Asalaamu Aleikum Dr. El Fadl:
My name is [Name Withheld for Privacy] and I would like to begin this email by saying Jazaka Allahu Khairan; I recently became aware of you and some of the works you've published. I've read excerpts from "Conference of the Books," particularly the chapter regarding dogs in Islam. I want to say that the information you provided in that chapter was honestly a God-send. I felt conflicted for so long because on one hand I was being told by the community and people I trusted knew better than myself (I am a convert of ten years Alhamdu Lillaah) that dogs are 'haram,' or 'unclean,' or 'cursed;' but on the other hand, I know Allah to be merciful, and couldn't possibly imagine that such loyal, merciful, wonderful animals could possibly be 'haram.' Your information, research, and explanations really helped to clarify what I knew in my heart and in my instincts to be true, and I thank you 1000 times for providing the information you shared.
My question is, however, not about the issue of dogs and cleanliness, but regarding a particular Hadith I've heard mentioned many times about angels refusing to enter the homes of those who own dogs. I was hoping you could please help clear this up...? I cannot imagine this to be true, but I would greatly appreciate an explanation and breakdown of this Hadith, if possible, so that I may be able to respond appropriately when my fellow Muslim brothers and sisters try to offer friendly advice. Additionally, I want to be sure my choice to own my dog is permissible.
I am sorry to bother you, as I'm sure you probably receive hundreds of emails a day. I came to you for help, however, because the internet can be full of bad information, and my local imam is one that believes dogs are 'haram.' Therefore, I felt that my best chance at getting the best information would be to come to you directly. I humble myself before you and respectfully request your assistance in the matter. I would be most obliged, and forever grateful for your help. Thank you in advance for your time and consideration, and may Allah bestow many blessings upon you and your family.
Jazaka Allahu Khairan,
[Name Withheld for Privacy]
Al-salamu ‘alaykum and Ramadan Mubarak for you and your family and loved ones. I pray that Allah bestows upon you the gift of peace, balance and beauty, and that God guides you to the righteous path. Thank you for your message and inquiry. You asked specifically about the hadith attributed to the Prophet that angels will not enter a place or an abode where may exist. The report to which you refer typically states that angels will not enter a dwelling that has dogs or pictures. In most versions, the narration of the report is attributed to Abu Huraira, with a few versions attributed to others. I thought I should respond to your message because of the opportunity to address this specific narration. There are several important points to make here:
1) All the versions of this report claim that angels will not enter a dwelling that contains dogs or pictures. By the terms of this report, it would follow that angels would not enter a place that has passport pictures, or drivers’ licenses or any document that has a picture. This is blatantly unreasonable and this constitutes a serious substantive problem with this narration;
2) This report is rather inconsistent with the Qur’anic narrative on dogs, in which we are told in the chapter on the people of the cave that they were a particularly pious group of people and the subject of a great miracle and blessing from Allah. And yet, the Qur’an is careful to point out that the people of the cave were accompanied by a dog, and that both humans and the dog were the subject of God’s miracle and grace. It would be rather incongruous to claim that angels did not accompany the people of the cave because they had a dog, or at the very minimum, it would be extremely speculative to pretend that a blessed and pious people mentioned in the Qur’an were denied the presence of angels because of their dog;
3) More importantly, this hadith makes a claim as to a matter of ‘aqidah (an article of faith) because it addresses a question involving the absence or presence of angels who are in the world of ghayb (or the unseen). Yet this hadith was categorized by all scholars of hadith to address a question of adab (a question of etiquette or proper social conduct). A hadith that could be considered credible enough to inform a question involving adab cannot be considered effective in matters involving ‘aqidah. Put differently, adab hadith or hadith that arise from the category of social etiquette are too low on the totem pole of authenticity and weight and thus, cannot be counted as effective or of sufficient weight to affect a question that involves faith. Hadith that establish articles of faith or ‘aqidah are typically mutawatir (of cumulative transmission) and therefore, of high authenticity, while hadith of adab, such as the one in question, are typically ahad (of singular transmission) and of much lower authenticity. To believe the angels enter or abstain from entering any particular place is a very serious matter and can only be established or negated by either the Qur’an or hadith of the highest level of authenticity. Hadith of singular transmission, such as the one in question, cannot either affirm or deny a matter involving the celestial world of angels and the like;
