HOME About Barnaby Books        Reviews     Articles    Recommendations Links      Contact Info

Muslim Dogs

as published in Pages 191-200, CRITICAL MUSLIM, volume 6

It was a packed London underground train, so social interaction was already set at a glacial minimum –the standard non-communication of a late-morning English commuter crowd. In through the sliding door strolled a caricature from Hollywood central-casting of a potentially threatening Muslim male - a tall, big youth, with a thick beard, black boots, camouflage trousers and a singlet with big swirling Arabic calligraphy tatooed all over his rippling biceps. There was a noticeable intake of breath and a scattering of nervous glances between neighbours, as if to mime ‘bomber alert’ and various glances which seemed to be sussing out the chance of subtly moving into a different carriage at the next stop without looking too offensive. Then suddenly I noticed a total mood change. Even the pair of uptight middle-aged ladies, sitting rigidly beside the door with their blue-rinsed hair, silk shirts and cardigans, were smiling and their heads were bobbing about in happy animation. They even seemed to be greeting this man – an unheard of action in an English train and especially bizarre to a stranger, let alone a bearded Muslim. What could possibly have happened? Then I saw what had caused this dramatic sea-change. The young man was very gently coaxing a dog onto the train. Most of the passengers moved over to make room (which they would never have done for a mere human) and then they began to talk, even to ask direct questions of the young man. For his well-groomed dog Husky had a damaged back leg. Within minutes the story of the dog and its ‘nice young owner’ was buzzing around the carriage. The two of them had just returned from a veterinary clinic where he had been told that the operation to correct the dog’s leg – which was a genetic fault not an accident – would cost hundreds and hundreds of pounds. I am pretty sure that if anyone had started a collection then and there, there would have been some handsome contributions, especially when the young man explained to the old ladies that the tattoo on his forearm meant ‘in the name of God the most merciful and ever compassionate’. By now the whole train had become interested in Islamic calligraphy and I was certainly not alone in wishing the two of them good luck when I left the carriage. Later that day, I realised that this chance event had been the most impressive example of an instantly friendly connection between the indigenous British and a Muslim male that I had ever witnessed – and I am talking as someone who has spent a lot of time attending various state-sponsored, but largely fatuous, interfaith conferences.

It also got me thinking, how doomed are all the natural crossroads of social interaction between the Christian host nation of these islands and the British Muslim community. Close your eyes and think of typical British everyday food: a pork pie, a bacon sandwich, a sausage on a stick, a hotdog in a bun – all no good for sharing with a Muslim neighbour. Try again and imagine some typical British after-work activity like a pint in the pub, a drink at the club and maybe a flutter at the bookies – also no good for interaction with Muslims. That these differences also extend to two very different social attitudes to dogs was almost comically absurd. And there can be no doubt about this. By and large, the Muslims of Britain dislike dogs. They do not hate dogs, they do not want to stone them, they do not want to harm them, indeed they might even respect them at a distance, but they do not want to touch one, let alone allow themselves to be licked, which is the dog equivalent of a kiss.

To be British and a self-confessed dog-disliker is to admit to a serious character failing. To own a dog is the easiest possible way in which to meet your neighbours in any parish in Britain, be they the highest or the lowest citizens of the land. To go out of your way to greet someone else’s dog, to know their name and give them a pat, is an instant doorway into the owner’s affection. To give a local example, the old house-keeper for the priests at our local Roman Catholic church never travels anywhere without two bags of dog-treats in her pockets – and is now treated a bit like St Francis by the whole community. I also remember the tension of introducing a radical Irish friend to my deeply conservative parents. The issues they could have to come to blows over (be it race, class, religion, politics, nationalism - not to mention Northern Ireland) were legion – but his first social action was a stroke of genius, for he rolled on their lawn and played with their three bloodhounds, and instantly became in their eyes such a good man that all possible bones of contention dissolved in an instant. This is a very unlikely course of action for any of the Muslim friends that I know. I walk my dog through a number of small parks and street markets in central London, and have learnt to recognize a Muslim at about a hundred yards by their adverse reaction to an approaching dog. I am aware of this, especially amongst young mothers, and take early avoidance action. I might slip on a lead if she had been trotting at my heels, or tighten her chain, whilst giving them some extra space as we walk by. Now and then I add a mischievous salaam aleikum to see their reaction. Muslim men tend to hold their ground, but I can see that they are keeping a sharp eye on the polluting distance between my dog and their leg.

