The Muslim meme: An unadulterated appreciation for life
Family group chats are good for a number of things, passive aggressive comments borne from sibling rivalry being right up there – but memes aren’t typically part of the common language of digital family exchanges.
Modern day metaphors that bind youth culture together, they are part of a standard idiomatic cyber dialect. Based on a shared understanding of a moment or sentiment, they are effortlessly intelligible and funny and have come to shape youth culture and thinking, creating relatable, exclusive, ‘knowing’ references – smug inside jokes for the millions.
Parental attempts to relate to or reach out to their children won’t always carry the digital and cultural literacy necessary to employ the meme. While cat videos and fake news are usually the preserve of Generation X in WhatsApp circulations, the symbolically coded image that is the meme, isn’t.
Except for Muslim families.
For Muslim families, the meme holds a unique place in shared digital spaces. Islamic memes are wholesome spectacles of delight. Surrealist kitsch comes closest to describing it. Think technicolour, romantic aesthetics, meets 80s style, amateur graphics.
''In a world where Muslim culture is broadly vilified, they exemplify the joyous nature of the Muslim experience and our ability to laugh through it all. Receiving a funny meme contains that little bit of warmth - it reminds me that I’m part of something much greater than just myself, a religion and culture that binds and unites us, and that gives me a beautiful sense of belonging and a reassuring sense of solidarity.''
Often replete with Arabic text, carrying greetings, well wishes or Islamic idioms, the creative licence of the Islamic meme knows no bounds. They often include an eclectic mix of symbols, stretching beyond the realms of the scientifically possible. It would not be amiss to see an often contradictory range of visual references. An exotic bird resting it’s beak on a boat matching in size? Exaggeratedly Caucasian hands holding a bouquet of roses, emanating from the sea arms cut out at an even more implausible 90 degree angle? And all to wish you a good morning.
Depending on which of the many Muslim cultures they hail from, these can take on slightly different variations. Commonalities include mawkish sentiments, and a non-ironic, jaunty aesthetic which privileges romanticism, idealism and classical ideas of beauty and order. They speak of a wholesome visual language, devoid of the cynicism of Western visual culture and with a much more direct relationship to its subjects – there are no pretexts, subtexts or wider contexts. No pretensions of ‘high’ or ‘low’ culture. No critical engagement. Just sheer, unadulterated appreciation of life’s more fanciful things. With a sprinkling of internalised racism.
Their claim to authentic Islamic values vary – often created by a generation of technologically ‘savvy’ Muslims from all corners of the Muslim globe, many have a tenuous claim to genuine Islamic scripture or philosophy. Their democratised nature means they are more reflective of Muslim culture, rather than true Islamic creed. The ‘Islamic meme’ as a term is itself a misnomer.
A look at the comments section of a popular Pakistani app designed to create these memes – the Pakistani Islamic meme being undoubtedly the most flamboyant of its kind – and it is clear there is a common thread. The desire to connect over a collective narrative and set of values, and share a little bit of joy, remains at the core of meme creation for many users.
Although purely cultural, at its heart the Islamic meme is reflective of some of the values of Islam in its earnestness – Islam eschews derision, ridicule and the kind of complacent disdain that hold such common currency online. Often unapologetically cheerful, they are a visual consequence of the Islamic primacy placed on positive thinking.
For Muslim families in the West, they’re often sent by older family members, as a regular greeting or to mark religious festivals or life events. They are frequently met with eye rolls and digital silence from younger generations. “Cringe”, is the monosyllabic response from Sahra Hashi, a British Somali baker, to her family’s use of the meme.
Some of the greatest advocates of the Islamic meme are these first generation Muslim immigrants in Britain. A class of people that had to carve a new life for themselves in a hostile land, while adapting to a new linguistic and cultural climate. This modern digital expression is indicative of the enterprising nature of this pioneering generation.
The tradition of meme-exchange is in keeping with a formal etiquette common to older generations of Muslims, which has found its utterance in a screen-mediated world. Hala Salem, a 57 year-old Iraqi from North West London says she enjoys sending and receiving memes with her social circle. Yath, a younger member of the same community sees the decorum and formality in this civility: “It’s considered rude not to send them amongst certain social groups”.
They represent the coming together of that old traditional means of communicating with a new innovative one. What’s touching about this interchange, particularly for British Muslims, is it represents the cultural and generational divide typical between parent and child.
While my own dad and I aren’t always able to communicate in the most proficient of ways, I value his meme contribution to our family group chat, and the willingness to connect that underpins it. The Islamic meme comes to sum up our relationship; how he demonstrates his love may not always be something I understand or appreciate, but it’s very much a product of his own time and place in culture.
And, of course, there is always the comedic variation which, totally bucking the Islamic meme trend, is claimed by younger generations of typically English-speaking Muslims. Humorous memes have a more universal appeal across generations, but preserve that same purity and cheerfulness that’s common to Islamic memes, they are unashamedly good-natured in their humour.
In a world where Muslim culture is broadly vilified, they exemplify the joyous nature of the Muslim experience and our ability to laugh through it all. Receiving a funny meme contains that little bit of warmth - it reminds me that I’m part of something much greater than just myself, a religion and culture that binds and unites us, and that gives me a beautiful sense of belonging and a reassuring sense of solidarity.
These humorous memes capture cultural idiosyncrasies, such as the mainstay of the comedic meme; the sheep. Around Eid-Al Adha time – the Eid of sacrifice which commonly involves goat or sheep - if I haven’t received at least eight sheep-related memes, my day is lacking. They are baaaarmy.
The Islamic meme is all the more poignant given the currency it holds amongst first generation Muslims, due to the continued adversity Muslims face in Britain.
Muslims continue to be subject to the kind of institutional disadvantages which mean approximately 50% live in poverty. They have some of the worst outcomes in terms of health, education, housing and opportunity. And they are also subject to the kind of prejudice that manifests itself politically and in the micro and every day, as innocuous expressions of religion are increasingly problematised.
The Islamic meme to me comes to serve as the language of the disaffected. A cheerful, irreverent means of expression which uncynically engages in a cynical world.
In true Islamic spirit, the culture and sentiment behind the Islamic meme is both generous and inclusive. There is no ‘in’ crowd, and they are not based upon exclusionary, ‘knowing’ references, rather they are unabashed and open to all to revel in. For that reason alone, I fully embrace and love the Islamic meme. These vibrant images that inhibit our intimate digital spaces, in all their charm and visual decadence.
Mariya bint Rehan is a writer and illustrator from London, with a background in Policy and Research and Development in the voluntary sector. She has written and illustrated a children’s book titled The Best Dua which is available internationally.
Follow her on Twitter: @ummkhadijah13
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.