“Dogs in the Islamic Tradition and Nature”

Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, s.v. “Dogs in the Islamic Tradition and Nature.” New York: Continuum International, 2004.

By: Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl

Islamic discourses on the nature, and function of dogs are representative of a range of tensions regarding the roles of history, mythology, rationality, and modernity in Islam. In fact, the debates surrounding the avowed impurity of dogs, and the lawfulness of possessing or living with these animals were one of the main issues symbolizing the challenging dynamic between the revealed religious law, and the state of creation or nature. In addition, certain aspects of these debates pertained to the power dynamics of patriarchy, and more generally, the construction of social attitudes towards marginal elements in society.

In a fashion similar to European medieval folklore, black dogs, in particular, were viewed ominously in the Islamic tradition.[1] According to one tradition attributed to Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, black dogs are evil, or even devils, in animal form.[2] Although this report did reflect a part of pre-Islamic Arab mythology, it had a limited impact upon Islamic law. The vast majority of Muslim jurists considered this particular tradition to be falsely attributed to the Prophet, and therefore, apocryphal. Nevertheless, much of the Islamic discourse focused on a Prophetic report instructing that if a dog, regardless of the color, licks a container, the container must be washed seven times, with the sprinkling of dust[3] in one of the washings. Different versions of the same report specify that the container be washed once, three, or five times, or omit the reference to the sprinkling of dust. The essential point conveyed in these reports is that dogs are impure animals, or, at least, that their saliva is a contaminant that voids a Muslim’s ritual purity. Hostility to dogs, not just as a source of physical but moral impurity, are further expressed in Prophetic reports claiming that angels, as God’s agents of mercy and absolution, will not enter a home that has a dog,[4] or that the company of dogs voids a portion of a Muslim’s good deeds.[5] Cultural biases against dogs as a source of moral danger reach an extreme point in reports that claim that Prophet commanded Muslims not trade or deal in dogs,[6] and even to slaughter all dogs, except for those used in herding, farming, or hunting.[7]

These various anti-dogs reports expressed culturally engrained social anxieties about aspects of nature that were seen as threatening or unpredictable. In addition, discourses on dogs played a symbolic role in the attempts of pre-modern societies to explore the boundaries that differentiated human beings from animals. In that sense, the debates about dogs acted as a forum for negotiating not just the nature of dogs but also the nature of human beings. This is most apparent in traditions that create a symbolic nexus between marginalized elements in society, such as non-Muslims or women, and dogs. In some such traditions, it is claimed that the Prophet said that dogs, donkeys, women, and in some versions non-Muslims, if they pass in front of men in prayer, they will void or nullify that prayer.[8] Interestingly, early Muslim authorities, such as the Prophet’s wife Aisha, strongly protested this symbolic association between dogs and women because of its demeaning implications for women. As a result, most Muslim jurists ruled that this tradition is not authentic, and that the crossing of women in front of men does not negate their prayers.[9]

Despite the attribution to the Prophet of a large number of traditions hostile to dogs, for a variety of reasons, many pre-modern Muslim scholars challenged this orientation. The Qur’an, the divine book of Islam, does not condemn dogs as impure or evil. In addition, a large number of early reports, probably reflecting historical practice, contradicted the dog-hostile traditions. For instance, several reports indicated that the Prophet’s young cousins, and some of the companions owned puppies.[10] Other reports indicated that the Prophet prayed while a dog played in the vicinity.[11] In addition, there is considerable historical evidence that dogs roamed freely in Medina and even entered the Prophet’s mosque.[12] A particularly interesting tradition attributed to the Prophet asserted that a prostitute, and in some versions, a sinning man, secured their places in Heaven by saving the life of a dog dying of thirst in the desert.[13]

Most jurists rejected the traditions mandating the killing of dogs as fabrications because, they reasoned, such behavior would be wasteful of life. These jurists argued that there is a presumption prohibiting the destruction of nature, and mandating the honoring of all creation. Any part of creation or nature cannot be needlessly destroyed, and no life can be taken without compelling cause.[14] For the vast majority of jurists, since the consumption of dogs was strictly prohibited in Islam, there was no reason to slaughter dogs. Aside from the issue of killing dogs, Muslim jurists disagreed on the permissibility of owning dogs. A large number of jurists allowed the ownership of dogs for the purpose of serving human needs, such as herding, farming, hunting, or protection. They also prohibited the ownership of dogs for frivolous reasons, such as enjoying their appearance or out a desire to show off.[15] Some scholars rationalized this determination by arguing that dogs endanger the safety of neighbors and travelers.[16] For the majority of jurists, however, the pertinent issue was not whether it was lawful to own dogs, but the avowed impurity of dogs. The majority contended that the pivotal issue is whether the bodies and saliva of dogs are pure or not. If dogs are in fact impure then they cannot be owned unless there is a serious need for doing so.[17]

