Animal Welfare in Islam
Both the Qur’an and the narrations (Hadith) of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) frequently mention animals. The Qur’an declares that God does not shy away from drawing comparisons, even with a gnat, and two Surahs (chapters) of the Holy book are named after insects: the ant and the bee.
The Qur’an speaks of animals being ‘communities like yourselves’, a phenomenon Western zoologists now study more fully and document in film and scientific reports. Muslim believe that animals and humans all share in the bounty of God’s creation.
One of the Prophet’s (pbuh) followers was surprised to hear him urge kindness and compassion towards animals and state that people would be rewarded for it, so it seems that animal rights were not widely recognised at that time. Even when killing animals for food, Muslims are instructed to treat them with sympathy and consideration and do the action swiftly with mercy, ever mindful that they are God’s creatures.
Islamic law has clear directives on a general prohibition against harming them, a recognition of the rights of animals to be provided with food and drink, and the provision of hima (reserves or sanctuaries), as well as prohibitions against eating and selling certain classes of animals.
Inspired by the teachings of the Qur’an. Muslims collected knowledge and wisdom from around the world, not just from Greece but also from India, China, Persia and other places. Books were translated into Arabic and Muslim scholars read them, worked on them, criticized them and developed the ideas they found, introducing experiment as a way of verifying them. Copies of their works were disseminated to public libraries in all corners of the Muslim world, many, including the Qur’an (in 1143), finding their way into Europe in Latin translations.
The Qur’an, revealed by God to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) between 610 and 632 CE is full of verses describing nature and exhorts man to study it. The Qur’an states:
‘God does not shy from drawing comparisons even with something as small as a gnat’ [Al-Qur’an 2:26]
Indeed, in the Qur’an there are Surahs (chapters) called ‘The Ant’, ‘The Bee’ and ‘The Spider’. The spider’s house (web) is used in the Qur’an as an image to describe the weakness of the tissue of lies spun by those who opposed the Prophet’s (pbuh) message.
‘Those who take protectors other than God are like spiders building themselves houses-the spider’s is the frailest of all houses-if only they could understand’. [Al Qur’an 29:41]
The Ant Surah contains the story of King Solomon (pbuh) at the head of his army, listening to an ant, who ordered its colony:
‘Ants! Go into your homes, in case Solomon and his hosts crush you without noticing.’ Solomon smiled broadly at its words and said, ‘Lord, inspire me to be thankful for the blessings You have granted me and my parents, and to do good deeds that please You; admit me by Your grace into the ranks of Your righteous servants’. [Al Qur’an 27:17-18]
In the Surah called ‘The Bee’ the bee is shown as being inspired by God:
‘Your Lord inspired the bee, saying, ‘Build yourselves houses in the mountains and trees and in what people construct. Then feed on all kinds of fruit and follow the ways made easy for you by your Lord. From their bellies comes a drink of different colours in which there is healing for people. There truly is a sign in this for those who think’. [Al Qur’an 16:68-9]
The Qur’an teaches that animals are God’s creatures, who worship Allah:
‘The seven heavens, the earth and everyone in them glorify Him. There is not a single thing that does not celebrate His praise, though you do not understand their praise’. [Al Qur’an 17:44]
Animals in the Qur’an, like the rest of God’s creation, worship and submit to God. Unlike human beings they do not have the capacity to make choices or disobey His laws:
‘Do you not realize [Prophet] that everything in the heavens and earth bows down to God: the sun, the moon, the stars, the mountains, the trees, and the animals? So do many human beings, though for many others punishment is well deserved’. [Al Qur’an 22:18]
Allah (swt) honoured man with authority over animals:
‘We have honoured the children of Adam and carried them by land and sea. We have provided good sustenance for them and favoured them specially above many of those We have created.’ [Al Qur’an 17:70]
‘He has subjected and tamed all that is in the heavens and the earth for your benefit’. [Al Qur’an 45:13]
But this does not mean humans have a license to do as they please. God has granted us some control over animals for us to use for our benefit and so that we may be grateful and glorify Him, but He is equally capable of making His creations wild and dangerous to people if He wills, and of taking away all that He has given to people, if they prove ungrateful and disobedient. Examples of such punishments abound in the Qur’an, from gardens that are taken for granted and inspire arrogance in their owners, water that disappears into the ground, earthquakes and floods, but none of these examples depicts animals rebelling and harming human beings, as sometimes happens if animals are treated badly, deprived of food or habitat. Instead, positive treatment of animals is shown. They have a right to water and food, which is provided by God for all, humans and animals.
