Dr Sarra Tlili arrived to Qatar from the US to give a lecture at the College of Islamic Studies in Qatar Foundation on the status of humans and animals in the Quran on 7 March 2018. Dr Sarra Tlili is a Tunisian-American professor at University of Florida in the Languages, Literature and Cultures Department. She is a scholar of Arab and Islamic studies. She graduated from the University of Pennsylvania from the department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization. Her primary research interests are stylistics of the Quran, animals in Islam and Arabic literature. Among the courses she has taught are The Quran as Literature and Sustainability in Arabic Texts. She is the author of the book, Animals in the Qur’an (Cambridge University Press, 2012).
I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing the professor to talk a little more about animals and their value in Islam.
What was the response to your lecture?
I was very pleasantly surprised. I do propose what seems like a provocative reading of Islamic sources. I try to argue that when you read the Quran or hadith closely, you’ll see that being human is really irrelevant. The Quran does not exclude the non-human creation from this ethical realm.
Ethicality and spirituality are almost the same in the Quranic text because the Quran treats other animals as being spiritual and obedient to god then they seem to be valued quite well. So anyway, this is of course very provocative reading and I usually anticipate a lot of resistance but most people were actually quite receptive to the reading that I proposed because I try to take them through a close analysis to the themes which they typically take as clear evidence of human status in the Quran and once we conducted this close analysis of these themes, I believe that most people, both professors and students, were quite receptive of my ideas. A few professors were more critical and they did actually draw my attention to a number of things that I need to pay closer attention to but even among the faculty, I think everyone was quite receptive.
Have you faced any backlash regarding your thoughts on animals in Islam or generally?
“The Quran speaks in very clear terms that non-human creations worship God. It’s humans that do not understand the way they worship god. And the Quran is also critical of many things humankind does. It does not speak that favourably of humankind although it reminds them of the time of God’s favours towards them but humankind, as the Quran keeps saying, they’re not particularly pious or obedient to god.”
I always anticipate resistance. And the reason I believe that the material in the Quran does lend itself surprisingly well to a reading that values non-human creation. Some people will agree with me on this but still insist that ok, the Quran values non-human creation but still it values humans more. And some people will agree with me that actually it does not value humans more. It’s only those humans who earn that status by doing what other creatures are already doing – by believing in god and worshipping god – which the non-human creation is already doing. Some people will insist, and a few professors here have insisted that there is still something interestingly different among human kind, which sets us apart from the rest of the creations. I guess we’re saying the same thing – myself and them. But we lay more emphasis. I do not contest the fact that we have something very different but who doesn’t have something very different, each animal is different in some way. Yes, we are different in some important ways but these ways do not take us outside the rest of the created realm. I believe that a few professors here as well as elsewhere they do find this idea very palatable. They do not like it. They will agree to maybe 80% to 90% with what I’m saying but they still want to insist that human kind is different in meaningful ways from the rest of creation. You see, this is actually not an easy idea to accept and if I were to share this idea with members of other faiths or communities, I would anticipate more resistance. But I believe I’m quite lucky because the material I’m studying is more favourable to a world that is more inclusive to everyone. The main reason is the Quran speaks in very clear terms that non-human creations worship God. It’s humans that do not understand the way they worship god. And the Quran is also critical of many things humankind does. It does not speak that favourably of humankind although it reminds them of the time of God’s favours towards them but humankind, as the Quran keeps saying, they’re not particularly pious or obedient to god. When I highlight this, a lot of people respond really well to my reading.
With non-Muslims they will not contest this dimension. Many of them accept my reading of the Quran but where they find it traditionally problematic is that in spite of these Quranic themes, the tradition [of Islam] also clearly accepts and perhaps even promotes many uses of animals that animals advocates find highly problematic; for example, the fact that the tradition allows animals to be killed for food or to be used in a number of other ways. So this is the battle I have to fight out of the Islamic context. And my voice belongs to a very tiny minority of animal ethicists who consider the use of other animals is not necessarily a sign of hierarchy or denomination. Of course, most animal ethicists do not agree with this. It takes a lot of effort to build this case and I’m still in the beginning of trying to build that case. It’s a different fight I guess. Many people agree with me that, “yes, Islam seems a lot more friendly to non-human animals than other faiths. But it’s not enough. Islam can promote kindness to animals but if you still kill them then what’s the point of this kindness?” which is a very legitimate question. It’s a very intuitive conclusion to think if you allow a being to be killed for food, it’s not a very friendly position towards them. Nonetheless, we live in a very complex world and things are not as straightforward as they may seem on the surface of the reading.
