Animals in Islamic Tradition and Muslim Culture

The Quran and the prophetic tradition have included the obligatory ways to protect and treat animals since more than 1400 years ago. According to Islamic doctrine, humanity is not permitted to do just anything to living things [1] and must only take their lives if necessary  [2]. Moreover, there are Islamic restrictions on manipulating animals, such as limited hours of work  [3] . Hunting of young birds for enjoyment is not allowed  [4]. From the Islamic point of view, animals symbolize God's might and wisdom, and mankind must give attention to their health and living conditions. Some Islamic manuscripts express that animals have their own position in the creation hierarchy  [5] . Moreover humans are responsible for their needs, including animals' health and feed. Here, I will give examples from the Quran and Hadith to understand Islamic attitude towards animals.

Six of the Quran’s 114 chapters (called sûras [6] ) are named after animals: the crow (sûra 2), the Cattle (sûra 6), the Bee (sûra 16), the Ant (sûra 28), the Spider (sûra 29, and the Elephant (sûra 105). Among the animal species mentioned by name in The Quran one may find camels, cattle, horses, mules, donkeys, sheep, monkeys, dogs, pigs, snakes, worms, ants, bees, spiders, mosquitoes, and flies  [7] . Moreover, one of the striking expressions which the Quran uses in referring to animals is that they constitute a “community” (ummah) [8] just like humans. It is especially noteworthy that this concept, which is a highly significant theme in Islamic tradition and literature, should also be used for animals  [9] . The Quran states that;

“There is not an animal [that lives] on the earth, nor a being that flies on its wings, but [forms part of] communities like you. Nothing have We omitted from the Book, and they [all] shall be gathered to their Sustainer in the end.” [10]

According to the divine rule inspired by God, like human beings, animals have their own individual and social beliefs on the basis of which they always act to survive and save themselves from extinction  [11] . Building societies which is an observed commonality among all animals is not simply because of instinctive and deterministic aspects of life such as nutrition, growth, and reproduction, but has another goal outside material life, i.e. preparing for the afterlife  [12] .

It has been stated in The Quran that;

"We have not created the earth and sky and whatever among them for fun, but because of justice [wisdom and necessity]; however most of them are not aware of it.” [13]

 The last two Quranic verses state the point that all parts of the universe have their own positions and nothing is created in vain. God says, "There are [manifest] signs [of truth] in the creation of [humanity and numerous types of] animals scattered [on the earth] for those who believe [in God]"  [14] . From an Islamic viewpoint, as it has mentioned under the title “Ayats (verses, signs) of God”, not only animals but also the whole of God's creations are signs of His might and wisdom. For example, God says, "Do they see how [useful] a camel is created?” [15] Several Quranic verses invite humans to learn lessons from animals, birds, ants, and honeybees. Regarding this point Pourmohammadi states that a believer in God learns from studying animals as divine signs and in addition to opening up new horizons of knowledge and science, he/she deepens his/her faith  [16] .

In the aforementioned passages, we have alluded to the Quranic anthropology of humans. Even if man is the vicegerent (khalifa) of God on earth it does not certainly mean that the whole of nature and its wealth are intended for man’s benefits only. This can clearly be seen in the following verse:

And the earth He has put down (laid) for the creatures.  Therein are fruits, date-palms producing sheathed fruit-stalks (enclosing dates).  And also corn, with (its) leaves and stalk for fodder, and sweet-scented plants. [17]

 In these verses, the meaning of anam, which means “the creatures,” is very important for our study. From this verse it can plainly infer that the bounties of earth and all other sources of wealth are not merely for man’s use, but for all living beings of God that live in the same world. As it is easily understood after these verses, contrary to prevailing modern views [18] , there is no obvious distinction between humans and non-humans; they are both creatures of the same Creator.

If we look at the teachings of Prophet Muhammad, we can find a great deal of hadith regarding animals. This study will only mention some of these hadith. The message of the subsequent hadith seems to be that compassion for animals provides Muslims with an opportunity to obtain heavenly recompense.

