(Excerpted from The Search for Beauty in Islam: A Conference of the Books by Khaled Abou El Fadl)
The Lord of the essence, the silence, and the void; the Lord of the truth, the light, beauty, and the word, I am a Muslim who searches for beauty—I search for beauty as I search for my religion—as I search for myself.
You have taught me by the Word, the truth of being, which is nestled in our souls: justice, equity, love, mercy, compassion, trust, dignity, well-being, and safety is the fabric of beauty, and You are its essence—the very essence to which we are drawn. Yet, the sad reality documented by this Conference is that although we long for the light, it is in darkness that we drift to an abominable void. In arrogance, we stumble over our inflated selves until our hearts are made stale by lust and whims. In the walk of life, we crumble over delusions built as if high walls of pretense invented to stockade, fortify, and protect our forgetfulness and confusions. We confuse submission with dominance—we imagine that suffering and misery could be divine, and that those who long and compete over riches and lands could ever catch a glimpse of the Divine.
We forget our own divinity, and that only through the remembrance of God can we submit to the truth of beauty. “Know yourself and you will know God,” the Prophet is reported to have said. But as the pretense of longing becomes desire, and pretense of beauty becomes power, our egos weave an impenetrable blindfold, and we pretend that life could mean anything without beauty.
The Conference of the Books would soon begin, and I was eager to abandon myself to the debates of the long-past—to the tradition that once defined us as Muslims and that has denounced us, as we have disowned it. The Conference of the Books—the sum total of our convictions, thoughts, ideas, dreams, hopes, and aspirations; the sum total of our disagreements, disappointments, fears, and failures—abandoned after being raped by Colonialism. Ashamed, we indulged in the death of self-hate and sought to forget. But we only managed to forget ourselves.
As I readied myself, I tried to clear my mind and gather my strength for the debates of our predecessors were nothing like our own—they were marked by vigor, intensity, complexity, and above all honesty, and to be the honest keeper of the Conference, I needed my full wits about me.
May God forgive whoever it was who interrupted me and put before my eyes something full of the ugliness—an ugliness that has become the earmark of our contemporary Muslim discourse. It was a printout from the web, and how much I detest this technology. Every ignorant moron has now acquired the means to become an author, publisher, and distributor, all in one step and without the benefit of peer review, editorial review, or any other serious scrutiny. In fact, how much it pains me that students in respectable universities when writing papers now cite the rubbish on the web more than they cite well-researched, documented, and published texts.
Someone whose qualifications do not exceed translating a book on Islamic law—a book that is fully embedded in its ideological, and socio-historical context, and sadly even a book that has done much damage to the reputation of Islam in the West—but the benighted dunce is not aware of any of this and thinks that this book is beginning and end of the world of Islamic law. This man was told that the keeper of the Conference owns dogs and is convinced of their purity. In response, he pompously declared this matter is well-settled in the annals of Islamic law—this man, the keeper of dogs, but lives according to his whims, and he uses whatever he knows of the law to legitimate and justify nothing but absurdities. Dogs are impure, the pretender declared, and owning a dog without a compelling necessity is a sin. No Muslim jurist has ever said otherwise, this is the unanimous consensus of the scholars, and that is absolutely clear!
My heart fills with sadness over what has become of our intellectual pluralism and its methodologies. My heart fills with sadness over the inescapable reality that practically anyone can appoint himself as the spokesman for God and put on the garb of the sage and pretend to be the true Will of God as it should be.
I try to return to the Conference and ignore the calamity of knowledge among modern Muslims—what has become the plight of knowledge itself—the despotism that has invaded its epistemology. How could the venues that lead to God become despotically narrowed down to a single venue or means? Who has the right to rob Islam of its long tradition of diversity of opinions and intellectual pluralism? Who has the right to rob Muslims of their hard won achievement of realizing that the sheer fact of God’s unbounded Majesty, infinite potentialities, and perennial and immutable beauty necessarily means that the richness of the means leading to God’s Will are in direct proportion to the overwhelming richness of God’s Being?
Returning to the Conference proves to be difficult—the more I look at that web printout the more I am struck by that man’s arrogant tone, air of self-importance, and the adeptness in adorning the attire of piety. These displays with their intricate system of symbolisms have become so prevalent in Western Muslim communities, and sadly such displays are effective and they do work very well. Symbolisms of piety by their nature are deceiving because piety is in the heart, and that which is in the heart is compelling only with God. We human beings are expected to measure the authoritativeness of other human beings and our deference to them should be in accordance to what we can observe of their knowledge, sagacity, wisdom, and the beauty of their behavior in dealing with God’s creation and creatures—which includes, but is not exclusive to how they deal with human beings. Umar Ibn al-Khattab, the Prophet’s Companion and the second Caliph, once taught that if one sees a man praying and supplicating in a mosque that does not mean that one knows the true character of this human being. And the Prophet, peace and blessings upon him, taught that the measure of piety on this earth are the manners to which a person adheres to in dealing with other human beings.
