages me to be a high school teacher, she said I’d make a great one. But, fact of the matter is she knew I was unhappy and fighting everyday to wake up and go to court. So the concern was never around the comedy, it was always about how to make this work financially.
Preacher, you have great joke in your act about your mom finding out you converted to Islam and remarking, “Oh, the boy is just gay is all.” Talk about your conversion and coming out as Preacher Moss “the Muslim” to your family and community.
MOSS: It wasn’t so much a surprise as much as it was poorly managed by myself. I didn’t tell anybody and thought they’d figure it our sooner or later. Like someone who goes blind, you think, ok, someone will figure it out. You know, you keep stumbling, and someone asks, “Hey, are you blind?” “Well, I thought you’d never ask, yes, yes I am.” It was hard on my mom because she didn’t know, and for her and the African American audience it’s totally a big deal.
Explain that for an audience who might not know.
MOSS: It’s the traditions, I mean we’ve been tied to the slave religion. I say Christianity for African Americans is a slave religion. This is on record, I mean if you look at the introduction of Christianity to an African American at the time of slavery, that’s not embracing a religion. You are forcing your thoughts on me, and you have the precedent of law and force to do it. How are you telling me this religion is pure like this? Even in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, the KKK made you feel like you can’t be a regular Christian, you had to be a “Black” Christian. Even, you know, in the early days the Arabs took Africans as slaves following the faulty European model, but that doesn’t absolve them of anything. But the creed [Islam and Christianity] says no slavery.
How did you spiritually revolt against that?
MOSS: Information, man. Information. People want to tell you that, “Hey, those problems are in the past. You’re free now!” Dude, we are talking about less than 50 years. We can’t forget a whole lot of history so you can feel better about yourself. Comedy – comedy is that nerve. You get on stage and then everyone is gonna’ worry about what you say.
How has your outlook on life and on your comedy changed after your conversion and post 9-11?
MOSS: After my conversion, I thought my comedy should be more responsible. Post 9-11, I was putting my comedy in an atmosphere that wasn’t socially responsible. So, I just oriented myself to the fact I was going to take hits, some people won’t like what I say, because look at the diet, the atmosphere we are living in. Everyone was scared, everyone stopped questioning. We wanted to please people. We didn’t want to be respected, we wanted to be accepted. That was the case for a whole lot of Muslims out there. Now, accepted means there’s a condition with how “I’m going to accept you.” If you don’t have a faith and understanding in God that carries you through the height of calamities, then – I mean 9-11 wasn’t Biblical like “Job.” It was a wake up call, but it wasn’t like what happened to “Job.” Nobody asks the questions. So, when it comes to comedy, you have to bring this out for a whole lot of people. You have to bring the truth to light.
Preacher, being black, Muslim, and a comedian isn’t the biggest selling point post 9-11, right?
MOSS: Let me be honest, nobody wants to hear anything from a black man about 9-11. A man could cry about this group of people being killed in an absolute tragedy, but America cried to the point where it almost justified the millions of people they killed in the name of justice and democracy and equality. It’s like you’re trying to run a hustle on me, and that’s what people feel like, “Hey, you’re running a hustle on me.”
Azhar, you and Preacher are “practicing Muslims,” so how does Islam directly factor into your comedy, and has it helped you spiritually evolve?
AZHAR: I’ll say this on the record and as tactfully as I can. I think every religious person I’ve met in my life has some personal demons that are customized for that person. That is our experience with God and with the world. Like everyone else, I have my own hang-ups with organized religion, but I consider myself a believer. I really do believe in the value of religion, the core principles of Islam, so for me that means living my life in accordance with the theological, legal, ethical, spiritual principles of this religion, and that is a big part of my life – regardless, whether I’m a comedian, lawyer, or a bum on the street. If I had chosen to do anything in my life, my life would be impacted by that behavior, my actions would conform, as humanly possible, to the theological, legal, and ethical, spiritual aspects of this faith. Practically speaking as a comic this means how I carry s on stage and in life – I will not try to violate these principles. This will require knowledge, learning, reading, educating, asking questions, going to people who know, getting advice, and constantly refining and improving myself.
What inspired you to get on stage and do what you do, when you can do so many other things to make more money?
MOSS: Two people who come to mind who inspired me is Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and Jesus. When we look back on “Allah Made Me Funny”, it’s going to be a project that was really ahead of its time. We dealt with a group of people who were not ready for what we were ready to bring. So, we have to leave it to faith that your performance and your intent to perform resonates with people where they can see and say, “You know, what? Those guys left a model.”
Jesus could feed the multitudes, and Prophet Muhammad suffered indignities just trying – trying to be a decent person. He was the guy before there was a form of Islam. Jesus was the guy before the form of Christianity. Prophet Muhammad was in the moment, every day. And we have to see ourselves like that – every day, just be in the moment. So, you can see every day as relevant, and see yourself as relevant. Because if you can see that, then you got up in the morning just to see and find your existence here on Earth with Allah. It takes on even more of a heightened level of awareness and accordance.
And for comedians, like Pyror, he was doing it, man. He was 20 years ahead of his time. Sometimes you can be too far ahead of your time and can be a maddening experience. You don’t have a set of peers, or anyone to base what you’re doing against. “Allah Made Me Funny” may have a set of peers, but again, so much of that has happened directly in the moment. So, we go back and look at the Prophet, so we can figure it out, you know, how he did it. We’re not looking for jokes, we’re looking for guidance. How did he keep himself sane? When it comes to Hollywood, lot of cats come out there without a plan. They come out with, “I’m funny, I’m good looking, I can act.” Hollywood works to take away your basic core values. And once those are gone, what do you have? So, for us, it’s always been that battle. We’ve turned down gigs, because we say spiritually it’s not good for us. We could’ve sold out 8-9 key times I can remember.
