Islamic Character Prophet Muhammad Reflections

Showing Kindness to All Creatures: Lessons From an Azhari Scholar & a Cat

Commentary and Translation by Shazia Ahmad

The historic Masjid al-Azhar (Azhar Mosque) in Cairo offers a number of classes and lectures to the public in the rooms that surround its famous courtyard.  Along with the usual human attendees, it is also common to see cats seeking to enter through the mosque’s open doors and make their way inside.  In this video of a lecture on hadith (prophetic narrations) by Sh. Usama Elsayed, a cat enters and makes himself comfortable in his class, prompting him to pause from the actual class material and share some anecdotes and lessons on showing kindness to cats and other animals.

Please note that this is not a literal or full translation, though it is intended to faithfully convey the ideas that were expressed.  Words in brackets have been added for clarity.  The translated portion begins at 1:40.

Al-Imam Shams ibn Tulun al-Hanafi, in his book al-Fulk al-Mashhun fi Ahwal al-Shams ibn Tulun, designated a special chapter for prophetic narrations related to cats, and called it Izhaar as-Sirr fi ma Warada fil-Hirr (‘Explanation of the Secrets Found in What has been Narrated About Cats’).

If a cat came close to the Prophet ﷺ (peace and blessings be upon him), he would lower his vessel to it so that it could drink, and he would say, “They are [creatures] that [live and] move about amongst you.”

Here at al-Azhar ash-Sharif, the great imam, shaykh of Islam and scholar of the Malikis Abu al-Barakat Ahmad ad-Dardir was once teaching when a cat wandered between the rows of his students.  One of the students pushed it away roughly.  Imam Dardir was deeply affected and saddened by this, and got up from his chair to bring the cat next to him.  He took out some morsels from his own food and set it in front of the cat for it to eat, and held it in his lap.  From the next day on, whenever he entered the mosque to teach he would give the cat something to eat from his own food.  More cats started to come, to the extent that after some time whenever Imam Dardir entered Masjid al-Azhar more than two hundred cats would surround him and stay at his feet.  May God have mercy on him.

Yet [we find] people saying (Muslims) are terrorists.   We say that we seek to be kind to animals.  The people of Islam—when the teachings of this great faith became deeply imbued in their hearts—did not fall short in giving animals their rights, nor in giving human beings their due rights.  On the contrary, their minds were occupied with concern about the rights of each and every creature.  Because every single thing in this universe glorifies God; and therefore every single thing has certain rights and a certain sanctity, and it is upon us to build connections with them and deal with them in affection and kindness.  To the extent that the Prophet ﷺ (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “The mountain of Uhud – it loves us and we love it.” And he said, “When the profligate servant of God dies, relief is given to the worshippers, the land, the trees and the animals.” Because the worshippers, the land, the trees, and the animals all suffer at the hands of the dissolute sinner.  Proof of this is in the words of God, “And the heavens and the earth wept not for them, nor were they given a respite,” (Qur’an 44:29). This implies that when people of goodness and righteousness pass away, the heavens and the earth weep [and mourn their loss].

In the past we used to have masaqiy (places with water designated for drinking) for dogs and other animals.  In some of the major squares of Cairo one would find places with fresh water for passersby to drink.  At a taller height was fresh, clean water for people to drink, and the excess water would flow down below [to a container] for large animals to drink (like horses etc).  Below that would be a [container] for smaller animals like dogs [to drink from], and lower than that, almost at level with the ground, was water for cats.

A person used to be specifically designated to clean the drinking places of dogs, and was given a salary for that from the treasury or by endowment.  There were assigned workers who would go around and clean such drinking places from whatever fell into it of leaves, dirt, etc.   Here, at Masjid Muhammad al-Bik Abu al-Dahab which faces al-Azhar, there is an endowment specifically designated for food to be placed in containers at the top of the minaret for birds to eat from.  Because they have a right to food.

