Cats in Islamic Culture

This article describes the various cultural representations associated to cats in Islamic civilisation and shows examples of the respect, love and understanding with which cats were treated and regarded in Islamic history. This original attitude has developed throughout the history of Islam and crystallised in strong cultural and mystical dimensions, of which we find evident and numerous traces in Islamic art, science, medicine, and zoology.

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by Cem Nizamoglu

"Cats have been worshipped as gods or persecuted as evil"[1] throughout the history of mankind without any measure of understating. Especially in medieval Europe, cats and women were believed to be in league with Satan; as a result, they were burned, tortured and killed in many unimaginable ways, because people believed that in doing so, they could stop the evil and the diseases. For example during the "Black Death" plague, many cats were killed in large numbers, but in fact, this only made things worse[2].

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Figure 1. Photos in Lorraine Chittock, Cats of Cairo: Egypt's Enduring Legacy. Introduction by Annemarie Schimmel. New York: Abbeville Press, 2001.

On the other hand, there was another picture from a forgotten time in which cats were respected, loved and treated with understanding. From a nick name "Abu Hruyrah" (father of cats) to a small "Cat figure on an Ottoman Ring Holder", there are numerous references to cats throughout Muslim civilisation, but these are mostly lost or hidden. In this article we cite some examples of how cats were treated and regarded by Islam and reveal the source of this treatment.

At the beginning of her introduction to Lorraine Chittock's book Cats of Cairo, Annemarie Schimmel wrote: "When the British orientalist E. W. Lane lived in Cairo in the 1830's, he was quite amazed to see, every afternoon, a great number of cats gathering in the garden of the High Court, where people would bring baskets full of food for them. He was told that in this way, the qadi (judge) fulfilled obligations dating back to the 13th-century rule of the Mamluk sultan al-Zahir Baybars. That cat-loving monarch had endowed a "cats' garden" where the cats of Cairo would find everything they needed and liked. In the course of time, the place had been sold and resold, changed and rebuilt; yet the law required that the sultan's endowment should be honoured, and who better than the qadi to carry out the king's will and take care of the cats?

The tradition continues. To this very day, every visitor to the Islamic world is aware of the innumerable cats in the streets of Cairo —and of Istanbul, Kairouan, Damascus and many other cities. (…) We often find cats in the mosque, and they are gladly welcomed there not only because they keep the mice at bay [4]."

Cats were very common among the Muslims: "It seems that from early days the Arabs kept cats as pets. Otherwise we could not understand why (according to one early historian) the Prophet's young widow, A'isha, when complaining that everyone had deserted her, added: ‘Even the cat has left me alone' [3] ." In contrast to other civilisations, "they were companions of most of the Muslims… from a housewife to a great scholar, they were loved, not only for their beauty or elegance but also for their practical purposes. For example, Muslim scholars wrote odes for their cats because they protected their precious books from attack by animals such as mice [4]."

They were respected as members of the family and protectors of the houses against deadly insects and harmful animals such as scorpions. More importantly, they were not just companions or pets, they were also examples to Muslims, people who submit themselves to One God, such as in the story of Ibn Babshad:

"The grammarian Ibn Babshad was sitting with his friends on the roof of a mosque in Cairo, eating some food. When a cat passed by they gave her some morsels; she took them and ran away, only to come back time and time again. The scholars followed her and saw her running to an adjacent house on whose roof a blind cat was sitting. The cat carefully placed the morsels in front of her. Bashbad was so moved by God's caring for the blind creature that he gave up all his belongings and lived in poverty, completely trusting in God until he died in 1067 (oral tradition recorded in the late 14th century by the Egyptian theologian and zoologist Damiri (d. 1405)" (Lorraine Chittock, Cats of Cairo, p. 40).

And thousands of Sufi (mystical) stories include cats; lovely stories such as sheikh (mentor) Ashraf's Madrasa (school) cat, which helped the teachers to bring order to the school, even sacrificed itself for the sake of the dervishes (the disciples or students of that time), or the tale of the Iraqi Sufi Shibli from the 10th century about his dream in which his sins were being forgiven for saving a kitten's life.

These tales contain important lessons and messages. Sufis were not just clerics; they were also teachers, mathematicians, doctors, consultants, scientists and more, who studied most of the sciences available to them at their time. They talked about astronomy or molecules in their stories, to the point which, for example "purring is often compared to the dhikr, the rhythmic chanting of the Sufis [4]", which is used in many early Islamic hospitals as a healing process. Modern science recently discovered the healing powers of the cats' purr: "…optimal frequency for bone stimulation is 50 hertz. The dominant and fundamental frequency for three species of cats' purr is exactly 25 to 50 hertz: the best frequencies for bone growth and fracture healing. The cat's purr falls well within the 20-50 hertz anabolic range, and extends up to 140 hertz [5]."