Similarly when I get off the train from London to Winchester and try to get a local taxi to take me to an isolated cottage, I’m now used to a bizarre ritual of rejection. The taxi rank of this Hampshire cathedral-town has been effectively monopolized by hardworking Bengali-Muslims who work all hours, including our traditional holidays (when you need a cab most), drive carefully, give scrupulous change and do not drink. But none of them will ever allow my dog into their vehicle, even when I suggest that she is obedient and will sit neatly on the floor. They are very polite and try to avoid any offence but draw a veil over their real feelings by inventing excuses, such as customer complaints, allergies, asthma, you name it – while effectively operating a dog ban. So I go down the taxi-rank ( it being ill-mannered not to try any of the taxis who had lined up in such an orderly queue) all the time knowing I will not get a lift until I come across a white face, who will typically be the only driver who will welcome a dog into his car. This is my own daily and weekly experience. Once you delve into the pages of the more rightwing press in Britain, you will come across more extreme stories: of Muslim bus-drivers refusing to allow dogs onto their vehicles, of Muslim prisoners refusing to have their cells searched by security dogs and Muslim travellers refusing to be sniffed-over by the dogs of the drugs patrol. To compound this already awkward social arena, I have been told by Asian Muslim friends that in their experience the most aggressive breeds of dogs (rottweillers, alsatians, bull-terriers and dobermans) are often owned by racists with a can of beer in their hands and a belligerent turn of phrase on their lips, which turns a casual stroll through a park into a nightmare ordeal of alienation, rather than one of the pleasures of life.

So what is at the root of it all? And is there anything that can be done to defuse this curious situation? The first obstacle to be considered is a series of hadith of dubious origin which rightly or wrongly continue to underwrite the cultural consciousness of the modern Islamic world. Their authority and their veracity may have been questioned by contemporary textual scholars of Islam, but they are still deeply imbedded. The one I have heard most often, and with the most conviction, is that ‘angels will not enter a house in which there is a dog’ followed by ‘ the company of dogs voids a portion of a Muslim’s good deeds’, though a third hadith, ‘dogs, donkeys and women, when they cross in front of a man at prayer, negate its worth’ seems to be taken less seriously.

If these sayings were all that underpinned the Muslim attitude to dogs, a full-scale assault could be launched against the nature of these hadith. But it is not as easy as that, in part because the nature of dogs, their loyalty, stupidity and obedience, have for thousands of years led them to be associated with the police. In the coded word-game of animal stories and jokes beloved in both the ancient and modern Islamic world as a safe method of discussing politics, the lion represents the current ruler, the wolf a minister, the fox a politically ambitious servant, whilst the bulk of humanity is dressed-up in the powerless role of a flock of sheep or a herd of cattle. Dogs are the police - stupid, greedy, randy and loyal to the powers-that-be. Just like the police, they have to be fed, but they should never be loved or trusted or brought in to meet your family, and now and then, when they overstep the mark and get out of control, they have to be slaughtered. By the same bloody token the only cure for rabid dog is mythically supposed to be able to drink the blood of kings. At times of political turbulence, one of the first signs that public dissatisfaction is on the cusp of turning violent is when street dogs start getting attacked. It’s a coded message to the informers and secret police imbedded in the community that it is their turn next, unless they clear out. It also gives an even sharper edge to that traditional Islamic insult, son of a dog. In recent years, the image of a dog-lover has acquired another negative twist. It has become associated with Muslim urban elites who have become too westernised and lost touch with local values, feeding their pampered pets on the best cuts of meat, whilst the poor starve. A well-connected Pakistani journalist recently told me in all seriousness, that he thought that President Pervez Musharraf’s known devotion to his dogs (a pair of Pekinese) was one of the root causes for his rejection by the electorate. It is just as well, he went on, that they didn’t know that his first dog, acquired as a boy in Ankara, had been named ‘Whiskey’.

A more factual, historical bedrock for the Muslim distrust of dogs comes from the earliest and most trustworthy Muslim historians who record that the Prophet ordered that all the stray dogs in Medina be rounded up and destroyed. The only exceptions to this slaughter were those dogs that were being kept by families as guards, to hunt or to help with the herding of animals. It is widely believed that this order was given to control an outbreak of rabies, in much the same way that in animal-loving Britain there is currently a cull being organised of all the wild badgers in order to limit the spread of bovine tuberculosis. This historical view is supported by the second powerful dog-related tradition, Muhammad advised that any container that had been licked by a dog which might have potentially infectious saliva, be removed by a vigorous scrubbing with abrasive sand, followed by a succession of washes (some traditions specify seven, some five, some three) before the container could be considered clean. This is sound advice for stopping the spread of disease from dogs to humans.