How do you honor and serve the Creator? By honoring and serving God’s full Creation. That obvious and perhaps self-evident proposition has drifted from our memories. All of creation supplicates their Lord—we in turn serve creation by extending our hands to the world bearing compassion, mercy, and beauty. Every act of destruction or cruelty against what the Lord has made is an abomination against the One and Only. This is our faith—this Islam—submission to the Lord does not mean arrogance and hostility towards what God has molded and shaped—submission to the Lord means recognizing and fully affirming, by actions not words, the inherent dignity found in every living thing from human beings to a tree and doing so with complete humility. This is the truth of the Islamic message, which was sent as a mercy to human beings. This is the truth that allowed Muslims to a build a civilization that enjoyed endowments (awqaf) for the care of street dogs and for the feeding of house pets whose owners could no longer afford to feed.
Confronted by the grim reality of all those who have wronged this tradition—from the terrorists, to those who imagine that piety is an exercise in anger and hate, to the hadith hurlers, to the confessional critics who know nothing about the object of their critique, to the apologists who refuse to confront and correct our mistakes, to the self-appointed muftis and imams who believe that knowledge and hard work are an inconvenience, to the cruel and inhuman experts on God’s law who do not understand that God is beautiful and that God loves beauty, to the self-haters who project upon Islam their chaotic insecurities, to the arrogant authoritarians who do not realize that despotism is a form of idolatry and care not that God portrayed the arrogant as iniquitous whose egos reach the height of mountains, and to those who think that rules define the limits of mercy, and those who forget that a smile, a kind word, a caring hand, and a loving kiss are at the heart of Islam—confronted by this reality, I could not help but to escape to memories of happier and more innocent times.
Rummaging through my memories I could not avoid remembering the circles that formed me—the circles of learning. Once the circles of learning—the halaqa—were my life. The humility of sitting on the ground reminded us that the dust beneath us embraced the inescapable question of life: Who sat beneath us and eventually who would sit on top of us? These bodies are projects of dust, and also dust that reached a charted Divine potentiality.
But the Shaykh—this Shaykh, Shaykh Wadi—sat like a luminous source encircling this orb with an infinite truth: After the dust remains the eternal Word.
This halaqa was an exercise in disputation and jurisprudential analysis—an exercise in tarjih (probabilities). The students came from different backgrounds but had passed a test to join the circle of learning by Shaykh Wadi. We were about fifteen men and three women—the women sat to the right of the Shaykh. Back then there were also a Wahhabi halaqa and a Tablighi halaqa—we were known as the Usulis: those who used rational methods to analyze jurisprudence. In the 1970’s, the Usuli circles of learning were in the hundreds and the Wahhabi circles were in the tens. Every once in a while, we would clash with the Wahhabis, who tried to cleanse the mosque of those who they considered to be followers of bida’ (heretical innovations) and the servants of Satan, but back then, their numbers were fairly small and they never succeeded.
The Shaykh started out by posing the problem: “We start in the name of God the most merciful and compassionate and praise the Lord for the gift of reason, speech and the word. As you know, I have here a fatwa issued by a Saudi shaykh and we will discuss it today.” We had already picked up copies of this fatwa two days earlier and prepared it for the discussion but perhaps for emphasis the Shaykh started out by reading the text of the fatwa to us. The gist of this fatwa was that a man told the Saudi shaykh that he once had a dog for a number of years. The man then heard that owning dogs is unlawful for Muslims and so he put his dog out in the streets. The dog, however, would not leave, and kept hanging around the front door of the man’s house. Feeling sorry for the dog, the man and his children would put water and food outside the house for the dog to drink and eat. The problem the man said was that since the dog refuses to go away and the dog lives and is fed outside the house, is this situation lawful? May he continue to give the dog food and water outside the house although that necessarily means the dog will not go away? The Saudi shaykh responded that this situation is not acceptable because technically he still owns a dog, which is forbidden. The shaykh advised the man to stop supplying the dog with water and food, and if he stops feeding the dog, the Saudi shaykh claimed, it will only be a matter of time before the dog goes away. After reading the fatwa, the Shaykh paused and looked around at his disciples sitting on the ground. “Let us breakdown this fatwa and analyze it,” the Shaykh said.
“Who believes the fatwa is correct?”