Cats were famous in Islamic art. Muslim painters, especially calligraphers, used brushes which were "preferably made from the fur of long-haired cats that were bred for this purpose which applied as opaque, jewel-like colours in a remarkable array of hues" [6]. Some examples of Islamic art depicting cats follow:

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Figure 2. An Ottoman Miniature.[Source]

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Figure 3. Bronze incense burner from Seljuk period: representing a cat dating from 577 H (1181-1182), by Seljuq Ja'far ibn Muhammad ibn 'Ali, Khorasan (eastern Iran). The head comes off so that the incense can be placed inside, and the arabesque interlace on the body and neck has been pierced to allow the aroma to escape. The back, neck and chest are all perforated to allow incense to escape. On the cat's chest is an inscription in the Kufic script which says: "Valour, power, and glory."[Source]

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Figure 4. Incense Burner, Afghanistan, Late 10th cent.[Source]

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Figure 5. Humour of "Salman of Sawa" or the cartoons from 'Ubayd Zakani's time. Illustration from a contemporary Mush va Gorbeh (Mouse and Cat) by 'Ubayd Zakani (died ca. 1372 CE), "one of the most remarkable poets, satirists and social critics of Iran".[Source]

The love and respect for cats was not only reflected in art, but also in legends. Some call these legends "superstitions" but scientifically myths give a glimpse of the daily life of ancient people. Some examples can be seen below:

"The qariina (which means good sprit) is believed often to assume the shape of a cat or dog or other household animals. So common is the belief that the qarina dwells in the body of a cat at night-time, that neither Copts nor Moslems would dare to beat or injure a cat after dark. (Many stories are related of the terrible consequences that follow beating a cat. These stories are credited even by the educated).

"Many precautions are taken to defend the unborn child against its mate, or perhaps it is rather against the mate of the mother, who is jealous of the future child…" (Influence of Animism on Islam: An Account of Popular Superstitions, by Samuel M. Zwemer, London : Central Board of Missions and Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1920, chap. 6). [Source]

In the myth of Shah Ismail Safavi, the vehicle of the divine inspiration of Ismail is a miraculous cat:

"[W]ith him always he has a cat, and woe to him who gives it any offense. [Ismail] has a tent, with 365 or 366 entrances, round like the world, and, in the morning, no portal is opened save the place through which the cat every day passes… It is said that [Ismail] has as his guide a spirit in that cat, who counsels him and works many miracles…" (Medieval Christian Perceptions of Islam -A Book of Essays, edited by John Victor Tolan, London/New York: Routledge, 2000)

Yes, the cat figures in many ways in Islamic history from art and literature, garment to coins, accessories to carpets and in the daily life of mystics. There are also examples from the forgotten Islamic history of science. For example the contribution to medical knowledge of the "10th century doctor al-Zahrawi's with the invention of the "cat gut" cannot be overlooked"[7].

Another example is from the 9th century, cats were included in medieval Islamic science books called Kitab Al-Hayawan (Book of Animals) of which Mehemet Bayrakdar said:

"The Kitab Al-Hayawan was the object of many studies, and had great influence upon later Muslim scientists, and via them upon European thinkers (especially upon Lamarck and Darwin). And it became the source for later books on zoology. Al-Jahiz's many sentences are quoted by Ikhwan al-Safa and Ibn Miskawayh, and many passages are quoted by Zakariyya' al-Qazwini (1203-1282) in his ‘Aja'ib al-Makhluqat, and by Mustawfi al-Qazwini (1281- ?) in his Nuzkat al-Qulub; and al-Damiri in his Hayat al-Hayawan' [8], and still continues to inspire the scientists today. For instance, Professor. Dr. R. Kruk whose inaugural lecture on "A Map of a cat" was also inspired by Islamic manuscripts and scientific references including Kitab Al-Hayawan. These books also had the role of a cultural drive for the progress of research in modern science in zoology, biology, evolutionary theories, medicine, veterinary, anatomy, etc.

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Figure 6. A lion eating the entrails of the carcass of a cow. The drawing fits the text: "The lion is the king of the beasts of prey, and it eats carcasses, and it begins by drinking the blood, then it opens the stomach and eats what is in it of food and saliva and the intestines together with the evacuation" (Al-Jahiz, Kitab al-hayawan (The Book of Animals ), Cairo, 7 vols., 1323-1324 H)[9]. [Source]

These books not only covered a specific subject as scientific textbooks, but also acted as enlightening guides just like most other early Muslim scientific books. An example is a line from Al-Jahiz's Kitab Al-Hayawan: "and the cat profits so much from its resemblance to the king of beasts that one way of dealing with approaching war elephants is to release a quantity of cats from a bag[10]."

There are also records of institutions, dispensaries and trusts built to protect animals; among which were cat houses. One can say that not only did the West bring science, art and goods from the East, they also brought cats from all over the early Islamic lands where cats were thriving. For example, in the UK the true wild cat species existed only in Scotland and Ireland but there are now millions of cats living in UK.

It seems impossible to squeeze this subject in a short essay; therefore it is better to look into the source: Where did this love and understanding towards cats come from?

In the Islamic world, the cat was respected and protected because cats were loved by the Prophet Mohammed. From a very simple piece of advice to his actions, there are numerous reports concerning the Prophet Mohammed and cats, resulting in their subsequent acceptance among Muslims.

