In my days before Islam, I was never much of a fan of dogs. Some of the guys I ran with had Pits and Rottweilers, maybe trying to look all macho, and my family had a couple dogs, but I never had a dog. Other reverts may have had a special relationship with their dogs growing up, or still do at the time of reversion. Sadly, the attitude of many Muslims towards dogs often alienates people from Islam. I can remember a very unfortunate event where my indoctrination to Muslims’ cultural exaggeration about dogs pushed some of my family away from Islam.
Twelve years ago, I was invited for Thanksgiving weekend to my brother’s house, whom I had not visited since I had embraced Islam a couple years before then. As many people do, he and his wife had a dog that they felt was part of their family. I was not aware of this until we arrived. So the dog came to the door with him, which really bothered me, and I made a big deal out of it. I basically commanded my brother to put his dog outside. I had not been this way before Islam, so he was thrown off by it. When he asked why the fuss, I told him, “Because it is filthy.” Here’s the funny part: he said, “Oh no, man, you don’t understand. We gave him a bath last night!” I then reframed my argument to be more in line with the hadith that we all know, “No, it’s actually its saliva.” He said, “We brushed his teeth too. And I think I read somewhere that dogs’ mouths are actually cleaner than those of humans!” He actually has somewhat of a point.
For that whole weekend, I did not hear the end of his wife’s constant jabbing. “What kind of religion…,” and “Maybe if Muzlims learned to appreciate dogs they wouldn’t be so violent.” The crazy thing is that, generally speaking, they were in the right, and the attitude I had adopted from hanging around Muslims for a couple years was – according to strong classical interpretation – misrepresenting Islam!
So what does Islam say about dogs? Let’s start with the Qur’an. Dogs are only mentioned three times in the Qur’an, none of them negative in any way. Two of those mentions actually praise dogs as companions of people!
In Surat al-Ma’idah, God says that of the good things that are permissible to you are the animals which you hunt that your dog fetches for you. (Qur’an, 5:4).
In Surat al-A`raf, God is blaming the one who has been guided to the truth yet chooses to follow their desires. He likens that type of person to a dog that pants whether you shoo it away or leave it alone (Qur’an, 7:176). The verse simply refers to how dogs often just pant all of the time regardless if they are active, scared or just sitting there, whereas a human should think, ponder and react to things accordingly; especially when it comes to divine guidance.
Lastly, we have the famous story of the pious youth who were guarded by their dog, in the beginning of Surat al-Kahf (Qur’an, 18).
So clearly, this anti-dog attitude is not inspired by the Holy Qur’an.
The problem with cultural Islam is that much of it is an exaggeration of scripture. People go overboard in their interpretation or application of our scripture. The case with Muslims’ aversion to dogs is indeed rooted in authentic ahadith (pl. saying or tradition of the Prophet ﷺ – peace be upon him). Some of these ahadith, when read by themselves, do indeed give that idea. Most people do not know the scholarly discourse on such ahadith, especially when it comes to combining the texts or understanding their application in juristic derivation.
The first hadith I will mention has a couple variants, all carrying the same meaning and ruling. I will never forget when I heard this hadith; it was at a lesson on jurisprudence with a prominent scholar. The shaykh (scholar) was just reading the text to us nonchalantly and giving the commentary for our notes: “And the black dog should be killed, according to the authentic hadith[!]” I remember thinking to myself, “What? Did I just hear him right?” So I begged to differ, “Why is that?” He then made some sense out of it, “Only the jet black one, since according to the ahadith, it is a vicious beast or a devil.” I then said, “That is not true. I have seen many black dogs that are not vicious beasts.” So the shaykh said, “You only kill it if it threatens you,” to which I responded, “Then why are we singling out all jet black dogs? That could lead to a misunderstanding.” The shaykh responded, “Because the Prophet ﷺ specifically pointed it out that way.” I then responded, “Maybe he was talking about a specific dog, and not all black dogs?” The shaykh came back, “But we have many authentic texts, with varying authentic narrations, which means they should be taken in their general meaning!” I was like, Jazak Allahu Khayran, shaykh, (May God reward you) while thinking to myself that I need to review the claim, regardless of the shaykh‘s scholarship, because my understanding of scripture and innate spiritual disposition did not accept this interpretation.
The Command to Kill Dogs?
The Prophet ﷺ commanded us to kill dogs and later he said there is no reason for people to kill dogs. Then he allowed people to use dogs for hunting and herding. (Bukhari)
“If dogs weren’t a nation among God’s creation, I would have commanded you to kill all of them. So just kill the jet black one.” (Tirmidhi, 1486)
Someone asked Abu Tharr, “What feature is there in a black dog which distinguish it from the red dog and the yellow dog?” He said: “O, son of my brother, I asked the Messenger of Allah ﷺ as you are asking me, and he said: The black dog is a devil.” (Muslim, 4:299)
“There are five harmful animals that can be killed at any time; a snake, a vicious dog, a crow, a rat and a scorpion.” (Bukhari)
The Prophet ﷺ also prohibited the killing of any living creature without reason. (Muslim)
The Maliki’s stated that the final two ahadith abrogated all of the others, and thus it is prohibited to kill all dogs, except the harmful one that threatens you (see Mawahib al-Jaleel and Rawda al-Talibeen). The majority are of the opinion that there was some danger or harm posed by dogs, which was later removed, and the need for killing the dogs was abrogated except the black dog, the wisdom behind that ruling only God knows. In the next section, I will show how the ahadiths about dogs’ purity are directly related to this issue. But before that I refer you to this recent piece of news.