We all looked at each other knowing fully well that the first to speak is always the fool. With every passing second the silence grew more uncomfortable but Shaykh Wadi seemed intent on not moving on until someone willingly sacrificed himself.
A student who usually did not speak often in class mumbled, “It seems awfully cruel!”
“Yes, yes,” the Shaykh said thoughtfully, “if I was this poor dog, I would not like this fatwa very much!”
The sanctity of the mosque prevented us from laughing out loud, but many of us chuckled.
The Shaykh straightened up and said, “Since the fatwa does not explain its logic let’s break down its reasoning. What was in the mind of the shaykh who issued this fatwa?”
Again, we looked at each other—humility always obviated our participation even when the possibilities were clear.
One of the outspoken students finally blurted: “I think the author of the fatwa believes dogs to be impure.”
The Shaykh appeared to ponder the matter: “The impurity of dogs,” he repeated, “now but do we know the color of this dog and why is this question important?’
Amira, a woman who we nicknamed Smart Mouth, said with much skepticism in her voice: “We don’t know the color of the dog, but it is important because it was reported in Musnad Ahmad that black dogs are devils in animal form.”
“And I am sure you have investigated the authenticity of this report,” the Shaykh said putting the women on the spot.
“Shaykh,” she responded, “I did and the consensus of the scholars is that it is apocryphal.”
The students smiled at each other—we all knew the dialectical hell the woman would have suffered if she had not done her homework.
“That’s right,” the Shaykh said, “black dogs in Arab culture and many cultures including medieval Europe as well have been the victims of much prejudice and myth. Black dogs were considered a sign of foreboding omens, and their appearance at night invoked images of monsters and demons. Among the horrific practices of old was that in some instances in history, the rulers used to hang the bodies of dead rebels and hang the bodies of black dogs with them—as a form of humiliation. In Europe, they would burn black dogs with victims of the inquisition. There was a time in history my sons and daughters when it was truly miserable to be a black dog. So if you see a black dog in the street, be kind—the poor creatures suffered from our superstition and fears for centuries. But even apart from black dogs, in medieval times there is evidence of a wide prejudice against dogs in general. Similar to the medieval European practice, pre-Islam and after Islam, as an expression of contempt or deprecation, dogs of any color were hung or buried with the corpses of dissidents or rebels. This was done to demoralize and break the spirits of would be rebels.” The Shaykh paused for effect then he continued, “Now, assume that the dogs are indeed impure, why would the author of the fatwa suggest not only that the man put out the dog, but that he even stop feeding it so that it will go away?”
One of the students well known for his wittiness responded: “I don’t know—the author of the fatwa seemed to have a dog-complex!”
Again, we dared not laugh but there were a few muted chuckles.
“Thank you for this brilliant analysis brother Ibrahim,” the Shaykh sarcastically said looking somewhat annoyed, “Can anyone here give us something a bit more useful?”
The one woman who at that time was the harmony of my heart and the princess of my dreams remarked in that voice that used to send tremors down my spine: “Shaykh, clearly the author of the fatwa could have suggested to the man that dogs are impure but left it up to him to avoid this impurity. So for instance, the dog could have been kept in a backyard or allowed to exist in front of the house even if it is a sorry condition for the dog. The author of the fatwa is not just concerned about the dog’s impurity but that the very act of taking care of a dog represents a violation of the law. The only evidence the author could have relied upon are what we might call anti-dog hadith or hadith hostile to dogs, in general. Some of such hadith state that angels will not enter the abode of a dog keeper. Other hadith state the company of dogs voids a portion of a Muslim’s good deeds. There are other hadith, Shaykh, that claim the Prophet commanded Muslims not to trade or deal in dogs, and even to slaughter all dogs, except for those used in herding, farming, or hunting. If the author relied on these traditions this might explain his fatwa.”
“Thuraya,” the Shaykh continued, “as you said there are anti-dog hadith, but are you aware of any other part of the tradition that points to a further cultural prejudice against dogs—I mean the type of prejudice that we saw associated with rebels?”
I thought of one possible area, but as I watched Thuraya think, I held my breath. After a few seconds and what seemed like an eternity to me, Thuraya replied: “Oh yes, Shaykh, these are reports that express an association between women and dogs. In some such traditions, it is claimed that the Prophet said that dogs, donkeys, women, and in some versions, non-Muslims, if they pass in front of men in prayer, they will void or nullify that prayer. These reports are mostly found in Musnad Ahmad but they also occur in some form in Muslim and al-Tirmidhi as well. Most are reported by Abu Hurayra but A’isha the Prophet’s wife, may God be pleased with her, strongly protested these reports—Aisha even confronted Abu Hurayra saying, “Who gave you the authority to make women equal to dogs and donkeys!” Consequently, it is mentioned by al-Nawawi and others that most Muslim jurists ruled that these traditions are not authentic and are unreliable. Hence, most jurists held that the crossing of women or dogs in front of men does not negate their prayers.”