‘Which is harder to create: you people or the sky that He built, raising it high and perfecting it, giving darkness to its night and bringing out its morning brightness, and the earth that He spread out, bringing waters and pastures out of it, and setting firm mountains [on it] for you and your animals to enjoy?’ [Al Qur’an 79:27-33]
In more than one instance the animals come first in the order of the God-given rights to water:
‘We send down pure water from the sky, so that We can revive a dead land with it, and We give it as a drink to many animals and people We have created.’ [Al Qur’an 25:49]
‘And livestock He created them for you too. You derive warmth and other benefits from them: you eat some of them; you find beauty in them when you bring them home to rest and when you drive them out to pasture. They carry your loads to lands you yourselves could not reach without great hardship, truly your Lord is kind and merciful!’ [Al Qur’an 16:5-8]
‘In livestock, too, you have a lesson; We give you a drink from the contents of their bellies, between waste matter and blood, pure milk, sweet to the drinker.’ [Al Qur’an 16:66]
Animals are also mentioned for the signs of God’s power that can be observed in them, quite apart from their usefulness to human beings:
‘Do they not see the birds above them spreading and closing their wings? It is only the Lord of Mercy who holds them up: He watches over everything.’ [Al Qur’an 67:19]
Human ill-treatment of animals is condemned in the Qur’an. Muslims are forbidden to eat animals which have died from painful means such as beating, strangulation or falling and those found already dead.
These principles were all taken from the Qur’an. We can now move to the practice (Sunnah) of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), as found in the reports of his narrations and deeds (the Hadith). The example of the Prophet (pbuh) is praised in the Qur’an, which instructs Muslims to, ‘Obey God and obey the Prophet’. [Al Qur’an 5:92]
The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) demonstrated kindness, care and general good treatment of animals, which form a benchmark for Muslims. He outlawed killing animals for sport, told people not to overload their camels and donkeys, commanded that slaughtering an animal for food be done with kindness and consideration for the animal’s feelings and with respect. [Malik, Al-Muwatta, 49.10.23]
He even allowed his camel to choose the place where he built his first mosque in al-Madinah. We have no right to neglect or harm other creatures nor to kill them out of anger, greed, pleasure or self-indulgence. As with all our actions there is accountability here too. The Prophet was asked if acts of charity even to the animals were rewarded by Allah and he replied in the affirmative.
