Animals as Worshippers of God First of All

12 December 2022

We are used to addressing religious issues at the level of human concerns. Yet, this may be only a very modern restriction, for the Psalms declare: “All things serve Thee” (Ps. 119.91). And the Qur’an, following the Psalms, declares: “The seven heavens and the earth and everyone in them glorify Him. There is not a single thing that does not celebrate His praise” (17:44). Indeed, if God created all things, do not all creatures sing His praise?

The British theologian John Stott started a new branch of theology which he coined orni-theology, as developed in his book Birds Our Teachers, where he suggests that religious lessons can be drawn from bird watching. One may want to go even further, however, and draw lessons from the birds themselves, as exemplified in the following Sufi narrative:

حَدَّثَنِي الجنيد. قَالَ: دخلت عَلَى السَّري يومًا. فَقَالَ: لي عصفورٌ كَانَ يجيء فِي كُل يَوْم فأفُتُّ لَهُ الخبزَ فيأكل من يدي فنزل وقتا من الأوقات فلم يسقُطْ عَلَى يدي، فتذَكَّرْتُ فِي نفسي أيش السبب، فذكرت أني أكلْتُ ملحا بأبزار، فَقُلْتُ فِي نفسي: لا آكل بعدها وأنا تائبٌ منه فسقط عَلَى يدي وأكل. (القشيري، الرسالة؛ أبو نصر السراج، كتاب اللُّمَع).

“Janid told me: Once, I went to al-Sarī’s and he told me: I had a sparrow who gave me pleasure when he came every day. I used to give him bread and he was eating in my hand. One day, he refused to land on my hand. Then, I tried to find in myself the reason of this refusal, and I remembered that I had eaten meat with spices. So, I said to myself: I will never eat such a delicacy again. Then, I repented and turned to him. He came back to me and ate in my hand again.”[1]

Here, the sparrow teaches the Sufi a lesson in piety. The text raises the question of animal piety and worship of God by nonhuman creatures.

A Symposium on Animal Piety in Islam

On the 16th and 17th of November, in Paris, Guillaume de Vaulx (co-director of A Rocha Lebanon) organized a seminal symposium on this issue, to develop an approach to religion that extends to nonhumans, and to investigate animals in classical Islam as worshippers of God.

By studying the different doctrines of Islam (Qur’anic commentaries, prophetic traditions, Sufi texts, theology, philosophy), the conference demonstrated the general consensus in Islam regarding animal piety, and the vast literature detailing how animals glorify God and teach lessons of piety to man. Indeed, glorification of God (tasbīḥ) by nonhuman creatures is clearly attested to in the Qur’an:

“Do you not see that to God bow down whoever is in the heavens, whoever is on the earth, the sun, the moon, the stars, the mountains, the trees, the beasts, and many human beings” (22:18).

This enumeration of worshippers shows man is considered an exception among all creatures, for he is the only kind of which there are unbelievers. This stance of hesitation occurs within an environment of pious creatures. In this way, the world is described as an environment constantly encouraging man to be pious, calling him to prayer. All creation is mobilized to teach lessons in piety to man.

God Only Creates Worshippers

 In his introduction, Guillaume de Vaulx linked the idea of cosmic glorification of God with the doctrine of creation: once a religion posits the existence of a Creator, all creatures are interpreted as worshipers, with their praise an acknowledgement and grateful response to His creation. Such an idea was traced all the way back to Akhenaton’s monolatry. In a prayer addressed to Amun-Ra, the praise begins as following:

“You are the One who created all beings,

The One alone, who created what is.”

All creatures worship Him:

“‘Greetings to you’ cry all the wild beasts,

‘Jubilation’ cries every foreign land.”

Even the gods glorify their Creator:

“The gods bow down before your majesty

And exalt the power of their creator,

Rejoicing as they draw near to the one who made them.”[2]

As for Christianity, original sin affected all creatures through the snake. Only the incarnation of Christ brought redemption in the world. In an apocryphal text, the Gospel of pseudo-Matthew, which relates the infancy of Jesus, one by one creatures are seen to acknowledge the Savior and to worship the Lord. For instance (Chapter XIV):

“And on the third day after the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, the most blessed Mary went forth out of the cave, and entering a stable, placed the child in the stall, and the ox and the ass adored Him”.

Apart from this ox and this ass in the stable, which later play an important role in Christian iconography, prominent creatures are the dragons and the beasts of prey, the star followed by the three kings, and the palm tree that bows to Mary when she gives birth to Jesus. This episode of the birth of Jesus under the palm tree will reappear in the Qur’an, in Surah Maryam (19:22-26). The reading of pseudo-Matthew alone can shed light on the meaning of the association of the star with the tree in a famous Qur’anic verse: “And the stars and the trees both prostrate.” Indeed, classical commentator al-Tabarī viewed such an association as meaningless, and interpreted the stars as a kind on plant. However, the Qur’an clearly evokes the birth of Christ and confirms the piety manifested by the star and the tree.

