I started to write this essay during America’s July 4th 2013 firework celebration of Independence. Victims of post-traumatic stress disorder, including many veterans of war along with countless wild animals, in-home dogs and cats and stabled horses, suffered the trauma of percussive incendiaries of this nation-wide pyrotechnic human indulgence. The previous winter several flocks of roosting birds were reported being killed, flying blindly into the night and colliding with trees after they were terrified by New Year’s Eve fireworks. What is it about human nature that we continue to indulge ourselves without concern for the consequences, and especially to the potential harm to fellow creatures?
To hear the choral songs of one dawn-sprung, sunset-haloed birds in my own garden or in Africa, India, or wherever your feet and your heart may have taken you, is a very different kind of celebration. Perhaps you may feel the glory and joy this living Earth can birth, and celebrate a natural, if not unconventional, communion. Perhaps too, you might glimpse the mysterium tremendum of this cosmic realm: And then ask yourself why you are here, for what purpose. Then perhaps, you may choose to be a One who strives to harm no other One.
This simple state of wild bird appreciation and One- mindfulness is the antithesis of the rationalized egocentric One of Ayn Rand’s sanctified Objectivism and competitive individualism ( see Atlas Shrugged Penguin NY 2004, first published in 1957)) embraced by many transnational corporate and political followers. The less literate are simply unaware, ignorant of the interconnected nature of reality of which they are a co-inhering participant; a realization of Self-in-Other accomplished by more civilized societies in times past through the vision quest, as with native American Indian tribes, various spiritual teachings and rites of initiation into responsible adulthood. Where are these practices today?
Persian Moslem (Sufi) poet Farid Ud-Din Attar, in his narrative poem The Conference of the Birds, captured, from an Islamic and panetheistic perspective, the sanctity and dignity, as well as the numinous and transcendental nature of reality, through his communion with the birds as subjects, not objects. Objectivism turns animals into things, and in the famous words of the late Fr. Thomas Berry, “The universe is not a collection of objects but a communion of subjects” (See his book The Dream of the Earth, San Francisco Sierra Books, 1988). As it says in the Qur’an 6:38 “There is not an animal (that lives) on the earth, nor a being that flies on its wings, but (forms part of) communities like you. Nothing have we omitted from the Book, and they (all) shall be gathered to their Lord in the end”.
Human insensitivity and objectivism make the world insensate. We all have sufficient senses to save the birds and the Song of the Earth, and to be sensible and sensitive to hear the silence of the birds when they are gone after we have destroyed their forests and poisoned the land. But in order to adapt to the human-Earth condition we turn off our senses to the holocaust of the animals, becoming increasingly insensate, unaware when the birds are singing and deaf to their silence.
It is with these thoughts in mind that I believe that it is more important than ever to examine the truths, values and perceptions by which we chose to live, and in particular bring to light those basic moral codes and ethical principles concerning our relationships with animals and the natural environment which lie at the heart of the world’s major religious traditions. This is because animals, domesticated and wild, are caught up in a holocaust of suffering and extinction which for all people of conscience, atheists and theists, followers of Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism in particular, as well as indigenous animists, is a call to action. Any and all actions to reduce, prevent and prohibit animal suffering and environmental harms—moving in the direction of planetary CPR (conservation, preservation and restoration) —are in our own enlightened self-interest. When we demean or harm animals and the environment we do no less to ourselves. This is because human health and well-being (physically, mentally, spiritually, socially and economically) are dependent upon environmental and animal health and well-being (as detailed in my book Healing Animals & The Vision of One Health CreateSpace/Amazon.com 2011).
Now when we look at the excerpts identified, translated and interpreted by scholars of various religious texts, notably the Qur’an by Masri, we find a paucity of citations relevant to our treatment of animals and the natural world. Such omissions may speak more to the concerns and focus on human behaviour and moral conduct than on the anthropocentric world-view and andromorphic conception of god/divinity. But one ethical principle, which I see as the spiritual core of religious doctrine developed during the ‘axial age’ (900 BCE to200 BCE) and incorporated into all the world’s major religions is the Golden Rule: do not do to others what you would not have them do to you. (See Karen Armstrong’s The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions. New York, Knopf. 2006),
This is the first injunction awakening empathy or fellow-feeling toward other beings. It put the spark to conscience which ignited the moral sensibility of compassionate right action and relationship, the duty of care and the sense of fairness and justice. An indirect affirmation of the benefit of extending the Golden Rule to include other sentient beings is captured in the Qur’anic statement “Whoever is kind to the creatures of God is kind to himself.” Mohammed taught “A good deed done to a beast is as good as doing good to a human being; while an act of cruelty to a beast is as bad as an act of cruelty to a human being.”
