Book Review: Animals in the Islamic Tradition and Muslim Cultures
The following book review appeared in the Journal
of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics
Publisher: Springer Netherlands
ISSN1187-7863 (Print) 1573-322X (Online)
Volume 20, Number 6 / December, 2007
Accepted: 15 June 2007 Published online: 25 August 2007
Foltz, Richard C., Animals in Islamic Tradition and Muslim Cultures. Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2006. 151+pp.
Animals in the Islamic Tradition and Muslim Cultures is a thoroughly researched and comprehensive study on Islam and Animal Welfare, where Foltz examines the attitudes of Muslim scholars and lay persons bearing on the crucial issues we currently face. It is geared for the general reader, as well as the specialist. The book is divided into examining Muslims and their attitudes towards animals from several perspectives, namely, animals in: Islamic source texts, Islamic law, philosophy and science, literature and art, and on contemporary views on animal rights, vegetarianism and Muslim attitudes towards dogs.
On the Quran and Hadith
At the very outset, the author discusses some fundamental Islamic concepts denoted by words such as khalifa and sakhkhara, the former translated as successor and viceregent, the latter a term that denotes creation being “subjected to” humankind by God (p. 15). In discussing “subjugation,” however, Foltz points out the most crucial fact that: “According to this view, while non-human Creation is subjugated to human needs, the proper role is that of conscientious steward and not exploiter.” (p. 15) Indeed, the role of selfish dominator is absent from the Quran because of concepts such as: all things in the heavens and on earth belong to God, that the earth has been created for all animals (anam), that everything is a sign of God, as creator and sustainer, and many other verses, including: “There is not an animal (dabba) in the earth, nor a flying creature on two wings, but they are communities (umam, sg. umma) like you.” (Quran 6:38) (p. 17).
Prophets Solomon and David who, according to the Quran, were given knowledge, by God, of the language of birds among other creatures (p. 12). Prophet Muhammad shows great compassion towards animals – “recognizing their emotional life” such as when he ordered a Companion to return eggs that had been taken from a bird’s nest to the mother who was exhibiting great distress. He cites another well-known Hadith (saying) concerning not mistreating animals by using them as pulpits. (p. 19) Foltz also includes a Hadith that show the level of concern and sensitivity the Prophet Muhammad had about animals: “When traveling, Muhammad encouraged his followers to ride slowly if there was vegetation, so that their animals could graze, and quickly when in the desert; at night, they were to be protected from insects. Acts of such cruelty such as branding or hitting an animal in the face were forbidden.” (p. 20)
He then deals with meat eating and slaughter, that is, the “ritual slaughter” in which the name of God is to be pronounced before taking the animal’s life for food consumption. He discusses the Prophet’s concern in this matter, when the Prophet stated that if one sharpened the blade in front of the animals to be killed for meat consumption, then it would be tantamount to slaughtering it twice. (p. 25-27)
On Islamic Law
With respect to drawing rulings based on Hadith, there appears to be confusion among a great many Muslims regarding which animals are disallowed based on differing opinions on the various juristic schools of thought in Islam (for example, are carnivorous animals disallowed?) and contradictory Hadith pertaining to these matters. Foltz does not, however, address the fact that Muslims are getting confused about such issues because they are, in general, oblivious about two concepts that the Quran deals with, with proper understanding, which are al-mizan (the balance) and rijs (uncleanliness) and the interconnection between the basic idea behind these, in terms of how the universe is structured, based on the structure-cum-function of all non-human made things.
One Hadith that the author cites appears to be extremely irrational (concerning bestiality and the punishment of both the animal and the human perpetrator) and does not seem to be something that the Prophet could have said about an animal, given the hundreds of statements that point to kindness towards animals as well as the Quranic injunctions on animal welfare. It must be pointed out, however, that any Hadith that contradicts basic rationality and Quranic principles must be rejected, for the Hadith is only secondary to the Quran and not an infallible canonical body of knowledge, which many Muslims erroneously and emotionally seem to believe. This fact even applies to any of the “authentic Hadith” that must be rejected if they fly in the face of scientific fact (not theory) and the Quran. Unfortunately, a growing number of reactionary Muslims take it to the other extreme as well, where they throw the baby out with the bathwater and reject all Hadith (history/sayings); this is, in itself, an extremely irrational position, for Hadith is history and we must accept history if there are proof and facts. Despite the misgivings on isolated Hadith, Foltz concludes this section by stating that:
… it would seem that the Islamic ethical system extends moral considerability to non-human animals, although not on the same level as humans. This nevertheless contrasts favorably with the Christian tradition, which has until recently had very little to say about the rights and importance of non-human animals, and even more so with… Western Enlightenment which saw non-human animals as nothing more than soulless machines whose sole function was to serve human needs. (p. 27)
With respect to Islamic Law, Foltz concludes that the “underlying principle” is to protect animals save to satisfy hunger or for protection. He points out that birds should not be kept in cages, as Islamic law prohibits this. Foltz, additionally, addresses the question of Hima (protected area), haram and haramayn, which were areas around Mecca and Madina, where no hunting or cutting of trees was allowed. Such acts, he says, are crimes against God and not the animals in question. Although on the surface, this appears to be the case, when one assesses the injunction by considering all factors and the Quranic emphasis on God being the most merciful, it becomes clear that God allows mercy on these animals by such prohibitions on hunting for both the protection of animals and for human spiritual development, linked to obeying God’s commands. Animals slaughtered during pilgrimage are for distribution to the poor among humankind, fulfilling an egalitarian social need. Creating protected areas, at the same time, while allowing “sacrifices” for human welfare purposes does not create a contradiction, Foltz believes.
