On Muslims and Miniature Horses — Spencer Dew

Last week’s Sightings explored religion’s horrific side, discussing a Supreme Court case regarding the constitutionality of videos showing animal deaths

By Spencer Dew|October 22, 2009

Last week’s Sightings explored religion’s horrific side, discussing a Supreme Court case regarding the constitutionality of videos showing animal deaths. The content of the videos under judgment ranges from demonstrations of hogs being killed by dogs (in hunting and training scenarios), to images of deadly dog-on-dog fights and sadistic acts such as setting puppies on fire and the sexually fetishistic crushing of kittens and bunnies, in addition to the insects that Sightings addressed. Repulsive and inhumane though such acts are, last week’s Sightings argued that they should nonetheless be understood as expressions of a religious sensibility.

Sightings is certainly no stranger to addressing the degraded and degrading aspects of religion, and last week’s foray into the underground world of twisted kicks and sociopathic justifications forces us to consider how we are bound to find violence against kittens and puppies more repellent and wrong than the crushing of, say, roaches and centipedes. Indeed, not only do certain animals inspire a different emotional reaction, but the privileged cultural place of the animals we often keep as pets also is reflected in the law. “Cruelty to animals,” as a legal term, is most often charged against those who harm domesticated animals and pets – not beetles or spiders. The animals we live with and love occasionally inherit property and wealth and are treated, frequently, as members of the human families with which they live.

Such love, devotion, and respect for the individuality of non-speaking creatures is a cultural trait, and the history of religions is rich with examples of animals revered and reviled. In Islam, for instance, it is widely held that dogs are ritually unclean. Recently, this has led to tension between devout Muslim shopkeepers and cab drivers and another group of people with a special relationship with dogs – the blind. In Australia, religiously-motivated refusal of the entry of seeing-eye dogs into cabs or shops led to a series of much-publicized complaints and a creative response by one of that country’s major guide dog organizations: Guide Dogs Queensland invited a number of local clerics for a behind-the-scenes view of the training and use of guide dogs. Such exposure was not designed to counter the belief that after contact with dog saliva one must purify oneself before prayer, but merely to build some understanding of the value of service dogs for the visually impaired.

“God Almighty has created the dog and without a doubt this certain breed has changed many things in many people’s lives and is a great benefit in society,” said Imam Mohammed Akram Buksh, reflecting the sentiment of the delegation. As a religious thinker his opinions reflect a texture of tradition. While hadith – traditions the authority of which are rooted in the life of the Prophet – hold that dogs are unclean, they also speak in favor of certain sorts of working dogs (such as watchdogs and dogs used for hunting). There is even an account of the Prophet taking care to prevent the trampling of a litter of puppies, emphasizing the need to show mercy on other forms of life (and offering a moral rebuke to those discussed in last week’s column!).

Religious sentiments differ, of course, and just as some Muslims keep pet dogs, some mosques have installed special rooms where guide dogs wait as the blind humans with whom they work go inside and pray. Yet the case of Guide Dogs Queensland offers an inspiring example of civil dialogue. As was shown in last week’s “Sightings,” religion sometimes manifests in brutal, ugly ways; but another facet of religion is creative compromise, and innovation within the continuity of tradition. Thus, as a parting image, consider the case of a young, visually impaired Muslim woman living in Dearborn, Michigan. In order to avoid the ritual impurity of dogs, she employs a guide horse. Cali, her miniature horse – about 2 ½ feet tall – performs the duties of a seeing-eye dog, leading her around town and even riding with her on buses. “This is a really awesome little horse,” she says. Indeed.


Spencer Dew is an instructor in the Department of Theology at Loyola University, Chicago. He holds a PhD from the University of Chicago Divinity School, where he was a Martin Marty Center Junior Fellow (2007-08) and editor of the Religion and Culture Web Forum (2008-09).

Any readers still troubled by images from last week’s Sightings may take comfort in photos from the American Guide Horse Organization, here: http://www.guidehorse.org/photo_page.htm