The often-sensitive question of the canine's status in Islam
A man pours water for a stray cat in Antalya, Turkey, on May 13, 2021. (Mustafa Ciftci/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
As an Algerian imam was leading Ramadan prayers earlier this month, a white cat landed on his arm, then climbed onto his shoulder and began kissing his face. The imam did not flinch and kept his posture, occasionally stroking the affectionate cat as it maneuvered around his upper body. The video of this encounter went viral, receiving millions of hits. An outpouring of praise for the imam, who clearly seemed to know the cat, was posted on Twitter. “The muezzin and the meowzin,” joked one tweet. On a more serious note, the video raised the age-old question debated among Muslims for centuries: What does Islam say about keeping cats and dogs as pets?
Over the last 20 years, this hotly debated issue has focused on dogs in particular, as more Muslims have become canine owners in countries from Asia to the Middle East. Cats are generally assumed to be permitted in Islam because they have roamed the streets in cities such as Cairo and Istanbul for centuries. (The Turkish film director Ceyda Turan’s documentary “Kedi,” featuring the adventurous lives of cats slinking from apartment to apartment around Istanbul, was a big hit in 2016.)
Citing both strong and weak hadiths — that is, the sayings and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad — as well as competing fatwas by prominent Muslim jurists, religious opinions range across the doctrinal landscape like roaming canines. Some say dogs should be eaten or simply killed. Others eschew dogs as pets but approve their use as herding animals. Yet another school welcomes the creatures into the home as man’s best friend.
In 2010, the Iranian Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi issued a fatwa saying dogs were “unclean” and could not be kept as pets because friendship with them was a “blind imitation of the West.” In Egypt, the former head of Al-Azhar’s fatwa committee issued a fatwa in 2018 proclaiming that Muslims should kill and eat dogs, as long as they were “slaughtered in the Islamic method,” which he then described on a satellite channel as using a sharp blade. However, in 2020, the grand mufti of Egypt, Sheikh Shawki Allam, stated publicly that dogs could indeed be pets: “It is possible to co-exist with a dog and still worship God. If you perform wudu [ablution] and there is saliva from the dog on your body or your garment, there is absolutely nothing wrong with praying and there is no need to repeat wudu or wash clothes.”
The fatwas and opinions against dogs as pets, which have been issued by both Shiite and Sunni scholars, cannot be easily dismissed. Many engaged in “canine-phobia” are learned conservative jurists with a vast breadth of knowledge and nuance when it comes to Islamic doctrine. These clerics fall into two broad categories: those who cite hadiths for ideological purposes, such as Shirazi, and those who genuinely believe the prophet declared dogs “najis,” or “ritually unclean,” unless they were used for farming, herding or guarding the house.
There are two hadiths cited most often to support the no-dogs-as-pets position: “There is not a household which keeps a dog but their deeds are decreased by one qeerat [portion] every day unless it is a hunting dog, or farm dog or sheep dog.” The other states: “The Angels do not enter a house in which there is a dog, nor a house in which there are images of living things.”
The prime example of a learned cleric who wrote that Muhammad prohibited dogs inside the house without necessity (that is, as pets) is the renowned, modernist Muslim scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi. In his work, “The Permissible and the Forbidden in Islam,” Qaradawi wrote the prohibition was wise. “When we observe how lavishly the well-to-do treat their dogs while despising their relatives … we realize the wisdom of the prohibition.” He also wrote that dogs could scare those in need from approaching a Muslim’s home. He claimed that this idea was based on a time when the prophet was reacting to the angel Gabriel’s complaint that he was afraid to enter Muhammad’s house because of the presence of a dog.
Qaradawi’s other argument against dogs as pets was that they are unclean and carry disease. In his book, he cited a German scientist who warned of the health risks of keeping a dog in the house. Qaradawi also cited a hadith for support: “If a dog licks a plate, clean it seven times, of which one time should be with sand.”
In the case of Shirazi, his fatwa was more a response to the dog’s association with his ideas of the immorality of Western values. As a protege of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic and leader of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Shirazi’s view on dogs is in keeping with one of the driving forces of that revolution — the creation of an alternative ideology to fight Western degradation and imperialism. Unlike Qaradawi, his animosity toward dogs was intimately tied to his perceptions of life in the West. “There are lots of people in the West who love their dogs more than their wives and children,” the Reuters news agency quoted him as saying in Javan, an Iranian newspaper. Following Shirazi’s fatwa, the Iranian Parliament in 2011 made dog ownership a criminal offense, to combat “vulgar Western culture.” First-time offenders were forced to pay a $500 fine, according to the law, and had to get rid of the dog.
For Islamic scholars such as Khaled Abou El Fadl, a law professor at the University of California in Los Angeles, such anti-Western sentiment demonstrates what is wrong with modern interpretations of the faith. In a chapter he wrote for the book “Progressive Muslims,” Fadl writes that he is interested in the “vulgarization of contemporary Islam.” He defines vulgarization by explaining that “Islam in the modern age has become associated with harshness and cruelty, and although mercy and compassion are core values in Islamic theology, these are not values that most people identify with Islam.” As part of this thinking, Fadl has written that dogs are allowed as pets in Islam. A dog lover himself, Fadl raises the question in his work “Conference of Books: The Search for Beauty in Islam”: “They [dogs] understand love, kindness and compassion. They recognize and know their owners and exhibit loyalty. If God created them this way, this fact of nature must be considered. … The rational question is how could God create these creatures and endow them with such qualities only to command us to hate them?”
