Islamic Studies Animals
Sarra Tlili
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 August 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0211


Animal themes feature prominently in Islamic textual sources, a state that reflects simultaneously the centrality of animals to human life and the great interest Islamic tradition took in the subject. Animal themes are traceable back to several sources. Pre- and early Islamic poetry and culture gave birth to philological and genealogical works recording the various names and observable features of domestic animals and tracing the genealogy particularly of horses. The other two legacies of pre-Islamic sources consist of a wealth of proverbs that use animal characteristics to communicate ideas about life and human behavior, and the hunting panels of the journey section in pre-Islamic qasida (ode), from which the genre of hunting poetry emerged. The Qurʾan and the Hadith became the main sources for legal injunctions and ethical teachings pertaining to animal welfare, dietary laws, animal-related ritual purity injunctions, and animals as assets. The translation movement of the first few centuries of Islam introduced works from other world cultures, most notably the Indian and the Greek traditions. The two most important works are the Sanskrit Fables of Bidpai and Aristotle’s zoology. The first introduced the fable genre into Arabic and eventually other Islamic literatures, whereas the latter became the foundational source for veterinary treatises, hunting manuals, and zoology works. The wealth of primary literature notwithstanding, a substantial part still exists in the manuscript format, and many works seem to be no longer extant. This may be one of the contributing factors to the relative dearth in modern scholarship on the topic. The scarcity of research on animals in law and ethics is particularly striking in view of the breadth and depth of relevant discussions in primary sources and the growing interest in animal ethics in the modern period. The field seems to be gaining momentum, however, as the early 21st century has witnessed the publications of several book-length studies on animals, some of which with a significant bearing on ethical questions.

General Overviews

To date, Foltz 2006 is the most useful introductory work. Mikhail 2014 is an in-depth study focusing on a particular historical context and specific animal categories. Capper 2016 provides a brief critical overview of Islam’s position on animals. Masri 2007 is written from a faith-based standpoint. Benkheira, et al. 2005 is more into textual interpretations. Foltz 2007 and Giese 2001 are brief introductory articles that are useful for undergraduate students and lay people.

  • Benkheira, Mohammed Hocine, Catherine Mayeur-Jaouen, and Jacqueline Sublet. L’Animal en islam. Paris: Les Indes Savantes, 2005.

    Discusses themes such as animal impurity, symbolism of animals’ names, and animals as a source of food.

  • Capper, Daniel. Learning from a Tiger: Religious Experiences with Nature. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2016.

    DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520290419.001.0001

    Chapter 2 (“The Donkey Who Communed with Allah”) highlights the tensions that have shaped Islam’s attitude to nonhuman creation, especially animals.

  • Eisenstein, Herbert. “Animals.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, THREE. Edited by Gudrun Krämer, Denis Matringe, John Nawas, and Everett Rowson. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2014.

    A general survey of animal themes in classical sources, including pre-Islamic poetry, the Qurʾan, and adab works. The article highlights premodern Muslims’ practical uses of animals and assesses their scientific zoological knowledge, among other things. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Foltz, Richard. Animals in Islamic Tradition and Muslim Cultures. Oxford: Oneworld, 2006.

    Approaches the tradition from an animal advocacy standpoint and situates the subject to animals in Islam in the larger animal rights debate.

  • Foltz, Richard. “Les animaux dans l’Islam.” In L’être humain, l’animal et la technique. Edited by Marie-Hélène Parizeau and Georges Chapouthier, 63–76. Quebec: Les Presses de l’Université de Laval, 2007.

    A brief overview of animals in scriptural sources, works of jurisprudence, mysticism, literature, and art. The chapter touches briefly upon the questions of vegetarianism and animal rights.

  • Giese, Alma. “Betrachtungen zur Seele der Tiere im islamischen Mittelalter.” In Die Seele der Tiere. Edited by Friedrich Niewöhner and Jean-Loup Seban, 111–132. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz, 2001.

    Approaching the topic from the angle of whether or not animals in Islam are considered to have souls, the author provides a brief and useful overview of the tradition’s attitude toward nonhuman species.

  • Masri, al-Hafiz Basheer Ahmad. Animal Welfare in Islam. Leicestershire, UK: Islamic Foundation, 2007.

    Written from a combined animal advocacy and faith-based perspective, the book highlights traditional themes of compassion toward animals and reinterprets themes that seem incompatible with the principle of compassion (such as killing for food).

  • Mikhail, Alan. The Animal in Ottoman Egypt. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

    An excellent study that assesses the traumatic impact of Ottoman Egypt’s transition into modernity on livestock, dogs, and charismatic animals.

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