(…) [My teacher] Mufti Dr. Ali Jumu`ah taught us, when he was explaining the prophetic tradition about a woman who enters hellfire [for mistreating and starving] her cat, that the people of knowledge understand this text outside of its specifics.  Imam al-Qarafi defines specifics as time, place, circumstance, and individual.

This text is not limited to women specifically.  It mentions a woman who was punished, but does that necessarily imply that if a man harms an animal he will not be punished? Absolutely not.  It would be the same whether [the action was committed by] man or woman, young or old.  Anyone who mistreats a creature from the creatures of God will be punished.  What is implied [by the text] is a teaching more generally applied to both men and women, to the extent that the word “human being” can be understood in place of “woman.”

Similarly, is such a punishment limited only to one who mistreats a cat, such that if someone mistreats a dog they would not be punished?  No, they would in fact be punished whether they mistreat a cat or a dog or any other animal or creature of God.

[In the same vein,] is this ruling limited only to the one who mistreats animals? No, it would in fact extend to everything else in existence.  Anyone who harms anything in existence is an aggressor against God’s creation.

The implications of this text help the believer understand—beyond this particular woman being punished for abusing a cat—that no human being should ever harm any other creature.  No human being should harm any other creature.

If we went out and explained these teachings, and translated them for other civilizations, cultures, communities and peoples, [to people of varying] tongues and languages, we would be given the honor of being considered forerunners [in civilization].  This is because we not only call [beyond human rights] for the rights of animals, but we call for the rights of every object and thing in existence.  A Muslim understands that every thing around him in creation has a due right upon him, and he or she is responsible before God to honor everything that exists—inanimate and animate, humans, plants, and animals.

There is neither power nor strength save by God – but [unfortunately in these matters] “most of the people do not know” (Quran 7:187).

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  • Beautiful and touching video! 🙂
    I need some help in an issue :
    It had always been raised that slaughtering animal for eating is not “human” and it should be banned. I know It is halal to eat certain animal meat ( except pigs).

    But how can we tell vegetarianism and human right activists that “dab7” is human ? What reason should we give to those who oppose this way when slaughterhouses& butchers are not following the right way ?
    Shukran w Allah Yjeezkom Khairan

    • I think the position that Islam takes on the matter is that of nature. This is the way I explain it which non-Muslims tend to easily understand (except the most extreme of activists). That is to say, in nature, every living thing that isn’t a plant, eats another living thing. Therefore there is no inherent wrong in eating another living thing whether a plant or an animal. The ecological term for this fact of nature is “the food chain”. Just as it is not wrong for a cat to each a fish, it is not inherently wrong for a human to eat a cow. That we can digest and gain nutrients from it, is proof that it is a food to humans. Further, in some parts of the world, relying on non-animal food alone will mean starvation or malnourishment, such as nomads on the desert steppes, or arctic peoples, and archipelagic peoples like my ancestors.

      Therefore a universal human religion will of course not require a diet that excludes entire human nations, or exclude humans from entire geographies, which a ban on eating animals will accomplish. That is why Muslims are *not* vegetarian. We don’t see ourselves as “above” the rest of the living things, rather that we are “like” the creatures we share the earth with. Death and the eating of living things are considered perfectly normal natural order.

      On the other hand, Muslims among humans, are additionally taught to refrain from eating *all and any* animals. Banned for us on theological grounds among theoretically valid foods are blood, carcasses (animals that died but without slaughter thus it is uncertain what it died of), food offered to worship false dieties, and swine. (There is a further restriction from hadith.) There may be some kind of health reason that we can deduce from some of the banned things, but the primary reason is scriptural.

      On top of and secondary to the scriptural prohibition, we are taught to slaughter even the permitted animals in a certain way. reasons cited are varied, and may all be correct: to minimise unnecessary suffering of the animal (the pre-slaughter treatment and tool quality), to reduce the potential for disease (the efficient draining of blood), to taqwa and mindfulness that a life was taken by the Creator’s permission for our sustenance (the need to speak Allah’s name before the slaughter – but which is not necessary for seafood or plants). Note that the Muslim view may consider any action for further reduction of suffering that does not prevent the other objectives of the method, e.g. the blood draining. This is why some schools allow stunning if it can be assured the animal will not die from the stunning itself, but decapitation is not an acceptable slaughter method.