"A man was walking on a road when he became very thirsty. He found a well and went into it and drank and came out. There was a dog panting and eating earth out of thirst. The man said, 'This dog has become as thirsty as I was.' He went down into the well and filled his shoe and then held it in his mouth until he climbed out and gave the dog water to drink. God thanked him for it and forgave him (for his sins)." They said, "Messenger of God, do we have a reward for taking care of beasts?" He said, "There is a reward for every one with a moist liver (that is, for every living thing)." [19]

Another hadith reports Muhammed as saying, “"There is none amongst the Muslims who plants a tree or sows seeds, and then a bird, or a person or an animal eats from it, but is regarded as a charitable gift for him." [20] In a different hadith, it is stated that if anyone mistreats an animal then he or she could go to hell. It is mentioned in  Bukhari that a woman who tied down a cat and did not let it feed was punished with going to hell  [21] . Muhammad is also reported to have said, "There is no man who kills [even] a spar­row or anything smaller, without its deserving it, but God will question him about it [on the Day of Judgment]." [22]

Muhammad also warned his followers against using animals as pulpits, saying “Do not treat the back of your animals as pulpits, for God Most High has made them subject to you only to convey you to a place which you could not otherwise have reached without much difficulty.” [23] When traveling, Muhammad encouraged his followers to ride slowly if there was vegetation, so that their animals could graze, and quickly when in the desert; at night, they were to be pro­tected from insects. Acts of cruelty such as branding or hitting an animal in the face were forbidden  [24] . Muhammad appears to have accepted that animals have an emotional life which needs to be respected. One time a Companion of the Prophet was showing some bird's eggs he had found, while the mother bird fluttered about wildly. The Prophet is reported to have said, "Who has caused this bird distress by taking the eggs from her nest? Return them to her." [25]

In another example, Muhammad spoke against the cutting of a horse's fore­lock, by saying that “Do not cut the forelocks, manes, or tails of horse, for their tails are their means of driving flies, their manes provide them with warmth, and blessing is tide to their forelocks  [26] . He once criticized his wife, Aisha, for being harsh with her camel, by saying "It behooves you to treat the animals gently." [27] Concerning wild animals, Muhammad prohibited hunting for sport. Wild animal skins were not to be used as rugs or saddle covers, although the skins of domestic animals could be used for these purposes presumably since they have already been killed for a "legitimate" purpose, namely as food  [28] .

If we look at the whole picture of hadiths we can see that the Prophet recommends the protecting of some animals while asks for others to be killed. Though there are orders which ask some animals to be killed, if we carefully pay attention to hadiths, is only permitted when humans are faced with specific dangers. Muhammad disallowed the killing of frogs, because he believed their croaking was in praise of God. Likewise he forbade Muslims to kill magpies, because they were said to have been the first to perform the fast. Ants and bees were to be preserved as they were mentioned as the recipients of divine revelation  [29] . One famous hadith has God reprimanding one of His prophets for needlessly destroying an ant colony:

Abu Huraira reported God's Messenger (may peace be amongst the earlier Prophets) and he ordered that the colony of the ants should be burnt. And God revealed to him: 'Because of an ant's bite you have burnt a community from amongst the communities which sings My glory.' " [30]

Other animals which Muslims are not allowed to kill include hoopoes, swallows, and bats. On the other hand, Muhammad allowed his followers to kill certain animals  includ­ing rats and mice, scorpions, crows, kites, wild dogs, lions, leopards, lynxes and wolves  even when in a state of ritual purity (ihram) [31] during pilgrimage  [32] . Muhammad is also reported as having ordered that in cases of bestiality, both perpetrator and victim were to be killed:

The Prophet (pbuh) said: If anyone has sex­ual intercourse with an animal, kill him and kill it along with him. I (Ikrimah) said: I asked him (Ibn Abbas): What offence can be attributed to the animal? He replied: I think he (the Prophet) disapproved of its flesh being eaten when such a thing had been done to it. [33]

To show sensibility of goodness to the animals even when you have to kill them for  ritual sacrifice such as that customarily performed by Mus­lims on the occasion of 'Id al-Adha , it is said by Shadid ibn Aws based on one of Muhammed’s hadith that;

Shaddid ibn Aws said: Two are the things which I remem­ber God's Messenger (may peace be upon him) having said: "Verily God has enjoined goodness to everything; so when you kill, kill in a good way and when you slaughter, slaughter in a good way. So every one of you should sharpen his knife, and let the slaughtered animal die comfortably." [34]

Yet, on another incident, when Muhammad saw a man sharpen­ing his knife while an animal waited nearby, he rebuked him, "Do you wish to slaughter this animal twice, once by sharpening your blade in front of it and another time by cutting its throat?" [35]

In short, it could be said that the main scriptural sources of Islam have a sensitive body of rules about animals. First, the Quran takes the relationship between humans and other animal species quite seriously. Animals are accepted as having feelings and interests of their own. A single act towards them can be the result going of to heaven as well as hell. Based on these sources it would seem that the Islamic ethical system extends moral responsibility to animals.


