What did the Prophet Mohammed really say about dogs?
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 2008:
What did the Prophet Mohammed really say about dogs?
Commentary by Merritt Clifton
CAIRO–Will the status of dogs rise in the Islamic world as
improved sanitation eliminates street dog habitat, the threat of
rabies recedes, and rising affluence enables more people to keep
Or, is prejudice against dogs so thoroughly built into
Muslim culture that the Middle East will remain the part of the
inhabited world with the fewest pet dogs per capita, despite having
the longest recorded history of keeping dogs?
Cairo, Damascus, Istanbul, Karachi, Tehran, Kuwait, and
Dubai all appear to have reached approximately the socio-demographic
transition point at which dog-keeping began exponential growth in the
U.S. and more recently China, and began more restrained growth in
Features of the transition point include rising percentages
of the population who have contact with animals chiefly as pets,
rather than through agrarian occupations; smaller family sizes;
fewer multi-generational households; and more women in the work
The factors most directly associated with surges in
dog-keeping, worldwide, center on increases in the ability of
people who like dogs to keep dogs as pets without starting conflict
with others who share the same living space.
Taboos on dog-keeping in other cultures have not held back
dog acquisition, once keeping a dog became easy for urban residents.
As recently as 10 years ago, for instance, observers of
dog-keeping in China typically opined that keeping pet dogs would
never become as popular there as in the west, not only for economic
reasons but also because of the lingering effects of decades of
official propagandizing against dogs. Instead, almost as soon as
governmental restrictions on dog-keeping were eased somewhat, the
popularity of dog-keeping exploded. China now has more pet dogs than
any other nation, and trails only the U.S. and Costa Rica in ratio
of pet dogs to humans.
A parallel effect occurred with keeping cats in the U.S.
Research by John Marbanks, done in 1947-1950, found that there were
then far fewer pet cats than dogs–and only 26% of the fed cats,
compared to 47% of the fed dogs, had house privileges. Prevailing
public opinion held that keeping cats indoors was unclean and
potentially dangerous to children.
In 1947, however, a man named Ed Lowe invented and began to
market clay cat litter. Bagged dry cat kibble began to reach stores
about 15 years later.
Today about 90 million cats inhabit U.S. homes, outnumbering
pet dogs by 20 million. About 60 million U.S. cats live primarily
Differing status of cats & dogs
A belief is widespread in the Islamic world that Mohammed
favored cats, of whom he was openly fond, but forbade keeping dogs.
This idea comes primarily from Hadiths 3:515, 4:541, and
4:4542, which state that “If somebody keeps a dog who is neither
used for farm work nor for guarding livestock, he will lose one Qirat
(a unit of value) of the reward for his good deeds every day.”
But the original meaning of the word “keep,” and of the
Arabic word translated as “keep” in these verses, is “to confine,”
as is affirmed by the evolution of translations of less
controversial Hadiths narrated by both Saheeh Muslim and Saheeh
Al-Bukhari about improperly “keeping” a cat. The story in older
translation is that, “A woman entered the Fire because of a cat
which she kept and did not give it food or water, nor did she set it
free to eat of the vermin of the earth.” Two later translations have
it that the woman “was punished because she imprisoned a cat until it
died,” or “entered Hell because of a cat she tied up and did not
To confine was still the primary meaning of “keeping” an
animal in formal English as recently as the 1930s, when the most
commonly cited versions of the Hadiths were translated–and in the
case of the verses about the cat, translators appear to be unanimous
that the Arabic word originally rendered as “kept” referred
specifically to cruel confinement.