Fadl argues in other writings that, despite some scholars’ attributing to the prophet traditions hostile to dogs, the Quran does not condemn dogs as impure. In fact, some reports indicate the prophet’s cousins and some of his companions owned puppies.
The well-known American-Muslim scholar, Ingrid Mattson, who has a dog named Ziggy, points to a verse in the Quran to argue that the holy book holds dogs in a positive light. In the verse she cites, there is a description of a dog that protected youths hiding in a cave who were escaping religious persecution: “You would have thought them awake, but they were asleep and [God] turned them on their right sides then on their left sides and their dog stretched his forelegs across the threshold.” Mattson writes, “This tender description of the dog guarding the cave makes it clear that the animal is good company for believers.”
As the proud owner of a 12-year-old white Havanese, Malik, I have experienced these conflicting views about dogs in the Middle East. And I wondered, as the author of several books on contemporary Islam, what these views say about the religion today and Islam as a lived tradition.
Even before Malik entered my life, I had already had a taste of the divisive subject of dogs from my many years as a correspondent in the region. In the mid-1990s I divided my time between my base in Cairo and a second home in Ankara, where dog ownership was just catching on among members of the Turkish middle class, eager at the time to declare their worldly aspirations and liberal views.
Not long after, in Tehran, an Iranian cinematographer came to the office one day with footage of police suddenly issuing warnings and even fines to dog owners in the city’s wealthy northern suburbs. It seems a cleric had inveighed against the four-legged creatures at Friday prayers. In response, the local officers immediately took matters into their own hands — a clear example of the so-called transmission belt that links religious opinion and social control in the Islamic Republic.
My later experiences traveling with Malik in the Middle East and my interactions with people in the region opened my eyes further to some of the subtle complexities at work.
When dogs were still allowed to sit in the cabin on airplanes, and sometimes even have their own seat, I took Malik on several work trips. It was never an easy journey. In 2016, I received a brief research fellowship at the Lebanese American University in Beirut. Ahead of my trip, I contacted many landlords to try to secure an apartment. I found only one who would permit a dog. When I landed in Beirut on a chilly February night, I discovered the apartment I had rented online was dirty and had holes in the walls. The next day, I hired a taxi and took Malik to at least a dozen other buildings. Surely, I thought, if they saw how cute he is, they would be persuaded. No one would accept a dog. I finally convinced a landlord in the Sunni-dominated neighborhood of Hamra to accept Malik. He agreed as long as Malik remained invisible: He must never be in the lobby of the building, must never bark in the studio apartment, and must never do his business anywhere near the building. Otherwise, “the tenants will complain,” the landlord said.
“But I love dogs and have a few myself,” he added. The landlord explained that many tenants in the building — whom he proudly described as former diplomats and university professors — do not like dogs for religious reasons.
For the next month, my stay in Beirut was determined by where I could and could not take Malik. Christians hugged and kissed him outside churches in Gemmayzeh and welcomed him to sit in cafes but, in Hamra, a motorcyclist tried to run him over as we took a walk one evening. “Your dog is an animal,” he screamed, as he steered his wheel near Malik. “You are the animal,” I yelled back.
Outside a cafe, I met a university student and dog lover who suggested I change his name to something potentially less offensive to Muslims. Malik, which means king in Arabic, is one of the names of the angels mentioned in the Quran. Though some Islamic scholars permit sons to be named Malik, a dog with the name is understandably questionable. From that moment on, I called him Malli whenever in public.
At Ramlet al-Baida beach, southwest of Beirut’s city center, where I took Malik to run each morning, the homeless men who lived there protected him from aggressive stray dogs. They did not want to give foreigners the impression that Lebanese dislike dogs, they told me. One morning, as Malik and I walked the beach, a thunderstorm struck. I knew it would be impossible to find a taxi back to the apartment in Hamra, a 25-minute drive away, so I asked Ahmed, a man I met who walked the beach each morning, for a ride. Ahmed was a laborer who owned a station wagon in need of serious repair. He readily agreed. When we reached my apartment, I offered to pay him because I knew he had gone many miles out of his way and fuel in Lebanon is expensive. “Please do not pay me,” he said. “The reward was being able to be in the car with Malik. Don’t believe it if people tell you Muslims do not like dogs.”
My next experience with Malik was in Doha, Qatar, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was difficult to get an Uber, and it seemed every time I managed to get a ride, a devout Muslim answered my request but did not allow Malik inside the car. The drivers who objected were born in African states, where apparently dogs are considered najis. Getting an apartment, however, in “The Pearl,” an upmarket district where foreigners and wealthy Qataris live, was not a problem. Many foreigners had dogs, and the landlords charged rents double the price of equivalent apartments in other parts of town.
As I walked the streets of The Pearl with Malik, I noticed to my surprise that wealthy Qataris also owned dogs. As I became friendly with a few women on my nightly strolls, I discussed the issue of dogs and Islam. One young woman told me that dog ownership should be used to confront conservative religious edicts that have nothing to do with Islamic doctrine. “All these people who say dogs are haram [forbidden] are just backward and they use Islam as an excuse to support their views.”
I wondered: Are dogs being used as a barometer to test the modernity, or lack thereof, within Islam? Perhaps there is no real answer because the interpretations of the prophet’s sayings and beliefs on most matters, not only dogs, have been debated for more than 1,400 years.