SHAFAQNA – 47 percent of American households own at least one dog, and 20 percent own a second. But in Dearborn, a town with a large concentration of Arabs and Muslims, there are far less barks heard around the neighborhood.
A dog’s place in Islam has been heavily debated, with many Muslim families believing that owning, touching or being in the presence of a dog is in conflict with their religious beliefs.
The Quran does touch on the topic of dogs and their place in Islam, but Muslims seem to have differing interpretations of those passages.
A hadith by Prophet Muhammad seems to be a common reference point for many Muslims. The hadith translates as: “If a dog licks the vessel of any one of you, let him throw away whatever was in it and wash it seven times.”
“Najis,”, an Islamic legal term which translates to “unpure” in English, is the central concept in this argument. Many Islamic scholars agree that the saliva of a dog is ritually impure. Because of this factor, most Muslims tend to believe that a dog cannot coexist in a household with them.
A dog’s fur is also widely believed to be unclean amongst Muslims, as dogs routinely shed. It could be common for a dog’s fur to get on clothes, furniture and other inhabitable territories. Many Muslims also believe that hands need to immediately be washed after coming in contact with a dog.
While all these factors have made the dog an unpopular pet for Muslim families in the Middle East, for American Muslims, the tides seem to be slightly turning. In recent years, a growing number of American Muslims have selected a dog as their pet of choice.
Muslims who don’t see a problem in owning a dog will reference a passage in the Holy Quran about a group of young believers who resisted pressure to worship others beside God, and took refuge in a cave with a canine companion. The dog guarded the entrance and kept them out of harm’s way.
In this passage, the Quran refers to the dog as a soul and spirit as well as a loyal companion to human beings. In modern times, many can interpret the story to mean that dogs are a good source of protection in a household.
The Quran also mentions using a dog to aid in hunting. It states that any prey caught by hunting dogs may be eaten without any need for further purification. Naturally, the prey of a hunting dog comes into contact with its saliva, which could contradict the argument that their saliva is impure.
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Local resident Amal Hammoud Berry, who lives with her husband and two children, has two dogs that she says are part of the family.
Their first dog, Gizmo, a 10-lb male Maltese, was given to her son Sami after he asked for one as an incentive to learn how to swim.
The Maltese breed seems to be a popular dog choice for Muslim families. Usually weighing just 3-8 lbs, a Maltese does not have a fur coat typical of most dogs. Instead, it has hair that doesn’t shed, but will occasionally need grooming as it grows.
Berry says the family fell in love with the dog so much that they wanted a second one. Four years later, they brought home Lola, a female German Shepherd that now weighs 90 lbs.
Berry has faced plenty of public scrutiny from local Muslims for owning two dogs, whether it be glaring eyes or unkind words. While her two dogs are very much people friendly, some of the local Muslims have made it clear that the feeling is not mutual.
“We refer to it as the ‘Doggie Debke.’ Whenever they see a dog, all the Arabs and Muslims do that thing where they get up and start jumping from spot to spot in chaos,” Berry says. “We’ve actually had people say that they didn’t want to come over because of the dog or people giving us funny looks when we are walking with a dog. People will say stuff in Arabic not knowing we are Arab. It’s kind of funny sometimes, but I think they take it too far.”
Berry says there can be several benefits in having a dog in the family. Ownership teaches children responsibility, keeps the family safe from intruders and allows the dog to have a healthy living, shelter and nutrition. Berry argues that her house remains clean even with the addition of the dogs. She says she has trained her dogs to not lick them or eat out of the family’s plates and bowls.
“You can have a dog and have a clean house. I know there is hadith but things are different now. We have hot water, dogs get shots and you can use stuff to keep the dog clean and healthy,” Berry says. “The people that want to use the hadith of the prophet as they live day to day should also remember that the prophet didn’t drive a BMW and live in a 5,000 square foot home. You can’t pick and choose what you want to judge somebody else on. To me, saving the life of an animal is saving a life.”
The Arab American News also spoke with Sheikh Abdul Latif Berry, leader of the first American Muslim Marja’iya, or religious authority, about the subject of dogs in Islam. Berry says there is nothing wrong with a family owning a dog, however there are specific rules they should be following.
“It is not prohibited to have a dog in the house. But it is recommended that you put him in a special place and not have him run around the house. For instance, put him in the basement or create a special place for him outside of the house,” Sheikh Berry says.
Berry suggests that families that own dogs should keep them well-groomed, clean and up-to-date on shots. If dog owners fail to take those steps, the dog could end up carrying a disease into the home. Berry adds that humans should never abuse a dog because they also have rights in Islam.
“If you have a dog you should put him inside of the correct atmosphere. It is prohibited in Islam to oppress the dog because it has rights. You need to feed them and prepare a good atmosphere for them. If it is very cold, then giving them heat is important,” Sheikh Berry adds.
Another local resident, Siham Awada Jaafar, says that Coco, her 5-year old 4-lb male Pomeranian Papillon is a bundle of joy for her husband and two children. Originally a cat owner, Jaafar says she now prefers dogs because they connect with humans on a much more emotional level.
“He’s emotional and he’s very sensitive. He will come and sit next to you when you are sad. He brings a lot of joy, a lot of laughter and he makes you feel well,” Jaafar says.
Jaafar adds that it has been statistically proven that the presence of a dog can help heal an individual who might be suffering from an illness. Some children’s hospitals allow dog visitations for sick children, and research has shown that the presence of a dog helped rejuvenate their vital signs and positively impact those with hypertension.
Jaafar says that most of her family and friends enjoy the company of Coco, but once in a while when someone feels uncomfortable around him, she will put him in the basement. She believes that there is a false stigma in the community about dogs and says it’s more of a cultural battle than a religious one.
“I think it’s a lack of knowledge and I think it stems from a lot of issues in the community. I keep my dog very clean. He gets groomed all the time. He has his area and his space. There is nothing about him that is negative or unreligious,” Jaafar adds. “There is a huge asset to having an animal in the home. Caring for another entity and soul is a lesson in responsibility and a lesson in compassion.”