The attitude towards animals in Islam according to Islamic rulings on the internet
Dr. Housni al-Khateeb Shehada
The attitudes towards animals in different cultures are first and foremost related to the basic perceptions of the similarities as well as the distinctions between humans and animals. A further aspect is the question regarding the context or domain in which the accepted rules of ethics in this culture or another apply to humans. These issues are received in different ways in different cultures according to the respective, prevalent view of the nature of animals, and particularly according to the qualities that distinguish between or are common to animals and humans. Of additional importance are the practical implications deriving from the accepted or what are considered the appropriate codes of behavior in the attitude towards animals in a diversity of situations.
In many instances, different cultural attitudes towards animals are affected by religious traditions. In the world of Islam, religion and the clergy play a significant role in determining what is considered ethically appropriate or inappropriate. It is not within the range of this article to present the entire, extensive narrative that has developed in relation to these issues in the Muslim world since the inception of Islam. The main focus of the present article is on the themes arising from questions posed by Muslims worldwide regarding the relationship between humans and animals, and the counseling provided by religious jurists on these subjects. Similar to Judaism, the Islamic religion does not feature a central religious authority that rules on such matters. Religious law develops according to several schools of theologians that reinterpret the Islamic heritage in light of the various challenges that Muslims are likely to face on a daily basis. Among these schools, there is an adherence to what is considered the “purist” Islamic legacy, such as the Hanbali school, which today benefits from the political sponsorship of the Saudi Arabian regime. There are other schools which are more receptive to revisions.
In this article, different aspects of the attitude towards animals in Islamic culture are examined by virtue of their appearance on IslamOnline.net. This is a popular Internet site which has been managed since its introduction in 1997by the Qatar oil emirate. The directors of this site attempt to reply to the concerns of Muslim believers on the basis of the religious jurisprudence provided by a team of prominent jurists (muftis) who respond to the public’s queries. A significant number of questions referred to jurists are associated with attitudes to animals, and reflect moral dilemmas in contemporary Islamic culture. The questions and answers presented on this site are indicative of the attitude towards animals in contemporary Islam and the manner in which Muslims deal with this subject in the broad complex of modern life. The site principally represents a Sunni ideological perspective because the muftis engaged by this site belong to this specific Islamic denomination.
The IslamOnline.net site also includes a “fatwa bank” which is a compilation of important religious legal rulings collected and stored in the databank by editors of the site. The time period of the questions and answers examined for this article ranges from 1999 to the present (February, 2007). When questions are repeated, the editors refer questioners to more detailed replies already submitted in the past by jurists.
In the majority of rulings, an extensive reference to the particular problem is provided, while the fatwa is corroborated by religious law. These include traditional sayings of the Prophet Mohammed (Hadith) as well as verses from the Koran. The number of fatwas on the subject of animals is approximately 500 (out of a sum total of more than 12,000 fatwas in the entire database), thus offering a broad perspective on this topic. Users of the site find the answers to their request by filling in keywords.
The multitude of subjects on rulings related to animals can be divided into three principal categories, although in more than a few cases it is hard to restrict the ruling to a single category:
A. fatwas that involve a philosophical-theological aspect
B. fatwas that involve a religious-legal aspect
C. fatwas that involve a practical-educational aspect
It is not practicable within the limited scope of this article to include the entire corpus of questions and relevant answers provided by the religious experts in reference to animals. Among the wide variety of issues discussed on the site, some of which will be later analyzed in this article, the following questions or concerns appear:
1. What is the fate of animals in “the next world” and are there animals in paradise?
2. Prevention of cruelty to animals (the awareness of the suffering of animals) in Islam.
3. What is the ruling on bullfighting? Is it permissible to eat from the flesh of a bull that was killed in a bullfight?
4. What is the ruling on eradicating cats that are a nuisance and cause damage to humans?
5. What is the appropriate way to deal with birds that fall sick with avian flu?
6. What is the decree in regard to keeping birds in cages for commercial, competitive or amusement purposes?
7. Is it permissible to use anesthetics before slaughtering animals?
8. What is the ruling in regard to the sterilization (neutering, spaying) of pets such as cats and dogs?
9. What is the ruling in regard to putting down sick and/or suffering animals?
10. Is it acceptable to raise dogs at home? What about the use of dogs to help guide the blind or dogs trained for security purposes? What about drug detection dogs, search and rescue dogs, and so on?