It is interesting to reflect that the Prophet did not order the destruction of either the dog or the dish, nor that dogs be kept away from human households, but merely that a container used by dogs should be cleaned properly and effectively before it was used by humans! Yet from this practical house-keeping advice, a whole layer of Muslim distrust for dogs was built by later generations of lawyers. The jurists of early Islam decided, on the basis of this, that dog saliva must be judged unclean. Thenceforth any pious Muslim who was touched by a moist dog’s nose or tongue had to go through the ritual three washings, if he was to judge himself to be clean enough to pray. At a single stroke, one begins to appreciate why a modern Muslim might be anxious not to be touched by a dog’s nose, knowing that they would have to undress and shower three times afterwards before they could go to the mosque or to pray in their home. And the Lord alone knows what a textually pious Muslim driver is expected to do, to ritually clean his taxi after he has permitted a dog in it. And this is from the mildest reading of the law, as espoused by the comparatively dog-friendly Maliki judicial tradition. They specifically argued that it wasn’t the whole dog that was impure, just it’s saliva. For they argued that all nature must be considered pure, unless there were very clear instructions, in either the Koran or a reliable Hadith, to counteract this basic assumption. Other jurists decided that urban dogs, who are always sniffing around human waste, as well as their own and other animals’, were by their nature in a state of continual ritual impurity, but were more relaxed about rural dogs. Others ruled that dogs fed by humans were pure, but that wild dogs were impure but there was never any doubt that dog saliva was impure at all times. The worst legal moment for dogs was when wild and rabid dogs joined the list of ‘khafstra’ (literally ‘corrupt creatures’) who are debarred from the merciful strictures of the Koran and can be killed at any time with impunity. This decision once again rested on that action of the Prophet, when he ordered the disposal of the rabid dogs of Medina. But as ‘wild dogs’ are often treated as potential ‘rabid dogs’, an un-owned dog could also be considered wild, and therefore be categorised amongst the gang of five vermin (scorpions, snakes, mice, vultures and rabid dogs) who are placed outside the frontiers of Islam. One doesn’t have to look too far in history - to the late leader of Libya for instance - to see that the epithet ‘rabid dog’ has lost none of its power to evoke something beyond the pale. Gaddafi’s propaganda machine attempted to paint his political opponents, especially those who had escaped into exile abroad, as ‘rabid dogs’ who should be shot down without trial or mercy. Curiously the dog imagery came back to haunt Gaddafi, when a reverse propaganda image of his regime emerged, with stories of police brutalizing political prisoners in wired compounds before setting wild dogs onto them, which helped swing the international community towards intervention.

The Prophet’s actions in attempting to rid Medina of rabies in the 7th century AD also gave some legal protection of dogs. He had spared the working dogs - those who guarded, those who herded and those who hunted – and this is not forgotten. In my experience a traditional Muslim family, especially one living in the countryside, will have no problem in keeping such dogs. But these dogs exist to work, and are never be treated as a household pet, or allowed into a house, tent or courtyard in a manner freely given to sheep, cats, horses, camels and cows. Dogs typically exist, right on the edge of the domestic space, either tethered beyond the stables, on the flat roof of a house or guarding an orchard. They are fed and watered from their own dishes like a worker, but never pampered like a member of the family.

The Muslim tradition where hounds are concerned, tends to favour speed and sight, rather than the long endurance game of keeping to a scent trail which is at the heart of the western tradition of hunting with hounds. So Muslim huntsman prefer the graceful looking physique of a ‘sight hound’, most famously the Saluki and other breeds that look similar to greyhounds, lurchers or wolf-hounds, rather than ‘scent hounds’ like the archetypal western foxhound, bloodhound or beagle. In this Muslim tradition, a fast running huntsman aspired to take the game from the grip of the hounds and perform the ritual blood-draining throat incision immediately, reciting ‘ bismillah Allahu Akbar’. But this was not always possible, and certainly not predictable, so it was usual practice to also pronounce the ‘bismillah’ over the heads of the hounds, the moment they were let off from their leashes.

Another curiosity about dogs in the Islamic world is that they tend to be given not sold, for there is a tradition that the Prophet advised his followers in Medina ‘not to trade in dogs’. Some scholars believe that this was an attempt to discourage the consumption of pit-roasted dog which was a traditional feature of the oasis harvest festival. Whatever the historical reasons, travellers should be aware that too great an admiration for a young puppy, can often end up with it being bestowed as a gift – with the owner refusing to accept either money or a gift in return, just as they would not expect to pay for a puppy when they next require a dog. This removal from the cash economy adds another subtle slight to the status of ‘Muslim dogs’ which, without becoming too morbidly sentimental, helps give them that distinctive hang-dog look, for they know that they live on sufferance, as the least loved of all animals in daily contact with man. They will be fed if they prove themselves loyal workers, but the moment they give into any temptation to go wild, they literally cross a legal frontier and are classified amongst the vermin.

