Published in New York Times, SundayReview | Opinion
KARACHI, Pakistan — When I take my dog for a walk on the beach near my house in Karachi, this is how people react: Mothers tell their kids, look, a dog; kids ask me the dog’s name and if they can touch him; most grown men either recoil or ask me about the price and the breed. Sometimes when I see someone heading to the neighborhood mosque, I cross to the other side of the street. There is a popular belief among the pious that if they come in contact with a dog, they become unclean. You have to take a ritual bath before you can offer your prayers.
Worshipers are usually in a hurry in Karachi. These are perilous times, and I don’t want to come between men of God and God by delaying their prayers. They are, after all, fulfilling their obligation as I am trying to do.
I grew up in a very religious household where dogs weren’t exactly loved, but our faith wasn’t threatened every time a dog appeared on our doorstep. As a teenager in our village in central Punjab, I saw our local imam, who led the prayers, playing with his Russian poodle. His grandsons, who were visiting one summer, brought it and left it behind. I would see the imam with his poodle out on the street, petting her, cuddling her. His long snow-white beard and the poodle’s electric shiny curls sometimes touched. In almost a decade of devoutness that I prayed behind him, I never saw anybody object to his coming into physical contact with a dog. Maybe it was the imam’s authority. Maybe the poodle looked cleaner than some of us peasant worshipers. Maybe people thought a man as old and as pious as he knew what he was doing.
Today, if someone in his position tried to cuddle a dog in public, he would surely lose his status as imam, if not his head. Like Muslims everywhere in the world, we also yearn for more innocent times, when we could stay pure by keeping dogs at bay. There are many more worshipers in the mosques now than there were in my childhood, but there are no imams to tell the religious stories about dog love.
If you go by the fatwas issued by today’s religious scholars, some dogs are allowed in Islam and other dogs are not. At best, they make it sound as if Islam were not the second-largest religion in the world — comprising various cultural histories, ancient myths and thousands of ways of relating to animals — but a posh kennel club.
Sometimes I wish I could ask our neighborhood imam to tell us the story that, as children, we heard in many Friday sermons. It’s an Islamic fable about compassion and forgiveness and dogs. Since most religions use a woman’s virtue to teach us about morality, this one happens to be about a prostitute who had lived all her life in sin. One day she stopped by a well to have a drink of water and spotted a dog, a very thirsty dog panting at the edge of the well. She lowered a shoe into the well to draw water and quenched the dog’s thirst. As a result of this single act of mercy, Allah forgave all her sins. The fable is about sinners getting a chance at redemption, but it’s the image of a thirsty dog panting by a well that stuck with me. In some versions of the story, the dog is so thirsty that he tries to eat mud.
The Quran itself is mostly silent on the subject of dogs. The only real dog that appears in the text is a companion of the People of the Cave, a small group of young men who, threatened by an ancient king after refusing to abandon their faith, hide in a cave and take a 309-year-long nap. During these three centuries of hiding, their dog lay stretched out at the entrance of the cave to keep any intruders at bay.
The fable evokes not revulsion but time travel and companionship. The Quran’s other significant mention of the dog is in a story about a man in lust with earthly desires, of whom it is said, “If thou attackest him, lolleth out his tongue; and if thou leavest him alone, lolleth out his tongue.”
Most of Muslims’ dog hate comes to us via the Hadith, a collection of sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad. There are various, often contradictory hadiths about whether or not you are allowed to keep a dog as a pet. Dogs are allowed for security, says one. Their fur is fine but their saliva is unclean, says another. But if the fur gets wet, it becomes unclean. You can pet dogs, but you may not kiss them. You can keep them if they are not allowed inside the house. You can have them as long as you use them for hunting. What about the saliva they leave on the hunted animals? That’s fine.
A popular hadith about dogs says that angels won’t enter your abode if there is a dog in the house. Apparently, the angels don’t mind if the dog is out on the lawn or playing in the courtyard. Which basically leads you to the conclusion that angels don’t much care for believers living in small apartments or houses without big lawns.
The hadith warning us about the angels’ revulsion for dogs is sometimes said to have been narrated by one of the Prophet Muhammad’s close companions and the most prolific of his scribes. His name was Abu Huraira. He was also the most famous cat lover in Islamic history. In fact, his name means Father of the Cats. Some competing scribes from the era have called him an unreliable narrator, but nobody can call him out on any perceived bias against dogs: He tells the story about the forgiven prostitute.
Many other stories support the fact that caring about dogs doesn’t automatically make you a heathen. In one story, the Prophet Muhammad was leading his army into a battle when he came upon a female dog with a litter of puppies. He posted a companion to protect them. Umar, the second caliph, stated that he would be personally responsible if even a stray dog went to sleep hungry under his administration.
There are lots of people who hate dogs but care about the human condition; they care about children begging on the streets, or transgender people not getting jobs. Like them, I worry if it’s O.K. to care about a mutt when the world around us is falling apart. Then I tell myself it’s exactly when the world is falling apart that you should care about mutts. After all, our prophet cared about the safety of dogs in the middle of a battle.
Our classical poetry, religious and romantic, heretic and Sufi, is full of verses where a lover wants to be a stray dog living on the street corner of his beloved’s home. Sufi poets have held dogs as a symbol of devotion and superhuman dedication. But even when the pious ones are crooning away about their desire to be a dog in the holy city of Medina, they can’t stand a real dog when it happens to pass by.
I have had to drag my dog away from speeches and recitals because he gets excited and starts barking. He probably wants to join in, but poets and protesters — religious or godless — don’t want dogs joining in their celebrations. I am reminded of the Arabic proverb: The dogs bark and the caravan moves on. Sometimes it’s the caravan that barks and the dogs that have to keep moving.
Mohammed Hanif is the author of the novels “A Case of Exploding Mangoes” and “Our Lady of Alice Bhatti.”