How do you respond to people who say, “You say Islam is kind to animals but then you have Eid Al Adha where you slaughter sheep?” What would your argument be to help them understand the religion better?
“I cannot, for example, use a cow by drinking some of the milk [and] deprive the calf from all the milk it needs. These are actually precisely the teachings that the tradition [of Islam] has. You may consume animal products but you may never consume any product unless the one that is entitled to it gets its full satisfaction. You can ride horses and camels but you can never overburden them either with work or overload them.”
I’m still in the process of developing this argument. But I’m not the only one in the field who has tackled this question. There are a number of schools of thought in the West that try to build a theory for animal ethics like “what is it?” If you want to build a theory – how are you going to derive a set of rights or protection for animals – how are they going to be developed? Defenses of animal ethics or protection in the West tend to be hierarchal in the sense that the prevalent idea among all world traditions is that the human being is at the centre and the human being is entitled to use the rest of the world like we are the most important therefore it’s fine for us to kill for food or to do this or that.
All schools on animal ethics contest this. They say it’s not just about us. Other creatures also matter. However, when they try to build this case, what they do is they kind of expand that circle. They leave the human being almost in the centre but now they want to include more mammals. To date, there is no animal ethic that seems to include everyone including for example insects or sea animals. Once you start doing that, if you want to include everyone, is you say everyone counts equally – a cow is not more important than a mosquito. For me, for example, the cow is more important than the mosquito because I can relate more to the cow than the mosquito. But that is also anthropocentric. If I want to free the world from my own centralness, I will realise that the mosquito values her life just as the cow values her life. Now if I’m going to build an ethic that gives the same weight to the interests to each and every creature, it becomes impossible to live in a world where you don’t have any killing. We’re not the only creatures in this system that depend on other creatures to survive whether by consuming animal products or by using animals for transportation, work and a number of services. So we are inherently dependent on others. There is no way we can isolate ourselves from the rest of the world. If I were to say, “ok, I will stop using animals altogether because any use is literally abuse.” This is like saying I’m not going to depend on any human being; I’m going to educate myself without going to schools. I’m going to grow my own food and eat it. I will never make use of any other human being because any use of human being is disrespect. But actually making use of others is not necessarily a sign of disrespect. It’s in fact a sign of vulnerability and weakness. We must depend on others. There is no creature that can satisfy its needs without relying on others.
But there is still a lot of difference between use and abuse. I cannot, for example, use a cow by drinking some of the milk [and] deprive the calf from all the milk it needs. These are actually precisely the teachings that the tradition [of Islam] has. You may consume animal products but you may never consume any product unless the one that is entitled to it gets its full satisfaction. You can ride horses and camels but you can never overburden them either with work or overload them.
Why did you use the Islamic story of the people of the cave and the human companion (Surah 18, verses 9-26) as example of the status of humans and Islam in the Quran?
“Showing this kind of kindness is something that the tradition [of Islam] clearly promotes but I don’t see us Muslims paying a lot of attention to this. So I’m hoping to show how scriptural texts speak respectfully and favourably about the dog and this is true in the Quran as well as the hadith. I hope that observing Muslims at least will reconsider their attitudes … We are encouraged to sustain them, give them food.”
Two things. One is that there is this prevalent conviction in the West that Islam is inherently anti-dog. “It’s not just Muslims. It’s the very spiritual teachings, etc – they have this anti-dog bias. For some reason, God or Prophet Muhammad don’t like dogs.” And I don’t think this actually has any real basis in the tradition [of Islam]. The second reason is that I think that Muslims’ interest towards animals in general but specifically dogs has deteriorated over the last century or so in very dramatic ways. Historical evidence shows now that until the 19th or early 20th century, Muslims were unusually friendly to dogs for very good reasons. It was just because of religious teachings but because also dogs used to be very useful.