The Purity of Dogs
No scholar from any school of thought ever claimed that one should make abultion (wudu) as a result of touching any part of a dog. That is because the issue of removing najasat (legal impurities) has nothing to do with ablution. Removing impurities is done by pouring water over the spot.
The Prophet ﷺ said, “If a dog licked/drank from a cup then first scrub it with dirt, then wash it or pour water over it seven times.” (similar variants in authentic narrations)
The Shafi`ees and Hanbalis use the above-mentioned as proof for the impurity of the dog’s saliva and mouth, and by analogy, its body. The Hanafis and a handful of Hanbalis, including Ibn Taymiyya, hold that the hadith proves the impurity of the dog’s saliva and not its body, since the hadith is specific to the mouth/saliva.
The Prophet ﷺ said, “A Muslim man was walking in the desert dying of thirst when he found a well. He went down in to drink and upon coming out he notices a dog lapping hard dying of thirst. So he climbed back in and filled his shoe with water. He gave the dog to drink and God forgave his sins. The companions then asked the Prophet, ‘Are we rewarded for helping beasts?’ The Prophet then said, ‘Helping any living thing has a reward!’” (Bukhari)
“During the lifetime of Allah’s Apostle, the dogs used to urinate, and pass through the mosques (come and go), nevertheless they never used to sprinkle water on it (urine of the dog.)” (Bukhari, 174)
The Malikis and Thahiris do not understand from the first hadith that any part of the dog is impure; not its body or even its mouth (see al-Sahrh al-Sagheer). They understand the first hadith to be an act of worship, and that dogs are not impure, rather the spit is defiled in some way, and so we must scrub our drinking vessels seven times. They use the second and third hadiths to prove the dog’s purity, since there was no warning of otherwise.
The Malikis hold that the practice of Madinah during the time of the tabi`een (the 1st generation of Muslims after the death of the Prophet ﷺ) was that dogs are not impure. They believe this understanding was influenced by these ahadith, in conjunction with the verse from Surat al-Ma’idah about using hunting dogs, which bring our prey back to us with their mouth. The ruling was made in Madinah, and Imam Malik was the Imam of Madinah, trained by the students of the prominent companions, so I tend to lean toward their opinion on this one for relevance.
Finally, I would like to read you a specific opinion that brings sense to this whole misunderstanding in these texts. “Al-Qadi said in al-Muqaddimaat, ‘This hadith [dog licking the vessel] is justified by a meaning understood which is not legal impurity. Rather, it is to protect one who drinks from the vessel from the possibility of the dog being rabid and thus infecting the person by ingesting its saliva. So for this reason, the command was to scrub it seven times with dirt, as we see that number often used in healing sicknesses.’ Ibn Rushd then comments that he prefers this explanation as the “Maliki way” rather than to just say that the dog’s saliva is pure, and that we just clean it in obedient worship without knowing the wisdom.” (Bidayatul-Mujtahid). See this link.
I agree with the scholars that have rightly logically understood this whole matter as being a past outbreak of rabies, where the Islamic value of preserving life and health had to outweigh the sanctity of the life of dogs, and obliged us to wash all potentially ingestible dog saliva. Therefore I hold that dogs are not in any way impure, and that there is nothing impure with petting and even getting licked by a dog. It makes perfect sense to me that the reason for killing the black dog was that there was a particular type of black dog which was rabid or violent in some way, and that is why the Prophet ﷺ called it a devil.
Even if you are to stick with the literal interpretation of some texts about the dog’s impurity, it is a strong opinion among scholars that the dog’s coat is not impure. Even if it does lick you, then according to the majority all you have to do is wash that spot with water to remove the impurity. So guys, there is no need to make a scene around dogs.
Keeping a Dog
“Whoever would keep a dog for other than hunting, herding or farming will lose a great reward every day.” (Bukhari)
The majority of scholars agree that an analogy can be made for all dogs of benefit, such as guarding the house or helping the blind. The ruling according to the majority is that it is haram (forbidden) to keep a dog simply as a pet/companion. (Al-Mawsoo’ah al-Fiqhiyyah)
The Maliki opinion is that the hadith does not indicate prohibition, rather it is makrooh (disliked). There is also a rare opinion from a handful of Malikis that all of the prohibitions on owning a dog were abrogated, and thus keeping a dog as a pet is permissible. (Kifaya al-Talib al-Rabbani)
Perhaps the second hadith on this subject is somehow related to the first.
“The angels (of blessings) don’t enter homes with statues, drawn pictures of live beings or dogs.” (Bukhari/Abu Dawood)
This hadith indicates that for some reason, angels of blessings (not protection or writing deeds) do not like to go into homes with dogs. The hadith seems to support the Maliki ruling of dislike, but still, it is not something a Muslim should do, since it is frowned upon by authentic scripture. For this reason, and God knows best, it is best for a Muslim only to keep a dog for some necessity mentioned in the first hadith. After all, if you must have a pet, you can always get a cat or a fish. That being said, those who insist upon keeping dogs as pets in their house have some – albeit small – support in the classical interpretations; it is not something that is established as a sin based on a clear, explicit text that would make someone a heretic or deviant for breaking the rule while deeming it permissible.