‘It’s a beautiful religion’: Dave Chappelle discusses his Muslim faith in Netflix interview with David Letterman

The US comic recalls how he discovered Islam as a teenager

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Dave Chappelle’s spiritual awakening began 30 years ago at a pizza shop.

Appearing as a guest in the latest season of the Netflix series My Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman, the superstar American comic sat down for a wide-ranging interview that provided a rare insight into how his faith drove his successful career.

"I wanted to have a meaningful life, a spiritual life, not just what my hands can hold,” he said. “I felt like I've always had this notion that life should mean something.”

Chappelle, 47, recalled how that higher purpose was given some shape through his visits to his local pizza shop as 17-year-old in Washington, DC. It was the positive vibes of the Muslim staff that caught his attention.

"The pizza shop was across from my house and it was, like, all these Muslim dudes that worked in there,” he said.

“I used to go in there and crack jokes. And I am also a naturally curious guy and I would ask [the owner] questions about his religion and the guy was so passionate about it. It was very compelling. I liked the perspective of it.”

Working for the greater good

Chappelle described how his faith allowed him to use his comedy for a greater purpose.

An example of which was the decision to undertake a recent run of comedy shows, complete with social-distancing measures, in his home village of Yellow Springs, Ohio, to benefit a community economically battered by the pandemic.

“For the last however many months, we've done like 26 shows here and it's expensive and it's hard,” he said. “Everyone who works on these shows is from Ohio or connected to our community. Many of them were furloughed. They weren't able to work. And just me doing stand-up, we're all able to get back up on our feet. To me, it's very meaningful. I [have] done a million shows, but the last 26 meant so much to me because it's like my community's offering to the world.”

A belief reflected in major faiths

Chappelle expressed his weariness surrounding the public discourse about Islam.

“It's been presented in the public space in such a narrow and dismissive view,” he said. “It's a beautiful religion. And the ideas in that religion are reflected in all the major Abrahamic faiths. You'll see these ideas in both Christianity and Judaism, you know. It is the idea that this place does mean something, you know?”

When asked by host David Letterman about some of the perceived anti-Muslim policies and rhetoric attributed to US president Donald Trump, Chappelle shrugs it off.

“You don't expect necessarily that much empathy, compassion or cultural astuteness from a guy like that,” he said.

“What is sad about it is that the [presidential] chair doesn't have more humanity. But has that chair ever been that humane?”

The miracle of Zamzam water

In rounding off the segment, Chappelle recalled one of his favourite stories from Islamic history, which centered on the origins of Zamzam water.

As detailed in the Quran, the water is said to have miraculously sprung in front of Prophet Abraham's wife Hajar while desperately roaming the desert in search of sustenance. Zamzam remains available to drink within the grounds of the Makkah Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia.

“The thing that comforts me about it is the idea that all of this is from a singular source and the source is ultimately kind. And even though we may not understand the intentions of this source, we're all connected and bounded by it.”

Inspired by the concept, Letterman expressed that he would like to visit Saudi Arabia with Chappelle one day to see the location where Zamzam water was found.

Chappelle quipped the site is limited to Muslim visitors.

“I could go see it,” he said. “You probably have to make some phone calls.”

‘My Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman’ is available to stream now on Netflix.