11. Is it permissible to kill a pet dog?
12. What is the legitimacy of using electric shocks to stun fish (electrofishing) for commercial purposes?
Among the important jurists working on the site, Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi is considered a key figure on all aspects of Islamic law. Due to his membership in the Muslim Brotherhood, this religious scholar was imprisoned several times in his country of birth, Egypt, and today is based in Qatar. The other arbiters on the site are also well-reputed scholars who filled in the past or still fill official roles of muftis in different countries. Among them are the mufti of Al-Azhar in Egypt, the mufti of Jerusalem, and others who teach at the faculties of Muslim religious law (Sharia) in religious academic institutions throughout the world.
The general picture that emerges from the entire corpus of rulings that appears on this site indicates positive behavioral norms towards animals. In the majority of replies, the jurists refer to the explicit prohibition on the torturing of animals for purposes of amusement, entertainment or sport intended for spectator pleasure (e.g., bullfighting in Spain). The replies are largely based on traditions that are considered reliable according to the jurists, and all of them appear in the familiar Hadith sources. For the most part, the traditions indicate the Prophet Mohammed’s positive attitude towards animals. Two key quotations cited in most of the various jurists’ answers refer to the reward and punishment that individuals will be subject to on the basis of their attitude towards animals. One of the traditions deals with a woman who will be severely punished for confining her cat to a cage without food or water, inthreby leading to its death. The second passage involves the rewarding of a man who quenched the thirst of a dog (another version tells the story of a prostitute who took pity on a thirsty puppy and, as a result, God forgave her for all her sins on Judgment Day). The tradition goes on to say that companions of the Prophet asked him if there was any reward for a human’s good deed towards animals and the Prophet replied: “For every good deed towards a creature with a moist liver, there is reward and recompense.” Another tradition cited by the Prophet says: “You must be God-fearing towards the beasts that do not speak in a human tongue, ride them when they are fit and eat them when they are fit!”
On the matter of compassion and mercy towards animals, the questions are numerous as well as diverse. Among these, I will principally focus on the perception of the prevention of cruelty to animals in the religion of Islam compared with the modern Western approach. Visitors to IslamOnline.net ask for a religious traditional basis that advocates a positive attitude towards animals in order to help refute voices from the West that claim that Islam is a cruel religion. To this end, in the majority of their fatwas the jurists cite the tradition of the woman who will be punished in the fires of hell for the abuse of her cat. When a question is raised in doubt of this quote’s reliability, the response of the site’s editors is unequivocal, i.e., the words of a passage mentioned in the traditional sources should not be doubted as long as they are consistent with the stated ethics. This response is distinctive of the view of the site’s jurists which is based almost exclusively on religious sources—the Koran and the Hadith. I assume that this involves those clerics who mainly belong to the “strict” school of the Sunni sect, although in many rulings the entire complex of approaches from the four schools of the Sunnah is presented. I further assume that the approach of these jurists is couched in the ideology of an Islam that seeks to “restore it to its former glory.” Essentially, in all respects of the attitude towards animals, there are no significant differences among the jurists, just as there are no differences among the four schools. In all responses concerning the prevention of cruelty to animals in Islam, there is an explicit dictate reflecting an attitude of compassion and mercy towards animals.
In his ruling on this issue, Sheikh Al-Qaradawi notes that Islam has anticipated contemporary pro-animal organizations by some 1300 years. The Islamic religion has in effect transformed charity and good deeds towards animals into an inseparable part of its faith. Furthermore, any deliberate harm or act of cruelty towards animals is considered an action punishable by the fires of hell. In this regard, the jurist makes reference to a number of Hadith traditions that glorify the rewards of people who acted in good faith and underscore the punishment of those who acted with malicious intent towards animals. One tradition, for example, describes a custom that was apparently common among the Arab tribes that dwelled in the Arabian Peninsula. These tribes were accustomed to marking the foreheads of their livestock by branding them with a white-hot iron. According to one tradition, the Prophet prohibited this and requested that the branding of donkeys be ceased; as an alternative, he asked that these beasts of burden be only minimally marked on the side of the face. In another traditional passage, also referring to the same branding of animals, the words of the Prophet are phrased in a severe manner: “Did you not hear that I strongly condemn any person who marks the face of an animal with a white-hot iron or any person that strikes it on the face?”
