4 Dogs in Medieval Egyptian Sufi Literature

In: Our Dogs, Our Selves


Dogs did not enjoy a particularly positive reputation in the medieval Islamic culture and few Muslims devoted much time and energy to discussing them in any detail. The primary exceptions to this situation are legal treatises that deal with, among a great many topics, the ritual status of dogs, zoological treatises that treat the animal kingdom more broadly, and a handful of idiosyncratic texts that discuss dogs explicitly. The limits of this small textual field are compounded by the supposedly widespread prohibition on pictorial representations of living beings rooted in this ḥadīth. While this prohibition is not so true for the Persianate and Turkic manuscript traditions, it is the case that images of animals and humans in medieval Arabic manuscripts are more rare. This is not to say that there are no pictures of dogs in Arabic manuscripts, but these are few and far between, typically limited to certain literary and zoological treatises. In general, then, representations of dogs from the medieval Arabophone world appear primarily in texts. One textual field that contains quite a large number of references to dogs is that of Sufi literature. Sufis, the so-called “mystics of Islam,” were particularly fond of using dogs in their texts to elucidate a variety of themes, doctrines, and praiseworthy characteristics. Specifically, they rhetorically exploited the ritual and social ambiguity of dogs in the Islamicate world to illustrate and amplify key Sufi concepts. This short essay offers a brief overview of the sources of this ambiguity in the Islamic tradition and discusses several examples of dog narratives from medieval Egyptian Sufi literature.

Our Dogs, Our Selves

Dogs in Medieval and Early Modern Art, Literature, and Society