Prophet Mohammed advised the people to treat their cats (pets) as a member of their family, and by this he meant to take a good care of them. Not only by words, but also with his actions he was a very good role model. These exemplary behaviors became so popular that they turned to stories in time. One of the most famous story about them is Muezza, the Prophet Muhammad's favorite cat, recounts the call to prayer was given, and as the story goes Prophet Mohammed went to put on one of his robes, he found his cat sleeping on one of the sleeves. Rather than disturbing the cat, he cut off the sleeve and let him sleep. When he returned, Muezza awoke and bowed down to Prophet Muhammad and in return he stroked him three times.[11] It is also believed that when Prophet Muhammad gave sermons within his household he would often hold Muezza in his lap.

Both his followers and the "Prophet enjoyed the presence of cats"[12]. For example in the early 7th century lived Abu Hurayrah, famous as a companion of the Prophet and a major narrator of his sayings. He was given his nickname Abu Hruyrah (literally father of cats) by the Prophet because he used to care for a small male cat. ("Cat" word comes from the Arabic word qit but a tiny male cat is called hurayrah). There is also a legend about this in which a cat saved the Prophet's life from a deadly snake. The story is narrated by Annemarie Schimmel as follows:

"There are variants of the story of how Abu Huraryra's cat, which he always carried in his bag, saved the Prophet from an obnoxious snake, whereupon the Prophet petted her so that the mark of his fingers is still visible in the four dark lines on most cats' foreheads, and, because the Prophet's hand had stroked her back, cats never fall on their backs" (A. Schimmel, Deciphering the Signs of God, Albany, NY, 1994).

"The cat is such a clean animal that according to authentic narrations one may make ablution for Prayer with the same water that a cat drank from. Yet, it is known that some people nowadays have opposed the traditions of the Prophet by taking up the evil practices of torturing and poisoning cats. In Islam, the punishment for such actions is severe. Islam holds a special place for cats as lovable and cherished creatures, and mistreating a cat is seen as a serious sin. Al-Bukhari reported a hadith regarding a woman who locked up a cat, refusing to feed it and not releasing it so that it could feed itself. The Prophet Muhammad said that her punishment on the Day of Judgment will be torture and Hell[13]."

There are many records of the Prophet's love for cats and his relationship with them. "The prophet's fondness for cats is often referred to, and whether or not the hadith that ‘Love of cats is part of the faith' is genuine, it reflects the general feeling for the little feline [4]." There are also many testimonials regarding many other animals in Islam such as horses, camels, bees, ants and even flies.

Fundamentally the life of the Prophet Mohammed is the understanding of the Quran itself. There are some verses associated with animals and references regarding the responsibility of the human domain in the world and its contents which include balance, justice, mercy and much more moral content. To show mercy to animals is the part of the faith of Islam. Prophet Mohammed taught mercy to all of God's creation. The Quran was the way of his life. We should consider the message and the sprit of Quran which reflects on all messengers of Allah to mankind. The mercy and fear of Allah is reflected in their characters therefore above all the reader should consider what is mentioned in Quran wholly because Islam does not only mean - as described in a dictionary - a religion "based on the words and religious system founded by the prophet Muhammad and taught by the Koran, the basic principle of which is absolute submission to a unique and personal god, Allah[14]." It also means "straight/right/true path (to God)" which covers the history of the world and beyond.

Thus, this essay can only give some references regarding cats at a certain time line in living Islamic History. This period starts from the life of the "messenger" of Allah, the prophet Mohammed, to people who followed him thereafter.

Further Reading:

Bibliography (alphabetical):

  • Chittock, Lorraine: Cats of Cairo: Egypt's Enduring Legacy. Introduction by Annemarie Schimmel. New Yor: Abbeville Press, 2001.
  • Powe Allred, Alexandra: Cats' Most Wanted: The Top 10 Book of Mysterious Mousers, Talented Tabbies, and Feline Oddities. Potomac Books, 2005.
  • Schimmel, Annemarie: Deciphering the Signs of God. A Phenomenological Approach to Islam. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994.
  • Schimmel, Annemarie: Mystical Dimensions of Islam. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1975.
  • Schimmel, Annemarie: And Muhammad Is His Messenger: The Veneration of the Prophet in Islamic Piety. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

Text References:

[1.] Cat: Myths and Superstitions
[2.] Glossary of Religion and Philosophy: Black Death
[3.] Muttaqun On-Line, "Cats: According to Quran and Sunnah"
[4.] Lorraine Chittock, Cats of Cairo (as PDF)
[5.] The Importance of Sound in Healing
[6.] Islamic Art: Late Islamic
[7.] Cryptic Subterranean: Islamic Inventions
[8.] Salaam Knowledge: al-Jahiz
[9.] Note that lions are referred to as "Big Cats": "Big Cats in Detail"
[10.] Jahiz's Kitab al-Hayawan (book on animals)
[11.] by Georgie Anne Geyer: "When Cats Reigned Like Kings" Page 4 and 28
[12.] "Power of Words: Prophet (s.a.w.) and a cat"
[13.] Islam Web , "Islam Teaches the Love of Animals"
[14.] Islam – Definitions", in Dictionary.com:

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