Dogs used to be the garbage eaters, guards and provided invaluable services to traditional societies. Now things have changed for a number of reasons even like architecturally our cities no longer have spaces for dogs. So the existence of the dog has become redundant or obsolete among our societies. But also because in our desire to become modern and sophisticated, we have developed new aesthetic values like dogs and the bodies of animals in general have become too dirty for us to deal with. I do not deny that in Islam dogs are considered najis [impure] but it’s something that can be removed by washing. It’s nothing major. You wash it and it’s gone. There is a difference between not admitting dogs indoors and showing kindness to them. Some people feel that they should not even feed the dog that comes to their door. And why should that be? There is a hadith that says a woman had all her sins forgiven and admitted to heaven just for quenching the thirst of a dog. Showing this kind of kindness is something that the tradition [of Islam] clearly promotes but I don’t see us Muslims paying a lot of attention to this. So I’m hoping to show how scriptural texts speak respectfully and favourably about the dog and this is true in the Quran as well as the hadith. I hope that observing Muslims at least will reconsider their attitudes. I’m not contesting that the tradition [of Islam] prefers that dogs not be permitted indoors but I would like us to show more kindness and especially give dogs a place to live. The fact that they cannot be permitted indoors does not mean that we exterminate them.
We are encouraged to sustain them, give them food. The endowment institution used to support dogs from charity work. People used to provide amply for dogs. People used to have in their wasiya [wills], dedicate some of their money from their wealth to be spent on stray dogs. Where did this all go? Why did it disappear? So that’s my hope of highlighting these themes.
Why is it when we’re talking about animals in Islam, the focus is set on dogs rather than pigs for example?
“Any development in human civilisation was either triggered or at least facilitated by dogs. During the hunter-gathering period of human development, humans were the hunter and dogs helped them. When humans settled and agricultural economy started to develop that was also done thanks to the dog because the dog was the one that protected the livestock and the home. Throughout our history, the dog was always the first partner that humans had among the natural world.”
It seems that actually throughout world traditions [religions], dogs are the most discussed in every tradition. Some modern researches say that the dog is the closest animal to the human being. In any case, archaeological research has demonstrated that dogs were the first animals that became associated with humans and the first animal that was domesticated but even domestication does not mean we took the dog and tamed it rather in fact, they say that probably the dog chose to be attached to human beings. It found a good source of sustenance around humans like when they ate the garbage. And then humans discovered that dogs were very useful to them because they allowed them to sleep better, for example. I’m talking the very first humans in the secular kind of tradition. Since then, dogs have always been present. Any development in human civilisation was either triggered or at least facilitated by dogs. During the hunter-gathering period of human development, humans were the hunter and dogs helped them. When humans settled and agricultural economy started to develop that was also done thanks to the dog because the dog was the one that protected the livestock and the home. Throughout our history, the dog was always the first partner that humans had among the natural world.
Why not pigs? Because pigs are less omnipresent in humans lives but the thing is but dogs can live as stray dogs. Pigs are either domesticated and become like sheep – they depend more on human’s protection; or they are wild animals that are totally independent which in this case, they will evade and avoid humans whereas dogs have always chosen this liminal space. They want to be close to humans without being entirely with humans. Dogs don’t like to live totally in the wild. They want to live close to humans and they always belong in this liminal space so I guess this makes us a lot more aware of them and maybe they are more aware of us then they are of other creatures.
Why is there still a debate on whether or not dogs are impure? What are some of the main debates on dogs?
It’s an important point and I think it should be continually discussed. Dogs can be pure. If you control their diet, wash them, restrict them to certain space and train them to eat only a certain type of food, they can become totally pure.
For them to become like this, we need to exert a lot of control over their life. We need to monitor their habits. If they are left on their own or resources, dogs are indiscriminate eaters, they eat anything. Now this is good for them and it’s also good for us. For them, it’s a source of sustenance and for us it rids us of a lot of organic material. In more traditional societies, if a large animal dies say a horse or donkey or something, they’ll just give it to the dogs and they will rid the neighbourhood of that carcass which otherwise can be a source of contamination. But the thing is they are indiscriminate eaters so they can be a source of impurity.
