How Muslims can wage jihad against “Islamic” cruelty
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 2004:
How Muslims can wage jihad against “Islamic” cruelty
by Kristen Stilt
The stories have become sadly familiar: a Society for the
Protection of Animal Rights in Egypt volunteer encounters a young boy
on a Cairo street throwing stones at a dog. She restrains the boy
and asks him: “Why are you harming this dog, who is one of God’s
The boy replies: “Because the Imam in the mosque said that
dogs are impure.”
Or SPARE president Amina Abaza sees a group of children
trying to drown a puppy in a canal on the outskirts of Cairo. She
rushes to the edge of the canal and seizes the animal, telling the
offenders that God will punish them for committing a wrong. “We are
doing no wrong,” they reply, “because we heard in the mosque that
dogs are dirty.”
In Egypt such incidents and comments are both common and
tragic. Because of mistaken understandings of Islamic teachings,
some Muslims in Egypt-and beyond-commit cruelty in the name of their
religion. Arguments that call upon religion, even incorrectly, can
only be defeated with proper religious citations. A careful look at
the Islamic texts clearly shows that the behavior of these children
and many others acting like them is completely wrong. But
reprimanding the children by telling them that their actions are
unkind, cruel, or unjust does not counter the underlying motivation
for their behavior.
Anyone doing animal welfare work in Muslim communities must
know the basics of Islamic law (Sharia). To counter religion-based
arguments, one first must understand them. The English term
“Islamic law” is misleadingly simple and suggests, incorrectly, that
Islamic law refers to a standard body of eternal and unchanging law.
This is not the case-what we know today as Islamic law is a vast
field of scholarship with often-conflicting interpretations that have
evolved over nearly 15 centuries and will continue to grow and
The Qur’an is recognized by Muslims as the word of God,
transmitted through the messenger Muhammad.
Muhammad’s own speech and actions as the messenger of God are
also important to Muslims and are recognized as a second source of
law, after the Qur’an. These are collectively called the Prophet’s
sunna, which literally means “way” or “path,” and are conveyed by
reports, each of which is called a “hadith.”
The Qur’an mentions a dog on only one occasion, in a story
about a group of persecuted Christians, and the dog is depicted in a
positive light. (Chapter 18: 18-22). Numerous other verses instruct
that all of God’s creatures are to be respected and treated properly.
Nothing in the Qur’an calls for or permits violence against the
species of dogs.
All of the rules of Islamic law regarding dogs are based on
the reported acts and speech of the Prophet Muhammad. But this large
body of Prophetic sunna is not uniformly authoritative. There are
many thousands of hadith and the soundness of these reports varies
dramatically. Many were passed down in ways that have caused
scholars to doubt their authenticity.
Two scholars from the medieval period, Bukhari and Muslim,
collected the hadith that they thought were the most reliable and
designated them as “sound,” meaning probably authentic. These two
collections, the most respected of their kind, are known by the
names of these two scholars: the Sound Hadith Collection of Bukhari
and the Sound Hadith Collection of Muslim.
Even within these two collections there are variations in
the authenticity of the included hadith. Very few, if any, can be
established as genuine beyond a shadow of doubt. Moreover, unless
the Prophet’s statement as recorded in a hadith is understood in the
context in which it was originally made, the text of the hadith can
be distorted and applied in situations for which it was never
It is important not to give up the fight if someone recites
to you a hadith that seems to allow cruelty to animals. The
particular hadith may be highly unreliable or taken out of context.
Armed with knowledge about Islamic law, you will be able to defeat
pro-cruelty arguments with more authoritative hadith that promote
kindness to animals, or you will be able to explain away such
reports by placing them in the context in which they were said.
There are also many ambiguities in the textual provisions of
both the Qur’an and sunna, so do not let one person’s statement
about what a particular provision means cause you to retreat from
arguing that Islamic law requires kind and humane treatment of
animals. Ambiguities in the texts are why Islamic scholars have for
centuries debated, argued, and written about their own personal
interpretations of the texts. The thinking and writing of scholars
plays a major role in the formulation of Islamic law, and with each
new generation, new interpretations emerge.
