by Brian Griffith.
Islam is commonly held to sanction all the pre-Islamic prejudices that endure to this day in the Middle East. And probably the ancient revulsion toward pigs and dogs was shared by Muhammad as an Arab man. Muhammad reportedly said that dogs are filthy and should not be let in the house. Some followers took this as a call to drive the curs away, and others just kept their pet dogs in the yard. Many modern Arabs keep hunting dogs, which they pamper and admire. Clearly, in Muslims’ minds, some animals are more sacred than others. Doves are messengers from God, who used to whisper in Muhammad’s ear. Goats are admitted to Muslim heaven due to their connection with Abraham. The goats, it seems, let themselves be sacrificed to spare their master’s son.
By many accounts, relations between camels and Arabs are generally bad. But Muhammad reportedly treated these beasts with a compassion worthy of Francis. When Muhammad rode as a refugee into Medina, he trusted his camel to lead him to the house where he would stay. That way the choice was left to God, and nobody could accuse him of favoritism. We have stories saying that he could understand the camels’ thoughts, and brought their complaints of cruel treatment against their masters. Likewise, in a tenth century Sufi tale, the camels appealed to the King of Spirits against their abuse by human beings:
“If you could see us, our Lord and King, with our nostrils pierced through with rings of iron and how they pull us by these rings causing us great pain. If you could see how they lead us in darkness through dry and desolate lands, and how we return lame, our backs raw and aching from the friction of the heavy loads, faint with hunger, at the end of our strength—why, you would cry out: ‘Where is this compassion which these humans claim to have!? Look upon us, our lord and King, and judge!’ And the King replied, ‘No life should undergo such abuse. … I feel your sorrow and your loss … It is an outrage against our Creator that these humans treat you so cruelly! Justice will be realized!’” (Laytner and Bridge, 23, 11)
There is a whole bestiary of animals who reportedly served the Prophet or previous messengers of God, and were rewarded with admission to heaven. There was Muhammad’s faithful horse Borak, Tobit’s dog, Balaam’s donkey, and the dog Kasmir who guarded the cave of the Seven Sleepers as they fled from persecution. Muhammad was also hidden from his pursuers by spiders who wove webs over the entrance to his hideout, so spiders cannot be all bad. In another popular tale, Muhammad’s cat Muezza saved him from a poisonous snake. The prophet felt such respect for this cat that he cut off the edge of his cloak rather than disturb the animal as it slept. When Muezza awoke, it bowed to the Prophet in thanks, and Muhammad rewarded it by granting cats the power to always land on all four paws. To this day, cats are commonly free to enter mosques, and in some of the more compassionate versions of Islamic law it is forbidden to kill a cat.
All these stories, no doubt, are full of historical inaccuracies. But factuality is not the best measure of a religion. If these stories are part of the popular folklore, then they reflect something greater than factuality. They reflect an ancient popular expectation that a true follower of God will love and be loved by the animals. That is the idealism. And of course over the centuries, ideals tend to wilt. Concerning her 1927 journey to Mecca, Winifred Stegar wrote “Don’t ever tell me of love between camel and owner. The camels loathe their drivers, their passengers, and anything connected with them. They snarl and show their filthy black teeth at all and sundry. I have been amongst camels the greater part of my life, have known them from their birth to their death. That animal scorns the human raceˮ (Wolfe, 359–360).
From the upcoming book, Animal Wars.
Laytner, Rabbi Annson, and Bridge, Rabbi Dan, translators. (2005) The Animals’ Lawsuit Against Humanity: A Modern Adaption of an Ancient Animal Rights Tale. Fons Vitae, Louisville, KY.
Wolfe, Michael (1997) One Thousand Roads to Mecca. Grove Press, New York.