Foltz also deals with the urgent need for a new jurisprudence, outlining taqlid (imitation without thought) that has plagued many Muslim societies. He criticizes such blind adherents for their intransigent attitude, and is also critical of many of the scholars and jurists for not being attune to current ecological and environmental issues. He delves into the concept of maslaha (the common good), with the view that if drug related animal products are realized by the Muslim masses to be connected to factory farming, then they would stop buying such meats, not because they are “abusive to animals” but because they would be of diminishing utility to human beings. Such a strategy might indeed be more successful in getting the attention of Muslims; however, it would be hoped that the Muslims would start digging deeper into taking care of animals and ecology for the sake of such entities and environments in and of themselves and nature’s balance, rather than for mere human utilitarian ends or for fear of any nutritional imbalances that could arise.
Foltz also has a section on Animals in literature and art such as Kalila and Dimna, which are animal fables from India and Persia; these offer insight into the minds of Muslims and others living in the Muslim world several centuries ago, but, as Foltz points out, they are not necessarily reflecting Islamic teachings. For instance, he covers a Sufi’s work, The Conference of the Birds (Mantiq al-tayr) by Farid-al-din Attar, which has almost 50,000 couplets and was completed in 1177. However, he points out that the goal of this poem, in which the hoopoe is seeking a new ruler for the birds, is really human politics. Foltz points out that in Rumi’s poems, some animals are seen to excel humans in some qualities, but that animals primarily serve for moral instructional purposes. In short, he shows that animals only function as utilities for upgrading human behavior in such literature, but he does not state this as being the Quranic, and hence ideal Islamic outlook.
In the philosophy section, Foltz discusses various Islamic philosophers’ perspectives on animals including the “Brethern of Purity” who actually wrote a book entitled The Case of the Animals versus Man, before the King of the Jinn (Genies). The book criticizes man for abusing his position by abusing the harmony in nature, where a court case is brought against the humans. In the end, the King of the Jinn rules in favour of humans, which to Foltz, seems an unsatisfactory conclusion, since all along, until the last page, the animals’ case was presented forcefully.
Foltz also discusses the work of the Muslim writer al-Jahiz (776-869) who wrote an incomplete seven volume series the Book of Animals (Kitab al-hayawan) – a book that discusses the characteristics of numerous animals, and has many stories and anecdotal information, some remarkably reliable and seemingly ‘modern’, and some not so reliable. Foltz states: “Typical of Muslim literature, al-Jahiz’s use of animals is instrumental: although ostensibly a comprehensive zoological catalogue, the Book of Animals aims primarily at demonstrating the magnificence of God through a study of his created beings.” (p. 55). For al-Jahiz then, the study of nature was the study of the Mind of God. He “accepts without question the received cosmic hierarchy which places humans above all other animals, due to what he calls their capacity for reason and their “mastery” (tamkin).” (p. 58). Foltz gives an example of moral stories in the Book of Animals such as the case where a judge is harassed by a fly in the courtroom and declares in final frustration “’God forgive me!... I have just understood that whereas I enjoyed such respect and dignity among people, I have been defeated and ridiculed by the lowest of His creatures!’” (p. 58). Even though we may not agree with all of Al-Jahiz’s commentaries on animals, such books are, nonetheless, solid examples of how far in advance Islamic societies were at the time, as compared to Europe, most of which was plunged in the mire of superstitious ideas about non-human creation. Foltz's comprehensive and thoughtful analysis, brings to the forefront this fascinating area of Muslim thought over a thousand years ago.