Nonhuman Animals and “Other-than-Human Persons”

Now, which beings are really “seen” as obedient and praying? Working from a purely grammatical standpoint, Mélanie Hanitsch specified the conditions for a creature to be seen as worshipper. Whereas standard classical Arabic has two forms of plural agreement for masculine names, namely masculine plural for persons (al-ṭālibūn marīḍūn) and feminine singular for nonhumans (ex. al-humuru marīḍa), ancient Arabic has a third form: the feminine plural. And the Qur’an makes use of the three of them, distinguishing between human persons (masculine plural agreement), “other-than-human persons” (feminine plural agreement), and other realities (feminine singular agreement).

And this distinction in the plural agreements helps to identify what is designated in the verse: “whatsoever is in the heavens and in the earth extols God” (24:41). Focusing on the second type of plural agreement, M. Hanitsch identified a category of “higher nonhumans,” or animate or inanimate nonhuman individualities, such as animals, but also mountains (21:79) and stars (16:12). All these entities are characterized by a perceptual salience that allows them to be distinguished as persons.

Pious Animals of the Qur’an

Geneviève Gobillot, a specialist in the comparative study of the Qur’an and religious texts from Late Antiquity, presented an analysis of five animal characters (bee, spider, hoopoe, crow, and ants) in the Qur’an in light of the Jewish and Christian Scriptural heritage with which the Qur’an enters in dialogue.

To take one example, we can summarize her analysis of the Qur’anic episode of the raven who shows Cain where to bury his brother Abel. Whereas the text of Genesis 4 does not mention such an episode, in the Qur’anic narrative, burial as a fundamental religious ritual is learnt from a bird:

“God sent a raven to scratch up the ground and show him how to cover his brother’s corpse and he said, ‘Woe is me! Could I not have been like this raven and covered up my brother’s body?’ He became remorseful.” (5:31)

A few verses earlier, the Qur’an had announced that the Prophet will “tell them the truth about the story of Adam’s two Sons” (5:27). That means that the Qur’an amends a text on this topic. The text in question is found in the Midrash Tanhuma, a Jewish non-legalistic exegesis of the Pentateuch dating of the fifth century AD, in which one reads the following:

“After Cain slew Abel, the body lay outstretched upon the earth, since Cain did not know how to dispose of it. Thereupon, the Holy One, blessed be He, selected two clean birds and caused one of them to kill the other. The surviving bird dug the earth with its talons and buried its victim. Cain learned from this what to do. He dug a grave and buried Abel. It is because of this that birds are privileged to cover their blood.” (Midrash Tanhuman, Bereshit, Siman 10)

Whereas the birds of the Midrash episode only appear after Cain’s repentance to show him the ritual, the repentance of Cain in the Qur’an is an effect produced by the sight of the raven’s behavior. There, the animal is a model of piety in two senses: on the one hand, he provokes the religious feeling, and, on the other one, he teaches the precise ritual.

A Book of Hours Sung by Nonhuman Creatures

Showing a same historical continuity with pre-Islamic heritage, Nicolas Payen focused on a book of prayer, the Testament of Adam, in which an horarium (book of hours) lists the times specific creatures praise the Lord.

At the first hour of the day, the sons of Adam bow down for the prayer.
At the second hour, it is the prayer of the angels.
At the third hour, it is the prayer of flying creatures.
At the fourth hour, it is the prayer of the vermin.
At the fifth hour, it is the prayer of land animals.

This text, written in Syriac, also circulated in Arabic among Christians and was canonized in Islam by its identification as a saying of the Prophet Muḥammad. We quoted the translation of this latter version, which slightly adapted the text to Islamic culture.

Asking why the Persian scholar Abū Isḥāq al-Shirāzī denied the authenticity of such a hadith, N. Payen answered that stressing this relationship between God and all creatures diminished the importance of human religious institutions: if animals can know and glorify God by nature, what need do we have of institutions?

Pious Cats and Dog Sufi Masters

A first case study by Jens Schmitt focused on cats, and on a manuscript epistle of Mullā ʿAlī al-Qārī (d. 1606 CE) entitled The Piety in Cat’s Love (رسالة البرّة في حبّ الهرة), with “love” referring to the love given to cats or by cats. This epistle discusses whether the hadith stating that “love for cats is a religious thing (min al-īmān)” is authentic or not. The author refutes this saying along three axes: its transmission, which is not consistent; its content, by showing that loving cats does not lead to God; and its logic. Indeed, nothing prevents an unbeliever from loving cats, or a believer from having no relation with cats. As for the love given by cats, he says that they are thankful to the hand that feeds them, whether a believer’s or an unbeliever’s. But such an epistle is an exposition of the admiration for cats, the purity of their manners, and the edifying behavior of cats towards their children, which already astonished al-Jāḥiẓ.

