Sociology and Anthropology

Animals in Islamic Tradition and Muslim Cultures

In his peculiarly self-abasing preface to Animals in Islamic Tradition and Muslim Cultures, Richard Foltz speculates that the audience for his book will probably consist of “non-Muslims who are sympathetic to Muslim culture and interested in learning more about what it has to offer in terms of animal rights” (p. xii). This appears to be less of a prediction than a presupposition guiding the book. Appropriately, Animals in Islamic Tradition is a very broad outline of representations of non-human animals from the pre-Islamic era to the present in as many fields as a 192-page book can encompass. As a result, his study tends to be kaleidoscopic, treating each subject in a very general manner, hastily running through the basics and garnishing them with selected curiosities. For perhaps the same reason, the book is written in a very simple style, neither extremely engaging nor boringly obscure, and tends to provide summary rather than analysis. 

The issue of the non-human animal in Islam and in Islamicate cultures is not a single question, but rather a vast number of disparate questions that ultimately require detailed attention in themselves. Given the lack of attention hitherto received by each of these specific questions, any general survey such as Foltz’s must necessarily be tentative and exploratory. The book is divided into seven chapters that deal, respectively, with references to animals in the Qur’an and the hadith literature (chapter 1), animal-related injunctions in Islamic law (chapter 2), scientific and philosophical studies (chapter 3), literary and artistic representations (chapter 4), animal rights in the contemporary era (chapter 5), Islamic vegetarianism (chapter 6), and Muslim attitudes toward dogs (chapter 7). Each chapter is further divided into several subheadings, making the book something of a collection of well categorized articles rather than a tightly bound narrative building up to a central argument.

That being the case, Animals in Islamic Tradition does seem to have, if not a thesis, then at least a slant: it is clearly concerned with championing animal rights and identifying the sources from which an Islamic emphasis on animal rights, an Islamic vegetarianism, and the like might justify themselves. Foltz claims that his book is not meant to be one-sided, and he certainly recounts Muslim justifications for meat-eating and negative attitudes toward certain animals. However, particular weight is given to Muslim proponents of animal rights and vegetarianism and to those individuals who are set up as their predecessors. People such as the vegetarian poet al-Ma`arri, the British imam and animal rights advocate Basheer Ahmad Masri, and Egyptian dog-lover Ahmed Tharwat are undoubtedly the heroes of this book.

 

Richard M. Foltz, Oxford: One World, 2006. 192 pages. 

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