The Shaykh seemed pleased because he smiled. My mistake was that I allowed him to catch me beaming with pleasure—as if I wanted to jump up and congratulate my Thuraya for her thorough response, and so of course the Shaykh picked on me.
As the Shaykh’s smile slowly disappeared he pointed at me: ‘So brother Khaled, aside from the traditions on women and dogs voiding prayers, what do you know about what our sister aptly described as the anti-dog traditions, and what can you tell us about them?”
Feeling embarrassed that the Shaykh has noticed, I tried to quickly collect my thoughts: “Shaykh, may Allah bless you,” I answered, “some of these traditions were reported in Tirmidhi, the Muwatta’ of Malik, al-Nisa’i, and Muslim and some variants in Bukhari. But I researched their authenticity and there is no consensus on the matter. All the traditions are of singular transmissions, most were declared weak or apocryphal—for instance, the tradition about the slaughtering of dogs, a number of scholars found that it was invented at a time of a rabies plague in Medina. In fact, the traditions mandating the slaughter of dogs were the most troubling for jurists. We find in the discussions by Ibn al-‘Arabi in his ‘Aridat al-Ahwadhi, in Nayl al-Awtar, and in Nawawi’s commentary on Muslim that the vast majority of jurists rejected the traditions mandating the killing of dogs as pure fabrications because, they reasoned, such behavior would be wasteful of life. These jurists argued that there is a presumption prohibiting the destruction of nature, and mandating the honoring of all creation. Any part of creation or nature cannot be needlessly destroyed, and no life can be taken without compelling cause. For the vast majority of jurists, since the consumption of dogs was strictly prohibited in Islam, there was no reason to slaughter dogs. Such behavior, they argued, would be against the moral assumptions of Islam. Also, Shaykh, for another example, we find that the tradition about the angels not entering the home of a dog keeper has been seriously questioned and doubted in several sources such as Tuhfat al-Ahwadhi. Many of the commentaries on hadith have pointed out that these traditions conflict with stronger traditions; other sources argued that these traditions are inconsistent with the principles of Islam…”
I suddenly stopped myself because I noticed I was becoming redundant and I feared that I might have succumbed to vanity by showing off. But my heart danced when the Shaykh smiled and a quick glance at Thuraya found her smiling as well.
The Shaykh remarked: “Have you checked the commentaries on the Qur’an as well?” I shook my head in the negative, and as if expecting my response, the Shaykh commented: “You should have! You would have found a wealth of information about these traditions in these sources.”
I dutifully nodded my head. However, still keeping me in the hot seat—or more accurately, since we all sat on the floor, the hot ground—the Shaykh held his beard and raised his eyes to the ceiling before inquiring: “Despite your oversight, you read the material written on all these traditions, and I am sure you analyzed all the technical points being made in this context, but why do you suppose, aside from the killing dogs tradition, that the jurists had such a hard time with these traditions in general? I am not here speaking about conflicting reports—I am speaking about God’s creation, instinct, and the will of God in nature.”
I had been a student of Shaykh Wadi long enough to know what he was getting at and so I replied:”Shaykh, the instinct of these animals seem to be inclined towards becoming domesticated. They understand love, kindness, and compassion, and they respond to them. They recognize and know their owners and exhibit loyalty. If God created them this way, this fact of nature must be considered. On the other hand, if they were not created this way but we, humans, domesticated them and changed their natures so that they have become dependent on human beings, we owe them a duty of care. The rational question presented is how could God create these creatures and endow them with such qualities only to command us to hate them—why would God make them drawn to us by nature and yet command us to detest them. The well-known tradition says: ‘The angels are pained by what pains human beings.’ The issues that we must confront are: We must celebrate all of God’s creation. Furthermore, the Qur’anic principle states: That kindness only deserves reciprocal kindness. Why would God create these creatures only to punish them by constant deprivation and suffering? Why would angels in turn be hurt or pained by those creatures while those creatures do not hurt or cause pain to human beings?”
“And Khaled,” the Shaykh quizzed, “Are the questions that you pose decisive and conclusive in our analysis?”
“No Shaykh,” I responded, “these rational factors or points of reflection regarding creation and its purposes are but an element in our overall analysis.” Hoping that the Shaykh would relieve me from questioning for the time being, I stared at the floor right ahead of me.
