Literature . Animals have a sanctified place in Islamic theology, so early Muslim writings about the animal world combined religion, scientific observation, and morality tales in which humans are reminded that they have a lot to learn from animals. Muslims inherited three pre-Islamic traditions concerning animals from the Arabic, Greco-Alexandrian, and Indo-Persian cultures. The Indo-Persian tradition was quite different from that of the Greeks. While the Greeks had many “morality tales” in which animals were characters,
the Greeks wrote predominantly scientific descriptions of animals. In contrast, the Indians and Persians paid attention to the spiritual and moral aspects of the animal world. The best-known Indian animal legends of this era were the Indian tales of Bidpai, which became the Arabic collection Kalilah wa Dimnah (Kalilah and Dimnah). The main point of these stories is that people can learn from animals as well as about them. For practical reasons, many of the earliest Muslim zoological manuscripts dealt with horses and camels. In the eighth and ninth centuries these studies created the methodology for dissecting, studying, and describing animals in a scientific manner.
Arabian Horses . The Arabs became particularly adept at breeding the animals on which they depended for survival in the rough terrain of the extensive trade routes on which they traveled from one part of the vast Muslim empire to another. What is now known today as the Arabian Horse came about as the result of extensive care in breeding. Known for their amazing energy, intelligence, and devotion to their owners, these horses were originally bred by Bedouin tribes as war mounts or for long treks. The legendary endurance of these horses is due in part to their large lungs. In the seventh century the Prophet Muhammad was instrumental in encouraging the breeding of Arabian horses because they were considered crucial to Muslim military efforts against large armies of the Persians and Byzantines. These horses took on a religious significance as well after the Prophet pointed out that they had been created by Allah and that people who treated these beautiful horses kindly would be rewarded in the afterlife. Over the centuries, through their selective breeding, Arabian horses have retained characteristics such as large, wide-set eyes (good for seeing to both sides during battle), small ears (which collect less sand) and large nostrils (for taking in more air and strengthening endurance). Arabian horses are popular all over the world and were ridden by major military figures such as Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, and George Washington.
Zoological Writings . The most significant early Muslim work on zoology is Kitab al-hayawan (Book of Animals) by al-Jahiz (circa 776-869), a scholar from Basrah, in present-day Iraq. In his book al-Jahiz compiled, corrected, and expanded on the zoological knowledge of the Greeks, Persians, and Indians, using Aristotle’s works but criticizing them because Aristotle seemed to leave God out of his studies. As a devout Muslim, al-Jahiz felt that one should study zoology primarily to prove the existence of God and to discover the wisdom of his creation. Indeed, al-Jahiz wrote that one should have respect for even the smallest natural phenomenon, because the wonders of creation were as visible in it as in the grandest of creation: “I would have you know that a pebble proves the existence of God just as much as a mountain, and the human body is evidence as strong as the universe that contains our world: for this purpose the small and slight carries as much weight as the great and vast.” In the tenth century, philosophers such as the Ikhwan al-Safa (Brethren of Purity) began devoting much attention to zoology. One of their “Epistles” is a commentary on the seemingly “natural” conflict between humans and the animal world—an early reflection on issues that are the basis for battles between conservationists and business interests in the modern world. The Brethren describe a debate between the animals and man that begins with man arguing that, because of his intellect and powers of invention, he has the right to dominate and even destroy the animal kingdom. The animals argue against this contention until they note that there are saints among humans. Recognizing saints as people who demonstrate that humans are capable of fulfilling their divine purpose on earth, the animals agree to serve humans, but only on condition that they remain conscious of their religiously ordained responsibility (mentioned in the Qur’an) to take care of the natural world and live in harmony with it. Humans are then warned that they will pay dearly if they fail in this respect. The foremost of Muslim zoology texts after al-Jahiz’s Kitab al-hayawan, is Kamal al-Din al-Damiri’s fourteenth-century Hayat al-hayawan al-kubra (Great Book on the Life of Animals). This enormous work is a systematic study of animals, including information on their religious status according to the Qur’an, how they are to be treated according to Islamic law, traditions concerning their medical benefits to humans, their occult (or magical) properties, and their significance in the interpretation of dreams. Because this text combined religious as well as scientific perspectives on the study of animals, it became quite popular in the Muslim world, even among children. It eventually became a source of folklore as well as an inspiration to artists who painted many of the animals described in the text.
Paul Lunde, “The Book of Animals, “Aramco World, 33 (May-June 1982): 15-19.
Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Islamic Science: An Illustrated Study (London: World of Islam Festival Publishing, 1976).
Nasr, Science and Civilization in Islam (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1968).