Principles of Kindness to Animals

With regard to damage caused by one animal to another, there are no consequences for the animal itself, for the animal is not punished for any damage that it causes; rather the owner is to be punished if he was careless and failed to look after the animal or tie it up. These are the principles of kindness to animals in our civilization and laws. But how were these principles applied in real life?

When the Messenger of Allah (Blessings and Peace be upon him) was on one of his journeys, he heard a woman from among the Ansaar cursing her she-camel which she was riding. He denounced the woman for doing that and said, “Take off (the luggage) that is on it and leave it alone, for it is cursed.” The she-camel was left to wander among the people, and no one touched it.”

‘Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) passed by a man who was dragging a sheep by its leg to slaughter it. He said to him, “Woe to you; lead it to its death in a gentle manner.” Similarly, our civilization applied the principles of kindness to animals and took care of them at the state level and in social institutions. With regard to the care of the state, there is no clearer evidence of that than the fact that our Caliphs used to make public announcements telling the people to be kind to animals and not to hurt them or harm them.

Part of the job of the muhtasib (an official whose role was similar in some ways to that of a modern policeman) was to stop people from making their animals carry more than they were able to bear or to torment them or beat them whilst traveling. If he saw anyone doing that, he would discipline them and punish them. “The muhtasib should force them to follow the rules because of the interests served by that, so they should not force animals to carry more than they are able to bear, or drive them in a harsh manner when they are carrying loads, or beat them harshly, or make them stand in public areas with loads on their backs. All of these actions are forbidden by the pure shari’ah. They have to remember that Allah is always watching, with regard to feeding their animals, so they should let them eat their fill, and not give them bad quality feed or too little.”

With regard to public institutions, animals had a great share of such things. It is sufficient for us to note that in the records of ancient endowments, we find waqfs dedicated to the treatment of sick animals, or to the care of old animals that could no longer work. One example is AIMarj al-Akhqar (where the Damascus soccer stadium now stands), which was a waqf for a disabled horses whose owners refused to spend on them because they could no longer benefit from them; they were to be cared for on this land until they died. Another of the waqfs of Damascus was for the cats, a place where they were to be fed and cared for, and where they could sleep. Hundreds of fat, well cared for cats used to gather in the house set up by this waqf; where they were fed every day and where they stayed, never moving except for exercise. All of this tells you of the spirit of the people whose kindness towards animals reached such an extent, the like of which is unknown elsewhere. Perhaps the most eloquent example of the spirit of people in our civilization is that of a great Sahaabi [Companion of the Prophet (peace be upon him)] like Abu ad-Darda’, who had a camel to which he said as he was dying: “O’ camel, do not complain about me to your Lord, for I never forced you to carry more than you were able to bear.”

The Sahaabi ‘Adiyy ibn Haatim used to break bread into crumbs for the ants and say, “They are our neighbors and they have rights over us.”

The great Imam Abu ISQaaq ash-Shirazi was walking down the road with one of his companions, and a dog came up to him. His companion shouted at it to make it go away, but the shaykh told him not to do that and said to him. “Do you not know that the road is for us and for him?”

We cannot appreciate this outstanding phenomenon in our civilization and its humane stance towards animals until we realize how animals were treated in ancient and medieval societies and the attitude of other nations in cases where animals caused damage and in cases where animals were subjected to torment.

The first thing that attracts our attention is the fact that we find nothing in the teachings of those people that enjoins kindness and mercy towards animals. Hence, we find that the animal had no rights that obliged its owner to spend on it and take care of it. Moreover, what we notice is that animals would be held accountable if they caused any damage and they would be held responsible for their actions just like an accountable, sane adult. This is one of the strangest features of ancient and medieval history, which lasted as long as the nineteenth century, whereby animals would be judged as people are judged, and sentences of imprisonment, expulsion, and death might be passed against them just as they might be passed against human criminals.

In the Jewish law, it says: “If a bull gores a man or a woman, and that leads to the death of the person gored, the bull must be stoned and it is forbidden to eat its meat. The owner of the bull is not responsible if the bull was not known for goring. But if the bull was known for goring, and the people had warned the owner but he took no notice, and he neglected it until the bull caused the death of a man or woman, the punishment for the bull is stoning and the punishment for its owner is execution. ” There is a second case in which an animal may be punished in Jewish law, and that is when a man or woman engages in bestiality with an animal, in which case the animal and the man or women are both to be killed.

According to the laws of ancient Greece: they had a court specifically to pass judgment on animals and inanimate objects that caused the death of a human. This court was called the Pretaneon (n), which was the name of the place where its sessions were held. Plato mentioned in his book of laws: “If an animal kills a human being, the family of the slain person has the right to make a claim against the animal in the court. The next of kin may choose the judges from among the farmers. If it is proven that the animal committed the crime, then it must be killed in retaliation, and its carcass thrown outside the city. An exception is made in the case of combat between a human and an animal in the public arena, in which case there are no such consequences. If an inanimate object falls on a human being and kills him, the next of kin of the victim chooses a judge from among his neighbors to pass judgment against the inanimate object that it should be thrown out beyond the city limits.”

In their view, the responsibility of animals was not limited to cases of killing; animals were similarly responsible in cases of injury that did not lead to death. If a dog bit a man, the owner of the dog had to hand his animal over to the injured party, muzzled and bound so that he might take revenge on it in whatever manner he wanted, by killing it, torturing it, or whatever. Similarly, an animal could be punished for the crimes of its owner or his family in some cases. If a man was sentenced to death for a crime that he had committed against the religion or the state, he, his family, his animals, and his possessions would be subject to a sentence of burning, destruction, or confiscation.

