Showing Kindness to All Creatures: Lessons From an Azhari Scholar & a Cat
Al-Imam Shams ibn Tulun al-Hanafi, in his book al-Fulk al-Mashhun fi Ahwal al-Shams ibn Tulun, designated a special chapter for prophetic narrations related to cats, and called it Izhaar as-Sirr fi ma Warada fil-Hirr (‘Explanation of the Secrets Found in What has been Narrated About Cats’).
If a cat came close to the Prophet ﷺ (peace and blessings be upon him), he would lower his vessel to it so that it could drink, and he would say, “They are [creatures] that [live and] move about amongst you.”
Here at al-Azhar ash-Sharif, the great imam, shaykh of Islam and scholar of the Malikis Abu al-Barakat Ahmad ad-Dardir was once teaching when a cat wandered between the rows of his students. One of the students pushed it away roughly. Imam Dardir was deeply affected and saddened by this, and got up from his chair to bring the cat next to him. He took out some morsels from his own food and set it in front of the cat for it to eat, and held it in his lap. From the next day on, whenever he entered the mosque to teach he would give the cat something to eat from his own food. More cats started to come, to the extent that after some time whenever Imam Dardir entered Masjid al-Azhar more than two hundred cats would surround him and stay at his feet. May God have mercy on him.
Here, at Masjid Muhammad al-Bik Abu al-Dahab which faces al-Azhar, there is an endowment specifically designated for food to be placed in containers at the top of the minaret for birds to eat from. Because they have a right to food.
[My teacher] Mufti Dr. Ali Jumu`ah taught us, when he was explaining the prophetic tradition about a woman who enters hellfire [for mistreating and starving] her cat, that the people of knowledge understand this text outside of its specifics. Imam al-Qarafi defines specifics as time, place, circumstance, and individual.
This text is not limited to women specifically. It mentions a woman who was punished, but does that necessarily imply that if a man harms an animal he will not be punished? Absolutely not. It would be the same whether [the action was committed by] man or woman, young or old. Anyone who mistreats a creature from the creatures of God will be punished. What is implied [by the text] is a teaching more generally applied to both men and women, to the extent that the word “human being” can be understood in place of “woman.”
Similarly, is such a punishment limited only to one who mistreats a cat, such that if someone mistreats a dog they would not be punished? No, they would in fact be punished whether they mistreat a cat or a dog or any other animal or creature of God.
[In the same vein,] is this ruling limited only to the one who mistreats animals? No, it would in fact extend to everything else in existence. Anyone who harms anything in existence is an aggressor against God’s creation.
The implications of this text help the believer understand—beyond this particular woman being punished for abusing a cat—that no human being should ever harm any other creature. No human being should harm any other creature.
If we went out and explained these teachings, and translated them for other civilizations, cultures, communities and peoples, [to people of varying] tongues and languages, we would be given the honor of being considered forerunners [in civilization]. This is because we not only call [beyond human rights] for the rights of animals, but we call for the rights of every object and thing in existence. A Muslim understands that every thing around him in creation has a due right upon him, and he or she is responsible before God to honor everything that exists—inanimate and animate, humans, plants, and animals.