What the Hadiths about keeping a dog therefore appear to be
stating, if read into historical context, is that people should not
confine a dog unnecessarily, recognizing the nature of a dog as a
Supporting this view is Mohammed’s often expressed opposition
to confining other animals unnecessarily or in a cruel manner–not
only cats, but also birds, livestock, and wildlife. Mohammed
accepted confinement, but only if the needs of the animal were met,
and was attentive to their emotional needs, as illustrated in his
rebuke of a man who sharpened a knife in front of a sheep who was to
Also often cited in support of claims that Mohammed forbade
keeping dogs are Hadith 4:539, usually translated as “The Prophet
said, ‘Angels do not enter a house which has either a dog or a
picture in it,'” and Hadith 4:540, “Allah’s Apostle ordered that the
dogs should be killed.”
These two Hadiths, however, come directly after one of
Mohammed’s strongest pro-dog pronouncements.
Hadith 4:539 has also been translated as using the vigilance
of dogs as a metaphor to explain how strongly an icon or idol would
repel angels. Speaking against icons and idols was among Mohammed’s
most frequent themes, but speaking ill of animals was not his habit.
Hadith 4:540 is believed by medical historians to refer to an
incident in which Mohammed responded to a rabies outbreak in Medina
by closing the walled part of the city where it occurred, to prevent
the outbreak from spreading, and then exterminated the host animals.
Before the invention of prophylactic anti-rabies vaccines, this
procedure of isolation and “stamping out” was the only known way to
stop a rabies epidemic. Isolation followed by “stamping out” is
still the procedure recommended by the World Health Organization for
coping with zoonotic disease outbreaks, if vaccines are unavailable
or of unknown efficacy.
In that context, Hadith 4:540 has been recently cited in
support of the “stamping out” response to outbreaks of the avian
influenza H5N1 in Egypt, Indonesia, and several other Islamic
Mohammed spoke of dogs in five other well-remembered Hadiths.
In three Hadiths–3:439, 3:440, and 3:482– Mohammed forbade
selling a dog. Each Hadith lists several other seemingly unrelated
forbidden practices, including pimping. These practices have in
common that they involve a betrayal of trust. Selling a dog
therefore appears to be forbidden because it betrays the dog’s trust.
Hadith 3:484 adds that “The Prophet forbade taking a price
for animal copulation,” which, in proximity to the other three,
appears to prohibit renting stud dogs. This verse has also been
interpreted as a brief reiteration of the Islamic prohibition of
Mohammed’s most significant statements about dogs were
narrated by his disciple Abu Huraira, who was well-known for his own
love of animals.
According to Hadith 3:551, “Allah’s Apostle said, ‘While a
man was walking he felt thirsty and went down a well and drank water
from it. On coming out of it, he saw a dog panting and eating mud
because of excessive thirst. The man said, ‘This (dog) is suffering
from the same problem as that of mine. So he went down again into
the well, filled his shoe with water, caught hold of it with his
teeth, and climbed up and watered the dog. Allah thanked him for
his good deed and forgave him.’ The people asked, ‘O Allah’s
Apostle! Is there a reward for us in serving (the) animals?’ He
replied, “Yes, there is a reward for serving any animal.”
Hadith 3:551 is perhaps the most emphatic mandate for humane
work in any of the primary religious texts of any of the Abrahamic
Hadith 4:538 expands the message.
Again according to Abu Huraira, “Allah’s Apostle said, ‘A
prostitute was forgiven by Allah, because, passing by a panting dog
near a well and seeing that the dog was about to die of thirst, she
took off her shoe, and tying it with her head-cover she drew out some
water for it. So, Allah forgave her because of that.”
Hadith 4:538 goes beyond just promising a reward for helping
animals. This Hadith promises specific forgiveness of sin to those
who help animals, even if the sin is as grave as prostitution and is
compounded by the prostitute having removed her head covering. These
are offenses which in parts of the Islamic world are still punished
by stoning or flogging.
In essence, Hadith 4:538 states that practicing compassion
for animals is more important than obedience to even some of the
most basic social norms. Hadith 4:538 indicates as a cultural goal
the education of a society in which everyone is compassionate toward
animals, and therefore no one is stoned or flogged.