Western media have recently reported on a British military dog that was captured in Afghanistan by the Taliban. The canine, which belongs to the Special Air Service, an elite regiment of the British Army, is apparently being well taken care of by its militant captors, who have said they would either release it or “trade” it. Earlier, the Taliban contended the dog belonged to U.S. forces in Afghanistan – an assertion later disproven. "It's always possible that we could use the dog since it has been trained," said Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid. "If someone offers a trade for it then we can think about that."
Named DaGarwal (which means colonel in the Pashto language), the dog disappeared last December during a firefight, but re-emerged recently on a video which also depicted Taliban warlords with weapons they seized from foreign troops. NATO troops in Afghanistan use dogs extensively in the field, to sniff out drugs or explosives, or for use in search-and-rescue expeditions. Mujahid further said that his men cooked beef and chicken for the dog, a brown-colored Belgian shepherd. "It is not like the local dogs, which will eat anything and sleep anywhere," he said. "We have to prepare him [the dog] proper food and make sure he has somewhere to sleep properly."
But the Daily Telegraph reported that Afghans in the Alingar Valley, in the province of Laghman in the eastern part of the county, said the dog is being held by a brutal Taliban chieftain named Abu Zarqawi.
Moreover, in the Islamic culture of Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan – as well as across Hindu-dominated India – dogs are widely disliked and even considered “unclean” and “impure” animals, in stark contrast to the West, where they are beloved and treasured pets. Muslims in particular disdain canines and avoid any contact with the creatures.
But there is much debate and confusion over the attitude toward dogs in the Middle East and South Asia. Ali Al Saloom, a cultural adviser and public speaker from the United Arab Emirates, wrote in The National newspaper: “It’s all about lack of familiarity. Many Muslims who seem to hate dogs are simply afraid of them. They may make excuses … or emphasize the religious uncleanliness of dogs just to avoid interacting with them. … Most Muslims would agree that it is permissible to have a dog for the purpose of security, hunting, farming or as service animals for the disabled.”
Saloom added that many Muslims strike such a “middle ground with dogs, allowing them for such purposes but ensuring that the animals have their own space that does not overlap with human living areas. … Most Muslims recognize that pets are not our children, nor are they humans. One should keep things in perspective.”
Omar Sacirbey of the Religion News Service wrote that it is a misconception that all Muslims fear and hate dogs. “Many Muslims all over the world have dogs, and dogs figure prominently is some Islamic countries, such as Turkey, famous for its Kangal and Akbash breeds,” he said.
The Holy Quran only explicitly mentions dogs twice, and favorably, Sacirbey noted. In one passage, it declares that Muslims may eat the meat that a hunting dog carries in its mouth. In another, a group of Muslims and their dog hide from their enemies in a cave, with the canine shielding them. "This tender description of the dog guarding the cave makes it clear that the animal is good company for believers," Ingrid Mattson, chair of the Islamic studies program at Huron University College in London, Ontario, wrote in a column for The Huffington Post.
But that passage (of the dog at the threshold of the cave) also led many to believe that canines should not be kept inside one’s home. Moreover, other hadiths (sayings attributed to Muhammad) have a hostile attitude toward canines – some hadiths even state that some dogs (especially black ones) must be killed. A dislike for dogs may also stem from long-held cultural traditions across the Middle East and South Asia that likely influenced Muhammad and his followers.
Consider that last summer, in Iran, lawmakers proposed a bill that would ban dogs from public places (including their presence in automobiles). Government officials said that dogs were “a cultural problem” since they are “unclean” and reflect a “blind imitation of the vulgar Western culture.” “Walking dangerous, unhealthy or unclean animals such as dogs in places and public transport is forbidden,” the bill stated. The Washington Post reported that keeping dogs as household pets has become a popular pastime among Teheran’s wealthy elite, along with other Western customs. In response, the Islamic regime has sought to crack down on the practice, even confiscating and killing dogs. Iran’s Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi has even issued a “fatwa” against owning dogs, claiming, “there are lots of people in the West who love their dogs more than their wives and children.”
Interestingly, Pervez Musharraf, the former military dictator of Pakistan, is a dog lover – something that brought him much grief during his tenure in power. Pakistani journalist Asra Nomani wrote back in 2001: “The dog issue, in fact, seems to hound Musharraf. In India, a columnist refers to Musharraf as ‘a dog-loving nattily uniformed general.’ Musharraf boldly posed holding his two dogs for his photo-op after taking over the country. Go figure. The man knew that many Muslims go running when a dog starts approaching them. .... We’re taught that touching a dog makes you dirty… so that you shouldn’t keep a dog in the house.”
Dogs are also widely disdained in India, where tens of millions of strays roam free, often hungry and often biting and attacking humans. The New York Times reported that about 20,000 people in India die every year from rabies infections, more than one-third the global total. Since a law in 2001 prohibited the killing of strays, their population have soared. In response, local officials have proposed sterilizing dogs or sending them to China, where some people eat them. But, as in Iran, some urbanized middle-class Indians have imitated Western culture by keeping dogs as household pets, while the vast majority of Indians view canines either as a work beast or a nuisance or a threat. Consequently, most dogs wander the streets and alleyways.
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, the stage for the missing UK military dog, canines are sometimes used as beasts of burden or even in fighting competitions, but for the most part, they are shunned. “Everything is laid out in Islam, so there is a distinct line between human beings and animals," Mohammad Musa Arash, a university student in Kabul, told Afghanistan Today. "I am against the treatment given to dogs and cats in Western countries, because animals are dirty and you should not keep them inside your home.”
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.