Although a dog in the traditional Islamic world will not expect to be patted, they can expect to be well watered, for there are a number of sayings of the Prophet that strongly approve of caring for a thirsty dog. The best known of these traditions (listed by Muslim) remembers how a prostitute was seen dipping her stockings into a well in order to bring some water up to a parched dog. Her act of charity was observed by the Prophet who assure her that such acts of kindness were loved by God and that all her sins had been washed away. Another hadith, so similar in mood, that it could almost be a different telling of the same event ( this one recorded by Bukhari) remembers a thirsty man quenched his thirst at a nearby well, but upon seeing a dog suffering so badly from thirst that it was eating the dampened earth, he took of his slipper in order to fill it form the well and give the dog some water – whereupon the Prophet assured him that God thanked him for this deed and forgave him. This so astonished the crowd around the Prophet that they asked, ‘O God’s apostle, is there really a reward for us when we serve animals’. To which the Prophet replied, ‘Yes indeed, there is a reward for serving any living being.’

This is where Islam and Christianity can converge, in their esteem for all creatures great and small, not just that higher ape, humankind. A Muslim might remember the Prophet’s advice, ‘whosoever is kind to the creatures of God is kind to himself’, backed up by his much sterner declaration that ‘there is no man who kills even a sparrow, without it deserving it – but God will question him about it on Judgement Day. A thoughtful Muslim might also inform their British neighbour that the Koran advises that all of creation is engaged in the act of praising God, even if this praise is not expressed in human language. Those who have the gift for hearing such harmonies believe that in the dawn and dusk chorus, we are listening to the times in the day when it is the habit of birds to sing their praises to God. It is also believed that the wisdom of Solomon was such that he understood the language of the ants, while another similar tradition records that the Prophet (who had worked as a shepherd from boy to manhood) was able to translate the complaints of a camel to its owners.

The Prophet forbade animals to be killed for anything other than eating and he called down a curse upon whoever shoots at a living animal for mere sport or as a live target, who imprisons animals without providing them with sufficient food, who sets them to fight against each other and also forbade any brand to touch the face of an animal or its body to be mutilated whilst it was still alive. If they chose the right moment, a Muslim could also tell their neighbours stories about the Prophet’s favourite animals, such as his cat, Muezza, and his camel, Qaswa, and also give them the names of his horse and his mule. They could perhaps also remember the only dog reference in the Koran (believed to be named Qitmir), loyally guarding the seven sleepers in the cave, ‘and their dog stretched his forelegs across the threshold’, or tell some alternative tales, perhaps about the Prophet’s uncle, Khamza who was a renowned huntsman, but expressed his love for God by respecting the sanctity of Mecca where it was forbidden to draw the blood of man or animal, though he made it his habit to decorate the wall of the Kaabah with trophies gathered from his hunting in the desert. Perhaps they might also remember the story of how the Prophet, at the very peak of his ten-year battle against the pagan Lords of Mecca, had the compassion to post guards around a heavily pregnant bitch, so that she could give birth to her puppies in the desert, and not be trampled underfoot by the marching columns of his army.

Perhaps most all embracing of all is that extraordinary Koranic verse [6; 38] which declares that ‘there is not an animal that lives on the earth, not a being that flies on its wings, but forms a community like yours. Nothing have we omitted from receiving their own revelation, and they shall all be gathered to their Lord in the End.’ This is glory for animal-lovers to exalt in, a basic understanding that all creatures are spiritual partners on this earth.

When I think back to that young Muslim man on the London underground, giving advice to the concerned old ladies around him – I remember they were thrilled to hear that their cherished animals would go on to the Lord in the end. When I was able to speak to him, he cut to the quick about how easy it was to be a dog-loving Muslim, for he claimed that only a man who knew about dogs could have given such good advice about how to contain, then police, the spread of rabies. Just as Britain would later achieve, with its draconian quarantine law and alert-eyed customs officials posted at every port. From another dog-loving Muslim, I have heard about some practical house rules: his dogs do not sit on the sofa, the bed or on the prayer mat, and he also still strictly adheres to the Prophet’s advice about hygiene. ‘If my dog cleans up a bowl, it then gets a good scouring and at least three thorough rinsings. From such a practical instruction as that, it seems clear to me also that the Prophet knew all about looking after a dog. For at the very least, we know that his wife, Maymunah had a puppy named Mismar.

I have always been intrigued by the back story, behind that mischievous hadith that declares that ‘angels will not enter a house in which there is a dog.’ This is supposedly based on the archangel Gabriel refusing to enter the Prophet’s house to deliver a revelation after he discovered that everyone was playing with a puppy. Which I have always thought can be read two ways, either that archangels are allergic to dog hair and dog saliva like Muslim taxi drivers, or the archangel realized that a revelation of love and playful affection had already been delivered to the House of the Prophet through God’s gift of a puppy.

Back to Articles page

Recent Books
by Barnaby Rogerson

The Heirs of the Prophet Muhammad: And the Roots of the Sunni-Shia Schism

Book of Numbers

The Prophet Muhammad: A Biography