      However, muscle spasms after slaughter is a reaction of the nervous system. All the fuss about slaughtering so that “it does not happen” is really about making us humans feel better but it has nothing to do with the animal’s experience. It’s dead. Nerves need only send signals to the spinal cord, not the brain, to generate spasms. check out these example two articles:
      animals have the post-mortem involuntary responses similar to humans, and vice versa. note that in neither context is the muscle spasming treated as an issue of suffering, rather an involuntary reaction of the corpse just like the other reactions. only in the animal rights/slaughter context is this somehow a big deal.

      This is not to say that Muslims as a community do not have shortcomings in view of the above. I think we should in fact care a bit more as a community about the treatment of animals *before* they are slaughtered, rather than just check up on the zabihah part of it. Can you imagine the ummah described in this article, the teacher shown in the video, would accept as a norm, eating eggs from chickens kept in tiny battery cages, kept alive by medication, in deplorable conditions? How many places doing Eidul Adha slaughter do so while other cows could see the slaughter or hear the slaughtered cow’s sounds even though this is not allowed by Sunnah.

      And secondly, while Muslims are not vegetarians, neither should we be meat-eaters in excess. Sunnah shows that the Prophet ate meat, but not always, and generally ate sparingly, his regular meals tending to include only a little or no meat. Livestock production on an industrial scale has many undesired environmental effects, often cruel, and sometimes even unhealthy, but can still be counted as zabihah if the slaughter part complied. those of us in urban communities have a complicity to these negative effects, which can be greatly reduced if we chose more sustainable meat options, and/or ate less of it.

      In summary, the way I have distilled the Islamic belief system on this matter is that, Muslims do not consider ourselves “outside” of creation in that we should remove ourselves from the natural food chain as something “exemplary”. But as khalifah on Earth we are commanded to a certain standard of behaviour and rules with respect to *how* we take the food from the earth.

  • I love animals, especially cats! What a beautiful post, JazakAllah Khair! Just another manifest proof of the perfection of Islam.

  • “Anyone who harms anything in existence is an aggressor against God’s creation.”

    So does this outlaw the killing of ants, cockroaches, spiders and any other really small creature?

    • [Answered by Sheikh Fahd b. `Abd al-Rahmân al-Yahyâ, professor at al-Imâm University in al-Qasîm]

      The general ruling concerning insects and other small arthropods is that it is permissible to kill the harmful animals from among them. Evidence for this is that the Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “A prophet once sat under a tree when he got bitten by an ant so he burnt the ant’s village. Allah inspired to him: Why not only one ant?” [Sahîh Muslim]

      Therefore, it was permissible to kill the harmful ant even though the general ruling is not to kill ants.

      Abû Hurayrah said: “The Prophet forbade killing four animals; the ant, the bee, the hoopoe and the toad.” [Musnad Ahmad, Sunan Abî Dâwûd, and Sunan Ibn Mâjah] Ibn Kathîr said: “Its line of transmission is authentic.” (3/361).

      As for those that are not harmful, the general ruling is for us not to kill them, since there is no reason for dong so. There is wisdom behind Allah’s creating them, so it is not permissible to simply aggress against them for no good reason.

      And Allah knows best.

      Abu Hurayra related that,

      “The Messenger of Allah (blessings and peace be upon him) forbade making animals suffer.”


      In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful.

      To kill animals and insects which are harmful to one’s self or belongings (such as pests) is permissible.

      However, maximum effort should be made to minimize the suffering and pain. There is a whole chapter in the famous Hanafi Fiqh reference Fatawa al-Hindiyya regarding the killing of animals and what may and may not be done.

      Therefore, to keep traps which kill the animals is permissible, although traps which disable them or cause slow, painful death may not be kept as harming the animal and making it suffer is not permissible.

