Islamic Sufism Spirituality

Cats in Islamic Culture

Posted on: June 10, 2008

“Cats have been worshipped as gods or persecuted as evil” throughout the history of mankind without any measure of understating. “Especially in medieval Europe, cats and women were believed to be in league with Satan; as a result, they were burned, tortured and killed in many unimaginable ways, because people believed that in doing so, they could stop the evil and the diseases. For example during the “Black Death” plague, many cats were killed in large numbers, but in fact, this only made things worse.”

On the other hand, there was another picture from a forgotten time in which cats were respected, loved and treated with understanding. From a nick name “Abu Hruyrah” (father of cats) to a small “Cat figure on an Ottoman Ring Holder”, there are numerous references to cats throughout Muslim civilisation, but these are mostly lost or hidden. In this article we cite some examples of how cats were treated and regarded by Islam and reveal the source of this treatment.

At the beginning of her introduction to Lorraine Chittock’s book Cats of Cairo, Annemarie Schimmel wrote: “When the British orientalist E. W. Lane lived in Cairo in the 1830’s, he was quite amazed to see, every afternoon, a great number of cats gathering in the garden of the High Court, where people would bring baskets full of food for them. He was told that in this way, the qadi (judge) fulfilled obligations dating back to the 13th-century rule of the Mamluk sultan al-Zahir Baybars. That cat-loving monarch had endowed a “cats’ garden” where the cats of Cairo would find everything they needed and liked. In the course of time, the place had been sold and resold, changed and rebuilt; yet the law required that the sultan’s endowment should be honoured, and who better than the qadi to carry out the king’s will and take care of the cats?

The tradition continues. To this very day, every visitor to the Islamic world is aware of the innumerable cats in the streets of Cairo —and of Istanbul, Kairouan, Damascus and many other cities. (…) We often find cats in the mosque, and they are gladly welcomed there not only because they keep the mice at bay.”

Cats were very common among the Muslims: “It seems that from early days the Arabs kept cats as pets. Otherwise we could not understand why (according to one early historian) the Prophet’s young widow, A’isha, when complaining that everyone had deserted her, added: ‘Even the cat has left me alone’.” In contrast to other civilisations, “they were companions of most of the Muslims… from a housewife to a great scholar, they were loved, not only for their beauty or elegance but also for their practical purposes. For example, Muslim scholars wrote odes for their cats because they protected their precious books from attack by animals such as mice.”

They were respected as members of the family and protectors of the houses against deadly insects and harmful animals such as scorpions. More importantly, they were not just companions or pets, they were also examples to Muslims, people who submit themselves to One God, such as in the story of Ibn Babshad:

“The grammarian Ibn Babshad was sitting with his friends on the roof of a mosque in Cairo, eating some food. When a cat passed by they gave her some morsels; she took them and ran away, only to come back time and time again. The scholars followed her and saw her running to an adjacent house on whose roof a blind cat was sitting. The cat carefully placed the morsels in front of her. Bashbad was so moved by God’s caring for the blind creature that he gave up all his belongings and lived in poverty, completely trusting in God until he died in 1067 (oral tradition recorded in the late 14th century by the Egyptian theologian and zoologist Damiri (d. 1405)” (Lorraine Chittock, Cats of Cairo, p. 40).

And thousands of Sufi (mystical) stories include cats; lovely stories such as sheikh (mentor) Ashraf’s Madrasa (school) cat, which helped the teachers to bring order to the school, even sacrificed itself for the sake of the dervishes (the disciples or students of that time), or the tale of the Iraqi Sufi Shibli from the 10th century about his dream in which his sins were being forgiven for saving a kitten’s life.

These tales contain important lessons and messages. Sufis were not just clerics; they were also teachers, mathematicians, doctors, consultants, scientists and more, who studied most of the sciences available to them at their time. They talked about astronomy or molecules in their stories, to the point which, for example “purring is often compared to the dhikr, the rhythmic chanting of the Sufis”, which is used in many early Islamic hospitals as a healing process. Modern science recently discovered the healing powers of the cats’ purr: “…optimal frequency for bone stimulation is 50 hertz. The dominant and fundamental frequency for three species of cats’ purr is exactly 25 to 50 hertz: the best frequencies for bone growth and fracture healing. The cat’s purr falls well within the 20-50 hertz anabolic range, and extends up to 140 hertz.”