Walid Ghali dedicated a second case study to dogs. Although the Islamic law declares dogs impure and requires man keep them away from houses, such a rejection of dogs’ companionship was always difficult to enforce. Sufi texts even show the opposite stance: dogs are spiritual masters and teachers. And the pity felt toward this impure animal is great evidence of his helper’s piety. Commenting on the verse “all the creatures that crawl on the earth and those that fly with their wings are communities like yourselves” (6:38), W. Ghali – as well as Imran Khan – developed the analogy between human nations and dogs, and recalled the many Sufi texts that take dogs as a model. Discussing the list of ten virtues of dogs attributed to ‘Ali b. Abi Talib, W. Ghali finally asked whether, if holiness means man’s possession of God’s attributes, holiness is not also demonstrated in animals possessing all these virtues.

No repentance without animals?

Hala Abdel Meguid analyzed a narrative found in Ibn Qudāma al-Maqdisī (d. 1223)’s Book of Repentance, in which a drunk leaves a city of corruption to retire to the desert. On his way, he sleeps by a swamp where a snake threatens to bite him. The saint Dhū al-Nūn observes the scene. On the other side of the pond, a scorpion is aware of the danger, and asks a frog to help him cross the pond to sting the viper before her attack. The story rewrites a narrative found in Kalila wa-Dimna in which the scorpion crosses a pond on the back of a frog but stings it midstream, provoking the death of both. Whereas the Indian fable is about the inevitability of each one’s nature, the Sufi narrative brings a human into the animal story and shows how the drunk fleeing the corrupted city encounters piety among animals and begins his conversion to a straight life.

Animal Sufis, Animal Masters

More broadly, Sufi authors give a particular consideration to animals in the spiritual development of individuals. Arin Salamah Qudsi proposed a specific reading of early Sufi texts, especially Abū Naṣr Sirāj al-Ṭūsī (d. 988)’s Kitāb al-luma‘. In Sufism’s goal to remove all limits drawn by the ego, animals are seen as nonhuman Sufis, companions of the saints, and examples of piety. Whereas early Sufism was ascetic and mainly made use of animals to critique the animality of man’s lower soul and its appetites, Sufism evolved toward the consideration of the universal soul beyond the limits of species, showing the humanity, and even holiness, of animal worshippers of God.

This orientation may have begun during the ninth century with Rasā’il Iḫwān al-ṣafā, which even calls the animals “Muslims,” as noticed by Guillaume de Vaulx. de Vaulx presented the debates on “animal Islam” between those on the one hand who see them as naturally obedient to God, and those who seem them as voluntarily responding in faith to revelation given by nonhuman prophets.

Ibn Barrajān (d. 1141) is an important figure in this orientation, noticed by Florence Ollivry, for he developed a reading of the book of nature, the “generated book” (al-kitāb al-takwīnī) in his commentary on the revelation, the “written book” (al-kitāb al-tadwīnī). He provides several explanations of the dove’s tears in terms of piety and quotes the saying of Ḥasan al-Baṣrī: “The table did glorify God when it was a tree.”

Pierre Lory explained that this later Sufism reached his climax with Ibn ‘Arabī (d. 1240) who makes the verse “There is not a single thing that does not celebrate His praise” (17:44) central, and dedicated a chapter of his masterpiece Al-Futūḥāt al-Makkiyya to each kind of creature, and particularly a chapter to animal nations (al-umam al-bahīmiyya) as worshippers. Denis Grill focused on a particular treaty, Rūḥ al-qudus fī muḥāsibat al-nafs, that lists the writer’s various masters. These included animals. Ibn Taymiyya, following the paper of Muhammed ‘Aṭiyya, had to refute such an attitude, restricting creatures (maḫlūqāt) to humans (maḫlūqūn).

Finally, Chakhoum Sa‘idi presented the hypothesis about the practice of Sufi dances embodying animals and constellations.

These studies are very important for A Rocha Lebanon’s vision, and they help to better understand the call of Chris Naylor (A Rocha Lebanon’s founder) for “writing the Gospel in the landscape.” He did not mean that we should transform creation like an engineer does, but to let the natural worship of God blossom and to open our eyes to creation’s praise.

[1] Al-Qushayri, following Abu Nasr al-Sarraj in Shining Sufism.

[2] Frank Lothar Hossfeld et Eric Zenger, Psalms 3.

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