Praying Ants and Prostrating Beasts – By George Archer

George Archer on Sarra Tlili’s Animals in the Qur’an

qur'an animals
Sarra Tlili, Animals in the Qur’an, Cambridge University Press, 2012, 294pp., $99.00

The classical period of Islamic scholarship produced a fruitful and developed body of commentary on the Qur’an, but modern academic study of the Qur’an has sometimes chosen to marginalize or ignore classical Islamic exegesis. The modern reader’s own interpretation of the Qur’an is privileged over the input of medieval Muslims. This turn to the Qur’an sans Muslim commentary is either an assault or a balm, depending on whom you ask. More conservative believers view critical scholars as colonizers, if not stealth Islamophobes, for not taking Islamic self-investigation seriously. To secular scholars and liberal Muslims, critical scholarship relaxes the stranglehold of medieval Damascus, Baghdad, and Nishapur on the late antique Arabian revelation. Sarra Tlili’s new book, Animals in the Qur’an, contains a productive tension between these two camps. She approaches the Qur’an through the great exegetes, as educated Muslims have typically done throughout history, but the strength of this work lies in her selective use of these commentaries in the service of postmodern questions and conclusions.

Although Tlili stands on the shoulders of the classical interpreters, her undertaking is unabashedly new. Using a buzzword of the animal rights movement, she asserts that the Qur’an is not “speciesist” — it does not inherently favor the human race over other species. But “Muslim tradition has not always read it this way.” With the gradual rise of humanism in Islam came a counterbalanced devaluation of animals. Various Islamic intellectual traditions have concluded that, although animals are part of God’s great plan for all, they are not complex and are invariably less beloved by their Maker than humans. Tlili counters this conclusion by offering an “eco-centric reading of the Qur’an.” While the Qur’an may be addressed to humans, its message is theocentric, not anthropocentric. Everything that exists has being only in reference to its God. This theocentric message does not mean that each created thing lacks a particular and significant context. The Qur’an appears in the context of the Arab world of the seventh century, even though according to the Islamic traditions it speaks to all times and places. Likewise, although the Qur’an is addressed to the human race, its significance is not limited to humanity, and its message is the potentially universal gifts of spirit and worship.

Despite these clearly modern questions, Tlili’s approach is grounded in traditional Islamic lore. For instance, she draws on the titles given to the Qur’an’s suras and the methods of classical commentators, even though both of these are later developments from the post-revelation periods of Qur’anic codification and commentary. Rather than taking into account the development of these traditional elements over time, Tlili’s method is synchronic, working with elements from the Qur’anic tradition irrespective of their period of origin. Animals in the Qur’an is a specifically Islamic interpretive reading of animals in the Qur’an rather than a strict source-critical analysis. Yet this book is never theology per se but constitutes notes on what an Islamic theologian could say on the subject of animals. Of course, there is a history of interpretation that connects any scripture and its believing listeners, and Tlili’s effort to see the Qur’an through the eyes of the later traditions acknowledges that she is working in continuity with them. A reader looking for analysis of nonhuman animals only in the revelation of the seventh century Muhammad may be disappointed. That is not Tlili’s project.

Image: Yahyâ ibn Mahmûd al-Wâsitî, 1237. Maqâmât (Versammlungen) des al-Harîrî, Szene: Das östliche Eiland (39. Maqâmât). Via Wikimedia Commons.
Yahyâ ibn Mahmûd al-Wâsitî, 1237. Maqâmât (Versammlungen) des al-Harîrî, Szene: Das östliche Eiland (39. Maqâmât). Via Wikimedia Commons.

Readers will benefit from an introduction to the classical commentary, or tafsir, of al-Tabari, al-Razi, al-Qurtubi, and Ibn Kathir, who will each appear throughout the rest of the text as Tlili’s Qur’anic readers. She also provides her own colorful interpretation of the medieval scholars known as the Brethren of Purity, framing them as Qur’anic commentators also (an unusual, but not unfounded reading). Tlili’s question of all these commentators is whether the Qur’an depicts nonhuman creatures as inferior to humans in the mind of God. Are all animals subjugated to the human race? Are some subjugated to some extent? She also considers whether it is permissible to eat and use animal products as mentioned directly by the Qur’an. Most compelling is a short reflection on the role of animals in celestial foods such as milk and honey.

These explorations are part of the larger question of whether animals are to be understood as divine demonstration — whether they visibly signify an invisible deity. The Qur’an says that everything created is a sign for the believing human (e.g., al-Shura 42:29). Building on the interpretation of this verse as declaring the existence of the entire sensible world as a series of signifiers of God, Tlili argues that the Qur’an’s perspective on animals is theocentric. While nonhuman animals may have various functions that serve human ends, the goal of these animals, their functions and uses, and their occasional subjugation, are all ultimately toward the glory of God, not the human race. Although there are passages in the Qur’an according to which many animals (especially livestock) act as servants to humans, these passages do not necessarily imply superiority or inferiority in either group.

Tlili makes her case by delving into the specific depictions of animals in the Qur’an. Like their human counterparts, God has made the animals into a variety of “peoples like you” (al-An’am 6:38). The strength of the camel, the bee’s many products, and the bird’s flight are quite diverse, yet are each alike in that all are signs of their common origin. This leads into Tlili’s most enlightening discussion, an open-ended investigation of nonhuman spirituality in the Qur’anic worldview. What does it mean to say that a beast prostrates before God (e.g., al-Hajj 22:18), or that the birds spoke with the Prophet Solomon (al-Naml 27:16)? Tlili points to the commentary tradition for answers. Ibn Kathir’s commentary, for example, contains examples of ants whose petitions for rain save the human race from draught, or sheep and cows who bleat and moo to the Creator beside their praying human fellows. Such interpretations imply a diverse community of believers — human and not, pious and not-so-pious — who all try to please God, each in its own way. Just as there are many kinds of animals, so too are humans diverse, some better and some worse. The Qur’an speaks of humanity as uniquely carrying God’s trust; Tlili argues that only marks us as distinct, not superior. There are people within the Qur’anic worldview who are considered to be better than animals, but this is only because the individual has earned this station, not inherited it through her or his species.

Tlili tries to set her study of animals in the Qur’an in the context of how animals are viewed in Judaism, Christianity, and Buddhism. This comparison raises interesting points, but the discussion does not seem to fit into the larger project. Perhaps the chapter was supposed to start a discourse on the widest possible level with the general view of animals in (some) religions before focusing on the topic of animals in the Qur’an, but it leads the reader into thinking there is some comparison to come, which there is not. And the two concluding appendices, which list animals in the Qur’an by species and collectively, could use some more detail.

Nonetheless, Animals in the Qur’an is a thought-provoking invitation to consider the past history and future potential for religious traditions to argue for the nature, worth, and rights of the animal world as well as the role of pre-modern theology in our contemporary turn to ecology. Although Tlili does not try to give us fixed answers to such questions, she opens the door to these much-needed discussions. I would hope to see her return to this topic in the future and produce a full-fledged scholarly argument regarding Islamic animal rights, which Animals in the Qur’an proves is possible. Such a project would be welcome, and Tlili has proven herself worthy of producing it.

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