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Animals in the Qur'an - An Interview with Sarra Tlili

We tend to think of the Qur'an from an exclusively human perspective, but what can it tell us about  God's relationship with the nonhuman world? Dr. Sarra Tlili, a scholar of Arab and Islamic Studies, and currently an Assistant Professor of Arabic Language and Literature at the University of Florida, explores this question in her recent book, Animals in the Qur'an (Cambridge University Press, 2012). Dr. Tlili challenges our commonly held notions about the place of humans in the hierarchy of creation, even going so far as to argue 'species consideration' is 'irrelevant' in the sight of God. As surprising as this may be to some Muslims, Dr. Tlili's conclusions are not meant to shock. If anything, they serve as a keen and fresh reminder that many of the distinctions we hold dear as humans are meaningless to God, for Whom the only true difference is piety (taqwa): 

''Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you.'' (Surat Al-Hujurat 49:13)

Read an excerpt from Animals in the Qur'an here.


How did you become interested in the subject of your book, Animals in the Qur’an?

In one of my graduate courses I came across a medieval Islamic text stating that the order of admitting patients to hospitals should start with Muslims, followed by animals, then Jews and Christians, and finally people of other faiths. To me this seemed like an attempt to humiliate non-Muslims, but our professor at the time suggested that this could be a statement about the status of animals rather than that of non-Muslims. This observation intrigued me, so I decided to pursue the question a bit further, which led me to discover a wealth of fascinating material on animals in Islam. I also became aware of the dearth of academic research on this subject, so I decided to fill part of this scholarly gap. The Qur'an was, of course, the obvious starting point.

The Qur'an, probably uniquely among world scriptures, says "There is no animal that crawls on the earth, no bird that flies with its two wings, but are communities like you." This shows that the Qur'an emphasizes commonality rather than difference, and indeed the commonalities by far outweigh the differences.

How does the Qur’an define the term ‘animal’?

The Qur'anic word for animal is "dābba", which literally means "crawling" or "moving being," i.e., any creature that produces intentional movement. Close study shows that, besides nonhuman animals, the Qur'an applies this word also to human and spiritual beings. Therefore, angels, jinn, and other "moving" beings unknown to us are all "dawābb" (animals). This is indeed how medieval dictionaries define the words "dābba" and "ḥayawān", the two Arabic words for animal. They consistently emphasize that any creature that produces intentional movement, whether discriminating or non-discriminating (ʿāqil or ghayr ʿāqil), is an animal. 

According to the Qur’an and its commentators, what are the major points of commonality and difference between human beings and other species?

The Qur'an, probably uniquely among world scriptures, says "There is no animal that crawls on the earth, no bird that flies with its two wings, but are communities like you." This shows that the Qur'an emphasizes commonality rather than difference, and indeed the commonalities by far outweigh the differences.

For example, human and nonhuman beings stand equally under God's full control. In the same way that God provides for humans He provides for nonhumans. No creature, human or nonhuman, escapes God's knowledge. These are well-known themes and are typically interpreted as signs of God's majesty, omnipotence, and mercy, which, of course, is the most important conclusion. Besides, however, these themes tell us also that all creation matters to God. An ant is important enough to God for Him to record all her deeds, to provide for her, and to keep her accountable for what she does, exactly like the human being.

A number of themes suggest also that from a Qur'anic standpoint nonhuman animals are rational and have complex communicative systems, even if such systems are generally inaccessible to humans. In sūra 27 (al-Naml), for example, Prophet Solomon, peace be upon him, says that God has taught him the language of the birds. He also understands words uttered by an ant. In the same sūra, a bird -the hoopoe- is suspected of having lied, which indicates that this bird is capable of lying. This, again, suggests that this animal has rational faculties and that he can make moral choices. Two verses in the Qur'an speak about the "ḥashr" (gathering) of nonhuman animals, which most interpreters take to mean that nonhuman animals will be resurrected and brought together on the Day of Judgment (yamw al-ḥashr), and that they will be rewarded or punished for their earthly deeds. This indicates that nonhuman animals are accountable to God, even if, as al-Qurṭubī explains, they are not required to follow the rules that are prescribed for human beings.