In another response on the matter of the prevention of cruelty to animals in Islam, several fundamental rules underlying proper Muslim behavior towards animals are specified. According to the jurist who puts forward this response, these rules essentially surpass the laws that animal rights organizations in the West are trying to advance and legislate. Among the directives established on the basis of the Muslim legal heritage, are the following:
1. It is forbidden to deprive animals of food and drink or even be neglectful in the care of animals.
2. Animals should be fed appropriately and properly treated.
3. Physical harm must not be caused to the animal. Among the types of harm specified in this clause, the jurist refers, for example, to the harm caused by a load that is too heavy for the animal to carry, or by the overexploitation of working animals.
4. It is forbidden to turn an animal into a source of amusement, or make it a target for shooting arrows.
5. The animal’s welfare must be taken into account during its slaughter (see elaboration below).
6. Harm to the feelings of animals should be prevented.
As for the last issue, the same response stresses that according to the Muslim legacy, the attitude towards animals principally involves treating them as creatures with feelings that experience sadness, misery, sorrow and more. According to one of the traditions presented in this context, an incident is described in which the companions of the Prophet caught two chicks while the mother circled above their heads. The Prophet, who wasn’t present when they caught the chicks, reproved them by saying: “Which one of you caused sorrow to the mother by removing her young?” He then ordered them to immediately return the two fledglings to the mother’s care.
In conclusion of the discussion on the question of the prevention of cruelty to animals, the mufti does not spare the West in his critique and points out that Islam is a religion in which there are acts that bring humans closer to their creator and stress deference to God. Those who abide by these directives will be accordingly rewarded at the “end of days.” The mufti adds that in the West the first organization of the prevention of cruelty to animals was established in England only in 1928, whereas this principle had been established in Islam from the very beginning.
Many of the questions and answers on IslamOnline.net deal with the fitness of meat for consumption according to Islamic law. A considerable number of questions on this issue originate from Muslims living in Western countries. Some examples of questions address the appropriate method of slaughter, permission to eat meat sold in the West, or clarification on how to deal with those animal parts considered unfit for consumption according to religious law (e.g., pigskin used to make purses, shoes, etc.). The questions of site users from Muslim countries on this topic mainly refer to the manner in which animals are transported from remote countries, and to what degree does this transport, which involves a certain element of distress to the animals, conform to the ritual laws that instruct Muslims not to torment animals.
The matter of slaughtering animals according to the ritual Islamic laws (Halal) and the consumption of meat considered fit for such in Islam is, similar to Judaism, of significant importance, and there are a number of laws that supervise the ritual slaughtering process. Jurists from the site stress the fact that Islamic ritual law ordains that the animals’ welfare must be taken into account while they are being slaughtered. This concern for the animals is anchored in a number of rules that are also based on the oral traditions of the Prophet. The gist of these traditions is that efforts should be made to prevent needless torment to the animal and reduce its suffering. Among the rules are the following: careful sharpening of the butchering knife, ensuring that the physical positioning of the animal will reduce its suffering, a prohibition on sharpening the knife in the presence of the animal destined for slaughter, or slaughtering one animal in the presence of another. Slaughtering an animal is undoubtedly a cruel act; however, the manner of its execution, according to the rulings, demonstrates a perception of animals as creatures with emotions that feel pain. This distinctive view in Islam is grounded in many traditions of the Hadith and verses from the Koran which indicate the likeness between humans and animals. They further stress the commonality of all creatures in regard to feelings and suffering, and the fact that animals form “nations” that are capable of believing in God and being able to praise him. In one ruling, which demonstrates both a positive and progressive side of the matter, the jurists agree on the use of an anesthetic prior to the slaughtering on condition that the medication is not the cause of death nor hastens the death, and also on condition that it does not cause any harm to the animal or to the person who consumes the meat of the animal.
A considerable number of questions address the matter of amusement, spectator sports and other types of diversions that involve animals. An interesting question on this subject regards bullfighting in Spain. Questioners want to know how the ritual laws relate to this matter and whether it is permissible for a Muslim to watch a bullfight or cheer it on. Several want to know if the meat of a bull that has died in the ring is considered fit for consumption according to the ritual laws. The responses of all the jurists on the subject of bullfighting are clear-cut: There is an absolute prohibition on the viewing, encouragement and support of or connection in any way to this sort of event which, according to the jurists, involves the torment of animals. The answers rely on traditional passages of the Prophet that forbid any games involving animals, the use of animals for amusement purposes, or the use of them for target practice.