We tend to exaggerate that meaning of this impurity. Our own bodies are a source of impurity. What do we do with that? We wash it away! It’s not a big deal. It’s not like a taboo. We use the bathroom many times a day. What do we do? We wash! When it comes to the time for prayer, we wash our selves and that’s the limit of what is needed. I don’t think it’s denigrating for dogs to think of them as impure creatures in the sense that if you think of physical impurity, it’s not spiritual impurity. The dogs used to roam freely in the mosque of the Prophet so if it were a spiritual impurity, how could they be admitted to the mosque, the second holiest place on earth? There was no problem. There was no objection. But of course the mosque of the prophet at the time was not the mosque that we have nowadays. Basically the soil consisted of dirt and although it had a roof, it was a very rudimentary roof so it was exposed to water, wind and different elements. So the question of purity was not there when they entered. I do believe that dogs that are not trained in a certain way can be impure. This impurity is not a big issue unless we want to make a big issue out of it. If there is a need for us to touch the dog, it’s not a big issue. We can just wash ourselves afterwards. But at the same time, I know that we can make dogs pure. We need to know to what extent do we do this – for their sake or for own sake. That is something we need to take into consideration. Dogs that are kept as pets of course can become very clean. I mean there is always a limit to any body. All bodies can be impure at the end of the day even the human body. But you can keep them clean to a certain extent. However, this can take place only when we exert a lot of control over their lifestyle and bodies.
According to Islam, what should the relationship be between humans and animals?
“So the only way we interact with them is when we see a piece of meat on our tables or a certain animal product in our refrigerator. So they have become commodities to us. We need to think of them and renew that awareness that they are more than that. They are partners in a life journey, and kin and helpers.”
The dimension we are aware of the most as Muslims and other people as well is that scriptural sources allow us to use other animals. This is only a tiny part of the overall relationship. For me, the most important dimension is how the Quran and the hadith speak so favourably about animals especially in spiritual terms. They emphasise again and again very frequently that they worship god, they do the tasbih. That they are Muslim and they are invited to become Muslim. What’s the entire point of the Quran? It’s to invite humankind to embrace Islam – something that the rest of creation is already doing. For me, this is the most important thing. They are role models, partners in this earthly journey. We’re all subject to the same subdues in life.
All creatures are vulnerable. All creatures are going to need to eat something and take the life of another creature to be able live. So we’re all in the same boat together. This kinship is something I see very present in scripture sources but we’re not really aware of it. I think this is something we need to bring a lot more to our awareness. When you look at the early history of Islam, non-human animals really partnered in a concrete manner in building the early Islamic community. The camel of the Prophet chose the site of the mosque. The camel of the Prophet was an active player in Treaty of Hudaybiyyah when she did not want to move forward and the companions of the Prophet believed she was being obstinate. And the prophet said this is not her moral character, it’s God who is guiding her. A termite ate the document that was between Quraysh and the Prophet’s community at the time, only leaving a tiny bit of it, helping the Muslims. There is a weak hadith that says that the prophet during his immigration from Mekkah to Madina, he hid in a cave and a dove and spider helped hide him.
This is not that the hadith is probably not authentic but you see what the early Muslim imaginary really thought of animals as partners and helpers. Then there was the elephant that protected the Ka’aba [reference Surat Al-Fil]. When you think of all of this, animals were really active agents. They’re all helping not just Muslims in a cultural sense but helping truth and community. They are partners and kin. Not just Muslims but other communities as well used to think this way of animals just because they used interact with them on a daily basis. Nowadays we live in metropolitan cities like this [Doha] so there is no place for animals. So the only way we interact with them is when we see a piece of meat on our tables or a certain animal product in our refrigerator. So they have become commodities to us. We need to think of them and renew that awareness that they are more than that. They are partners in a life journey, and kin and helpers.
“I hope this can resonate with more Muslims. What I’m speaking about in fact is nothing new. It’s something that is really there in old resources however we have lost sight in the last decades or century or so just because of the way life has changed and because of modern life so we need to remember what we’re seeing today is not the limit of what has always been there. I would like people to go and read a little bit more about this. They will be fascinated about what they see in older text about the relations between Muslims and other animals.”