As to the issue of purity, the main point of contention was as to whether there is a rational basis for the command to wash a container if touched or licked by a dog.[18] The majority of jurists held that there is no rational basis for this command, and that dogs, like pigs, must be considered impure simply as a matter of deference to the religious text. A sizeable number of jurists, however, disagreed with this position. Jurists, particularly from the Maliki school of thought, argued that everything found in nature is presumed to be pure unless proven otherwise, either through experience or text.[19] Ruling that the traditions mentioned above are not of sufficient reliability or authenticity so as to overcome the presumption of purity, they argued that dogs are pure animals. Accordingly, they maintained that dogs do not void a Muslim’s prayer or ritual purity.[20] Other jurists argued that the command mandating that a vessel be washed a number of times was intended as a precautionary health measure. These jurists argued that the Prophet’s tradition on this issue was intended to apply only to dogs at risk of being infected by the rabies virus. Hence, if a dog is not a possible carrier of rabies, it is presumed to be pure.[21] A small number of jurists carried this logic further in arguing that rural dogs are pure, while urban dogs are impure because urban dogs often consume human garbage.[22] Another group of jurists argued that the purity of dogs turn on their domesticity—domestic dogs are considered pure because human beings feed and clean them, while dogs that live in the wild or on the streets of a city could be carriers of disease, and therefore, they are considered impure.[23] It is clear from the evolution of these discourses that as nature became more susceptible to rational understanding, complex and potentially dangerous creatures, such as dogs, became less threatening for Muslim jurists.

Aside from the legal discourses, dogs occupied an elusive position in Muslim culture. On the one hand, in Arabic literature dogs were often portrayed as a symbol of highly esteemed virtues such as self-sacrifice and loyalty. For example, Ibn Al-Marzuban wrote a fascinating treatise titled, The Book of the Superiority of Dogs Over Many of Those Who Wear Clothes, which contrasts the loyalty and faithfulness of dogs to the treachery and fickleness of human beings. Dogs were also widely used for protection, sheep herding, and hunting. On the other hand, dogs were often portrayed as an oppressive instrument in the hands of despotic and unjust rulers. Similar to the medieval European practice, in the pre-modern Middle East region, as an expression of contempt or deprecation, at times dogs were hung or buried with the corpses of dissidents or rebels.[24] Furthermore, in popular culture, unlike cats, dogs were considered filthy or impure animals that ought not share the living space of the pious or religiously observant. This cultural anti-dog prejudice survived into modern times, and as a result, the ownership of dogs continues to be socially frowned upon. In the contemporary Muslim world, dog ownership is common only among Bedouins, law enforcement, and the Westernized higher classes. As a matter of fact, it is rather striking that, to a very large extent, modern Muslims are unaware of the pre-modern juristic determinations that vindicated the purity of dogs. Nevertheless, this in itself is a measure of the ambiguous fortunes of the dynamics between Islamic law and nature in modernity. In the pre-modern age, Islamic law evolved in near proportion to the advances achieved in the human knowledge of nature. But as the institutions of Islamic law were deconstructed by European Colonialism, and with the rise of puritanical movements in contemporary Islam, Islamic jurisprudence has ceased to be a forum for creative thinking or dynamic interactions with the vastness of nature.

[1] Barbara Allen Woods, The Devil in Dog Form: A Partial Type-Index of Devil Legends, vol. 11 of Folklore Studies (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1959), 33.

[2] Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, Musnad al-Imam Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, ed. Samir al-Majzub (Beirut: Maktab al-Islami, 1993), 5:194, 197.

[3] Abu Zakariyya Yahya al-Nawawi, Sharh Sahih Muslim, 3rd ed. (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifa, 1996), 3-4:174-5 ; Ahmad Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani, Fath al-Bari bi Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari, ed. Muhibb al-Din al-Khatib, 3rd ed. (Cairo: al-Maktaba al-Salafiyya, 1407 AH), 1:331 ; Shams al-Din al-Sarakhsi, Kitab al-Mabsut (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyya, 1993), 1-2:48.

[4] Muhammad ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Mubarakafuri, Tuhfat al-Ahwadhi bi Sharh Jami‘ al-Tirmidhi (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilimiyya, n.d.), 8:72-73.

[5] Malik Ibn Anas, al-Muwatta’ (Egypt: al-Babi al-Halabi, n.d.), 2:969.

[6] Ahmad Ibn Shu‘ayb al-Nisa’i, Sunan al-Nisa’i (Beirut: Dar al-Kitab al-‘Arabi, n.d.), 7: 309 (The commentaries by al-Suyuti and al-Sanadi are in the margins). Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani, Fath al-Bari, 4:426.