The Shaykh adjusted the way he was sitting and straightened his back as if he had reached a particular point in the road map in his head. “Now my sons and daughters the picture is far from complete yet. Let us focus on the issue of dog’s purity—what is the specific problem here?”
Mahmoud, an unusually attractive man who was known among us for memorizing two thousand hadiths with all their variants, in his typically calm and serene fashion raised his hand: Shaykh, may God bless you and prolong your life,” he said, “the issue is known as wulugh al-kalb—the focus here are on Prophetic reports instructing that if a dog, regardless of the color, licks a container, the container must be washed seven times, with the sprinkling of dust in one of the washings. Different versions of the same report specify that the container be washed once, three, or five times, or omit the reference to the sprinkling of dust altogether. The essential point conveyed in these reports is that dogs are impure animals, or, at least, that their saliva is a contaminant that voids a Muslim’s ritual purity. As to the references, Shaykh, most of them can be found in the commentary on Bukhari by Ibn Hajjar al-Asqalani, and the commentary on Muslim by al-Nawawi as well as most of the books of jurisprudence. But Shaykh, I respectfully say that the authors of the fatwa could have warned the questioner that the saliva of dogs negates ritual purity, and leave it to the man to perform ritual cleansing when he comes into contact with the saliva. The issue of ritual impurity would definitely not call for the extreme measures recommended by the authors of the fatwa.”
The Shaykh commented: “Yes, but also note that the Prophet, peace and blessings upon him, is advising us about an elementary point that is easily missed today: do not eat and feed dogs from the same plates without first thoroughly cleaning them. Today, this may seem to us a rather obvious point, but not back then. Back then it was not uncommon for families to own very few plates or houseware, which they used for all kinds of purposes including feeding themselves, guests and even cattle. Clearly, the problem is partly solved by designating certain plates for feeding dogs. Also, take note that although many people today think that washing containers or plates with dust is a central point in fact versions of these traditions do not mention washing with dust at all. But why do we have these different versions that say wash the plate seven times, five, or three times or even once?
Volunteering, one of the students named Isma’il who we nicknamed “the officer” because he seemed to have a military style about him cried out: “Shaykh, it is an indication that the point is that if you share containers with your dogs, clean the containers thoroughly—but the memories of the transmitters of hadith conflicted as to whether a certain number of washings are necessary. The question this raises Shaykh is, assuming the saliva of dogs is a contaminant, is the washing an act of ritual, the operative cause (‘illa) of which is worshipping; or an act of cleaning, the operative cause (‘illa) of which is attaining good health. Shaykh, the conflicting reports on this is a strong indication that the operative cause is the attainment of good health.”
“That is good Isma’il.” This response indicated that the Shaykh was not entirely pleased and wanted more. And indeed, the Shaykh commented, “Before we can analyze operative causes, we still need to consider the totality of the evidence. Your inclination to consider whether we are dealing with ritual-based or reason-based legislation is basically correct. But we need to refine this point so we could be precise in our analysis. My son, you are right that generally the evidence supporting a ritual-based law needs to be strong and precise. But what is the full evidentiary picture here?”
The officer was silent. However, Mahmoud came to his aid speaking in his serene and calm voice as if the knowledge was at his fingertips: “Despite the attribution to the Prophet of a large number of traditions hostile to dogs, we know from a large number of sources such as Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqlani in his commentary on Bukhari, from al-Mubarakafuri in his commentary on Tirmidhi, and al-Nawawi in his commentary on Muslim, there are several reports indicating that the Prophet’s young cousins, and some of the companions owned puppies. Other reports indicate that the Prophet, peace and blessings upon him, prayed while a dog played in his vicinity. In addition, there is considerable historical evidence that dogs roamed freely in Medina and even entered the Prophet’s mosque. In another report, the Prophet, peace and blessing be upon him, warned his companions against evicting a dog weaning her puppies from her chosen spot. In other words, the Prophet taught that if a dog is found weaning her puppies, people should not disturb her. In one report, it is transmitted that the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, changed the course of his marching troops in order to avoid disturbing a pair of dogs and their puppies. However, one of the most important and well-documented report states that the Prophet taught that a prostitute, and in some versions, a sinning man, secured their places in Heaven by saving the life of a dog dying of thirst in the desert. These various reports are in clear tension with reports prohibiting the ownership of dogs or reports that de-value the moral worth of dogs.”
The Shaykh smiled but Mahmoud’s face remained serene like a sculpture; it showed no reaction. The Shaykh again shifted his seat and straightened his back indicating he had reached another road mark in the discussion. “As you learned, when we have conflicting evidence we weigh and balance. So which way does the evidence point here?”
