Communities Like You: Animals and Islam
Nearly two hundred Harvard students, faculty, and community members gathered on April 5th and 6th for the 2013 Alwaleed Islamic Studies conference, entitled “Communities Like You: Animals and Islam.” Prof. Ali Asani, who delivered the conference’s opening remarks, writes:
Animals have played significant roles within the theological, artistic, legal, ethical, and literary traditions of Muslim communities. In the Qur’an, animals—unlike people—submit naturally to God: “each one knows its own prayer and praise” (24:41) and they, together with nature, constitute natural signs (ayāt) through which humans might come to know God. “The beasts of all kinds that He scatters throughout the earth … are signs for a people who are wise” (2:164), and even the smallest gnat is a parable through which God communicates with humankind (2:26).
HRH Princess Alia Al Hussein of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and founder of the Princess Alia Foundation gave the keynote lecture, underscoring the deep respect that Islam has for the natural world and reflecting on the foundation’s efforts to raise awareness and improve the welfare of animals and humans alike in the Middle East region. By showing images of a project connecting autistic children and horses in Jordan, she underscored humankind’s deep, mutual bonds with non-human animals.
The first panel, chaired by Prof. Asani, brought together art historians for a look at how animals have been a part of the Islamic arts, literature, and philosophy since the earliest days of the faith. Lenn Goodman, Professor of Philosophy and Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Vanderbilt University, delved into the Rasa’il of the Ikhwan al‐Safa’, a 10th century text written by the “Brethren of Purity” in Basra, Iraq. This Islamic text, strongly influenced by Ibn Arabi and Neo-Platonic ideas, is the first that gives voice to animals, who gather before the king of the Djinn with the hopes that he will side with them in their complaints against humans, who even then were inclined to mistreat them. Alexander Brey, a PhD student at Bryn Mawr College, traced the imagery of animals and particularly of a dancing bear in paintings on the walls of Qusayr ‘Amra, an archaeological site in Jordan with origins in the Umayyad Dynasty. Harvard Professor of History Roy Mottahedeh explored the use of cats in Islamic art, noting that the Prophet Muhammad so loved his cat that he suggested that the love of cats is part of Islam. Persis Berlekamp, an art historian at the University of Chicago, introduced fantastic images of imaginary beasts that were cataloged in Zakariya al-Qazwini’s 13th century text ʿAjā’ib al-makhlūqāt wa gharā’ib al-mawjūdāt , or Marvels of Creatures and Strange Things Existing.
In the afternoon, panelists looked at the role of animals in Islamic sciences and society. Ahmed Ragab, Assistant Professor of Science and Religion at the Harvard Divinity School, traced how animals manifested in early Islamic sciences, noting that some of the most interesting and yet unknown texts on animals are manuals of care, reflecting their caretakers’ experiential observations of working closely with non-human animals. Susan Kahn, Associate Director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies and who is currently writing a book on dogs in the Middle East, traced the history of the saluki, an ancient breed popular and much beloved in Bedouin culture. She challenged preconceived notions of Muslims’ relations with dogs, offering images and stories of proud owners who cherished and continue to cherish their canine companions. Alan Mikhail, a historian at Yale University, discussed ways in which animal energy literally powered the Ottoman Egyptian state, pointing out that the collapse of work animal populations due to disease was one factor leading to greater urbanization and land reorganization in the late 19th century, paving the way for the modern state. UC Santa Cruz environmental historian then reminded audience members that the animal kingdom includes all creatures great and small, zooming in on the life cycle of the water-borne schistosoma parasite, which wreaks havoc in Egypt among those working close to the land.
The third panel focused on animals in Islamic religious texts and in Islamic law. Harvard Arabic lecturer Dalia Abo-Haggar examined Qur’anic passages telling the story of the Prophet Solomon and the ant, noting stylistic techniques whereby the text emphasizes self-reflection among both humans and animals. Sarra Tlili, author of Animals in the Qur’an (2013) and an Arabic instructor at the University of Florida explained how the Shafi’i school of Islamic jurisprudence may be, on account of its methodology, more legally sympathetic to animals than other schools. Harvard PhD candidate Nuri Friedlander, also a co-founder of a project on Islamic law and animal welfare entitled Beyond Halal, looked at human-animal relationships in Islamic law particularly around animal slaughter, arguing that it must be seen as a ritual act in order to completely understand the act of slaughter. Abdullah Nana, a mufti and founder of the halal certification organization Halal Advocates, described his own efforts at transforming industrial slaughter from within the system by encouraging businesses to adopt hand-slaughter methods. The panel generated lively debate regarding animal welfare, meat consumption, and ways in which Islamic ethics could shape contemporary practices around the treatment of animals.
The final panel, chaired by Harvard Divinity School Prof. Kimberley Patton on Sunday afternoon brought together speakers who reflected on ways in which Islamic law, ethics, and philosophy practically manifest as activism. Kristen Stilt, a Professor of Law at Northwestern University and an animal-rights advocate, traced the history of the Egyptian Society for Mercy for Animals, a growing animal welfare organization in Cairo, highlighting ways that references to Islamic law and hadith are used by activists to argue for religiously-grounded improvements in Egyptian animal welfare. Nadeem Haque, an independent researcher on Islam and the environment and grandson of the late animal welfare activist Al-Hafiz B.A. Masri, discussed deep underlying ecosystemic principles in the Islamic faith. Canisius College Professor and a scholar working at the intersection of animal studies, law, ethics, religion, and cultural studies remarked on the panelists’ presentations, emphasizing that religious traditions broadly and Islam specifically have much to offer to the wider conversations on animal welfare and animal studies going on in society and in academia. Harvard Professor of Philosophy Christine Korsgaard related the speakers’ thoughts to Kantian philosophy. Lastly, Princess Alia Al Hussein detailed specific ways that the Princess Alia Foundation is improving the conditions of animals in the Middle East and discussed ways that they have addressed resistance.