I recall the first time that I met Al-Hafiz B.A.Masri in the early 1980s at a conference in London where he quipped to me that “All animals are true Muslims because they are obedient to their Creator.” I later read that a bee is a Muslim precisely because it lives and dies obeying the sharia that God has prescribed for the community of bees. Native American Indians, notably the Ojibwe, see animals, the wolf in particular, as exemplars of such obedience, for in being true to their natures they are following their “original instructions”.
With the willpower to disobey, moral codes and ethical principles had to be aquired epigenetically for human communities to survive and thrive. But while the human species may arguably be less biologically constrained from causing harm and of being subject to the laws of nature than most other species, there is clear evidence in many other species of varying degrees of prosocial empathy and moral/ethical sensibility, ( see M.W.Fox Animals & Nature First. CreateSpace Books/Amazon.com 2011). It is when we violate the Golden Rule because of an individual or collective lack of self-constraint and mindfulness concerning the rights, interests and intrinsic value of fellow beings that we demean and harm our own humanity; unless, that is, we chose to re-define being human as being a global predator or parasitic infestation rather than a compassionate Earth-custodian and protector which is implicit in the Qur’an according to Masri and others. For example, Muhammad opposed recreational hunting saying: “Whoever shoots at a living creature for sport is cursed.” (Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, entry Islam, Animals, and Vegetarianism. Bron Taylor, ed, New York, Continuum, 2005).
Suppose the Qur’an had been written a decade ago, or the Torah of Judaeism or New Testament of Christianity. Would they instruct that we give equal consideration to our relationships with and responsibilities for animals and the environment as to our own kith and kin, and to our neighbors regardless of race, tribe and belief? Religious skeptics and some historians might contend that religions have done more to promote separation and conflict than unity and respect, and that until recently I would say that this is certainly true when it comes to our relationships with and responsibilities for animals and the broader life community of Earth. Secularization of religious beliefs in civic, judicial, legal and business affairs is the hallmark of civil society and a sane and humane civilization. (See John B. Cobb Jr Spiritual Bankruptcy: A Prophetic Call to Action Nashville, Abingdon Press 2010). But secularism, in contrast, according to Prof. Cobb, seeks to exclude the wisdom of the core teachings of the worlds great religious traditions from being incorporated into society as an antidote to materialism and rationalized selfishness.
Justice—just treatment based on compassion and the Golden Rule, must be extended voluntarily to all species if such a secular society is to remain viable and human civilization progress. To honour and respect all of God’s creatures and creation is the basic creed of all current monotheistic traditions. But religious fundamentalists generally oppose such secularization and extension of spiritual and ethical values to embrace animals and the environment. In 1989, for insance, Dominican priest Fr. Matthew Fox,
( see his book Original Blessing: A Primer in Creation Spirituality, Santa Fe NM Bear & Co 1986), an advocate of Earth-or Creation-centred spirituality ( on the heels of the Liberation theology movement) was silenced for one year by the future Pope, Vatican doctine enforcer, Cardinal Ratzinger on the grounds of promoting paganism. But the panentheism Fox envisioned ( see also Michael W. Fox, The Boundless Circle: Caring for Creatures & Creation, Wheaton IL The Theosophical Publishing House, 1999) is quite different from animistic paganism and pantheism.
For me, this event underscores the vital importance of separating the religious from the secular and of saving the spiritual and ethical truths of every religious tradition from the politics and prejudices, vested interests and harmful perceptions and values of archaic religious dogma and law.
Masri, in his book Islam and Animals, and in his life’s work, sought to rectify these ‘sins’ of omission and comission by focusing the spotlight of relevant Qur’anic teachings and aphorisms on the plight of animals in this modern age, addressing ritual slaughter in particular. This is also an issue for the followers of Judaeism and Sikkhism, and is one example where, under the impetus of sound science, reason, and in the name of compassion, religion-based practices can be either made more humane or abandoned. For religionists to resist such secular progressive influences, which do not undermine belief or faith, is to resist the very essence of human evolution; a resistance which can make religious belief and praxis archaic, cruel and irrelevant anachronisms rather than being ethically relevant and a spiritual light awakening and guiding the concerns of the human heart toward a community of compassion govered by the Golden Rule.
The practice of Islam, as well as of the two other monotheistic traditions, namely, Judaism and Christianity, has become severely corrupted over the centuries. Linear, hierarchical, dualistic and patriarchal modes of perception, cognition and behaviour have eroded the pristine vision of pure and unadulterated monotheism. However, if we take, for example, Jesus’ actual teachings, then what G.K. Chesterton once said about Christianity may hold a grain of truth for most other religious traditions: Namely, that “there is nothing wrong with Christianity except that no one has ever tried it.”