4) It must be recognized then that when a hadith of singular transmission is declared to be sahih (or authentic) in Bukhari or Muslim or the other collections of hadith, all that means is that in the opinion of Bukhari or Muslim, there is a 51% chance, ie. a simple probability that the Prophet actually said what is attributed to him. A 51% chance is insufficient to affirm or deny matters of faith (‘aqidah), such as where angels dwell or do not dwell. What militates against this hadith is that many of the hadith that are demeaning to dogs or anti-pictures or anti-women have been attributed to Abu Huraira. Whether Abu Huraira narrated these hadiths or not is a very big question. But in all cases, scholars of usul (jurisprudence) know that this typology of hadith, ie. hadith involving pictures, women or dogs, and prayer, angels or purity, are suspect, which means that one cannot just simply quote them as if they establish a truth or a fact, or as if they are indicative of Allah’s will without careful analysis and reflection;
5) As I have stated elsewhere, historically, dogs were an important symbolic issue in the past. On the one hand, they represented loyalty, faithfulness and companionship, but on the other, dogs were a source of a vicious plague, ie. rabies, and were also used by despotic forces to hunt down and torture political dissenters and accused heretics. So, we know for instance that not just in the Islamic world but in the medieval world generally, dogs inspired wonderful literary works, but at the same time, figured prominently in literature as a source of illness, death and torment. In the Roman world and the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties, political dissenters, after being executed, had their corpses hung with the corpse of a poor murdered dog. The reason the corpse of a dog was hung with the corpse of a political dissenter was that it was a way of insulting the corpse and claiming power and dominance over the tribe, family or clan of the dissenter. Interestingly, one of the major tribes that first supported the Umayyads and then later rebelled against them and supported the Abbasids were known as the tribe of Kelb (dog). My point here is that dogs featured symbolically in politics and social narratives. So, when we have a narration in which it is claimed that Abu Huraira claimed to have heard the Prophet say that angels will not enter a place that has dogs or pictures, we have an affirmative duty to inquire into the historical circumstance that might have put such a report into circulation. Interestingly, although medieval scholars were aware of the existence of this hadith, it was never relied upon in discourses on theology and faith until the modern age. This is largely the influence of the Wahhabi school, which does not draw a distinction between hadith of singular transmission versus hadith of cumulative transmission and similarly, does not differentiate between the strength of a hadith’s authenticity and its impact in questions of faith or otherwise;
6) It is a true tragedy that contemporary Muslims continue to rely on palpably unreasonable hadith such as the one in question. Quite simply, we should ask, why would angels not enter a place that has dogs? What singles out dogs as opposed to cockroaches, flies or mice? It is unquestioned in even the most conservative or Wahhabi schools that Muslims may own dogs for protection or hunting. So, are we to believe that angels will stay away from places simply because they have a guard dog on duty or because there is a hunting dog under a roof? Even the most Wahhabi of scholars have not dared to claim that angels will not enter a place that has a picture of the King or other members of the Royal Family. But yet, by the terms of this hadith, angels would have abandoned the entire earth because our earth is full of pictures everywhere, most obviously on the Internet on every personal computer. Are we to believe that because pictures on Facebook and selfies are zipping through the electronic atmosphere that angels will abandon Earth?
7) As I am sure you know, dogs are among God’s wonderful and beautiful creatures. We are taught that a prostitute was forgiven her sins because she saved the life of a dog, and we are taught that the people of the cave were selected by God for a great miracle, although as the Qur’an points out, they were in the company of a faithful and loving dog. What in these amazing and beautiful creatures would cause angels such aversion and disgust that they would stay away from a space that they occupy? I wish Muslims would use their intellects and hearts before they slander and vilify a great religion such as Islam, which is the truth that comes to us from God containing everything full of mercy, compassion and beauty. I am sure you agree that it does not sound merciful, compassionate or beautiful to claim that angels abandon a place where God’s creatures dwell, even if that creature is a mouse, a rat or a fly. It is my sincere belief that the reasons for this narrative are found in the creative symbolisms of history and in the political conflicts of the past (the same thing with many of the patriarchal hadith demeaning to women). And it is also my sincere belief that the Prophet (may peace and blessings be upon him) never uttered this hadith. I say this ever mindful that Allah knows best. Please ask God to forgive me my trespasses and bless us all.
Wa al-salamu ‘alaykum,
Shaykh Abou El Fadl