Give me an example of one time – a concrete example of how you could’ve sold out?
MOSS: We once had a DVD up and going, and we were trying to work the Improv, but I thought we had a bigger purpose. I mean others are just trying to get ahead, they are not concerned about the people. That’s the difference. I mean in the end I want it be something more.
Pretend you’re talking to a Muslim American kid right now. Suppose he has talent, creativity, or feels that he might have a passion for the arts, standup in particular, but he meets obstacles, rejection, and belittlement at ever corner. Now, as a mentor, what advice do you have for this kid?
MOSS: There’s a saying that goes, “Everyone has a talent, but it takes skill to get paid for that talent, and it takes discipline to maintain that skill.” That being said, you have to love it. You can’t just see you’re inherently good at it. If you aren’t Muslim, I’d say go for it, because there’s no rules, no provocations, I mean you can say whatever you want to. You can make money and be famous, you can hurt people’s feelings, it’s ok! Why? Because you’re trying to make money.
But, if you have a set of core values that are guiding and directing your life, and you have understanding that life isn’t about you, then you need to ask, “What is your purpose to be in front of these people [the audience]? If you can answer that, and if it is a positive answer, then by all means go out and do it. I mean I’m not trying to make it a high-end ethical thing, but believe me, as a Muslim, I’ve taken the lumps, and we’ve taken the lumps. And why? Because as artists, [we’re] trying to bring an expression about us, to us, from us [Muslims.] You think it’d be easy, but it hasn’t been easy.
AZHAR: Like everything in life, you have to take your journey. I take a spiritual view of these things, you asked me before, and I didn’t answer it. The Quran tells me very clearly that there are many paths to God. The Quran says, “Those who strive to us, those who are trying to get to us, invariably, We will show them our paths.” It doesn’t say “path.” It says paths – plural. So, there are a lot of different ways to arrive at God. Certainly, I believe an artistic expression can be one way, but comedy in many, many ways, the tour that we put together, the show we put together for the people, it has had a powerful spiritual experience for me. It has led to amazing things happening to me and my life that would not happen had I not made this decision. I am very thankful for these opportunities. This brother has to take his journey. He can’t live that life for anybody else. He has to live that life for Allah, and when you do that, Allah helps and He makes things clear for you.
Preacher you had a very successful, “The End of Racism” tour where you gave speeches and presentations to youth and schools all across the country. Didn’t kids ever say, “Hey, Preacher, you’re here preaching tolerance, but Islam seems to be rather intolerant about those who have different ideologies? Islam, on T.V., talks about intolerance, violence, and separatism?” How did you reconcile this and address it?
MOSS: To be truthful, not much. If you present a brick of gold on a bunch of trash that is dirty, people will say the gold is dirty. But if you put the time into it, the passion, the work, then people will look at you differently. You have to learn to speak to people’s hearts. We like to speak to people – to actual folks, and we don’t want intellectual pandering. If you give people information, it is so much better than them having to go out and get it themselves. And then, when people do talk about Muslims, they’ll be the ones to defend you. They say, “You know what? I know a Muslim, he’s not like this. I spent time with a Muslim. You don’t know what you’re talking abut.” I’ve seen that happen before! One guy defended another brother, a Muslim, as a righteous brother. It has to be an action, it has to be tangible. It can’t be theoretical – not anymore. We don’t have that kind of time. Doing the AMMF tour, the best thing is that it is an acceptable tour. People can hang out with me, they can call me. It’s a connection. It’s real to people.
What’s a defining example of a person who came up to you after the show and said, “Because of you and your show, I have changed some of my thoughts and prejudices. I have gained some enlightenment.”
AZHAR: Two examples come to mind. I just recently did a show in Stillwater, Oklahoma. There was this young, White, non-Muslim kid who is enrolled with the Marines and getting ready to ship out to Iraq. Basically, a kid aspiring to be a military man, you know, a right wing, Republican, Fox News type of guy. He came up to me after the show and said, “You have completely challenged my idea on what is a Muslim. I didn’t know guys like you exist out there. You have completely shaken my beliefs about the Muslim people and the Muslim religion.” So, I said stay in touch and look me up on Facebook, and he did, and we exchanged emails. Now, here’s a guy who just came with an open mind and an open heart and ended up being really affected by the show. To me, it’s utterly amazing.
The second example is a Muslim guy who emailed me out of the blue, and said, “Listen, I’ve heard about your show for a number of years. I come from a very conservative, traditional, Muslim background, and I’m active in my community. I had begun to say very unkind things about you and your show, and I was basically back-biting you. And I finally got a chance to see your show, and I wanted to say 1) I wanted to apologize for all the years I was backbiting you, and 2) I want you to know I was completely wrong, and I think what you are doing is not only important, but it is completely necessary. I just wanted to let you know that you’ve completely converted me from somebody who was once opposed to your show and your work and now to a huge supporter.”
Now, this was really, really inspiring. I mean, I would’ve never known this man existed, but he decided to own up, and he apologized, and I said, “Listen, your email has inspired me to be a better Muslim. The past is past, and I appreciate you coming to our show with an open mind and heart.”
The Allah Made Me Funny tour continues throughout the UK and the Netherlands from November 8-22nd.
Wajahat Ali is a playwright, essayist, humorist, and J.D. whose work, “The Domestic Crusaders,” (http://www.domesticcrusaders.com) is the first major play about Muslim Americans living in a post 9-11 America. He can be reached at email@example.com.