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Post Why are Dogs "Unclean" in Islam?
Created by John Eipper on 09/25/16 7:08 PM

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Why are Dogs "Unclean" in Islam? (A. J. Cave, USA, 09/25/16 7:08 pm)

I was at a rooftop event in San Francisco couple of nights ago and even though I was fashionably bundled up, I got a bad cold and I am sick as a dog today. I have used this term (sick as a dog) forever, without giving it much thought. So, I looked it up and thanks to Google, apparently the expression dates to early 1700s. There is even a 1976 song by Aerosmith, "Sick as a dog, what's your story?"

I had seen couple of WAIS posts that touched on dogs in Islam, so, I took it as a sign that I should write couple of lines about it. Since not everyone is as interested in historical minutiae like me, I am only hitting the high notes and skipping over the complexities that are not of interest to most WAISers. In a nutshell, there is no excuse for animal abuse (or just plain abuse) under any cover, including religion. Period.

Now, let's talk about dogs and Islam. With nearly 50% of US households owning at least one dog, the topic is not as trivial as it seems. How we treat animals (all, not just dogs) says a lot about our own humanity. It is horrifying that with all of our advances in just about anything, a cursory online search on animal abuse (including cruelty and neglect) churns out close to 14 million hits in a fraction of a second. Good grief!

Statistics on the extent of global animal abuse is not known, since the cases are not routinely reported and meaningful data is not systematically collected. Care and feeding of (all) animals is even considered a luxury and a sign of Western decadence. In the US, while data is still scanty, it is more reliable than the rest of the world thanks to various humane societies, and shows that in roughly 70% of reported cases, there is also domestic abuse involving women and children. Videos, mostly taken by smartphones and posted on social media, have been effective in provoking public outrage and will contribute to raising awareness about animal abuse and hopefully prevention.

While mentioned here and there in different contexts, animals categorically are not among Qur'an's themes. The Wikipedia piece on animals in Islam has a list of animals mentioned in the scripture, and a link to specific sura for translated text. So, where does the idea that dogs are ritually "unclean" (na'jes in Arabic) and cannot be a part of a Muslim household come from?

Well, it actually has nothing to do with theology and everything to do with politics of Arab conquest of Sasanid Persia in the seventh century CE. The [hi]story of the final years of this great Persian empire is so complicated and so bloody, that it makes the story of Game of Thrones look like a cakewalk.

At the time of the conquest, the state religion of Persia was Mazdaism (better known as Zoroastrianism). Dogs were not just an integral part of the Mazdaean households, they were integral in religious rites and rituals--specifically in burial rites for the dead. To prevent accidental disposal of the living, dogs were led to sniff the body of the deceased. Dogs were categorized based on their function (guarding, herding, hunting, etc.) and a special category was the "devourer dogs" that were even mentioned in ancient classical accounts (Alexander Historians). Their function was to literally devour the dead bodies to prevent the earth from being polluted from ground burial.

During the early years of Muslim Arab conquest, most of Sasanid Persian royal archives and libraries (with all sorts of documents) were destroyed, Mazdaean priests (called mobeds) were killed (probably beheaded) and fire temples were burned down--uber sacrilege in Mazdaism.

Some eminent Arab scholars, including the late Albert Hourani, have suggested that the ordinary Persians didn't care much about who was in charge at the top (Arab caliphs or Sasanid kings), as long as they were left alone after paying the special taxes.

To the contrary, one of the signs of continued resistance to foreign rule and religion (in addition to the ones I have already written about) was the continuation of Mazdaean rites and rituals (openly or secretly). I speculate that to break the will of the Persians, Arab rulers must have tried to break the link between the Mazdaeans and their beloved dogs (forcing a profound change in religion rites and rituals), by outlawing dogs. Persian households who continued to keep dogs could have easily been identified as Mazdaeans and forced to convert or be killed. Sounds familiar?

Since the prohibition could not be added to Qur'an, a comment was attributed to the Prophet about dogs: "Angels would not enter a house with a dog" in a Hadith (meaning a Mazdaean household). The earliest surviving biography of the Prophet was written in 767 CE (now lost). Whatever that was not covered in Qur'an, was added to a body of Islamic texts called Hadiths--not one, but many accounts of what the Prophet had said and done, written after his death by various writers with various degrees of reliability over a long period of time. What this statement specifically meant in the context of time and place was eventually forgotten.

As E. O. Wilson, the eminent evolutionary biologist, wrote in his 2014 The Meaning of Human Existence, "In the early history of each tribe--late Iron Age for Judaeo-Christianity, and seventh century CE for Islam--the [creation] myth has to be set in stone in order to work. Once set, no part of it could be discarded. No doubts must be heard by the tribe. The only solution to an outmoded dogma was [and is] to finesse or conveniently forget it. Or, in the extreme, break away with a new, competing dogma." (Page 153).

Doggie dogma is one of those outmoded ones that should best be forgotten.

JE comments:  Great post, A. J!  Who would have thought that rendering dogs "unclean" was fundamentally a political act?

I was curious about dietary restrictions in Zoroastrianism, and there are many--including beef, rabbit, and pork.  Pigs are not considered unclean, but rather too clever to be eaten.  In fact, they are seen as loving pets and spiritual creatures, according to this:

https://authenticgathazoroastrianism.org/2012/03/05/zoroastrian-dietary-laws-animal-friendship-and-stewardship/

Is the above an accurate description, A. J?  Oh, and get well!


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  • Religion and Compassion for Animals (Francisco Wong-Diaz, USA 09/27/16 3:36 AM)
    "The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated." Mahatma Gandhi.

    He was a Hindu, however.


    In the Christian tradition the foremost equivalent of an animal lover is St. Francis of Assisi, who referred to Creation and its animals as brothers and sisters of humankind.


    By these metrics, China remains a backward and low-level society with its Cantonese annual celebration of dog and cat torturing before killing and eating them. Only Panda lovers defend these "traditions."


    JE comments: I've pointed out before that a love of animals unites WAISers of every political stripe. To St Francis we should add one of my favorite Catholic saints: the Peruvian "Mulatto" Martín de Porres, who healed the sick, eschewed meat and according to legend, had the gift of talking to the animals. He is often depicted with a plate at his feet, from which a dog, a cat, and a mouse are eating peacefully.

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