Does God really laugh? A study of the hadiths on God’s laughter

A review of Livnat Holtzman’s article “Does God Really Laugh? Appropriate and Inappropriate Descriptions of God in Islamic Traditionalist Theology.”1

There are a few hadith narrations that mention the laughter of God, which is something not mentioned in the Quran. One of the best-known hadiths mentioning God’s laughter is the following from Abū Hurayra:

So Allah will bring him near to the gate of Paradise, and when he sees what is in it, he will remain silent as long as Allah will, and then he will say, 'O Lord! Let me enter Paradise.' Allah will say, 'Didn't you promise that you would not ask Me for anything other than that? Woe to you, O son of Adam ! How treacherous you are!' On that, the man will say, 'O Lord! Do not make me the most wretched of Your creation,' and will keep on invoking Allah till Allah will laugh and when Allah will laugh because of him, then He will allow him to enter Paradise, and when he will enter Paradise, he will be addressed, 'Wish from so-and-so.' He will wish till all his wishes will be fulfilled, then Allah will say, All this (i.e. what you have wished for) and as much again therewith are for you.' " Abu Huraira added: That man will be the last of the people of Paradise to enter (Paradise).

Sahih al-Bukhari 6573

As part of my review of Livnat Holtzman’s article, I decided to do a quick survey of the major hadith collections (including the Musnad) for hadiths that mention the word yaḍḥaku (“he laughs”), I then gathered all of the hadiths that use this word in reference to God. Below is the result:

According to my probabilistic hadith verification methodology, here are the reliability indicators of the hadiths:

  • Abū Hurayra 22.7%
  • Abū Hurayra 26.5%
  • Jābir b. ʿAbdallāh 10.88%
  • Abū Razīn 5.85%
  • Abū Saʿīd al-Khudrī 1.94%
  • Nuʿaym b. Hammār 4.66%

The strongest hadith is the second one at 26.5% which falls between ḥasan and ṣaḥīḥ in my methodology (ṣaḥīḥ starts at 30%).

We can then do a final step to combine all of these probabilities. Since we are combining different hadiths, each probability is first halved.

1−((1−0.227÷2)(1−0.265÷2)(1−0.1088÷2)(1−0.585÷2)(1−0.0194÷2)(1−0.0466÷2))

= 0.50236594

The result is that all of these hadiths together have a probability of 50.2% that the crux of their meaning is authentic, which is much higher than the 30% necessary for ṣaḥīḥ. So the conclusion is that the support for God’s laughter is quite strong in the hadith literature. Note that this is only a partial survey, a complete survey will likely enhance this probability upwards of 60%.

Interpreting God’s laughter

The Ashʿarite theologians considered it problematic to attribute laughter to God, so they reinterpreted God’s laughter as a reference to His mercy. The traditionalists (the major group of them being the Ḥanbalites), however, considered reinterpretation unacceptable, so they taught that God’s laughter should be interpreted literally even if we do not exactly understand its nature.

Below is a statement of creed (ʿaqīda) attributed to Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal (d. 855 CE, after whom the Ḥanbalī school is named) and mentioned by Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya in his Hādī al-arwāḥ (The guide of souls):

We believe that God sits on His throne. However, He is not confined to limitations of space. We believe that God sees and hears and talks and laughs and is joyful.

The hadith scholar Muḥammad b. ʿAbd al-Wāḥid (d. 1149 CE), when asked about God’s laughter, said that it is hypocrisy and apostasy to attempt to interpret it.

The Ḥanbalī scholar Ibn al-Jawzī (d. 1201 CE) criticized members of his own school for believing that God laughs until His molar “teeth” can be seen (as is narrated in a weak narration). He says that the anthropomorphic descriptions of God found in the Quran and Hadith (such as God having “hands” or laughing) were only intended to help new converts to Islam connect with God. Had God been described to them theologically as not being a body, not being in any place, having no dimension, and not moving, the new converts would have become perplexed and unable to relate to Him.

So Ibn al-Jawzī takes a path similar to the Ashʿarites in interpreting God’s laughter metaphorically, as referring to His mercy and grace.

Ibn Taymiyya’s interpretation of God’s laughter

The most interesting contribution of Holtzmann’s article is her discussion of Ibn Taymiyya’s views on the issue. Whenever we see Ibn Taymiyya apply his vast intellect to a question, we can be sure to hear something original and interesting.

According to Ibn Taymiyya, it is wrong to consider laughter an imperfection in God as the theologians do. A person who laughs is more perfect than a person who cries. And a person who is capable of both love and hatred is more perfect than a person who is only capable of love. Part of perfection is to have the ability to respond to each situation in the most appropriate way possible.

Here he uses the same technique that he used to overturn Islamic theological orthodoxy and show that a God who acts in time is superior to a God who does not (see my essay Reconciling Free Will and Predestination in Islam with al-Māturīdī and Ibn Taymiyya). As Jon Hoover shows in his Ibn Taymiyya’s Theodicy of Perpetual Optimism, Ibn Taymiyya is dedicated to a juristic agenda whose first principle is to always seek to find ways to think of and describe God in the most perfect way possible.

So according to Ibn Taymiyya, while we should not attempt to exactly understand God’s laughter, we should also avoid the theological mistake of thinking that something that is imperfect in humans is imperfect when applied to God. Laughter can be a perfection for God. It is just one of the numerous ways in which His perfection becomes manifest to humans.

Footnotes

  1. Livnat Holtzman, “Does God Really Laugh? Appropriate and Inappropriate Descriptions of God in Islamic Traditionalist Theology.” in A. Classen (ed.), Laughter in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Times (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2010), 165-200.

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