Too often, how we treat animals is simply inhuman

Rasha Elass

standard Arab response to animal welfare issues is something like: “Oh,
come on. People barely have enough to eat/suffer enough/cannot find
shelter/die of disease/are victims of war – and you want us to worry
about animals?” But that may be about to change, and not before time.

Last week The
National reported the emergence of an enlightened new movement that
advances animal welfare within an Islamic context. Activists begin with
a simple question: does the designation of meat and poultry as halal
mean only that the animals must be slaughtered a certain way, or should
a Muslim also consider the way an animal was raised and treated on a
farm before slaughter?

Anyone who saw the 2008 film documentary Food, Inc.
will be familiar with the accusation levelled at large-scale
agricultural food production: that while factory farming produces cheap
food, it is also unhealthy and environmentally harmful. Human beings
may be at the top of the food chain, but it’s called a chain because
everything is connected: few people would choose to eat the
hormone-laden meat of sickly, unhappy animals if a green option were
readily and affordably available to them.

And that’s just the animals that we Muslims eat. But what
about the ones we do not eat? There was international revulsion a few
months ago when Egypt began slaughtering 300,000 pigs in an attempt to
stop the spread of swine flu. The authorities were accused of inhumane
culling and a failure to understand how people might be affected by the

Eye-witness accounts in the Egyptian press and on the
internet described bulldozers lifting pigs by the dozen as if they were
inanimate pieces of garbage. While still alive and kicking, the animals
were dumped into a large trash container before being sprayed with acid
water and powder to kill them. “The sound of the animals squealing was
so loud and too overbearing for any human to endure,” one witness
reported. The response of the religious authorities was to issue a
statement that “Islam commands us to show mercy”.

The Arabian Mau, a desert cat indigenous to the Arabian
peninsula, is about to make its debut at the world’s largest
international cat show next month in Germany: if, that is, it can
survive our city streets, where it too is treated like trash. Abu Dhabi
has delegated to the department of waste management the oversight of
thousands of feral Arabian Maus. Dubai, which has “managed” the feral
cat population for a few years now, is almost devoid of stray cats. The
municipality captured and destroyed most of them.

While euthanasia is an acceptable end to the perceived
suffering of animals in the West (though even there a no-kill movement
is gaining momentum), the Islamic tradition does not allow it.
According to a recent fatwa by the Abu Dhabi Islamic Authority, it is
forbidden to kill an animal that does not pose immediate danger.

Islamic solution would be to build shelters and large preservation
areas and transfer our city strays into them. After all, life on the
street for a stray animal can be brutal, with the constant threat of
serious injury or disease. I suggested this recently to Dr Hamdan
Muslim al Mazrouei, president of the General Authority for Islamic
Affairs and Endowments.

Funding such projects with Islamic endowments, known as
awqaf, which also fund mosques and Islamic charity projects, is nothing
new. The diaries of genteel Englishwomen who travelled throughout the
Ottoman Empire in the 19th century often describe animal hospitals,
offering free or low-cost treatment to any animal for the public good.
Until a century ago, Damascus had awqaf projects to feed and nurse
stray cats, as people relied on them for pest control and as pets.

Dr al Mazrouei gave me more examples of awqaf for animals in
years past. One was a bird “rest stop”, built to provide a rest area
for migratory birds. “It had bird food on its roof for this purpose,”
he told me. Another was a hospital specifically for birds with broken

The Prophet is said to have been a “cat person”, going
out one cold night without his woollen abaya because the cat was curled
up on it and he did not want to disturb the pet. Many hadiths stress
humane treatment of animals, including a famous one about a “fallen
woman” who goes to Heaven because she put water in her shoe to offer a
thirsty dog.

As Dr al Mazrouei pointed out, awqaf projects are limited
only by our imagination. Is it not time for able Muslims to support and
endow all God’s creatures?