Muslim writers and scholars of the past
In Animals in the Islamic Tradition and Muslim Cultures, there is a section that deals with the major work of the Muslim philosopher, Ibn Tufayl (d. 1185). Foltz concentrates on the following aspect of Tufayl’s extraordinary book, Hayy Ibn Yaqzan (Alive, Son of Awake):
Ibn Tufayl’s “ontogeny follows phylogeny” allegory is meant to serve as a backdrop for extrapolating his own neo-Platonic philosophy, but his use of animals s typical [i.e. they serve to illustrate the cosmic hierarchy, where the human being are differentiated and shown to be superior]. (p. 54)
However, there is another aspect of Tufayl’s book that would help the Animal Welfare and Environmental cause in the present age. Ibn Tufayl tried to show, in his story, that one can learn of God through animals and the rest of nature and that one can prove the existence of God from Nature. The lessons learned from nature will correspond with revelation; therefore, no conflict exists between reason and revelation. Ibn Tufayl’s work is basically an exposition of his thesis, in fictional form, that no inconsistency exists between reason and true revelation. Indeed Ibn Tufayl was espousing nature’s revelations to be equivalent to scriptural revelation, as was Ibn Rushd (Averroes). If Ibn Tufayl was pushing a Neoplatonic view, which Foltz mentions in passing, it does not show in Tufayl’s book, either directly or indirectly. Tufayl’s outlook, which is the Quranic outlook, if realized today, can dissipate the artificial bridge between science and religion and, in turn make the views of scriptures, such as the Quran, more influential in decision making policies on areas such as animal rights, ecological preservation, air pollution reduction/elimination etc., where science and morality, facts and values would be seen to be one and inseparable.
A “radical” figure: Al-Hafiz B.A. Masri
Turning to contemporary times, Foltz discusses two exceptions who he believes have taken a bold and radical stance on numerous animal welfare issues. The first, in terms of chronological order is the Turkish Islamic thinker, Said Nursi (1877-1960). Although Nursi makes some strange comments about nature, (i.e., about the harmlessness of flies and mosquitoes) which we know to be false, Foltz does not critique him. Nursi appeared to have gone to one extreme on his views on the details of the nature of some creatures, though his basic stance is in conformity with the Quran. Indeed, Nursi’s conception of nature is the Quranic conception of nature:
Nursi emphasized in his teachings that nature is most importantly a form of divine revelation, and that the signs of nature (ayat) are to be read like the signs of written language…..[and] it could be said that when we destroy habitats and species, it is like burning the pages of divine text by which God makes it possible for us to know Him. (page 96)
The other personality deemed to be most significant by Foltz is the late Al-Hafiz B.A. Masri (1914-1992). Masri is seen to be an intellectually bold activist-cum-writer in this field. Foltz states that:
Masri’s voice is a pioneering one in the domain of Islamic values and animal rights, but it will have to be joined by many others if the attitudes and behaviors of Muslims toward animals is to change. (p. 94)
. . .in pushing the limits of Islamic tradition, teachers like Masri and Nursi go further even than any of today’s self-proclaimed Islamic environmentalists who have mentioned the rights of non-human animals. (p. 99)
It is indeed true that in the persona of Al-Hafiz Masri was a revolutionary thinker who applied the full thrust of the Quran to this issue of animal welfare. It is interesting to note that even as of 2005, 13 years after his death, his bold statements on animal cruelty and the required Muslim response have been used by PETA recently, in a campaign against cruelty to animals occurring in Australia, where sheep are being exported to Muslim countries. To date, most disappointingly, Al-Jazeera network, which was approached by PETA, has not aired the educational advertisement that includes Masri’s comments against cruel treatment and transportation of these live animals. Foltz mentions this controversy on page 109 of his book, although he does not connect Masri with this issue.
Optimality of Islam/Quran vs. “Interpretationalism”
What one gains from Foltz's writings is the view that the Islamic response is varied and takes on differing views because of the interpretational flexibility of the Quran, according to how Foltz sees the Quran. Foltz, himself identifies with the strong current towards animal welfare within that trend.
It is because of this view that he sees Masri, for example, as taking a strong interpretation. I would contend, however, that Masri’s overall position on the nature and rights of animals is not radical. For over 1,000 years the Muslims have been negligent on this and indeed many other aspects of their faith. Masri, like other Muslim thinkers (e.g., Nursi), see the other primary source of Islam as the universe or nature itself, or cause and effect, if one were to be more general. They view that the Quran perfectly corresponds to nature and how to best use nature. What Masri had done was to awaken the sleeping giant on this issue of animal welfare in the 1980s.
Vegetarianism and Islam
The author tackles the issue of meat-eating versus vegetarianism very passionately, and his coverage is both wide ranging, concerned and reflective. Foltz considers it oxymoronic to be concerned about animals, and yet eat them! He feels that Muslims do not deal with this issue properly. He concludes that: “Virtually all Muslims today continue to subscribe, uncritically for the most part, to arguments which support the carnivorous status quo. Eventually, though, it is possible that Muslims committed to ethical vegetarianism could interpret the sources of their tradition to the opposite end with equal success.” (p. 126) Despite such optimistic sentiments and projections, it appears impossible to find or re-interpret Quranic statements towards upholding vegetarianism, for the blatant fact is that meat-eating has categorically been allowed by the Quran. If only a substitute in both taste and proteins was found for meat, would it then become a moral imperative for Muslims to become vegetarians, just as it goes against Islamic principles to wear fur coats, when substitutes are available and when the wearing of fur is not for survival purposes. Conversely, having considered the reality of the status quo, there is no stricture on not eating meat, so long as one is able to provide a healthy diet for oneself. Indeed, there is nothing in the Quran that states that salvation can be gained only by eating meat, for the main idea in the Quran is to have a balanced diet.