[7] Al-Nawawi, Sahih Muslim, 3-4:176, 9-10:479; Abu Bakr Muhammad Ibn al-‘Arabi, Ahkam al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘ruf, n.d.), 2:545-546; Muhammad Ibn ‘Ali al-Shawkani, Nayl al-Awtar Sharh Muntaqa al-Akhbar (Cairo: Dar al-Hadith, n.d.), 1-2:38; Abu ‘Abd Allah Muhammad al-Qurtubi, al-Jami‘ li Ahkam al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyya, 1993), 3:44; Abu Bakr Ahmad al-Jassas, Ahkam al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyya, n.d.), 2:393; Muhammad Ibn Jarir al-Tabari, Tafsir al-Tabari min Kitabihi Jami‘ al-Bayan ‘an Ta’wil ‘Ayat al-Qur’an, eds. Bashshar ‘Awad Ma‘ruf and Faris al-Harastani (Beirut: Mu’assasat al-Risala, 1994), 3:21, 523-524.

[8] Al-Nawawi, Sahih Muslim, 3-4:450-1; Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, Musnad, 5:194, 197, 202, 208; Abu Bakr Ibn al-‘Arabi, ‘Aridat al-Ahwadhi bi Sharh Sahih al-Tirmidhi (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyya, n.d.), 1:133.

[9] See discussion in Khaled Abou El Fadl, Speaking in God’s Name: Islamic Law, Authority, and Women (Oxford: Oneworld Press, 2001), 226-8.

[10] al-Mubarakafuri, Tuhfat al-Ahwadhi, 8:74; Al-Nawawi, Sahih Muslim, 9-10:478, 480, 483.

[11] Al-Nawawi, Sahih Muslim, 3-4:465.

[12] Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani, Fath al-Bari, 1:334.

[13] Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani, Fath al-Bari, 1:333.

[14] Ibn al-‘Arabi, ‘Aridat al-Ahwadhi, 1:133-4; al-Nawawi, Sahih al-Muslim, 3-4:177, 9-10:479, 13:78; al-Qurtubi, al-Jami‘, 3:44; al-Shawkani, Nayl al-Awtar, 1-2:38.

[15] Al-Nawawi, Sahih Muslim, 3-4:176-7.

[16] Al-Nawawi, Sahih Muslim, 9-10:482.

[17] Muhammad Ibn Ahmad Ibn Rushd II, Bidayat al-Mujtahid wa Nihayat al-Muqtasid, (Beirut: al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyya, 1997), 1:34-5; Taqi al-Din Ahmad Ibn Taymiyya, Majmu‘ Fatawa, ed. Muhammad ‘Abd al-Rahman Ibn Qasim, 2nd ed. (Riyadh: np, n.d.), 21:619-20.

[18] Sahnun Ibn Sa‘id, al-Mudawwana al-Kubra (Egypt: Matba‘at al-Sa‘ada, n.d.), 1:5; Ibn Rushd II, Bidayat, 1:33-4; Abu Bakr Ibn Mas‘ud al-Kasani, Bada’i‘ al-Sana’i‘ fi Tartib al-Shara’i‘ (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilimiyya, 1997), 1:375, 415.

[19] Ahmad Ibn Muhammad al-Dardir, al-Sharh al-Saghir ‘ala Aqrab al-Masalik (the commentary of Ahmad al-Sawi is in the margins) (Cairo: Mustafa al-Babi, 1952), 1:18.

[20] Khayr al-Din al-Munif, al-Fatawa al-Khayriyya li Naf‘ al-Bariyya (Cairo: Dar al-Ma‘rifa, n.d.), 2:15; Abu Muhammad ‘Abd Allah Ibn Ahmad Ibn Muúammad Ibn Qudama, al-Mughni (Beirut: Dar Ihya’ al-Turath al-‘Arabi, n.d.), 1:46; ‘Ali Ibn Ahmad Ibn Hazm, Al-Muhalla bi al-Athar (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyya, n.d.), 1:120-2; Shihab al-Din Ibn Idris al-Qarafi, al-Dhakhira (Beirut: Dar al-Gharb al-Islami, 1994), 1:181-2; Zayn al-Din Ibn Muhammad Ibn Nujaym, al-Bahr al-Ra’iq Sharh Kanz al-Daqa’iq (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyya, 1997), 1:225.

[21] Abu Walid Muhammad Ibn Ahmad Ibn Rushd I, al-Muqaddimat al-Mumahhidat, ed. Muhammad Hajji (Beirut: Dar al-Gharb al-Islami, 1988), 1:90-2.

[22] Ibn al-‘Arabi, ‘Aridat, 1-2:138; Ibn Rushd II, Bidayat, 1:36.

[23] Ibn Rushd I, al-Muqaddimat, 1:87-9; Ibn Rushd II, Bidayat, 1:35; Ibn al-‘Arabi, ‘Aridat, 1-2:134-7.

[24] Khaled Abou El Fadl, Rebellion and Violence in Islamic Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 53-7.

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