An example of the philosophical-theological aspect is a question from a site visitor about the existence of animals in paradise. Closely related is a question about the possibility that animals will stand trial at the “end of days,” and whether they will also be punished or rewarded for their actions in this world. Drawing on traditions of the Hadith and verses from the Koran, the jurists respond that the animals will be convened on Judgment Day and receive a fair trial. One tradition is cited in several responses and deals with a lamb which at the “end of days” will stand trial for attacking another hornless lamb. This passage raises a crucial question in regard to the responsibility of animals for their actions, and the scholars on the site consequently attempt to deal with this question. In most of the answers, they maintain that the consistency of the sources in regard to animals being led to trial should be understood solely as a parable in order to show that all living creatures will stand before the bar of justice at the “end of days.” However, after the sentencing and execution of justice, all animals, except for humans, turn into ashes. Despite this explanation, the muftis show in other answers explicit references indicating that there are in fact various animals in paradise—a statement that contradicts the aforementioned assertion. They point out that many Islamic traditions describe paradise as a place full of various creatures in addition to humans; however, even if these creatures are described as horses, camels, sheep or birds, their true form is not known for sure.
The practical aspect referring to the treatment of domestic animals and particularly pets such as dogs, cats, birds, fish or snakes, leads to another category of questions. We found in most of the answers on the site a preference for cats over other pets by Islam. This positive attitude is particularly prominent in the traditions handed down by the Prophet. In contrast, dogs are considered of inferior status and defined as impure animals, hence, an animal that should not be raised as a pet. Grounds for this are presented in the tradition stating that angels do not enter a house where there is a dog. As indicated by another tradition, the Prophet allowed the killing of aggressive dogs along with other animals whose killing is permitted such as snakes, scorpions, black crows, mice, vultures, and any beast of prey that attacks humans.
At the same time, the site’s jurists are not always of one mind on the subject of dogs. One example is that of a woman who asks for help, and in fact permission, to inflict harm on a dog her husband is raising at home. She considers the animal an unclean beast and fears it might possibly lead to diseases among the children living at home. In response to the question of whether she may poison the dog without her husband’s knowledge, the scholars strongly object. One of them asks her to first try and persuade her husband to remove the dog on the strength of the ritual laws which do not allow a dog to be kept as a pet in the house; however, she certainly does not have permission to harm the dog or poison it.
The muftis also approve the use of dogs for guiding the blind, security purposes, drug and bomb detection, and the search and rescue of people under collapsed buildings, etc. In effect, the jurists allow any form of raising or treatment of dogs as long as the dog serves the human and fills a clear role in assisting the human. However, it is forbidden to use a dog as a form of amusement, or to raise it at home as a pet. Markedly, there is a prominent contrast between raising a dog and a cat. There is essentially no reason not to raise a cat as a pet.
Among the religious rulings relating to environmental (hygiene) problems, the problem of dealing with stray animals frequently arises. Several visitors to the site pose queries regarding how the ritual laws deal with the natural increase of cats and dogs, and how to deal with this. The legal problem is connected to the legitimacy of performing sterilization processes. In all the rulings submitted on this site, the muftis take into consideration this problem and sanction the sterilization of cats and dogs—as long as the procedure is performed in a professional and controlled manner and no harm is caused to the animals. This ruling is of particular interest because, in the Hadith traditions, castration is explicitly forbidden. The jurists’ interpretations on this matter state that although the Prophet forbade the act of castration or the prevention of natural reproduction, the tradition’s intention regards, in their opinion, only humans.
One question raised in this category addresses the problem of the over-reproduction of cats on the grounds of a hospital in Algiers, including their undesirable presence in the patients’ rooms and even in the operating theatres. Furthermore, according to the questioners, cats attacked the patients, tried to steal food from them, and relieved themselves in the hospital area. The questioners ask how to get rid of the cats. They add that in the past they had already tried various measures such as poisoning, but they had become very upset at seeing the poisoned cats suffering in their death throes. Gunfire was then used to try and remove the cats but this too was unsuccessful. It caused much embarrassment and even panic among hospital residents, and the blood seeping from the wounds of several cats was an appalling spectacle. The answer given by Sheikh Nasr Farid Wasil, the mufti of Egypt, to this predicament is: The extermination of cats as a solution to this problem should be the last resort; this measure should be undertaken only after all other means—without causing their death—turn out to be ineffective. According to Sheikh Wasil, there is no doubt that in this case the uncontrolled reproduction of animals was the result of discarded food which allowed the animals to survive and multiply. If those responsible would ensure that food remains were not available to the cats, the animals would look for food elsewhere. In this way, it was possible to solve at the same time both the problems of the stray cats and the uncontained garbage. However, if this method did not help get rid of the cats, then traps should be set in order to catch and transfer them to societies and organizations responsible for the treatment of stray cats, such as the society for the prevention of cruelty to animals or the zoo. Only after all these steps had been taken, and authorized professionals arrived at the conclusion (for which they would have to justify themselves on Judgment Day) that the cats still posed a genuine risk to humans, such as through the spread of diseases, etc., would the “Dar Al-Afta”—the institution that issues fatwas, the ritual laws in the Islam—permit them to deal with these cats in the same way as animals that are killed according to the religious law.