Al-Hafiz Masri dealt with the vegetarian issue extensively, in his book, Animals in Islam, published by the Athene Trust, a division of Compassion in World Farming (CIWF). Masri’s own position was that vegetarianism worldwide would be the best option, but that Islam had not forced this upon people, due to practicalities of food availability, distribution, and procurement. A high quality balanced vegetarian diet according to him, would be better for humans and spare the animals as well. Now this position was radical because meat-eating has been sanctioned by the Quran and Hadith.
The response of Muslims is varied: Many Muslims (call them “Group 1”) are turning to vegetarianism and say that the Quran does not state that one cannot be a vegetarian – it is an option, and that this would be in line with the Quranic principles of kindness to animals (Masri’s position). Although one has to make an effort, a vegetarian diet is healthier if all the nutrients etc. are obtained on a daily basis. Others (Group 2) state that denying meat-eating is an innovation (bida) and goes against God’s laws. Yet another group (Group 3) says that although vegetarianism is an option, God, in the Quran has allowed it. In addition, Group 3 would emphasize that a vegetarian diet is very precarious unless the deficiencies are rectified, that is why God has allowed it.
The stance of Group 2 and 3 from a scriptural point of view is very strong, and they believe that any injustice done to animals (such as having to kill them for food) will be compensated for in the next life because God is not unjust to his creatures; they will all return to God as stated at the end of verse 6:38. This is one of the most overlooked verses, simply due to anthropocentrism. Muslims, therefore, in Group 2 and 3 would not consider “humane slaughter” oxymoronic, as Foltz has characterized; they feel that they can do nothing better than to minimize the physical and psychological suffering of animals. They kill animals reluctantly, and, as a result, out of necessity. That is why such Muslims want to eat the meat of animals on which the name of God has been pronounced upon the act of slaughtering.
The scope of the book
On the whole, Animals in the Islamic Tradition is not just a survey but an engaging educational exploration that makes us conscious of how we should treat animals by drawing upon Islamic sources of the Quran and Hadith and its major concepts and proponents. Foltz boldy takes many Muslims to task for not asking or answering certain questions and for not paying heed to their own scriptures on these pertinent issues. In a sense then, Animals in the Islamic Tradition…is really a continuation of the work started by Muslim such as Al-Hafiz Masri and other luminaries. Despite his difference in the tenor of his approach with Masri, with respect to whether Islam is an optimal system vs. radical interpretationalism, to deal with matters of animals and ecology, Foltz style of writing is reminiscent of Al-Hafiz Masri’s (who I knew personally).
In this century, the issues of Islam, animal welfare and ecology will definitely draw more interest both because of the unfortunate geopolitical realities now playing out in the Middle East in connection with the “West” and because of the crossroads we face on ecological plight. It is my conjecture that these topics will be pushed even more into the forefront. Animals in the Islamic Tradition will assist those inquisitive and concerned to look at Islam from a totally different angle, one they would not have expected, on an issue that affects us all as a global family. As a result, this book serves as one of the foundational springboards for further theoretical studies and practical activism for our pivotal and critical 21st century. Indeed, Animals in the Islamic Tradition truly offers a deep insight into the compassionate heart of Islam, currently offset, misinterpreted, and exploited. It therefore has educational potential in high schools, universities and colleges around the world for fostering a fuller understanding of our relations not only with animals, ecology, and agricultural development, but also collectively, among ourselves.
As Foltz himself points out, after 9/11 many people who visited the IslamicConcern website which discussed animal welfare, came out with a very positive view of Islam, since it was realized that if Islam values the lives of all animals and their niches to such a great extent, then, as a logical corollary, so too must it value all life, be it human or non-human. And if all lives are considered valuable, and treated as such, the earth would truly become akin to a paradise. But for this scenario to come into fruition, a new outlook is required. The book ends with impassioned rationality that universally calls for an outlook in consonance with Quranic teachings:
Our global elites today are behaving like drunken frat boys trashing someone else’s property with no concern for the reckoning to follow. The ever-increasing masses of poor, meanwhile, are like an oversized herd of stampeding elephants driven mad by hunger and desperation, trampling everything in sight. Neither group has any vision of the consequences, and nowhere is the Islamic principle of mizan (balance) being maintained. (p. 150)
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