All those who were permitted to attend this halaqa had learned the fairly complex methodology for balancing out competing evidence.
Side stepping the Shaykh’s question, Smart Mouth seemed to have become impatient and she surprisingly exploded: “Shaykh, may God bless you, if a person saved the life of a dog and with that their sins were absolved and forgiven, I think the authors of the fatwa are in serious trouble. This fatwa was issued in Saudi Arabia where it is very hot, and animals may easily die if they do not find water. Effectively, the author of this fatwa might have sentenced this poor dog to death by advising the owner to stop feeding the dog. That constitutes a wasteful destruction of life and this is what really upsets me about this fatwa: its cruelty! Shaykh, a dog urinated in the Prophet’s mosque and he, may peace and blessings be upon him, would not let anyone hurt the animal. Shaykh, the Prophet, peace and blessings upon him, also taught that a woman, and in some narrations a man, imprisoned a cat until she died, and for that God decreed that the woman deserves the inferno of Hellfire. Yet, we have this shaykh who treats the well being of animals so casually!”
Shaykh Wadi looked at her sympathetically and nodded his head, but then he turned to look at all of us: “The time will come for that! But as I told all of you many times before: first, we learn to analyze and then we sympathize—first we search for the law and then we find equity.”
Confronted by silence, the Shaykh repeated his question: “Now, when we have conflicting evidence this means certain things—what are they?” Then the Shaykh followed his question with the type of comment that always terrified us. “Anyone, he declared, “who does not know the answer to this does not deserve to be sitting in this halaqa!”
With so much at stake no one volunteered, but the Shaykh picked on the witty guy Ibrahim. The poor guy looked as if he suddenly found himself dumped before the headlights of a speeding vehicle. He was visibly anxious and he spoke in a nervous voice: “Shaykh, may God prolong your life, we have conflicting evidence, and so two things follow: we realize that we must balance the evidence and reach a decision based on probability, and this also tells us that different scholars will reach different conclusions—in other words, there will be a diversity of views and perspectives among the jurists.”
The Shaykh smiled and we all breathed a sigh of relief including the witty guy. The Shaykh then remarked: “The two conclusions pointed out by our brother are correct. But they are the most basic conclusions that we can derive. There is more—among the most important is that the space available for the application of reason considerably expands. Put differently, the precedents are not air tight and this frees considerable space to apply rational principles of analysis. Furthermore, the available precedents permit us to narrow down and focus the issue considerably. Sister Thuraya,” the Shaykh suddenly called out, “could you narrow down the issues for us?”
Thuraya, in her enthusiastic but typically calm demeanor, replied: “Shaykh, may God bless you, balancing out the relative strength of the evidence, we can safely exclude things like slaughtering of dogs, dogs as demons, dogs as voiding prayer, and most likely even the issue of the angels’ repulsion against dogs as non-issues. None of these questions are supported by sufficiently reliable evidence, and in fact, they go against the ethical premises of the faith. Narrowing down the issues, the only serious questions are two fold: Is the saliva of dogs impure requiring the performance of ritual cleansing? And the second question: Are the bodies of dogs impure, similar for instance to the bodies of pigs, so that contact with the bodies of dogs requires the performance of ritual purity? I should add, Shaykh, that the issue of the repulsion of angels against dogs could be contingent on the issue of purity. Although, if you would permit me Shaykh, I want to say that this particular report is entirely inconsistent with the companions of the Prophet, peace and blessing be upon him, owning dogs. It is also inconsistent with the report of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, praying in the vicinity of dogs, leave alone the entry of dogs into the Medina mosque. Moreover, Shaykh, this report is unfair towards herders, hunters or anyone who has to rely on dogs such as people who have lost their eyesight and need a seeing-eye dog. And in my humble opinion Shaykh, theologically speaking, it is incongruous to believe that angels could be revolted by any creature that God created and endowed such creatures with the Divine breath of life—how could angels detest what God created, and God knows best.”
The Shaykh beamed and fearing that I would start floating in the air, I stole but a glance at her beautiful face and gripped my notebook tightly. Again, the Shaykh woke me up when the firm uncompromising “Khaled!” being called out. I looked up at the Shaykh as if pleading with him to find a palliative for the affliction and pain that I had come to cherish and love and I never wanted to be cured of. As if reading me like an open book, the Shaykh smiled at me with such a tender and sweet smile—a smile that to this day soothes and consoles my heart. “Brother Khaled,” the Shaykh repeated, “sister Thuraya has focused and narrowed down the issues for us. Do you agree with her? And what do you know about the specific issue that she untangled and distilled for us?”
