Shadia: Loving dogs at a distance

If you've lived near a Muslim or a Middle Eastern family, or if you know one, then you've probably seen them act a little weird around dogs.

And there are probably few things funnier — or more perplexing — than seeing a full-grown Muslim run, or get visibly uncomfortable, when a dog rushes toward him.

I was that way for a while, and I'll get back to you on why.

But generally, there's a sense out there that Muslims or Islam have a bone to pick with dogs.

As usual, it's more complicated than that. It's quite the opposite, actually. Dogs are mentioned in a positive light in Islam.

There's a story that goes like this: A man was once in deep thirst while on the road. He eventually found a well of water, lowered himself into it, and fulfilled his thirst. On his way out, he found a dog with his tongue out in thirst. So the man went back to the well and scooped water with one of his shoes so the dog could drink. He did this until the dog's thirst was fulfilled.

We are taught that for that simple act of kindness toward the dog, God forgave all of the man's sins, and he was rewarded with paradise.

So why do some Muslims act weirdly around dogs or, in some well-documented instances — like taxi drivers or store owners refusing to give service to blind individuals because they have guide dogs — act in a cruel manner toward them?

It's a combination of two things.

Islam has four dominant schools of thought. Muslims usually follow one — or none.

Each school of thought is referred to by the name of a Muslim scholar who provided rulings on various issues based on analysis of the Koran and the Prophet Muhammad's life and statements. They range from being very conservative to being liberal on numerous questions.

Those scholars usually disagree and give different rulings on the same issues, but they're all nonetheless credible and highly respected by Muslims.

Two Islamic schools of thought, the Shaafi'i and Hanbali, contend that a dog's nasal area, which is often wet, is "najis," or impure, and that means if it touches you or your clothes, you must wash up before praying. It has nothing to do with the dog itself.

If you follow those opinions, you can still have a service dog, guard dog or even a dog as a pet, provided that you keep it mostly in the backyard, make sure it doesn't touch your prayer area, care for it and play with it.

Another school of thought, the Maliki, disagrees. According to Maliki, a dog's nasal area is not impure, and if it touches you, it's no big deal at all.

Some Muslims who follow the impurity opinion take it up a notch, often out of ignorance, and act as if the dog were a disease. They get uncomfortable, freak out or act unkindly when one comes near them and, of course, irresponsibly and unjustly cite Islam.

The other factor is that the places and countries that Middle Easterners come from sometimes negatively influence their reactions toward dogs. For me, the culture and some personal weirdness, not Islam, are what influence my reaction.

In the Middle East, dogs freely roam the streets. They're dirty and sometimes sick or vicious. In Egypt, you stay away from dogs; you don't make space for them in your bed. (I should note that when I went to Egypt in 2010, I didn't notice as many dogs on the streets.)

When we were little, my sister was chased by a dog on two different occasions. She got bitten once in the thigh and still has a round scar there.

I was petrified of dogs.

I also have hygiene issues and have always been this way. I wash my hands many times during the day. I sometimes get up in the middle of eating to wash my hands if I think they got too dirty, then I wash them again after I finish eating.

It's weird, I know.

So I don't like it when a dog's nasal area, especially a drooling one, touches me. I don't like it when I can smell the scent of any animal or when any animal touches me. If I were able to get past that hurdle, I would have a dog for a pet because I'm often characterized as a dog person and some of them are very cute.

It's not the dogs; it's me.

My friend Eric — who loves his dogs, kisses them and lets them (eww!) lick his face — once said, "Mona is not as scared of the dog hurting her as much as she's scared of it kissing her."

So if you see a Muslim or a Middle Easterner act weirdly around a dog, remember that it's probably complicated. If you see a Muslim act unkindly toward a dog and give you the "Islam says" excuse to justify it, know that it's probably ignorance.

Tell them the story about the man who went to heaven for helping a dog. Tell them what the Islamic schools of thought say and how their differing opinions still have nothing against dogs. That'll give them something to think about.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for Times Community News. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter @MonaShadia.

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