History of the Cat in Islam:
Unlike Christianity in the Dark Ages, Islam took a much kinder view of the cat primarily due to the Prophet Mohammed’s (PBUH) (570-632AD) compassion for the enigmatic beast. There are several stories of Mohammed interacting with cats. The first is that his favorite cat, Muezza, fell asleep on his sleeve and rather than awakening her to go to pray, he cut off the sleeve of his robe. Another is again of Muezza, who supposedly bowed to him to thank him for some kindness, and Mohammed by passing his hand over her back three times, gave all Tabby cats stripes on their backs and the ability to always land on their feet (Geyer, 2004, p.28). Another common legend states that the M on a tabby’s forehead stands for the M in Mohammed. Even one of Mohammed’s closest friends, Abu Horeirah, “the father of the cat,” was so nicknamed by Mohammed because of his fondness for a particular cat that he always carried around with him. Consequently, after being constantly called by this name, his real name has disappeared from history.
There are several Hadith† referring to the cat. And according to Hadith – Bukhari 3:553, narrated by ‘Abdullah bin ‘Umar, “A woman entered the fire because of a cat which she kept and did not give it food or water, nor did she set it free to eat of the vermin of the earth.” Two later translations have it that the woman “was punished because she imprisoned a cat until it died,” or “entered Hell because of a cat she tied up and did not feed.” And in several other Hadith it is expressly stated that Mohammed had a firm respect for all animals. Hadith – Muwatta 2.13 states “Yahya related to me from Malik from Ishaq ibn Abdullah ibn Abi Talha from Humayda bint Abi Ubayda ibn Farwa that her maternal aunt Kabsha bint Kab ibn Malik, who was the wife of the son of Abu Qatada al-Ansari, told her that once Abu Qatada was visiting her and she poured out some water for him to do wudu ††with. Just then a cat came to drink from it, so he tilted the vessel towards it to let it drink. Kabsha continued, “He saw me looking at him and said, ‘Are you surprised, daughter of my brother?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He replied that the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said, cats are not impure. They intermingle with you.’ ” In yet another Hadith narrated by ‘Aisha, Ummul Mu’minin Dawud ibn Salih ibn Dinar at-Tammar quoted his mother as saying that her mistress sent her with some pudding (harisah) to Aisha ( the wife of Mohammed) who was offering prayer. She made a sign for me to place it down. A cat came and ate some of it, but when Aisha finished her prayer, she ate from the place where the cat had eaten. She stated: The Messenger of Allah said: It is not unclean: it is one of those who go round among you. She added: I saw the Messenger of Allah performing ablution from the water left over by the cat. In stark contrast, Christians in the Dark Ages believed that the cat licked the back of toads and drank from where the Christians drank and defiled their water causing long illnesses. If a cat even sneezed or a drop from its eye went into the water, it would cause sickness and death. For Christians, the cat was dirty (Williams, 1967).
Through a story passed down orally to Ad-Damiri, Muslims’ acceptance and respect for the cat is quite clear. “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. Babshad 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.” (related orally to 14thc. and zoologist Damiri) (Chittock, 2001, p.40).
Ibn Alalaf Al Naharwany, a poet of Bagdad who died around 930AD, wrote about the mischievous adventures of his ill fated cat. Al Naharwany metes out a much harsher solution to the problem than Agathias did when faced with the death of his own partridge that his cat killed in 550AD. When Al Naharwany’s cat tried to kill one of his doves, he coldly shot it dead, and then wrote this poem.
To A Cat
Poor puss is gone! Tis fate’s decree—-
Yet I must still her loss deplore,
For dearer than a child was she,
And ne’er shall I behold her more.
With many a sad presaging tear
This morn I saw her steal away,
While she went on without a fear
Except that she should miss her prey.
I saw her to the dove house climb,
With cautious feet and slow she stept,
Resolved to balance loss of time
By eating faster than she crept.
Her subtle foes were on the watch
And mark’d her course, with fury fraught,
And while she hoped the birds to catch,
An arrow’s point the huntress caught.
In fancy she had got them all
And drunk their blood, and suck’d their breath;
Alas! She only got a fall,
And only drank the draught of death.
Why, why was pigeon’s flesh so nice,
That thoughtless cats should love it thus?
Hadst thou but lived on rats and mice,
Thou hadst been living still, poor Puss.
Curst be the taste, howe’er refined,
That prompts us for such joys to wish,
And curst the dainty where we find
Destruction lurking in the dish.”
In another poem, Abbasid Prince Ibn Al MuTazz, who was assassinated one day after becoming king, mourns the loss of his cat. “Cat you went and you didn’t come back. You were like a son to me! Loving you so, how could we forget you?” Moreover, during the Middle Ages Sultan Baybars (1260-1277), the first ruler of the Turkish Mameluk dynasty, so loved cats that within the mosque that he built in a northern district of Cairo there was a garden where stray cats were fed every day between 12 and sunset.
† In Islam, a traditional account of things said or done by Mohammed or his companions.
†† The ritual of washing before prayers in Islam.