From all this, it is possible to suggest that from a Qur'anic standpoint nonhuman animals may have in common with humans consciousness, rationality, language, spirituality, morality, and accountability, but this does not mean that they possess these faculties in the same exact way as humans. For example, if indeed they are accountable, their accountability does not mean that they have to fast during the month of Ramadan the way Muslims are required to do, but rather that they are charged with certain matters that are unknown to us.

Your book challenges the view that the Qur’an inherently privileges human beings over other species. What is a more correct understanding of the Qur’anic relationship between humans and the animal kingdom?

The Qur'an asserts that nonhuman animals submit themselves to God and speaks favorably of them. On the other hand, it highlights the failure of most humans to do the same. The Qur’an also presents faith in and submission to God as the most important criteria in matters of meaningful status. What I mean by "meaningful status" is the one that God values. There are other types of status that are important to humans but not to God. For example, wealth can generate social status, but it is meaningless to God, unless, of course, it is used in ways pleasing to Him. Similarly, humans generally value rational faculties, but these faculties can benefit humans only if they are put to good use, by bringing them closer to God.

What I mean by "meaningful status" is the one that God values. There are other types of status that are important to humans but not to God. For example, wealth can generate social status, but it is meaningless to God, unless, of course, it is used in ways pleasing to Him. Similarly, humans generally value rational faculties, but these faculties can benefit humans only if they are put to good use, by bringing them closer to God.

The fact that the Qur'an unambiguously ascribes spirituality to the nonhuman world and adopts this criterion as the most meaningful foundation for real status, to my mind, indicates that species consideration are irrelevant to God.

How is this supposed to shape our relations with other animals? I believe this encourages Muslims to think about and treat nonhuman beings as fellow believers. This is how the Prophet dealt with nonhuman animals. He often presented them as his allies, creatures that believe in his prophecy and the message he relayed. He also came to the rescue of animals that were maltreated by human beings, and never tired of encouraging Muslims to treat other animals kindly.

What is the most surprising thing you learned while researching and writing Animals in the Qur’an?

The simple and plain realization that status in the Qur'an is contingent on faith in and obedience to God rather than reason or other species-related elements. In a way we all know this, yet we still manage to think that humans are somehow God's favorites for no other reason than being human. There are, of course, certain Qur'anic themes which, from a surface reading, seem to corroborate this assumption, such as the themes of "taskhīr" (supposedly the subjugation of everything to humankind) and "tafḍīl" (supposedly God's preferment of humankind). Close analysis of these themes, however, shows that they hardly convey the meanings that are traditionally attached to them.

 I was also surprised to discover that the word "insān" (human being) in the Qur'an evokes mostly negative connotations. The insān is kafūr (most ungrateful), ẓalūm (most unjust), jazūʿ, (most fretful), and so forth. This generally contrasts with the word "ʿabd" (pl. ʿibād, slave, subject of God), which evokes more favorable connotations. To me, this suggests that in a neutral state the human being is governed by negative psychological drives, and that s/he begins to transcend these drives only when s/he becomes connected to God, as His slave and worshipper.

Has there ever been a particular school, order or movement within Islam that has given particular attention to the treatment of animals?

Yes, the Shāfiʿī school of law! Although, consistent with the Qur'an and Ḥadīth, Shāfiʿīs allow the killing of nonhuman animals for food, they are keen not to expand this sanction beyond scriptural authorization. Therefore, if, for example, a sheep swallows a precious stone, they disallow or discourage the killing of this animal for the sake of recuperating the stone, even though they know the flesh will be consumed. For them the life of the animal is too sacred to be sacrificed for mere financial gains. In this respect, they differ mostly from Ḥanafīs, who consider any benefit that humans may derive from other animals a legitimate justification to kill them. For Ḥanafīs, for example, it is permissible to kill beasts of prey for their furs and hides and elephants for their tusks, something the Shāfiʿīs tend to disallow.

A number of Sufis are also reported to have been uniquely close to certain animal species, but in the overall Sufism is ambivalent on this question. For example, many Sufis refer to the "lower" self of the human being as the "animal" self, which suggests that these Sufis hold derogative views of nonhuman animals.

I believe you’re currently working on a book about animals and Hadith. Could you tell us how the Prophet Muhammad enriches the Quranic understanding of animals?