I felt a sense of relief—the jurisprudence of the schools of thought had been my field of specialty and my point of strength. “Shaykh, may God prolong your life for us, I believe sister Thuraya is correct and God knows best. This seems to be the exact conclusion that Ibn Rushd, the grandson, in his Bidayat al-Mujtahid and Ibn Taymiyya in his Fatawa had reached. The jurists focused on the issue of purity or ritual impurity, and they particularly focused on whether there is a rational basis for the avowed impurity of dogs. As the Officer—ah, I mean brother Isma’il—alluded to earlier, are dogs impure as a matter of scientific and empirical fact, or are they impure because of a reason known only to God—like pigs for instance? As we find in the Mudawwana and al-Bada’i’ by al-Kasani, a considerable number of jurists asserted that there is no rational basis for the impurity of dogs—like pigs, dogs must be considered impure simply as a matter of deference to the religious text. Consequently, these jurists allowed the ownership of dogs only for the purpose of serving human needs, such as herding, farming, hunting, protection, or because of blindness. But they prohibited the ownership of dogs for frivolous reasons, such as companionship, enjoying their appearance, out of a desire to show off. Although these jurists held that there was no rational basis for the prohibition, some of these jurists still rationalized this determination by arguing that dogs endanger the safety of neighbors and travelers. Some of the jurists that adopted the no rational basis approach did not focus on the issue of ownership, rather they focused on the cleanliness of the owner of the dogs. In short, they asserted that a Muslim may own a dog for whatever purpose as long as they perform ritual cleanliness after coming into physical contact with dogs, and as long as they make sure they do not share their foodware with dogs and also as long as they keep dogs away from the area in which they pray and worship.”
The Shaykh remarked: “Okay, this is as to the no rational basis school of thought—how about the rational basis school of thought?”
I replied: “As reported by a large number of sources including Ibn Rushd, the grandson, al-Dardir, and al-Sawi, a considerable number of jurists particularly, but not exclusively, from the Maliki school of thought, reasoned as follows: Everything found in nature is presumed to be pure unless proven otherwise, either through experience or text. Establishing that the all the hadith we already discussed are not of sufficient reliability or authenticity so as to overcome the presumption of purity, they argued that dogs are pure animals. Accordingly, as reported in sources such as al-Munif the author of al-Fatawa al-Khayriyya; al-Qarafi in al-Dhakhira, Ibn Nujaym in al-Bahr al-Ra’iq, Ibn Qudama in al-Mughni, Ibn Hazm in al-Muhalla, several jurists maintained that dogs do not void a Muslim’s prayer or ritual purity. In other words, that dogs and their saliva are pure. We are informed by Ibn Rushd, the grandfather, in Muqaddimat al-Mumahhidat that other jurists argued that the command mandating that a vessel be washed a number of times was intended as a precautionary health measure. These jurists argued that the Prophet’s tradition on this issue was intended to apply only to dogs at risk of being infected by the rabies virus. Hence, if a dog is not a possible carrier of rabies, it is presumed to be pure, and therefore, there is no problem with owning or coming into contact with such a dog. As mentioned by Ibn al-‘Arabi in his ‘Arida, a number of jurists, building upon this logic, reasoned that rural dogs are pure, while urban dogs are impure because urban dogs often consume garbage or trash. Another group of jurists argued that the purity of dogs turns on their domesticity—domestic dogs are considered pure because human beings feed and clean them, while dogs that live in the wild or on the streets of a city could be carriers of disease, and therefore, they are considered impure. The point is, Shaykh, that for those who adopted the rational basis approach, as long as the cleanliness of the dog could be insured, they saw no problem regarding the dog’s purity, and they also saw no problem as to the ownership of dogs.”
The Shaykh nodded his head a couple of times, and then asked: “And brother Khaled which of the schools do you think is right?”
“Shaykh,” I replied, “I agree with the rational basis school. Unlike the case of pigs, the Qur’an does not contain a ruling about dogs. The Prophetic traditions are conflicting on this issue, and so returning to the legal presumption of the purity of everything in creation is correct. The exception, Shaykh, is if we have reason to believe a dog is filthy or consumes filth. I do agree that especially in the case of domesticated dogs, their consumption could be controlled and their cleanliness could be insured, and thus, their ownership is allowed.”