In the Islamic world, the cat was respected and protected because cats were loved by the Prophet Mohammed. From a very simple piece of advice to his actions, there are numerous reports concerning the Prophet Mohammed and cats, resulting in their subsequent acceptance among Muslims.

Prophet Mohammed advised the people to treat their cats (pets) as a member of their family, and by this he meant to take a good care of them. Not only by words, but also with his actions he was a very good role model. For example: “the stories of Muezza, the Prophet Muhammad’s favourite cat: The most famous story about Muezza recounts how the call to prayer was given, and as Prophet Mohammed went to put on one of his robes, he found his cat sleeping on one of the sleeves. Rather than disturbing the cat, he cut off the sleeve and let him sleep. When he returned, Muezza awoke and bowed down to Prophet Muhammad and in return he stroked him three times. It is also believed that when Prophet Muhammad gave sermons within his household he would often hold Muezza in his lap”.

Both his followers and the “Prophet enjoyed the presence of cats”. For example in the early 7th century lived Abu Hurayrah, famous as a companion of the Prophet and a major narrator of his sayings. He was given his nickname Abu Hruyrah (literally father of cats) by the Prophet because he used to care for a small male cat. (“Cat” word comes from the Arabic word qit but a tiny male cat is called hurayrah). There is also a legend about this in which a cat saved the Prophet’s life from a deadly snake. The story is narrated by Annemarie Schimmel as follows:

“There are variants of the story of how Abu Huraryra’s cat, which he always carried in his bag, saved the Prophet from an obnoxious snake, whereupon the Prophet petted her so that the mark of his fingers is still visible in the four dark lines on most cats’ foreheads, and, because the Prophet’s hand had stroked her back, cats never fall on their backs” (A. Schimmel, Deciphering the Signs of God, Albany, NY, 1994).

“The cat is such a clean animal that according to authentic narrations one may make ablution for Prayer with the same water that a cat drank from. Yet, it is known that some people nowadays have opposed the traditions of the Prophet by taking up the evil practices of torturing and poisoning cats. In Islam, the punishment for such actions is severe. Islam holds a special place for cats as lovable and cherished creatures, and mistreating a cat is seen as a serious sin. Al-Bukhari reported a hadith regarding a woman who locked up a cat, refusing to feed it and not releasing it so that it could feed itself. The Prophet Muhammad said that her punishment on the Day of Judgment will be torture and Hell.”

There are many records of the Prophet’s love for cats and his relationship with them. “The prophet’s fondness for cats is often referred to, and whether or not the hadith that ‘Love of cats is part of the faith’ is genuine, it reflects the general feeling for the little feline.” There are also many testimonials regarding many other animals in Islam such as horses, camels, bees, ants and even flies.

Fundamentally the life of the Prophet Mohammed is the understanding of the Quran itself. There are some verses associated with animals and references regarding the responsibility of the human domain in the world and its contents which include balance, justice, mercy and much more moral content. To show mercy to animals is the part of the faith of Islam. Prophet Mohammed taught mercy to all of God’s creation. The Quran was the way of his life. We should consider the message and the sprit of Quran which reflects on all messengers of Allah to mankind. The mercy and fear of Allah is reflected in their characters therefore above all the reader should consider what is mentioned in Quran wholly because Islam does not only mean – as described in a dictionary – a religion “based on the words and religious system founded by the prophet Muhammad and taught by the Koran, the basic principle of which is absolute submission to a unique and personal god, Allah.” It also means “straight/right/true path (to God)” which covers the history of the world and beyond.

Thus, this essay can only give some references regarding cats at a certain time line in living Islamic History. This period starts from the life of the “messenger” of Allah, the prophet Mohammed, to people who followed him thereafter.


1 Response to "Cats in Islamic Culture"

A beautifully written and informative article.

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