Published at OnIslam.net
During World War I, Hugh Lofting authored a series of books that featured as their main character Doctor John Dolittle, a man who had the uncanny ability to speak with animals. Perhaps this series of fiction takes form through human creativity, or perhaps it is derived from a historical fact in which Muslims believe that Prophets David and Solomon were blessed with the ability to speak with animals.
Whatever the case, Allah, the Almighty, says in the Qur’an, (There is not an animal on earth nor a bird that flies with its wings but they are communities like you) (Al-An`am 6:38).
Historically, Muslims understood the wider message contained in the Qur’an and Hadith with regards to respecting the rights of animals — from the way in which they are fed to the ways in which they are managed, from animals in the wild to animals being taken care of, and from animals for consumption to animals for hunting or as pets.
The story of Abu `Umair whose pet bird died and Prophet Muhammad consoled him is one of many examples showing the fond nature of love, honor, and respect between man and animals. This relationship was not limited to personal interaction. When the French lawyer Guer traveled through the Muslim Ottoman Empire in the 17th century, he found a hospital in Damascus where sick cats and dogs were treated. Professor Sibaj wrote, “The Green Mar`a (the area now covered by Damascus sports stadium) was a place that had once been made over to the grazing of helpless animals, which were no longer fed by their owners since they had lost the power to work. Such animals grazed here till their deaths.”
Elsewhere, the famous French writer Montaigne wrote, “The Muslim Turks founded hospitals and charitable foundations for even animals.” Throughout the ages, Muslim scholars have written on the subject of animals — from Al-Jahiz’s famous text Kitab Al-Hayawan (i.e., the Book on Animals) and works of Ibn Qutaybah, whose text Uyum Al-Akhbar (i.e., the Most Useful Information) included a section on zoology, to Ibn Sina’s Kitab Ash-Shifa’ (i.e., the Book on Healing), which refers to the psychology and physiology of animals.
From the 8th century AD to the 14th century AD and even to the early 19th century AD, Muslims championed the rights of, study of, and interaction with the animal kingdom.
Yet today, traveling throughout the Muslim World, attitudes to animals in many parts has drifted far from of the teachings of Prophet Muhammad. Perhaps the most absurd myth relates to the treatment of dogs, which, like many other misinterpretations in Islam, is built upon misquoting religious scriptures out of context.
For example, Prophet Muhammad did say, “Kill the dogs.” However, the hadith compiler Imam Muslim records that when the Prophet’s Companions started to kill every dog they came across, in disgust the Prophet said, “What is wrong with the men of Medina?!?” — i.e., they are killing every dog they see, when they should have only been killing those wild dogs that caused a threat to people.
And despite the many hadiths relating to good treatment of dogs (e.g., when Prophet Muhammad commanded `Amr Ibn Suraq to guard a female dog that was protecting her pups, as he was afraid that they might be abused), attitudes to animals remain negative. It then does not come as a surprise that zoos in some Muslim countries fall short of the values and rights preached by Islam.
At Lahore Zoo in Pakistan, I witnessed what can only be described as a crime, as not only the living conditions of the resident elephant Suzi were awful, but she was covered in graffiti! The situation at Giza Zoo in Egypt is no better: The pose taken by a bear caged into what could only be described as a prison cell was disturbing.
How any Muslim who is God-conscious and aware of the retribution on the Day of Judgment can act to maintain animals in such ruthless conditions. This is beyond my imagination! After all, Prophet Muhammad said, “Whoever is kind to Allah’s creation then Allah will be kind to them”.
This trend of poor treatment continues where attitudes in many zoos outside the Muslim World are no better, e.g., the treatment of bears at Shenzhen Zoo would raise alarm bells with any animal rights organization.
There are, however, a growing breed of zoos across the world that are leading a new generation of animal-human interaction. ZSL London Zoo is one such institution leading change. Their new £5.3 million Gorilla Kingdom, opened early in 2008, took more than 18 months to build and is home to a colony of Western lowland gorillas in both an indoor and outdoor area.
Imagine! £5.3 million spent to create an environment to support a colony of gorillas, creating much needed awareness. As a nonprofit, this marks the most significant investment at the zoo for more than 40 years. Visiting the exhibit, I found myself stunned for being so close to a gorilla with nothing but a pane of glass between us.
Similarly, Taronga Zoo in Sydney offers a spacious environment, housing many animals. The view into the giraffe enclosure with the city as a backdrop offers a particularly inspirational experience. The open, welcoming array of features, including their new seal display, allows children and adults alike the opportunity to meet face to face with well-looked-after animals, which otherwise would be impossible.
Both zoos offer educational programs designed for all age groups and providing the opportunity for human contact without causing distress to the animals. This is particularly important, as Islam teaches us that animals have a consciousness, something substantiated in recent years by a team of Dutch scientists, who discovered that animals released Endorphins to cope with the emotional distress and pain caused by frustration or conflict.
Communicating With Animal
Zoos and safari parks around the world serve as sanctuaries designed for the human-animal experience. One such sanctuary set up by Prophet Muhammad, known by every Muslim who goes on pilgrimage, is in Medina, where there is an area in which no animal can be killed.
Yet, there is a drastic failure of animal management in parts of the modern era, something that must urgently be addressed. As technology advances, and as the study of language and communications breaks new, untrodden horizons, perhaps one day we will reach a higher level of understanding in which we can indeed communicate with animals, very much as Doctor Dolittle did.
Though, while we may receive thanks from animals — by freeing a shark, for example — unless we as a human race improve our treatment of those living beings with whom we share this world, we may not be happy to listen to what they have to say.