The Ḥadīth generally elaborates on Qur’anic themes and addresses the question of animal welfare. For example, the Qur’an establishes the permissibility of killing animals for food and using camels and equines for transportation. The Hadith reaffirms this permissibility, explains how to perform these acts, and spells out the limitations imposed on these prerogatives. For example, the Prophet tells Muslims that before slaughtering an animal they must sharpen the blade, that they are to do so before coming into the sight of the animal to be killed, that pack animals should neither be overloaded nor overworked, that all animals are to be treated with kindness, and that we need to respect their dignity, for example by never hitting them on the face and never cursing them.

One Aya of the Surat Al-Haj (22:18) describes animals as prostrating to Allah. How does an animal pray – and how might this change the way I next look at, say, a cat in the streets of Istanbul?

Nonhuman beings' prostration to God received different interpretations. Some maintain that it merely means general obedience to God, others propose that it consists of the falling of a being's shadow on the ground, while a third group subscribes to a literal interpretation, maintaining that nonhuman beings, especially nonhuman animals, fall down in prostration before God in the way humans do, or at least in a somewhat similar way.

Finally, it tells us that there is something for us to learn from the cat. If we tend to believe that our supposedly superior rational faculties elevate our status above the status of this creature, we may need to reconsider that. The Qur'an does not value our intelligence as much as it values our obedience to God.

Obviously, these are merely attempts to make sense of a phenomenon that lays outside the human experience. We don't know how exactly nonhuman animals prostrate themselves to God, but the Qur'an affirms that they do. What does this tell us about the cat in the streets of Istanbul? First, it reminds us that there are aspects of this cat's behavior that we cannot grasp, something that should remind us of our limitations rather than lead us to the assumption that the cat is dumb. Second, it tells us that the cat has a direct relationship with God and that God values this relationship enough to mention it in His Book. The cat may in fact be closer and more valuable to God than us due to her prostration to and remembrance of God. The Prophet once reprimanded a group of people who were using the backs of their riding animals as mere seats (i.e., they were not using them to go from one place to another, but rather sitting on them in the middle of the street), pointing out that an animal may be better than the person who rides it because it may remember God more frequently. Note that in this instance the Prophet was talking to Muslims, yet he did not exclude the possibility that the animal may, in a way, be more Muslim. Third, it tells us that the cat's remembrance of and prostration to God entitles her to good treatment, as one concludes from this and other ḥadīths. Finally, it tells us that there is something for us to learn from the cat. If we tend to believe that our supposedly superior rational faculties elevate our status above the status of this creature, we may need to reconsider that. The Qur'an does not value our intelligence as much as it values our obedience to God.

Can you tell us about this word khalifa – what does its evolving definition tell us about developments in the Muslim attitude towards the natural world?

Several studies have traced the changes in the meaning of the word khalifa over time. Etymologically, this word means “successor”, “follower”, and “substitute”. As you know well, after the death of the Prophet, the person who followed him as the head of the Muslim umma was called “khalifa”, i.e. successor (of the Prophet). When the Umayyads took over, however, they, or rather the poets who eulogized them, started using the phrase “the khalifa (of) Allah”, probably intending it in the sense of the “khalifa” appointed or chosen by God. This phrase, however, could more readily imply “the successor of Allah,” which is of course totally blasphemous, since God in Islam never dies and no one can replace Him. Because of this, the connotation of God's "representative" or "viceroy" emerged as a softer version. This new meaning suited political authorities and seemed less blasphemous. Note however that during this time the word “khalifa” was used in a human context. Generally, it referred to Prophets, who were thought to be righteous enough to act as God's representatives among His human creation, and sometimes to caliphs, who, in the view of some, were charged with the enactment of God's law.

In the nineteenth/twentieth century, for a complex set of reasons, the scope of the word widened to encompass all humans or at least all Muslims, who now became God’s viceroys among the nonhuman creation.

Although the notion of "God's viceroy" may seem softer than the notion of "God's successor," in reality it creates more problems than it solves. God in Islam is omnipotent and omnipresent, so why would He need someone to represent Him, whether among human or nonhuman creatures? Moreover, a viceroy is someone who stands below his master but above the subjects. He is akin to a mini-god. This is associationism (shirk), the worst sin in Islam. Third, even if were to grant that God wants to have a representative, how could He choose a creature as controversial as the human being? Doesn't God characterize the human being in the Qur'an as ẓalūm (most unjust)? How could He choose such a creature to represent Him, when He describes Himself as the most just? Fourth, the notion of stewardship is founded on an ideal conception of the human being that has nothing to do with the lived reality of humans or the Qur'anic depiction thereof. Finally, one should also wonder, what is the exact content of the stewardship function? How exactly are we to represent God? Are we to decide which animals are entitled to live and which should die? Do we have any obligations toward wild animals? How did creation manage before we were created?