Professor Richard Foltz in his book Animals in Islamic Tradition and Muslim Culture sums up the Islamic principles neatly, saying: Muslims should ‘kill animals only to satisfy hunger or to protect themselves from danger’. Hunting for sport is banned, in a narration of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), which indicates that animals, like people, will get justice in the next world:
The Prophet (pbuh) said: ‘If someone kills a sparrow for sport, the sparrow will cry out on the Day of Judgment ‘O Lord ! That person killed me in vain ! He did not kill me for any useful purpose.’ ‘ [Reported by Nasā’ī]
Another version of this hadith explains one useful purpose for killing an animal. The Prophet (pbuh) said, ‘Whoever kills a sparrow or anything bigger than that without a just cause, Allah will hold him accountable on the Day of Judgment.’ The listeners asked, ‘O Messenger of Allah, what is a just cause?’ He replied, ‘That he will kill it to eat, not simply to chop off its head and then throw it away.’ [Reported by Nasā’ī & Hakim]
The Prophet’s condemnation of using animals for target practice was strong:
Sa’d bin Jubair (RA) said, ‘While I was with Ibn Umar, we passed by a group of young men who had tied a hen and started shooting at it. When they saw Ibn Umar, they dispersed, leaving it. On that Ibn Umar said, ‘Who has done this? The Prophet cursed the one who did so.” [Reported in Sahih Bukhari]
Even when using hunting animals and birds to catch food, the prey must be quickly and humanely slaughtered:
The Prophet (pbuh) said: ‘When you set your dog (for the chase), mention the name of Allah (swt), if he catches the game, and you reach it while it is still alive, cut its throat quickly (so it won’t suffer).’ [Reported in Sahih Bukhari & Muslim]
Some practices only recently banned in the West were banned by the Prophet (pbuh) 1400 years ago. The Prophet (pbuh) not only preached to the people to show kindness to one another but also to all living creatures. He forbade the practice of cutting tails and manes of horses, of branding animals at any soft spot, and of keeping horses saddled unnecessarily.
He would no doubt have approved of the RSPCA’s efforts to save neglected and ill-treated animals. The Prophet (pbuh) told his companions of a woman who would be sent to Hell for having locked up a cat; not feeding it, nor even releasing it so that it could feed itself. [Reported in Sahih Bukhari]
In fact the Prophet cared deeply about the welfare of animals both physically and psychologically. If the Prophet (pbuh) saw any animal over-burdened or ill-fed he would pull up alongside the owner and say, ‘Fear God in your treatment of animals.’ [Reported in Abu Dawood]
We were on a journey with the Messenger of God, and he left us for a while. During his absence, we saw a bird called Hummara with its two young and took the young ones. The mother bird was circling above us in the air, beating its wings in grief, when the Prophet (pbuh) came back and said: ‘Who has hurt the feelings of this bird by taking its young? Return them to her’. [Reported in Sahih Muslim]
The same principles apply even when slaughtering an animal for food. The Prophet (pbuh) said, ‘Allah (swt) has ordained kindness (and excellence) in everything. If the killing (of animals) is to be done, do it in the best manner, and when you slaughter, do it in the best manner by first sharpening the knife, and putting the animal at ease.’ [Reported in Sahih Muslim]
After emigrating to Medina, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) surveyed the natural resources in the region, the wadis (riverbeds); the rich, black volcanic soil; the high rangelands and decreed that they be preserved and set aside as a Hima, an Arabic term meaning “protected place”.
He told his followers, “Verily Abraham declared Makkah a sanctuary and I declare al-Madinah, that which lies between its two lava flows, to be a sanctuary; its trees shall not be cut and its game shall not be hunted”.
The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) laid down guidelines that transformed the Hima into one of the essential instruments of conservation in Islamic law, the Hima has thus become one of the most widespread and long-standing indigenous, traditional protected-area institutions in the Middle East, and perhaps on Earth.
On the basis of such views, Himas for the protection of biodiversity have recently been established in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, East Africa and other places. In many towns and villages, respect for the tradition of the Hima is stronger than respect for the government’s environmental laws. Across the Arab world, people already understand that you can’t be a good Muslim if you pollute the Earth, destroy habitat or mistreat the creatures created by God Almighty. Of course the oldest Muslim (or even pre-Islamic) Sanctuary is the Haram (Black cube like building) in Mecca, where it is prohibited to kill a human, harm an animal or cut a wild plant. Flocks of birds circle round the Kaaba, whose eggs are protected too.
In conclusion, the ethos of Islam and Muslim society, as taught by the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), and partially enshrined in Islamic law, is to compassionately respect animals and care for them as sentient fellow creatures, worshipping God, and with a right to share the benefits God conferred on all His creation.
For further reading please see Animal Welfare in Islam by KUBE Publishing, also available in WLIC’S Al-Kitab Bookshop