Dogs vs. Cats
A few months back, I stumbled upon an article that mentioned that keeping dogs as pets in Islam is haram. I spent a little time investigating that possibility, and it does have legs. Pardon the pun, but there is some realism that Muslims have restrictions on dogs, not all dogs but some dogs. It's not a cultural phenomenon; it's a religious taboo.
To find out how the restrictions are followed globally, I searched for some statistics that would paint the picture more realistically. Current statistics on dog ownership in Islamic countries are hard to find. Companies like Euromonitor and Statista sell that data, but I was lucky and found some data from 2012 that made the point. A census of small dogs (weighing less than 20 pounds or 9 kg) per 100,000 people was available. Small dogs are considered pets, while large dogs are considered work animals. Some large dogs can be pets, too, but overall, large dogs have an economic purpose. We'll get into that later.
1. Brazil, the most dog happy country globally, had small dogs at a rate of 10,100 per 100,000 people. Portugal was second, but I'll skip down to the U.S.
2. The U.S. had 7,100 small dogs per 100,000 people.
3. Malaysia had 1,200 small dogs per 100,000 people
4. Turkey had 300.
5. Indonesia had 40.
6. Egypt had 20.
7. Saudi Arabia had 10.
8. The Maldives had 0.
The next question is why? Why does Islam put a restriction on pet dogs? The answers start to make sense if we look through the holy scriptures and hadith.
The Qur'an about dogs
Stories about dogs are mentioned twice in the Qur'an, both positive. In Sura 5 (Chapter 5), the Prophet details what is acceptable to eat and what is not. In verse 4, he mentions that eating what birds (falcons) and beasts of prey (dogs) catch and bring back to you is acceptable.
In 18:17-18, the Prophet tells a story of a child who was protected by a dog guarding the entrance of a cave. From both verses, it is evident that dogs can be kept for hunting and guarding.
Hadith on Dogs
While the Qur'an represents the apex of Islamic law, there is much detail it does not cover. Consequently, the reports of Muhammad's sayings and actions were tirelessly collected by scholars from subsequent generations to supplement the Qur'an. The corpus of hadith is enormous; individual collections contain thousands of these records. There were numerous hadith about dogs collected by al-Bukhari and Muslim. Other hadith from other scholars are out there, but al-Bukhari and Muslim represent the most reliable sources, and those are the ones I reviewed.
From Muslim, Book 24, #5248
Maimuna reported that one morning Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) was silent with grief. Maimuna said: Allah's Messenger, I find a change in your mood today. Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) said: Gabriel had promised me that he would meet me tonight, but he did not meet me. By Allah, he never broke his promises, and Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) spent the day in this sad (mood). Then it occurred to him that there had been a puppy under their cot. He commanded and it was turned out. He then took some water in his hand and sprinkled it at that place. When it was evening Gabriel met him and he said to him: you promised me that you would meet me the previous night. He said: Yes, but we do not enter a house in which there is a dog or a picture. Then on that very morning he commanded the killing of the dogs until he announced that the dog kept for the orchards should also be killed, but he spared the dog meant for the protection of extensive fields (or big gardens).
From that short story, it is evident that angels would not visit a home with dogs in it. Muhammad made it mandatory that dogs are not kept inside a person's residence. To give specific guidance, other hadith specifically said that the only dogs allowed were ones who guard the fields or the herds. Muhammad even added an incentive. Depending on the hadith you refer to, keeping a dog as a pet will reduce your favorability with Allah.
While not a reason to get rid of dogs, their saliva is considered unclean in some countries. Should a dog lick you or drool on you or licks a utensil, hadith suggest washing it seven times and rubbing it with earth (or soap) the eighth time.
So, dogs can be used for hunting, herding, and guarding. However, one other use has emerged – those of service dogs. It is a fundamental tenet of Islam that everything is permissible, except those that have been explicitly banned. Based on this, most Muslims would agree that dogs are acceptable for drug interdiction, security, bomb-sniffing, and service to the disabled.
There is one last lesson about dogs that must not be overlooked. Several hadith mention stories about taking care of animals in distress. In one case, the Prophet traveled with his army and came across a female dog and her puppies. The Prophet posted a guard near her with orders that the mother and puppies not be disturbed.
As for cats, Muhammad had one. One story relates how the cat was sleeping on the Prophet's prayer rug. The Prophet did prayers on the bare floor without waking the cat. Muhammad was a cat person.
Humans did not always keep dogs for affection, love, or cuteness. For most of history, they were not pets. They were laborers, economic necessities, hunters, and street cleaners. Apart from dogs that sniff drugs, aid the blind, or chase criminals, very few of us today experience dogs as anything other than that joy that licks our face in the morning.