Dogs in the Islamic Tradition & Nature

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

The following is adapted from Dogs in the Islamic Tradition & Nature 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 symbolising 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 Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.), black dogs are evil, or even devils, in animal form.  This is mentioned in the Musnad of Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (r.a.).  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 (s.a.w.), and therefore, apocryphal.

Nevertheless, much of the Islamic discourse focused on a Prophetic report instructing that if a dog, regardless of the colour, 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.  This is explained in Imam Abu Zakariyyah Yahya an-Nawawi’s (r.a.) Sharh Swahih Muslim; Imam Ahmad ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani’s (r.a.), Fath al-Bari bi Sharh Swahih al-Bukhari; by Shaykh Muhib ad-Din al-Khathib (r.a.); and by Imam Shams ad-Din as-Sarakhsi (r.a.) in his Kitab al-Mabsuth.

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, as mentioned in Imam Muhammad ‘Abd ar-Rahman al-Mubarakafuri’s (r.a.), Tuhfat al-Ahwadzi bi Sharh Jami’ at-Tirmidzi; or that the company of dogs voids a portion of a Muslim’s good deeds as mentioned in Imam Malik ibn Anas’ (r.a.) al-Muwaththa’.  Cultural biases against dogs as a source of moral danger reach an extreme point in reports that claim that Prophet (s.a.w.) commanded Muslims not trade or deal in dogs, and even to slaughter all dogs, except for those used in herding, farming, or hunting.  The former is mentioned in Imam Ahmad ibn Shu’ayb an-Nisa’i’s (r.a.) Sunan; and Imam ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani’s Fath al-Bari.  The latter is found in Imam an-Nawawi’s (r.a.) Sharh Swahih Muslim; Imam Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn al-‘Arabi’s (r.a.) Ahkam al-Qur’an; Imam Muhammad ibn ‘Ali ash-Shawkani’s (r.a.), Nayl al-Awthar Sharh Muntaqa’ al-Akhbar; Imam Abu ‘Abdullah Muhammad al-Qurthubi’s (r.a.) al-Jami’ li Ahkam al-Qur’an; Imam Abu Bakr Ahmad al-Jaswswas’ (r.a.) Ahkam al-Qur’an; and Imam Muhammad ibn Jarir ath-Thabari’s (r.a.) Tafsir ath-Thabari min Kitabihi Jami’ al-Bayan ‘an Ta’wil ‘Ayat al-Qur’an.

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 marginalised elements in society, such as non-Muslims or women, and dogs.  In some such traditions, it is claimed that the Prophet (s.a.w.) 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.  This is mentioned in Imam an-Nawawi’s (r.a.) Sharh Swahih Muslim; Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal’s (r.a.) Musnad; and Imam Abu Bakr ibn al-‘Arabi’s (r.a.) ‘Aridhat al-Ahwadzi bi Sharh Swahih at-Tirmidzi.  Interestingly, early Muslim authorities, such as the Prophet’s (s.a.w.) wife, ‘Aishah (r.a.), 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.

Despite the attribution to the Prophet (s.a.w.) 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 (s.a.w.) young cousins, and some of the companions owned puppies.  This is especially mentioned in Imam al-Mubarakafuri’s (r.a.) Tuhfat al-Ahwadzi; and Imam an-Nawawi’s (r.a.) Sharh Swahih Muslim.  Other reports indicated that the Prophet (s.a.w.) prayed while a dog played in the vicinity, as recorded in Imam an-Nawawi’s (r.a.) Sharh Swahih Muslim.  In addition, there is considerable historical evidence that dogs roamed freely in Madina and even entered the Prophet’s (s.a.w.) mosque, as recorded in Imam ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani’s (r.a.) Fath al-Bari.  A particularly interesting tradition attributed to the Prophet (s.a.w.) 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.  This is also explained in Imam ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani’s (r.a.) Fath al-Bari.

Most jurists rejected the traditions mandating the killing of dogs as fabrications because, they reasoned, such behaviour would be wasteful of life.  These jurists argued that there is a presumption prohibiting the destruction of nature, and mandating the honouring of all Creation.  Any part of creation or nature cannot be needlessly destroyed, and no life can be taken without compelling cause.  These rulings are recorded in Imam ibn al-‘Arabi’s (r.a.), ‘Aridhat al-Ahwadzi; Imam an-Nawawi’s (r.a.) Sharh Swahih Muslim; Imam al-Qurthubi’s (r.a.) al-Jami’; and Imam ash-Shawkani’s (r.a.) Nayl al-Awthar.  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, such as mentioned in Imam an-Nawawi’s (r.a.) Sharh Swahih Muslim.  Some scholars rationalised this determination by arguing that dogs endanger the safety of neighbours and travelers, again mentioned in Imam an-Nawawi’s (r.a.) Sharh Swahih Muslim.  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.  This was a contention discussed in Imam Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Rushd II’s (r.a.) Bidayat al-Mujtahid wa Nihayat al-Muqtaswid; and Shaykh Taqi’ ad-Din Ahmad ibn Taymiyyah’s (r.a.) Majmu’ al-Fatawa.

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.  This contention is found in Imam Sahnun ibn Sa’id’s (r.a.) al-Mudawwanah al-Kubra’; Imam ibn Rushd II’s (r.a.) Bidayat; and Imam Abu Bakr ibn Mas’ud al-Kasani’s (r.a.) Bada’i’ as-Sana’i‘ fi Tartib ash-Shara’i’.  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.  This position is found in Imam Ahmad ibn Muhammad ad-Dardir’s (r.a.) ash-Sharh as-Saghir ‘ala Aqrab al-Masalik.  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.  This ruling may be found in Imam Khayr ad-Din al-Munif’s (r.a.) al-Fatawa al-Khayriyyah li Naf’ al-Bariyyah; Imam Abu Muhammad ‘Abdullah ibn Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Qudamah’s (r.a.) al-Mughni; Imam ‘Ali ibn Ahmad ibn Hazm’s (r.a.) al-Muhalla bi al-Atsar; Imam Shihab ad-Din ibn Idris al-Qarafi’s (r.a.) adz-Dzakhirah; and Imam Zayn ad-Din ibn Muhammad ibn Nujaym’s (r.a.) al-Bahr ar-Ra’iq Sharh Kanz ad-Daqa’iq.  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 (s.a.w.) 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.  This ruling is found in Imam Abu Walid Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Rushd I’s (r.a.) al-Muqaddimat al-Mumahhidat.  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.  Those who agreed with include Imam ibn al-‘Arabi (r.a.) in his ‘Aridhat; and Imam ibn Rushd II (r.a.) in his Bidayat.  Another group of jurists argued that the purity of dogs turns 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.  This is found in Imam ibn Rushd I’s (r.a.) al-Muqaddimat and Imam ibn Rushd II’s (r.a.) Bidayat.  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, Imam ibn al-Marzuban (r.a.) 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 Westernised 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. So adorable but yet I'm afraid it's too scary for me :-/


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