Dogs in the Islamic
Tradition and Nature By
Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl
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. According
to one tradition attributed to Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, black dogs
are evil, or even devils, in animal form. 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 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, or that the company of dogs voids a portion of a Muslim’s good
deeds. 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, and even to slaughter all dogs, except for those
used in herding, farming, or hunting.
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. 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
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.
Other reports indicated that the Prophet prayed while a dog played in the
vicinity. In addition, there is considerable historical evidence that
dogs roamed freely in Medina and even entered the Prophet’s mosque.
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
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. 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. Some scholars
rationalized this determination by arguing that dogs endanger the safety
of neighbors and travelers. 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.
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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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.
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