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Why Is Iran Oppressing Pet Dogs and Their Owners?

Hostility toward dogs in Iran may be motivated by politics rather than religion.

A spate of news reports caught my attention this past week since they indicate increasing overt hostility toward pet dog owners in Iran. The first was covered in national media reports by Reuters, Fox News and others. It dealt with actions taken by Tehran Police Chief Hossein Rahimi who is quoted as saying "We have received permission from the Tehran Prosecutor's Office and will take measures against people walking dogs in public spaces, such as parks." He further went on to state "It is forbidden to drive dogs around in cars and, if this is observed, serious police action will be taken against the car-owners in question."

This is a continuation of oppressive and abusive actions taken against dogs and their owners since 1979 when Iran became an Islamic state. For example, in 2016 there were claims that officials were showing up at the homes of pet dog owners claiming that they were from a veterinary unit and these dogs needed vaccinations. The dogs were taken away, ostensibly for the purpose of vaccination and were never seen again.

The second was a more local report involving Sam Taylor, a resident of Burnaby, British Columbia, which is a municipality next to Vancouver, Canada where I live. She adopted a Maltese-type dog from Iran. When the puppy was 40 days old, somebody threw acid in her face and badly damaged her. The police refused to seek out and prosecute the animal abuser, claiming that keeping and caring for dogs is haram [forbidden] because, according to Iran's Sunni religious leaders, dogs are "unclean."

The truth of the matter is that Islamic beliefs about dogs are sometimes confusing and contradictory. The majority of both Sunni and Shi'a Muslim jurists consider dogs to be ritually unclean, but these beliefs are not unanimous. The jurists from the Sunni Maliki School disagree with the idea that dogs are unclean, and those of the Sunni Hanafi School are even more favorable, allowing the trade and care of dogs without religious consequences. However, all of these opinions are based not on the Quran itself, but on the Hadith, which are commentaries, analyses, and interpretations of the Quran. It is these Hadith that suggest that to be touched by a dog is to be defiled and requires an act of purification.

If we look directly at the Quran itself, it turns out that dogs are mentioned five times, and are never described as being unclean. In fact, the longest group of passages including a dog is quite positive, and it relates to the story of the Seven Sleepers. As the chronicle goes, during the short reign of the Roman emperor Decius, around A.D. 250, nonbelievers in the state-supported religion were systematically persecuted. In the city of Ephesus (now in western Turkey), seven faithful Muslim men fled to a cave on Mount Coelius. The pet dog of one followed them in their flight. Once in the cave, some of the men feared that the dog—Kitmir by name—might bark and reveal their hiding place, and they tried to drive it away. At this point, God granted the dog the gift of speech, and he said, "I love those who are dear unto God. Go to sleep, therefore, and I will guard you." So the men went to sleep while Kitmir stood guard.

When Decius learned that religious refugees were hiding in some of the local caves, he ordered that all the entrances be sealed with stone. Kitmir maintained his vigil, even while the cave was being sealed, and made sure that no one disturbed the sleepers. The men were forgotten, and they slept for 309 years. When they were finally awakened by workers excavating a section of the mountain, the dog finally stirred and allowed his charges to return to the world, which was now safe for their faith. According to Muslim tradition, the dog Kitmir was admitted to paradise upon his death. Certainly, an unclean animal would not be admitted to paradise.

The religious jurists looking at the Hadith to justify their hostility toward dogs often note that Mohammed once issued the order to "kill all dogs." This command from the prophet resulted from a historical incident, where the Governor of Medina was concerned about the number of stray dogs overrunning the city, particularly because of the threat of rabies and perhaps other diseases that were spread by the pariah dogs foraging through the garbage. At first, Mohammed took the uncompromising position that all the dogs should be exterminated and thus issued his command. On reflection, however, he mitigated his decree, for two major reasons. The first was religious: Canines constituted a race of Allah's creatures, and He who created the race should be the only one to dictate that it should be removed from the earth. The second, more pragmatic, was that some categories of dogs, particularly guard dogs, hunting dogs, and shepherd dogs, were useful to humans and had hence earned their right to exist.

SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd
Source: SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd

Islamic scholars note that some legends say that the prophet himself actually owned one or more salukis that he used for hunting. In fact, one passage in the Quran quite specifically says that any prey that is caught by dogs during a hunt can be eaten. No purification, other than the mention of Allah’s name, is required. So, in effect, Mohamed nullified his early ruling against the canine race.

Perhaps one of the most telling contradictions of the idea that dogs are unclean comes from another passage in the Quran. It says that a prostitute noticed a dog near a well. It was suffering from thirst and was near to death. She took off her shoe, dipped it into the well and allowed the dog to drink the water from it. Because of this act of kindness, Mohamed absolved her of all of her sins and allowed her to enter paradise. I find it hard to imagine that if he really felt that all dogs were evil, unclean, and were to be killed that he would bless that woman for saving a life that he had condemned.

Scholars suggest that there may be a historical reason for the antipathy of Islam toward dogs. Islam was not an indigenous religion in the Middle East and thus was imported into Iran. The dominant religion which stood in the way of the spread of Islam was Zoroastrianism, which was quite successful and had many adherents in the region. Dogs were prized by Zoroastrians and treated with great affection and reverence. If you look at the way history works it is often the case that the gods of the old religion are converted into the devils of the new religion. Mary Boyce, a British Zoroastrian scholar, wrote, “Another means of distressing Zoroastrians was to torment dogs. Primitive Islam knew nothing of the now pervasive Muslim hostility to the dog as an unclean animal, and this, it seems, was deliberately fostered… because of the remarkable Zoroastrian respect for dogs.”

It appears that the current upsurge of hostility against dogs might actually have a more secular, and political motivation. To understand this one only need to look at a fatwa [religious ruling] issued by Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi in which he said: “Friendship with dogs is a blind imitation of the West.” So perhaps politics, rather than religion, is behind the continuing oppression of dogs and their owners in Iran.

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