Over the centuries, scholars who agreed with one another on
certain points of law tended to form groups which are called “schools
of law.” The founders of these schools remain respected authorities
whose opinions still carry weight for many Muslims. The opinions of
some of these authorities are also useful to know.
Dogs and Purity
A major problem with regard to dogs and Islam is that some
Muslims consider dogs “impure.” This was why the children whom Mona
Khalil and Amina Abaza caught abusing dogs thought their acts were
The issue of dogs and impurity raises three important
questions: What does it mean to be “impure” in Islam? Are dogs
considered “impure” in Islamic law? And if they are considered
“impure,” what action should a Muslim take?
Islamic rules about purity mainly concern prayer. Islamic law
requires that a Muslim’s body, clothing, and space for prayer be
pure. This means that the body, clothing, or space must be washed
if touched by an impure substance.
Scholars generally agree that unclean substances include but
are not limited to bodily substances such as blood, urine, pus,
and feces. Some scholars, mainly in the Hanbali and Shafi’i schools
of law, consider dogs to be unclean, so that touching a dog, or
being licked by a dog, necessitates washing that part of the body or
portion of clothing before prayer. The Maliki school of law,
however, does not consider the dog impure at all. Scholars of the
Hanafi school consider only the leftover food and water of the dog to
be impure, so only contact with these substances would necessitate
washing the relevant part of the body or clothing before prayer.
The key point here is that many substances are impure and
need to be washed off before prayer. This is a normal part of
pre-prayer preparation for most Muslims. Even for scholars who
consider dogs impure, the consequences of touching a dog are no more
than the consequences of coming into contact with other impurities.
Contact with these impurities is not wrong; one needs only to wash.
Butchers, for example, routinely get blood on their clothing and
body in their daily work, and simply wash the blood off and change
clothes before prayer. Egyptian police who work with drug-sniffing
dogs wash before prayer, as do the men who work at the SPARE
shelter. It is incorrect to view dogs as unclean in an exaggerated
The rules about purity have nothing to do with harming or
killing dogs. As a separate issue completely, the Prophet did make
statements about what should be done with a particular animal who is
harming humans. Here is where the contextual hadith issues become
crucial. Numerous hadith about dogs are circulated and quoted. Some
suggest that God will not punish cruelty to dogs by Muslims, or even
state that the Prophet ordered the killing of dogs generally, but
these hadith are either unsound or are taken out of context.
For example, there is a report about the Prophet and dogs
that is cited in the Sound Hadith Collections of Muslim and Bukhari
in several different ways. In one version, the Prophet ordered the
killing of all dogs. In another version, the Prophet ordered the
killing of all dogs in the city of Medina. In yet another version,
the Prophet ordered the killing of all dogs except dogs that belonged
to people who were using the dogs for purposes of hunting, sheep or
livestock herding, or for agriculture. Any one of these hadith are
troubling, but the first, as the most general and unrestricted, is
the most problematic. If someone were to recite to you the first
hadith-that the Prophet ordered the killing of all dogs-you might not
think this argument can be defeated-but it can!
Hadith reports are usually fairly brief and without
background information, so scholars turn to commentaries on the
hadith and other historical sources to explain the context and
meaning of them.
First, some scholars have persuasively argued that the
Prophet’s orders as told in these reports came at a time of a rabies
epidemic in the town of Medina. The Prophet clearly was trying to
determine ways to identify the dogs most likely to be carriers of the
disease and to combat this epidemic. He first started with a general
order to kill all of the dogs in Medina, but then tried several
times to narrow his order to only kill the dogs thought to be
infected with the disease. Many hadith explain that the reason the
Prophet restricted the order to apply only to the dogs most likely to
be harmful was because he recognized dogs as one of the species
created by God, and so deserving of the same respect as all others.