[1]   Quran, 55: 10-12.

[2]  Ecology and religion, p. 20.

[3]  Mishkât al-masâbîh , 829.

[4]  Pourmohamadi, SH. (2002) Vast of Animal Rights in Islam and West, Islamic Law and Feghh Journal, 40,  p. 31

[5] İbrahim Özdemir, (1995) Münir Yükselmiş, Çevre Sorunları ve İslam , (Environmental Problems and Islam) Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı Yayınları, Ankara, p. 17.

[6]  Sura (sometimes spelt "Surah”, plural "Suwar”) is an  Arabic  term literally meaning "something enclosed or surrounded by a fence or wall." The term is commonly used to mean a "chapter" of the  Quran , each of which is traditionally ordered roughly in order of decreasing length. Each Sura is named after a word or name mentioned in an verse, of that 'Sura'. Some 'Sura' were surprising to Muslims at the time of the 'Revelation'; for example, the elevated status of  Mary  - a Jewish woman and the mother of the Christian  Jesus  at the time of the 'Revelation' - which is mentioned in  Sura 19  ("Maryam/Mary").

[7] Animals in Islamic Traditions and Muslim Cultures , p. 11.

[8]  An ummah is a community or a people. It is used in reference to the community of Believers or Muslims across the globe because they are brothers and sisters in Islam.

[9] Çevre Sorunları ve İslam , (Environmental Problems and Islam) Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı Yayınları, Ankara, p. 17.

[10]  Quran, 6: 38.

[11]   Pourmohamadi, SH. (2002) Vast of Animal Rights in Islam and West, Islamic Law and Feghh Journal, 40, p. 31

[12]  Reza Gharebaghi, Muhammad Reza Vaez Mahdavi, Hasan Ghasemi, Amir Dibaei and Fatemeh Heidary, (2007)  Animal rights in Islam , Proc. 6th World Congress on Alternatives & Animal Use in the Life Sciences August 21-25, 2007, Tokyo, Japan

[13]  Quran, 44: 38-39.

[14]  Quran, 45: 4.

[15] Quran, 88: 17.

[16] Vast of animal rights in Islam and west , p.32

[17] Quran, 55: 10-12.

[18] See title Analyzing the Gap between theory and practice, philosophical basis

[19] Muvatta Malik , 49: 10: 23.

[20] Sahih Bukhari, 3; 39: 513.

[21] Çevre Sorunları ve İslam (Environmental Problems and Islam ) , p. 44.

[22] Sunan Nisa'i, 7:206, 239.

[23] Mishkât al-masâbîh , 829.

[24] Animals in Islamic Traditions and Muslim Cultures , p. 20.

[25] Ibid, p. 17.

[26] Sunan Abu Dawood, 14: 2536.

[27] Sahih Muslim, 4: 2593.

[28] Animals in Islamic Traditions and Muslim Cultures , p. 19.

[29] Ibid, p. 20.

[30] Sahih Muslim, 26: 5567, 5569; Sahih Bukhari, 4:54:536; Sunan Abu Dawood, 41: 5247.

[31] Ihram is, in  Islam , a sacred state which a  Muslim  must enter in order to perform the major pilgrimage ( Hajj ) or the minor pilgrimage ( Umrah ). A pilgrim must enter into this state before crossing the pilgrimage boundary, known as  Miqat , by performing the cleansing rituals and wearing the prescribed  attire .

[32] Muwatta Malik, 20:26:89-92.

[33] Sunan Abu Dawood, 38: 4449.

[34] Sahih Muslim, 21: 4810.

[35] Animals in Islamic Traditions and Muslim Cultures , p. 26.