Another question addresses the policy of the mass extermination of birds in the wake of the spread of avian flu in Egypt. This particular person invokes a critical tone as he writes: “In recent days we heard that in Egypt there is the avian flu and we saw the strange behavior involved in the steps that were taken. We don’t know what the Moslem ritual laws dictate on this issue.” Among the measures that were taken, he reports that birds were thrown under the wheels of cars, caged until they died of hunger, incinerated while still alive, and flung into water or abandoned in public parks. The questioner wants to know if this type of behavior towards fowl is correct and what is allowed or not allowed according to Islamic law. A group of muftis responded to this question, with each one relating to the importance of the question and its interest for the general public. I present here the answer of Dr Ragab Abu Malih. In his opinion, fleeing or avoiding disease are instinctive actions, but what happened in reality in this case is a sign of an ugly selfishness that led to conduct forbidden by the ritual law. He notes that according to the tradition, birds sing in praise of God and were created so that humans could benefit from them. Therefore, actions such as burning the birds while they are still alive, disposing of them in public places, or polluting the water with their carcasses, are not permissible according to the ritual law.
The question of vegetarianism is also a subject raised in discussions on the site. The response of the jurists is that there is nothing wrong with being a vegetarian Muslim, on condition that this lifestyle does not lead to the harming of one’s body. The jurists stress that the consumption of meat in Islam does not constitute a law, and certainly is not a religious imperative; however, in the conclusion to the response, the responders stress that believers must follow the practices of the Prophet Muhammad who was in the habit of eating meat. Eating the meat of animals is considered in their view as one of the pleasures of life that God granted to humans and they are intended to derive pleasure from this. They further add that if believers decide to become vegetarian and avoid eating meat, they should not turn this into a religious principle.
Much like other religions, Islam too attempts to carefully define the obligations of believers towards others in their world, including the attitude towards animals. In general, according to the rulings handed down on the IslamOnline.net site (the object of this study), the central Islamic jurisprudence grants many rights to nonhuman creatures. Believers are required to act according to the dictates appertaining to animals and for the benefit of the rights of these animals. A guiding principle in Islamic ritual law is based on adhering to positive behavioral norms towards animals, preventing the suffering of animals, a concern for animal welfare, and the practice of compassionate and merciful behavior by any person who makes use of animals or encounters them. This principle underlies all the rulings appearing on this site and constitutes an integral part of the behavioral rules that Muslims are required to adhere to in their attitude towards animals.
Emphasis should be put on the fact that these fatwas do not qualify as laws that, if violated, make the transgressors punishable by the authorities. They should be viewed, rather, as recommendations or counsel regarding the proper behavior that is prescribed by the religious precept. It goes without saying that these rulings do not in themselves necessarily indicate the actual manner of behavior—this can only be established by a field study. Nevertheless, the very act of approaching this site with these problems does indeed reflect the deliberations of visitors to this site in regard to the attitude towards animals. It can also be assumed that their making contact with the site is an indication of their acknowledgement of the authority of the muftis engaged by this site, whom they expect to indeed guide them along the right path. Finally, the distinctive nature of the Internet medium is such that the private question of a solitary individual is transformed overnight into the public domain and it is not possible to determine how it may ultimately resonate throughout the Muslim world, which numbers hundreds of millions of believers.
The general positive attitude that the site portrays in its approach to animals perhaps reliably reflects the Islamic tradition, but this should not mislead us in regard to other issues debated on this site. From a random examination of the many other religious rulings on the site database we were struck, for example, by the rigid stance of jurists regarding the attitude towards Christians and Jews, including the jurists’ view of what they perceive as the intentions of others to try and persuade Muslims to change their beliefs. With this extreme position of the jurists concerning these and other issues in mind, their relatively benevolent attitude towards nonhuman creatures is particularly noteworthy.
"The attitude towards animals in Islam according to Islamic rulings on the internet," Dr. Housni al-Khateeb Shehada, Lecturer in Islamic Art and Culture at the Levinsky College of Education and the Beit Berl Academic College
Translation: Dan Schlossberg