Kindness toward dogs could bring forgiveness for sin
Will Islamic refugees from conflict in the Middle East respect western values?
Of particular concern to animal lovers, will the refugees respect our cultural concern for the well-being of dogs?
Vehement foes of refugee immigration frequently allege that Islam is intolerant of dogs, but reality is considerably more complex.
Tolerance of dogs
Among the nations most tolerant of the ubiquitous presence of street dogs––if at times inconsistently––are Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, all overwhelmingly Islamic.
India, which has 172 million Muslim residents, more than the entire population of any Islamic majority nations except Indonesia and Pakistan, in 2001 became the first nation to outlaw population control killing of street dogs and institute a nationally subsidized street dog sterilization program. Costa Rica was the second.
Third, in 2004, was Turkey, where an estimated 99.4% of the population are Islamic.
Nor was the 2004 Turkish legislative sympathy for dogs just a gesture undertaken to facilitate trade relations with the dog-friendly European Union. Indeed, compassion toward dogs has a much longer tradition in Turkey than in most of Europe.
Recounted Mark Twain in The Innocents Abroad, after visiting Istanbul in 1869, “Once a sultan proposed to kill off all the dogs here, and did begin the work–but the populace raised such a howl of horror that the massacre was stayed.
“After a while he proposed to remove them all to an island in the Sea of Marmora. No objection was offered, and a shipload or so was taken away.
“But when it came to be known that somehow or other the dogs never got to the island, but always fell overboard in the night and perished, another howl was raised and the transportation scheme was dropped. The dogs remain in peaceable possession of the streets.”
Rabies & lack of parasite control
Indeed there are also many majority Islamic nations where street dogs are persecuted and keeping pet dogs is discouraged, Iran being among the most conspicuous examples––even though lap dogs remain common in the more affluent suburbs of Tehran, the capital city, and herding and hunting dogs are commonly kept in rural areas.
On close examination, Islamic nations with visibly anti-dog public attitudes tend to coincide with the parts of the world which have long been afflicted by rabies and lack of access to vaccination, and also remain frequently afflicted by other diseases frequently associated with lack of effective parasite control in dogs, such as leishmaniasis and mange.
Will status of dogs rise with affluence?
Will the status of dogs rise in the Islamic world as improved sanitation eliminates street dog habitat, access to veterinary services improves, the threat of rabies recedes, and rising affluence enables more people to keep pets?
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?
Despite recent setbacks associated with conflict and governmental transitions, many Middle Eastern cities including Cairo, Damascus, Istanbul, Karachi, Tehran, and the whole nations of Kuwait, and Dubai 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 western Europe.
Factors in transition
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 force.
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 2000, 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.
U.S. precedent involving cats
A parallel effect occurred with keeping cats in the U.S.
Research done in 1947-1950 by National Family Opinion Survey founders Howard and Clara Trumbull 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.
By 1997 about 90 million cats inhabited U.S. homes, outnumbering pet dogs by 20 million. The U.S. pet cat population has dropped since then to about 74 million, as of 2012, but of these, about 60 million are mostly indoors.
Teachings of Mohammed
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 chiefly 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 feed.”
Should not confine dogs without need
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 social animal.
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 be sacrificed.
Angels & vigilance
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.
Response to rabies
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 nations.
Selling & breeding dogs
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 bestiality.
Mohammed’s most significant statements about dogs were narrated by his disciple Abu Huraira, who was well-known for his own love of animals.
The dog at the well
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 religions.
The strongest mandate
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 and dipping her shoe into a well. 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.