I have witnessed ritual slaughter in Canada, the U.S., Tanzania and India, often being executed with neither skill nor reverence, the absence or presence of which makes little or no fundamental difference to the helplessness and terror of the animal. Either way, the Golden Rule is broken. I saw it in the eyes of the animals, the abject fear, and as I projected, the betrayal and disbelief; and in the voices of kids ( young goats) crying with the voices of human children while being dragged in tied-up bunches of fives and sevens across the slaughterhouse floor to the flashing knife. And I saw in the eyes of the slaughtermen, laboring in an arena of our own consumptive making yet fit for neither man nor beast, an emptiness of cold resolve and protective indifference which harmed the souls of both.
When we realize that in harming others we harm ourselves: All wounds are ultimately self-inflicted and we begin to heal ourselves by changing our behavior so that we stop harming others, be they other humans, non-human beings, natural systems, lakes forests savannas, swamps and the elements themselves, which we have made increasingly toxic. The waste we burn, the rains that fall, the water we drink and irrigate our crops with, like the soil and air, are all contaminated with human created chemical and radioactive wastes, even to the extent that we now have an ozone hole and pesticide rain. We have so altered the ecological dynamics and metabolism of the planet that we now have life-and future-threatening climate change/global warming, a kind of Earth-fever that we can no longer ignore. There is much healing to be done, and suffering prevented, and this book is a major call and contribution to these reasonable and just ends.
Muslim and other communities have suffered from cynophobia, fear of dogs, for millennia. This is, in part, due to the threat of dogs suffering from hydrophobia ( rabies) which is transmitted to other animals and humans in the community when, in the ‘frenzy’ stage of this viral brain disease, before they become paralytic and die in all consuming seizures, they bite whom ever they can reach. Such infected dogs were thought to be posessed by evil spirits. Cynophobia is also associated with the belief that dogs ( along with pigs) are unclean because they eat carrion, including human corpses. A Bantu Muslim in Tanzania told me that “Our people look down on the Hehe tribe because they will eat dog meat. If you eat dog meat you could be eating one off your relatives or ancestors.” Yet no such dog-eating taboo is evident in some regions of China and the far east, or for ritual purposes with some native American Indian tribes. Cultural relativity in human regard for and treatment of animals must be discarded for a more unified, bioethical sensibility.
The majority of both Sunni and Shi’a Muslim jurists consider dogs to be ritually unclean but outside their ritual uncleanness, individual Islamic fatawa or rulings, have expressed that dogs be treated kindly or else be freed, ( see ‘Aalim Network: Dogs on line).
Great strides are needed to improve the health and welfare of dogs in urban and village communities, Muslim and other, around the world, through public education, anti-rabies and other vaccinations, anti-mange and other parasite treatments, and spay/neuter for much needed population control rather than using poison bait and periodic round-ups for mass extermination. Afro-American Muslims in St. Louis, among others in the poor black community, continue to work with Stray Rescue, in collaboration with city police and the FBI, to stamp out pit bulldog fighting and other animal abuses.
As a first year British veterinary student visiting Tangier, Morocco in 1957 I happened on a dying kitten who had been placed on a roadside shrine. While examining the poor creature and deciding on the best course of action, an Imam miraculously walked by and I asked him where the nearest veterinary clinic or animal shelter might be. He said “What can be done? It is the will of Allah,” and walked on. I euthanized the kitten with a rock when he was out of sight. Such fatalistic acceptance of animals’ suffering I find incompatible with the spirit of compassion and loving kindness implicit in the Golden Rule.
To end suffering is an act of compassion, yet this same attitude of fatalistic non-intervention I faced decades later working with my wife Deanna Krantz at her animal refuge and veterinary clinic in S.India. It was more prevalent in the Hindu and Jain communities than in the Moslem, where the opinion was frequently voiced that one should not interfere with another’s fate or karma. Hindus and Jains were also averse to mercy killing because it violated their principle of ahimsa, of non-harming. To violate this principle would make them spiritually impure, a belief which put self- interest before compassion. Muslims, who were not averse to killing animals for food, along with members of India’s lower castes, I found more receptive to mercy killing. But this Jain and Hindu aversion has resulted in centuries of suffering for India’s ‘sacred’ cows ( for documentation see India’s Animals: Helping The Sacred & The Suffering by Deanna L. Krantz & Dr. Michael W. Fox, Create Space Books//Amazon.com, 2016).
Mahatma Gandhi, no doubt with the best intentions from his religious and socio-political perspective, opposed the British colonial authorities during their end of Raj era exodus and attempts to smooth a democratic transition for India’s “independence”, on two significant ethical and economic concerns. The British sought to abolish the caste system, which Gandhi contended would destroy Hiduism, as would the British proposal to set up cow, calf and spent working ox/bullock slaughter facilities that would be as humane and hygienic as possible, throughout the country. Muslims and members of the ‘scheduled’ castes, who had no religious taboo against meat eating cow beef in particular, would engage in the slaughter and marketing of the byproducts of the dominant Hindu and Jain cow-economy ( of accepted milk consumption and use of cows’ male offspring for pulling carts and ploughs). But because of such opposition, to the grave detriment of cow welfare, cattle slaughter was outlawed in all states across India, with the exception of the states of Kerala and West Bengal, where to this day these poor animals are force-marched and crowed into trucks and railroad cars, many collapsing and dying in transit as my wife and I have documented, on their way to ritual slaughter.
