Does Islam accord animals rights? What is our Islamic duty towards the animals on this earth?
– Lutfiyah Suliman, 2013-12-09
When the disconcerting image of a proud Melissa Bachman, alongside a beautiful (but dead) male lion went viral on social media, I found myself engaged in a heated debate about the merits of canned hunting. Ironically, both sides of the argument were driven by individuals that are passionate about environmental conservation. Those arguing in favour of canned hunting do not support blood-sport, but rather the proposition that by allowing canned hunting, revenue is created which supports game farmers and conservancies. Although it is not an ideal solution, it helps to protect wild animals from illegal poaching, and allows for wild populations to increase their numbers. Ecologically speaking, controlled hunting could prevent extinction in the wild, even if the effects of killing large numbers of adult males means a reduction in the genetic diversity of the species. Indeed there are several peer- reviewed scientific studies which attest to this theory. Those arguing against (myself included), countered that consenting to sacrifice the lives of some, for the continuation of a species, is morally reprehensible, and gives in to the mindset which deems animal life unworthy of equal ethical consideration as human life. That is, arguably, the mindset which in the past allowed for such rampant destruction of natural habitats in favour of human development, and led to the conservation predicaments we now face. Additionally, from an economic perspective, regulations are weakly enforced and there is no guarantee that the money generated from hunting will benefit conservation.
At a glance, one could easily label this as an argument between realism and idealism, but it points to the helplessness felt by so many involved or interested in conservation. Is our only solution to declining wildlife populations really to breed these majestic beings, and then offer up the most impressive amongst them to foreigners for a bit of ‘fun’ ? However dissatisfied with the realists I may be, I cannot provide them with a concrete, more reliable ‘interim solution’ to the funding of conservation and protection of wildlife, and as the continuing decline of wild rhinos globally has shown, demand trumps current conservation measures. Will taking the moral high ground encourage practical, innovative solutions and stronger action? Or simply provide a better view of the killing fields?
Uncertainty is often the reminder to return to Islamic principles and ethics. Of foremost relevance to this particular debate, is whether Islam permits killing for sport. A narration from the Prophet (PBUH) provides some clarity;
The Prophet said, “Whoever kills a sparrow or anything bigger than that without a just cause, Allah will hold him accountable on the Day of Judgment.” The listeners asked, “O Messenger of Allah, what is a just cause?” He replied, ”That he will kill it to eat, not simply to chop off its head and then throw it away.” (An-Nasa’i)
Humans were created by Allah (swt) to be custodians and guardians of the Earth. Killing without need- that is killing for fun- is not permissible. Furthermore it is shown that we should treat animals humanely, seeing to their needs where possible, and seeing that our duty as caretakers of creation is fulfilled;
The Companions said, ”O Allah’s Messenger! Is there a reward for us in serving the animals?” He replied: “There is a reward for serving any living being.” (Bukhari)
All living beings- be they man or animal, are worthy of consideration and respect. However this speaks to our behaviour and conduct towards animals- what of the animals themselves? What does the Quraan and ahadith say about their status in this world?
“Seest thou not that it is Allah Whose praise all beings in the heavens and on earth do celebrate, and the birds (of the air) with wings outspread? Each one knows its own (mode of) prayer and praise, and Allah knows well all that they do.” (Quran 24:41)
“And the earth, He has assigned it to all living creatures” (Quran 55:10).
These verses serve as a reminder to us that animals, like man, are created with purpose. They have feelings and are part of the spiritual world. They too have a right to life, and protection from pain and suffering. With this in mind, we need to ask ourselves- is the Muslim community upholding these rights? What should our role be, not only in the debate on such subjects, but in conservation and protection of animals and the environment as a whole? Have we disenfranchised animals? How do the laws of the country in which we live stand up to the Islamic principles? And finally, how does Islam help us to find solutions to the dilemmas we face?
It is not impossible to demand greater action and consideration for the natural world. In Bolivia they have gone as far as to legally grant nature equal rights with humans; they introduced the Law of Mother Earth which reportedly assigns 11 new rights to nature, including: ‘the right to life and to exist; the right to continue vital cycles and processes free from human alteration; the right to pure water and clean air; the right to balance; the right not to be polluted; and the right to not have cellular structure modified or genetically altered.’
This law is considered radical, but what it enshrines does not ask for much, indeed only that animals, and nature are given equal respect and care – as much as is expected of us in Islam.
References/ Background reading
Lutfiyah Suliman is currently doing her MSc in Ecology, Environment and Conservation at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. Her particular focus is on how science and conservation is represented in the media. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org