Not having the benefits of modern medicine, the Prophet’s efforts to
determine which dogs were harmful were not as precise as we can be
today, but the underlying purpose of the Prophet’s actions can be
Secondly, an authoritative hadith commentary further
explains the Prophet’s orders. While there is disagreement among
scholars, there is strong support for the interpretation that the
Prophet withdrew the earlier unrestricted orders to kill all the dogs
or all the dogs in Medina and stopped and forbade this unrestricted
killing. He then issued the new order to kill only those dogs most
likely to be harmful. Under this very persuasive interpretation, no
one can claim today that there is a standing order by the Prophet to
kill dogs. Quite the contrary, the Prophet forbade all killing
except in very narrow and specific circumstances.
This interpretation is bolstered by other sound hadith
reporting that the Prophet permitted the killing of an animal, other
than animals for food (and scholars of Islamic law unanimously agree
that eating dogs is forbidden!), only when the animal was harming
humans. This is further supported by numerous sound hadith in which
the Prophet praised acts of kindness to dogs, such as giving a
thirsty dog water to drink.
It is clear that the Prophet never ordered the general
killing of dogs or even the killing of some dogs in a particular
place and time without the very specific justification that they were
harming humans. For if the Prophet intended to kill all dogs, why
would he praise acts of kindness to them on numerous occasions? The
clear lesson is that actions toward dogs or other animals must be in
proportion to the harm caused.
When killing an animal is necessary, as in the case of a
rabid dog, there are many sound hadith reported in Bukhari and
Muslim that express that the killing must be done with the least
possible pain to the animal. These hadith state that the animal
should be killed in a way that causes death instantaneously.
The clear implication is that only a person with medical
knowledge about animals will be able to know if a dog is harmful to
the extent that killing is required. This is not a determination for
a non-specialist to make. Also implied is that the killing must be
done in the kindest possible way. This clearly would not include
stoning, drowning, beating, or shooting. Essentially, the Prophet
ordered that dangerous and rabid dogs be treated just as animal
welfare organizations treat them today.
When the sources of Islamic law are examined, they are not
only supportive of animal welfare and protection, but actually
require it in many situations.
So why is there so much misperception? In economically
troubled nations such as Egypt, education suffers severely. Public
schools are overcrowded, underfunded and under-staffed, and
educational materials are inadequate. Teachers-who are rarely paid a
living wage-may themselves not know the rules about the proper
treatment of animals.
More importantly, religious instruction comes from
authoritative figures, such as local Imams, without encouragement
for individuals to think for themselves. The result is that a single
misperception can be perpetuated endlessly until a strong and
educated group steps in to combat it.
A conference held at al-Azhar University in Cairo at the end
of February 2004 was a major first step in this direction. Al-Azhar,
the preeminent institution of Islamic law in Egypt, is greatly
respected throughout the Islamic world. The al-Azhar conference
brought together scholars, journalists, veterinarians, and
Egyptian animal welfare organizations to discuss issues of Islamic
law and the treatment of animals.
The significance of the conference was that the parti-cipants
formally agreed through a series of resolutions that the public must
be educated accurately about Islamic teachings pertaining to animals.
The religious scholars and administration of al-Azhar recognized a
need to instruct religious leaders at all levels, and to encourage
them to preach messages of kindness and compassion towards animals in
their weekly sermons.
Conference recommendations include a commitment to spread
awareness of animal welfare from an Islamic perspective; to support
and develop nonprofit animal welfare organizations; to lobby for the
adoption of a national animal welfare law; to introduce concepts of
animal welfare into the veterinary curriculum; to prepare a document
showing support for animal rights from an Islamic perspective, with
the scholars of al-Azhar taking the lead on this task; and to
disseminate the conference recommendations throughout the Islamic
Animal welfare organizations who would like a copy of the
original Arabic recommendations or an English translation may contact
SPARE at <email@example.com>.
SPARE also has available a collection of hadith that address
many aspects of the Islamic rules on kindness to animals, and will
provide this collection to any interested groups. We are also
working on several fact sheets discussing different aspects of animal
welfare in Islamic law. In the near future these will be available
in English and Arabic.
[Kristen Stilt is a member of the board of directors of the
Society for the Protection of Animal Rights in Egypt. She is
currently a visiting researcher at the Islamic Legal Studies Program
at Harvard Law School, and is a Harvard University Ph.D. candidate.
In fall 2004 she will join the faculty of the University of
Washington School of Law.]