The Lighter Side of Islam

In an excerpt from his new book on the changing Middle East, a former New York Times Cairo bureau chief explains the wisdom behind religious fatwas—including a ban on owning a dog.

05.06.09 6:59 AM ET

Perhaps my all-time favorite wrestling match between mullahs issuing repeated fatwas and Iranians openly flouting them concerned dogs. The 1979 revolution was supposed to bring forth the first pure Islamic state, so every few years the more zealous clerics would decide that pet dogs had to go. First, religious texts condemn them as unclean, plus the love Westerners shower on pets made them inherently suspect. Iran was hardly alone in this matter—the religious police in Saudi Arabia were also canine-averse. In fact, dogs are not particularly popular anywhere in the Arab world because the culture of holding them in low regard affects everyone, including Christians and others. But Iranians in general are much more defiant than Arabs on such social matters.

Read Neil MacFarquhar on the changes mores of the Middle East

I had learned that no self-respecting Iranian ayatollah reaches his exalted rank without producing a tome roughly the size of the Manhattan telephone directory describing in minute detail the prescriptions for leading a good Islamic life. I had also been told that some of the information on matters of hygiene comes across as entirely practical, like if while bathing you use your thumb to wash out your anus, how far you can slide it in before you move from ablution (Virtue!) to masturbation (Vice!).

Publishers in the holy city of Qom have helpfully translated the works of the grandest ayatollahs into English, so I went to a large bookstore there to research dog fatwas. The references were remarkably uniform—to the extent that they read like one had cribbed from the next—in placing dogs high on the list of unclean things that any good Muslim shuns. In addition, the Islamic Propaganda Office in Qum published an abridged compilation of fatwas called “Everything You Need to Know.” Its list of things that all Muslims should avidly avoid was topped by beer, wine, infidels, and dogs.

Emerging from the bookstore, I spotted a glass storefront labeled “The Information Bank,” which the Times’ endlessly resourceful Iranian reporter, Nazila Fathi, informed me was a computerized reference library for religious queries. Thrilled, I went straight in to ask “What does Islam say about dogs?” The obliging staff plugged the word “dog” into their computers and all the official citations came whirring out. The Quran contains just one vague reference to a tribe that owned dogs. But the Hadith, the often-disputed sayings of the prophet and his contemporaries that form the basis for much of Islamic law, mentioned dogs no fewer than 430 times.

A few references noted positive characteristics such as their loyalty and herding abilities. So guard dogs and sheep dogs are condoned. But most hadiths denigrated dogs as najis, Arabic for "unclean." “Angels do not enter a house that has either a dog or a picture in it,” read one. Another said, “Whoever keeps a dog except for hunting, guarding cattle, and crops will lose one large measure of his reward every day,” i.e., a pet dog is a serious impediment to entering paradise.

The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday: Unexpected Encounters in the Changing Middle East. By Neil MacFarquhar. 359 pages. PublicAffairs. $26.95.

The religious texts warned about the perils of owning even acceptable dogs. If a guard dog licks one of your dinner plates, for example, serious scrubbing is involved to restore its cleanliness. “When the dog licks the utensil, wash it seven times, and rub it with earth the eighth time,” advised one hadith. Dog owners get around this one by claiming the hadith is surely being taken out of context, the seventh-century dog in question probably had rabies or something. Also the arguments go on endlessly whether the Prophet Mohammad was issuing an all-encompassing edict, or just expressing an opinion befitting a very limited, one-time situation.

My initial interest in the whole doggie debate was sparked by a mid-ranking provincial cleric whose Friday sermon fulminating against four-legged should-not-be-friends was featured on the national news. “I would like to thank the honorable police and judges and all those who worked to arrest dog lovers and to confiscate short-legged dogs in this city!” he thundered, going on to suggest that the martyrs for Islam who died in the Iran-Iraq War, which had ended a good 13 years earlier, should consider themselves doubly blessed because they died before enduring such insults to Islamic values. “Happy are those who became martyrs and did not witness the playing with dogs!” the mullah ranted. “Now in our society, women wear hats and men hold dogs!” (Some of the more daring Iranian women had tried to replace their mandatory headscarves with hats.)

Dog owners told me that a wave of fatwas condemning dogs spilled out about every two years. With the number of dogs available sharply limited since dog sellers were treated as lowly criminals, a black market thrived. I met one well-to-do woman in north Tehran who had let her tall black poodle wander a little too far, only to watch in horror as two men on a motorbike swooped past and grabbed the pooch. The woman found her pet for sale a week later in Molavi, a commercial district near the downtown bazaar and home to the main animal market—selling mostly birds but also exotic creatures like snakes, squirrels, and monkeys. Thieves trafficking in kidnapped dogs worked out of their car trunks. They deployed much like Western drug dealers, sidling up to pedestrians to whisper, “Dog, got a dog.” One who approached me was more specific. “Got a German shepherd,” he whispered in English right in my ear.

When I asked pet-shop owners about dogs, I always got a quick reaction. “We have all kinds of dogs, except the kind that wear turbans,” laughed one.

When I asked pet-shop owners about dogs, I always got a quick reaction. “We have all kinds of dogs, except the kind that wear turbans,” laughed one. On the sidewalk I bumped into a municipal worker cruising the market looking for dogs to confiscate. He explained to me that the owner had to produce a license and a record of shots to stay any execution. He was immediately denounced by a man waving a dog license and demanding his animal back. When the city worker demurred, the man started screaming and grabbed the municipal worker around the throat, choking him and prompting police intervention.

One bystander suddenly turned to me and said quietly, “There are no laws in the way they take away dogs, just like people.” Not all fatwa fights provided such a vivid illustration of the way a country actually works. More often I was left scratching my head trying to figure out their importance. Sometimes fatwas came across as so strikingly obvious that I wanted to explore what was the point exactly, to understand why these abbreviated pronouncements were so cherished.

From the book The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday by Neil MacFarquhar. Excerpted by arrangement with PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2009.

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Neil MacFarquhar served as New York Times Cairo bureau chief from 2001 through 2005 and is now its U.N. bureau chief. His Middle East expertise predates his Cairo assignment: He grew up in Libya and covered the region for the AP, including stints in Israel and Kuwait. He is the author of a novel, The Sand Café.