Malaysians and the sin of canine contact

The status of dogs in Malaysian Muslim society is enough of an issue that it periodically appears in Malaysian media. In 2013, a Malaysian Muslim dog trainer was arrested for uploading a video wishing everyone a joyous Eid that featured her dogs. In 2014, a Muslim social activist invited fellow Muslims to “Pet-A-Dog” to treat their dire medical condition of canine phobia by petting a dog; he even invited a few Muslim scholars to explain how canine filth is removed so one can pray again. Many Muslims objected because touching dogs is a sin. At least one scholar involved claimed that the activist misled them about the true nature of the event.

And now, in 2017, media is abuzz over reports that a local religious body condemned a Muslim woman who adopted a stray dog, and demanded she repents for her sins.  Some say the religious body stepped outside of its authority, and that only one of the country’s official muftis can comment on the status of dogs in Islam, whether there is sin in keeping or touching them, and whether she needs to repent.

Here are a few samples of legal statements regarding the issue.

An article in The Malay Mail Online presents some of the religious body’s reasoning behind their statements:

…Muslims owning dogs and their needless contact with canines were “highly disturbing” as both were against Islamic teachings.

[…]

“We find her actions to be highly disturbing to Muslims here as they contravene our culture and the tenets of our school of jurisprudence”

[…]

…while Islam allows Muslims to cleanse themselves after touching dogs, this did not mean they may adopt the animals as pets.

[…]

Another The Malay Mail Online on Thursday takes issue with the above reasoning:

Muslim preacher Wan Ji Wan Hussin said that there is no part of the Quran or hadith which says that it is “haram” (forbidden) for Muslims to touch dogs.

“All we have is the Shafie denomination, in which it is stated that a person needs to wash themselves seven times, including once with earth water, if they touch dogs,” he wrote in a Facebook post.

“The issue of repenting does not arise for it does not involve a sin. Jakim does not decide what is a sin,” he added further.

[…]

Wan Ji also referred to a “fatwa” (edict) by renowned Islamic scholar Ibn Abd Al-Barr, who said that touching dogs is something that is “makruh” (offensive act).

“The fatwa does not list this as ‘haram’ (forbidden), but just as ‘makruh’ (offensive act, which is avoidable but not to be punished),” he added.

A few comments.

First, the Shafi‘i school of Islamic jurisprudence is the official and dominant school in the region. The first article alluded to this without naming the school, while the second article named it. Both articles acknowledge that this is the school to return to for knowing legal rulings.

Second, the Shafi‘i school is unanimous that it is not permissible to obtain and keep a dog except for the sake of hunting, herding, or guarding. I already wrote about this here on the blog here and here. Here’s a summary of the rulings: The various schools of Islamic jurisprudence agree that we are discouraged from keeping dogs and that we should not keep dogs without having a need to do so. This is due to the many ḥadīths mentioning that anyone who keeps a dog will lose rewards for each day he keeps it, unless the dog is for hunting, protecting livestock, or protecting crops. While the scholars agree that it is permissible to acquire dogs for the purposes mentioned in the ḥadīths (hunting, guarding livestock, and guarding crops), they disagree concerning other purposes. Ḥanafīs and Mālikīs tend to consider it offensive to obtain dogs for purposes other than the ones mentioned in the ḥadīths. Shāfiʿīs consider it unlawful to obtain dogs that do not fulfill a need similar to the ones mentioned in the ḥadīths (hunting and protecting). Ḥanbalīs consider it unlawful to obtain a dog unless it can carry out one of the tasks in the ḥadīths mentioned above.

Please see those articles for more information, along with references.

Third, the second article refers to a fatwa from Ibn Abd al-Barr. Ibn Abd al-Barr was a Maliki scholar, so his fatwa is of questionable relevance given that the author of the second article has already acknowledged the Shafi‘i school’s place in the region.

Fourth, while there is not express evidence in the Quran and Sunnah indicating that it is unlawful to touch dogs and therefore a sin, there is evidence that it is unlawful to deliberately soil oneself by coming into contact with filth (including dog filth) without having a need to do so. In Islamic texts, this is referred to as al-tadammagh (التضمخ بالنجاسة) or al-talattakh (التلطخ بالنجاسة). When needs do justify coming into contact with filth, contact is limited to what is actually needed. However, an object that comes into contact with filth is not itself rendered filthy unless the contact involves moisture, such as a wet hand or wet dog. A dry pure object coming into contact with dry filth, the pure object remains pure; such as a dry hand touching a dry dog.

Fifth, Shafi‘is consider dogs filthy. This includes the dog itself and its saliva, sweat, and waste. Malaysia tends to be hot and humid, and it rains frequently. This causes humans, dogs and other animals to sweat and be wet. It follows that contact between humans and dogs is likely to involve moisture. When moisture is known to be absent or doubted, one can assume its absence and that filth did not spread through the contact. But this is not the case when moisture is known or likely.

Sixth, keeping a dog without a legal justification (such as keeping it as a pet) or deliberately getting oneself filthy without need are both sinful and call for repentance.

Seventh, Islam encourages us to preserve non-human life. While this does apply to stray dogs and dogs in need of sustenance or care, it does not justify keeping them on as pets since it is not permissible to keep a dog except for the purposes of hunting, herding, or guarding.

UPDATE. Some readers take issue with me mentioning that a least one scholar felt mislead about the “I want to touch a dog” event because his particular was based upon being told it had Mais approval, which it did not. Its lack of support was mentioned in several articles, including the following report:

The Selangor Islamic Religious Council (Mais) was earlier reported to have approved the programme but today, the Selangor Mufti denied that Mais had given its seal of approval to the event.

Mr Mohd Tamyes Abdul Wahid said the council did not issue any approval letter to the organiser and had referred the matter to the Petaling Jaya City Council as it involved the usage of a public field, reported The Malaysian Insider. “No approval was given on our part to hold the ‘touch-a-dog’ programme,” he said.

One of the reasons I remember the event is because I was bombarded with lots of questions about legal rulings pertaining to dogs since I’m a Shafi‘i who writes about animals – including dogs.