Once again, the Shaykh adjusted himself and straightened his back and after looking at us intently for a few seconds he said: “So now, how about this fatwa we studied—what do we do with it? Whichever school the author might have belonged to, how do we integrate the issue of equity into the analysis? We know that after doing our homework, and expending our energy in analyzing a problem, we have to reach a result but we have an affirmative duty to reach a result that is just and merciful. God told us in his Wise Book that Muhammad was sent but as a mercy to the worlds—note that the Qur’an does not say “sent as a mercy to humankind or even to the world;” it says as a mercy to the “worlds”, which most certainly includes all living creatures. In the case of animals they do not participate in formulating our law, and so we have an added duty of diligence in not making them suffer the results of our heedlessness or our cruelty. The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, taught that Muslims are under a duty to bring facility and ease to the world and not hardship or suffering. In case of this fatwa, what was the right approach?”
Smart Mouth was clearly waiting impatiently until we reached this point in the discussion and so without pause she jumped in: “Shaykh, what I would note is that the author of the fatwa did not attempt to find a merciful solution and he did not at all consider the well-being of the dog, which is among the interests that must be taken into account when issuing this fatwa. It seems to me that the author could have informed the questioner about the various positions brother Khaled outlined and then let the questioner choose which precedent he wants to follow. Alternatively, the author could have informed the questioner that he, the author, believes dogs to be impure, but he should have also instructed the questioner to insure the safety of the dog so that questioner does not become a contributor to the death of a soul. Negligently contributing to the death or to harming an innocent animal that we are in a position to help or in a position to prevent the harm, in my view is a significant violation and sin, and God knows best.”
The Shaykh again nodded his head and said in a matter of fact way, “I always remind you that when presented with a legal question, first you expend your best efforts investigating the evidence and the precedents. After you have done your homework, there always remains the question: What is the most merciful? What causes the least hardship? What is in the public interest? Your response to any of these questions should tip the balance in determining your choice of law. In all cases, you are under a duty to achieve the objectives of the law, which are compassion, mercy, and justice, and thus, you might have to fashion a solution in response to each particular case—each case with its own specific elements. But what you cannot do is to mechanically apply a set of rules without asking yourself: am I fulfilling the objectives of Shari’a in serving the public interest and achieving justice? Always remember, you are not applying the rules to corpses—you are applying the rules to living beings and this means the law must be as alive as those who are bound by it.
Other than preservation of the life of the dog, there is a question of whether it is in the public interest to encourage the phenomenon of stray dogs. In days now bygone, there used to be Islamic awqaf (endowments) that took care of stray dogs—maybe something like the dog kennels we hear about in the West. In our discussion, we did not have a chance to talk about the rich literature of the Arabs on dogs. When you get a chance my friends read: Ibn Al-Marzuban’s fascinating treatise, The Book of the Superiority of Dogs Over Many of Those Who Wear Clothes, which contrasts the loyalty and faithfulness of dogs to the treachery and fickleness of human beings.” The Shaykh smiled, “It will add some humor and richness to your knowledge.”
“Alright,” the Shaykh prepared to conclude the halaqa, “We thank God for His bounties and the privilege of knowledge for God is always the most knowledgeable. We ask God to guide us from error, sin, and injustice. Those who betray God; betray themselves, and those who find God, they but find themselves. Next my sons and daughters we will discuss a fatwa that I issued—the fatwa has to do with a problem relating to a contract of adhesion. Pick a copy of the fatwa from my assistant, and come prepared to discuss it in two days.”
Of course, the Shaykh was wrong—the kennels in the West that execute dogs are nothing like the awqaf that used to exist when the Islamic civilization was in its height. I did pick up a copy of the Shaykh’s fatwa from his assistant—who was his most senior and promising student and the one we went to when we needed help in preparing our homework—and in two days the conference with Shaykh Wadi in the same mosque was held.
I eventually became the Shaykh’s assistant and analyzed with him so many fatwas, half of them the Shaykh’s own. In all the halaqas, and in the years I spent with the Shaykh, the single most important lesson I learned is that the essence of God’s law is justice, compassion, and mercy. If it is not, this necessarily means human beings abused it, and deformed it into becoming what is at odds with the beauty that is God’s nature.
The position I was chosen for, the Shaykh’s assistant, did not last long because for reasons beyond him and me, I had to leave the company of my beloved Shaykh. I was forced to choose God’s most beautiful creation—the beauty of freedom and liberty. And that beauty was no longer available in the lands of the Pyramids, especially after Sadat’s assassination.
As to Thuraya…
She had to become a beautiful memory, although to this day when I go book hunting I still wait for the day that I find a book adorned by her name.
As to me, I thank God for the beauty of liberty and its challenges. In prayer, I read God’s words: “And, we made some of you a trial and tribulation for others; will you be patient and forbearing?” (25:20) I supplicate to God to give me the strength so that I am always as the All-Knowing wants me to be.