Is the change in attitude towards animals over the last century representative of a more fundamental shift within Islam – and how might dialogue about the Islamic position towards animals help Muslims re-evaluate this shift?

I believe so. Muslims nowadays have become less kind to nonhuman creatures. We seem to be offended neither by the maltreatment of animals in factory farms, nor by the sight of overloaded donkeys in our streets, nor the mass killing of insects in our households. What I find even more alarming is that the very religious discourse has become more anthropocentric, prioritizing the interests of human beings far more than the classical religious discourse used to do.

I believe, however, that mere exposure to and engagement with the classical animal legacy will lead at least observing Muslims to rethink these attitudes.

What, if anything, can an Islamic awareness add to secular animal activism movements?

The classical tradition tried to walk the fine line between the accommodation of the needs of both human and nonhuman animals. It acknowledged that humans needed many products and services from other animals, but also that other animals had interests that mattered. The tradition tried painstakingly to strike a balance in attending to all these needs. For example, it allowed humans to use pack animals for transportation, but disallowed overloading, overworking, or loading these animals for trivial reasons. It was permissible for humans to consume milk, but only after the small animal reacheed its fill of it. This approach is more realistic than what we sometime find in the animal-rights literature, and because of this it is more viable. As such, I believe it has much to offer to the current debate on animal rights.

The tradition tried painstakingly to strike a balance in attending to all these needs. For example, it allowed humans to use pack animals for transportation, but disallowed overloading, overworking, or loading these animals for trivial reasons. It was permissible for humans to consume milk, but only after the small animal reacheed its fill of it. This approach is more realistic than what we sometime find in the animal-rights literature, and because of this it is more viable.

Modernity is often associated with the widening gulf between the human and nonhuman world. At the same time, the culture of pet ownership seems a distinctly modern feature. How does the role of pets feature into the modern mindset?

Pet-keeping is not a new phenomenon, but it has become prevalent in our time due to the new psychological needs that emerged from our modern lifestyle (nuclear family, stress, etc.) and capitalism (the way it manipulates feelings of affection toward pets to create and entire market for pet products).

The pet-keeping institution is a mixed blessing for animals. Pets are showered by human affection: They are often treated as family members and enjoy medical care and abundance of food. Upon scrutiny, however, you begin to feel that they are treated as toys rather than as creatures that have their own interests. Most pets are spayed and neutered and are deprived of the companionship of members of their own species. This means that their sexual and emotional needs are suppressed or ignored. Dogs often have to go through painful training to give up innate habits that do not fit within human society. Their tails are often docked, cats are often declawed. In exchange for the comfortable lifestyle, pets pay a price that involves their physical and psychological makeup.

Moreover, the modern system condemns the not-so-lucky members of these two species to death. Dogs and cats that are not fortunate enough to belong to a family have nowhere to go, especially in urban and semi-urban milieus, with the possible exception of biomedical labs.

Do you mind telling us about some of your future projects—and can you suggest any research topics for students and scholars interested in your field?

The field of animal ethics in Islam is sorely understudied. We need researchers to engage with classical sources in search for answers to emerging questions, such as the use of animals in entertainment (zoos and circuses, for example), biomedical research, and the like. In my readings I often encounter statements to the effect that many animals used to benefit from charitable donations, particularly throught the institution of waqf (endowment). I hope someone can study the contribution of waqf to animal welfare in pre-modern Islam.

From my readings I have also developed the impression that before contact with modernity, Islamic tradition grew more animal-friendly over time. Hunting poetry, for example, came to a halt at some historical point. The protections accorded to nonhuman animals seem to have increased. Why is that? A study of the diachronic progression in attitudes toward animals can shed light on important dimensions of Islamic civilization.

Our knowledge of Muslims' attitudes toward animals in modern times is mostly based on personal impressions. Anthropologists have a rich field of investigation in this respect.

As far as my own research goes, I'm currently working on two projects, one on animals in Ḥadīth and Islamic jurisprudence, the other on dogs in Islam. 

 

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