Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Of dogs and our perceptions of others

Will kindness as a behaviour which we exhibit in our relationships with other people suffice when the perception we have of them remains skewed?

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A conversation I had with a friend of mine about dogs ended in a fight. We both have a habit of sharing memes and social media posts on cute animals, particularly dogs. But for him, being a Muslim makes the connection he has with dogs a bizarre relationship where he both appreciates the animal and perceives them as “najis”.

The fight started when I invited him to go to a dog sanctuary, since he had been sharing many videos of dogs. However, he refused the offer, saying the need to “sertu” discouraged him from being around the animals.

His reply was casual but my acceptance of his answer was not. I implored for further explanations of his stand, souring the whole conversation and leading me to think about the notion of describing a creature as “najis”.

This brought to mind the tale of Persian Sufi Abu Yazid Al-Bistami and his conversation with a dog. It began when the dog miraculously began talking to him after he pulled up his clothes for fear of touching the impure animal. In a human voice, the dog said: “If my fur is dry and accidentally touches your clothes, there is no need for you to have your clothes cleansed. If my fur happens to be wet, all you need to do is wash your clothes the way God has prescribed. However, the impurity within your heart towards me will never be cleansed even with all the water of the Seven Seas.”

I believe that for many who have been raised as Muslim, we are taught the different concepts of “najis” and their classifications. This is taught with much excitement to young Muslim minds, yet with little awareness of the effect it has on their perception of beings associated with “najis”.

Dogs are classified as “najis mughallazah” or major impurities which require a thorough cleansing with water and soil after contact.

Given how Muslims have been taught about dogs, it is no surprise that while the teachings are about purity and cleanliness, they result in the perception of dogs as impure creatures. Muslims must keep themselves pure by distancing themselves from the animals.

But is this perception limited to our prescribed behaviour in relation to the deemed “najis”, or will it culminate in a mindset in which prejudice rises as one sees the world through the frame of pure and impure?

There is a problem with the worldview that is limited to the lens of acts forbidden and those allowed. The perception of “najis” from a Muslim who has an absolutist stand on viewing dogs as such will not be limited to dogs alone. It will encroach into his or her perception towards other humans who may not be aligned with their concept of goodness.

I have met sexual minorities who have internalised the perception that they are bad and unworthy of God’s love because the people who surround them told them so. I have also met drug addicts who neglect the need to recover because they do not see the point when people will only notice the acts they did.

I have to mention as well the people who cannot move on from the fact that someone was once a drug addict or a sex worker. They would rather lose the bond they have with the underbellies than continue being associated with what they perceive as impure.

The world will never be short of kindness, but I wonder if kindness as a behaviour which we exhibit in our relationships with other people will suffice when the perception we have of them remains skewed.

Many Muslims I have come across know that Islam does not forbid people from helping. But this notion is worthless when the struggles of the underbellies are caused by the perception that people have of them, putting them in a position where they depend on help and pity from the same people who place them there.

A video recently went viral showcasing a man in a sarong holding a rifle which he then used to shoot a dog. The dog was not shown, but it could be heard whimpering after the shot. The whimper then slowly died down as the dog remained unseen in the dark.

Over the past few weeks, the world witnessed incidents of beheading and murder after a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad was shown in a classroom. The initial act of beheading was preceded by the word “Allahuakbar”. Panic then ensued although the news coverage has since died down.

In 2004, photographs were taken of men with shrouds over their heads in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. They were the victims of torture by the American soldiers who had been tasked as prison guards. They were subjected to humiliating acts while the prison guards smiled in every photo taken.

Would it be as easy for the man in the sarong to pull the trigger on the dog if he had seen it differently, without the association of “najis”? For the beheader and murderers, were the victims impure and in need of an immediate death? For the prison guards, did the shroud make it easier for them to perceive their victims as their kind, the blank cloth hiding the humanity in their faces?

Can kind acts compensate for the cruelty that comes from the perception of differences? Humanity has fallen apart due to the perceptions that men hold towards each other. Prior acts that strayed from absolute virtue becomes justification for the cruelty against those who do not have the power to liberate themselves from their own conditions.

There is always hope for true kindness, but this will not be realised as long as we refuse to extend a sense of belonging to those we see as different.

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