Today, especially for those poor animals too weak for such a journey, and the hundreds of thousands of unwanted male calves which are born in the process of bringing cows into milk, are slaughtered by Muslims and others in clandestine facilities across India, operators with insufficient funds to bribe the police and politicians being routinely prosecuted in waves of enforcement against such ‘illegal’ slaughter. By being forced underground, sanitation and humane standards are often lacking in these backyard operations. Their legalization, upgrading and decentralization fo cattle slaughter in India would do much to help reduce the suffering of India’s most revered animal. Reverence as ritual or sanctimonious rehetoric is hypocracy when there is no compassinate action.
A clarifying distinction must be made here: India, with an estimated 46% of children being physically and mentally stunted from chronic malnutrition, is now the world’s leading exporter of ‘beef’. But this meat is from buffalo which are not held sacred, like the cow/cattle species, by Hindus or Jains; so decentralized, local slaughter of this species is permitted, as well as for sheep, lambs, goats, kids and poultry, pigs being killed and consumed by the lowest and poorest in the caste system, and by Chistians and tourists.
As a spiritual discipline of exemplary moral conduct, self-discipline and ethical sensibility, Islam, liberated from its internal conflicts, has much to offer the secular world, not through totalitarian or absolutist, doctrinal imposition but through applying the core teachings in the Qur’an, as Imam Masri sought to accomplish, to our regard for and treatment of animals. Most urgently, the more affluent and influential members of this religious tradition need to help improve the health and well-being of domestic animals in poor communities, setting up shelters, veterinary, educational, legal and inspection services to address and rectify the plight of the beasts of burden, of free roaming community dogs, in addition to improving the husbandry, handling, transportation and slaughter of farmed animals.
Since from an Islamic perspective all creatures are the childern of God, then I see no reason why all wild animals should not be treated with the same devotion as a cherished trained falcoln; or why any informed Muslim would support the cruel methods of livestock and poultry factory farm production, and harmful aquaculture practices of the modern transnational food industry.
In addition to the arts, mathematics, poetry, philosophy and music, reflective of a depth of aesthetic and indeed visionary powers that are the hallmark of a highly evolved civilization, the Persian/ Arabian followers of Islam have given the world the most magnificent of horses which bear their name, Arabian. Now in the name of compassion and gratitude I call upon this affluent equine community to help prevent the needless injury, killing and abandonment of racehorses who, East and West, have become slaves and victims of a profit-driven industry which races them at far too young an age before their skeletal structure has fully developed to avoid serious injury when racing at high speeds for which they have been selectively bred and trained, and in too many instances even medicated to contine to race after injury. Crippled ones are abanoned in the streets in some countries, or are slaughtered for the French, Japanese and other consumer markets that equate horse meat with virility, or else they are processed into a manufactured pet food ingredient under the ubiquitous label, ‘animal protein’ or ‘meat byproducts’.
In conclusion, and with all respect to Islamists and followers of other religious traditions, I urge that we consider the aphorism attributed to the Buddha that the hallmark of true religion is maitri, loving kindness to all beings. In these difficult times locally and globally, as addressed in my book Animals & Nature First ( CreateSpace / Amazon.com 2011) we all have an opportunity to serve the greater good and to put into practice in our daily lives and in our spheres of professional acivity and aspiration, the Golden Rule.
We are spirits experiencing life in human form. Other creatures are spirits experiencing life through different forms of being but in essence there are no significant differences between them and us except with regard to our capacity to chose to cause great harm or good. This means that we should give all living beings equal and fair consideration and acnowledge their sentience, their capacity to suffer, to be harmed, as well as their individual fears and joys, and their entitlement, when under our care, to be given a quality of life in accord with their physical and emotional needs. They are not lesser beings but kindred spirits sharing the travails of life and enriching our own as companions, totems, teachers and healers, and in the wild, serving to maintain the dynamic integrity, beauty and vitality of ecosystems and a healthy environment for all.
About the Author
Dr. Michael W. Fox is a graduate of the Royal Veterinary College, London, and holds doctoral degrees in medicine and ethology/animal behavior from the University of London, England. He is author of over 40 books, writes the nationally syndicated newspaper column Animal Doctor, is a member of the British Veterinary Association, American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association and Honor Roll Member of the American veterinary Medical Association. He was a tenured associate professor of psychology at Washington University St Louis until leaving in 1976 to work full-time in animal and environmental protection His website is www.drfxvet.com