      Abu Hurayra related that, “The Messenger of Allah (blessings and peace be upon him) forbade making animals suffer.” [Bukhari]

      The Prophet (Allah bless him & give him peace) said, ” Do not harm the creation of Allah.” [Abu Dawud, from al-Ma`rur ibn Suwayd. Imam Jamal al-Din al-Zayla`i declared it to be a rigorously authenticated (sahih) hadith in Nasb al-Raya.]

      This is why Ibn Hajar al-Haytami (Allah have mercy on him) mentions in his work on the major sins, al-Zawajir, that the scholars have explicitly stated that causing animals undue harm, such as hitting them painfully, without a sound reason is a major sin (kabira). [Ibn Hajar al-Haytami, al-Zawajir `an Iqtiraf al-Kaba’ir, 2.140]

      And only Allah knows best.

      Muhammad ibn Adam & Faraz Rabbani

  • Sad note: I fed a hungary stray cat and we became friends about a year ago. Day before yesterday, he came home with injuries from a neighbor. I can understand shooing a cat away that is in your vegetable garden, but not trying to injure it. Hopefully his wounds will heal. He is a perfect gentleman. He knows what the word “NO” means.

    • Please Sis, keep protecting it. All the cats, dogs, and all animals need our compassionate, loving help and support.

  • AS,

    Beautiful translation and commentary Ust. Shazia, thank you so much.

    Actually just a few days ago I was walking in the street behind al-Azhar (Shari’ Muhammad Abdu for those who are familiar with it) and I noticed a dog drinking water on the side of the road. When I looked more closely there was actually a bowl molded into the concrete that was built as a planter for a tree that was there. When they cemented the planter the bowl was part of the design! There are some remnants still hanging around of the beautiful civilization that Islam produced.

    • as salaamu alaykum,

      Jazak Allahu khayran for your comment Ust. Jamaal! I think that’s one of the incredible things about Cairo, that you do find those remnants reminding us of what we as a people and civilization once were.

  • Bismillah

    Amazing, how you can learn the Sunnah from the ‘Ulama. These men embody the Sunnah, they emulate the Prophet’s (Salla Allahu Alayhi wa Alihi wa Sahbihi wa Salama) sifat. The actions of these men is the commentary of the Shama’il Muhammadiyya. May Allah preserve them.
    It just occurred to me that it is essential to sit with the Ulama in order to attain knowledge, for we learn their akhlaq while learning the materials. This is something we miss when we try to solely get knowledge from books. Afwan for my words do not do topic justice.

  • Nice reminder and we Muslims need many, many more of them. Despite all the exhortations to be kind to animals and prohibitions in abusing them in our religion, sad to say the reality of the Muslim world is that we have some of the worst animal abuse on the planet in our societies.Our reality is simply light years away from the ideals of our religion.

    I honestly don’t know what’s happened to us as a community. I think unfortunately so many Muslims have become caught up in politics, identity-politics, anti-imperialism, socio-economic on a macro level…we have completely forgotten everyday akhlaq to a large degree. At the end of the day it is those everyday things like being patient in lines, treating creation well, charity, forgiveness, etc. that will pile up on the scales on the judgement… we ignore these things at our own peril…

    • as salaamu alaykum,

      That’s a great point ZAI. One of my teachers says that all of the problems and issues we see in the Muslim world and among our communities today can in many ways be traced back to a “crisis of akhlaq” and I think that’s very true.

  • I heard from a scholar stories of people with insight hearing the dhikr of plants and tress around him. And this made want to fill my space with these creations of Allah.

    • @Sabirah: Because the Quran commands us to eat from the lawful and be grateful for Allah’s bounty, which includes certain animals!

      Just a thought, vegans kill life too. Every plant they eat is a living creature too. Or are plants less worthy of life than animals? On what basis and with what knowledge does the creation decide for him/herself what of Allah’s other creation is lawful or unlawful?

      Allah knows best

  • JKhair. This looked interesting so I left it unread in my google reader. I am living with a friend who has two cats and I remembered this article. JKhair.

  • mashaallah! This is the great lesson. We have translated it on russian for russian-speaking people.

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