An ancient Roman included law a clause that dictated execution of an ox and its owner if, whilst plowing, the ox moved the boundary marker which marked the line between the field being plowed and the neighboring field. The punishment for a dog that bit a person was that it had to be handed over to the person who had been bitten, for him to do whatever he wanted with it. A similar rule applied in the case of an animal that grazed on grass that did not belong to its owner.

The punishments of animals by the ancient Germans were similar to those among the Romans and Greeks. In Ancient Persia, the situation was even stranger. If a rabid dog bit a lamb and killed it, or it bit a person and injured him, its right ear would be cut off. If that happened again, its left ear would be cut off. On the third instance, its right foot would be cut off; on the fourth, its left foot, and on the fifth, its tail would be removed.

In Europe, during the Middle Ages, France was the first Christian European nation to adopt the principle, in the thirteenth century, that animals were responsible and could be punished for their crimes by courts that were organized along the same lines as courts that passed judgment on humans. At the end of the fourteenth century, Sardinia adopted similar principles, followed by Belgium in the fifteenth century and Holland, Germany, Italy, and Sweden in the mid-sixteenth century. Among some of the people of Sicily, these principles remained In force until the nineteenth century.

The animal courts of Europe dealt with claims made against the animals by people who had been injured by them, or by the public prosecutor. Then, representatives would speak in defense of the animal criminals. The court might even demand that the animals be detained as a precaution, then judgment would be passed and the sentence carried out in front of a group of people, just as in the case of humans. The sentence might be one of execution of the animal, by stoning, beheading, or burning, or by cutting off some of its limbs before execution. But no one should think that these courts were held in jest as a form of entertainment. Rather, they were quite serious, as is indicated by reports of the reasons why the judgment was passed against animals. For example, they said: “A sentence of execution is passed against the animal so that justice may be done,” or “It is sentenced to hang as a punishment for the bestial crimes that it has committed.”

It is interesting to note here that one of the reasons why the Europeans would subject animals to trials is their transgression of natural laws. So the animal would be accused of witchcraft, which was a crime punishable by burning with fire. They used to hold great celebrations when this punishment was carried out on animals. The executioners would bring pieces of wood and place them in the middle of a public square, then they would bring the cats against whom sentence had been passed, each cat in an iron cage. When the time for the execution came, some priests, accompanied by judges, would come, and one of them would step forward, carrying a flaming torch in each hand. Then one of the judges would issue orders that the cats be thrown into the fire, until they were reduced to ashes, as a punishment for practicing witchcraft!

It is worth mentioning, here, some of the most famous animal cases in medieval Europe. One of the most interesting and well-known cases is the court of the mice in the French city of Autonne in the fifteenth century. The mice in this town were accused of gathering in the streets in a most disturbing manner. The French lawyer Chasaney came forward to defend them, and he asked for a delay because the mice were unable to attend because there were nursing mothers, sick and incapacitated individuals among them, but they would be able to come and attend the court if they were given a delay. The court agreed to postpone the trial until a specific date, but when the time came, the mice did not attend. The lawyer, for the defense, said to the court: the mice wanted to obey your commands and attend court, but they were afraid that they might be harmed by the cats if they came here. The head of the court replied by saying, we have to protect the lives of the accused. The lawyer asked the court to issue orders that all the cats of the town be detained before the mice came through the streets so that they could feel safe and secure. The court agreed to this request because it was just and fair, and issued orders that the cats and dogs be prevented from walking in the streets so that the mice could be safe when they came to court. But the people of the town refused to carry out these orders, so the court was forced to rule that the mice were innocent because they had been denied the legal means of defense. The lawyer became very famous because of this case, but we do not know if he took any fee from the mice or not. Perhaps his fee was a promise from the mice that they would not eat his books and papers …

One of the strangest animal cases of the Middle Ages was that of the rooster which laid an egg. A claim was made against this rooster in the Swiss city of Basle in 1474 because it had laid an egg, which according to the European custom of the time was a heinous crime since it was known to them that witches sought roosters’ eggs so that they could use them for their devilish purposes. The rooster was brought to court, and its lawyer defended it by saying, how can the rooster be responsible for an event over which it had no control? But the court did not accept the defense lawyer’s point of view, rather it decreed that the rooster be executed, and the reason given was that this would be a lesson to the other roosters!

In 1495, there was another case in France which was one of the strange animal cases. The vineyard owners in the province of St. Julian made a claim against the borer insects, accusing them of destroying the vineyards and destroying their trees, industry, and trade. Two of the greatest lawyers undertook to defend the insects, and the case lasted for four years, until in the end, the vintners became exasperated with the delay, so they decided to give the insects their own piece of land where they could eat as much as they wanted of the crops and trees!

This is the contrast between our civilization’s attitude towards animals and the attitude of other nations. Hence, it becomes clear that our civilization is distinguished by two features that were absent from the nations of the past and from some of the modem nations.

  • The establishment of public institutions to care for and treat animals, and to guarantee them a safe life when they become weak, sick or old.
  • Animal courts were unknown in our civilization, because it promoted the idea that animals are not criminally responsible thirteen hundred years before the modem civilization issued the same call. Cruelty towards animals was unknown in our civilization, as was the practice of making animals fight one another, a practice which was officially sanctioned in ancient Greece and Rome, and which is still known in Spain, where bullfights are held amidst great festivities; this is undoubtedly a bestial leftover of the abhorrent practices of the Europeans in ancient and mediaeval times, from which our civilization is free.


The divine scriptures are God’s beacons to the world. Surely God offered His trust to the heavens and the earth, and the hills, but they shrank from bearing it and were afraid of it. And man undertook it.
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