Dogs Among Iranians

Many books, articles, essays in recent years have been written about dogs and their relationship to humans. They all testify to the strong bond between dogs and humans that goes back over many thousands of years. This bond is also unique for there is nothing like it with any other animal to this extent and depth.

Dogs are the only animals that make eye contact with us. They can read our moods and respond accordingly. They can fear us but still won’t run away as other animals do. Dogs can teach us valuable lessons in our current materialistic world where everything takes a backseat to the economy: we can be happy because relationships are what’s important, even in unfavourable circumstances and with a lack of material possessions. No amount of materialism can fill the vacuum created by a lack of relationships.

My childhood memories in Tehran were devoid of dogs. Iranians mostly love cats, and dogs for some weird reason are considered unclean. Although I know this attitude has changed a bit, and many households today in Iran keep pet dogs, it is still a religious imperative to abstain from touching dogs as they are considered ‘unclean.’  The short story, The Stray Dog, by the Iranian writer S. Hedayat, was the first of its kind to portray an Islamic society hostile to dogs. This harrowing story is a sad tale of a Scottish Setter separated from its owners, wandering the cruel streets of an Islamic society. Hedayat’s story is very moving and invites the reader to identify with the dog and feel the pain inflicted by people. (I have inserted a sample paragraph from the story)

In recent years, however, Iranians have been drawn to dogs. They keep them as pets  and also stand up against the systematic killing of feral dogs by the government. Yet IRI discrimination against dogs and their owners remains serious and unjustified. There have been demonstrations in Tehran and Shiraz against cruelty to animals, especially dogs.

For many dog owners walking their dogs in public places has become a symbol of defiance. Animal activists shelter and feed feral or abandoned dogs and try to find homes for them. This sympathy toward dogs in Iran is unprecedented, at least since the 1979 revolution. But is this fondness for dogs an Iranian middle class fad or an imitation of  western trends? Or are dogs are deeply rooted in the native Iranian culture despite religious decrees to keep them at arms length?

What Iranians thought about dogs in pre-Islamic times reveals much about dogs and their connection to people, religion and culture. One etymological meaning of the word sag (dog) which goes back to an ancient, Persian folk tradition was derived from seh-yak (one third) because one third of its essence was believed to be human essence. It is only when you go to the Zoroastrian texts that you would discover that dogs occupied a very special place among Iranians. They were considered as important as a family member. Dogs were at  home protecting the household. In the pastures looking after the cattle. And at war fighting the enemy. More could not be expected from an animal.

In the context of religion, dogs were held up high as moral beings. ’At funeral rites a corpse had to be seen by a dog before carried to be disposed of. They were used as purifier or protector allowed to follow the corpses to the exposure place as a way of warding off demons from harming the corpse’. “If a dog dies in a house, fire is to be taken out of that house, as when a person dies (Vd 5.39-40) and the dog’s body is to be carried like a human’s to a place of exposure (Vd, 8.14). The only other species in Zoroastrianism which is given the same style of burial as humans are dogs. One reason was to prevent any gloating by triumphant evil spirits over their corpses.  Instructions about how to feed a dog and look after them is given within the same context as humans. For example, ‘a sick dog is to be looked after as carefully as a sick person.’ (Vd.13.35). A sudden change of attitude toward dogs took place with the demise of Zoroastrianism in Iran.

Just as I was quick to blame Islam for this drastic turnaround I was surprised to discover that in Islam dogs are not considered as “unclean” as I was meant to believe. Dogs are mentioned in the Quran four times but never in a derogatory way. Prejudice against dogs existed in pre-Islamic Arabia in various forms. Some of these prejudices have found their ways into a few Hadiths after Islam where Muslim lawgivers have used them to justify the damnation of this loyal animal. Prejudices agains dogs also existed in Persia before Zoroastrianism. But Zoroaster not only put an end to these prejudices but gave dogs an elevated status.

In Persia after Islam the only positive story where dog played a central role is a story told in verse by the Persian poet Khaghani (1121/1122–1190 A.D.) It is a gospel based story which must have come down to him through his Christian mother. The story is completely unheard of in the Christian west. Nevertheless it is a very sensitive tale about people’s prejudices against animals, in this case a dog whose healthy teeth are noticed by Jesus and proclaimed as shinier and cleaner than all those who cursed the dog for being scabby.

Man’s best friend has suffered so much for so long in post Islamic Iran. Their treatment by IRI today is  still malicious and deeply prejudiced. Despite this Iran has a proud history of producing dogs of great pedigree.  So why is the Shia Islam so scared of dogs that they have decreed law against them. Dogs have travelled like loyal companions with humans for thousands of years, protecting us against predators. Zoroastrianism’s insight into dogs was deep and humane. It even considered dogs as spiritual beings in partnership with humans against the destructive forces of ahriman.

In Iran today dogs and people mirror each other in their pain and suffering. This mirroring  has given rise to a better understanding and sympathy – as in Bahram Gur’s story, as written in Shahnameh, that he suddenly woke up to the oppression of his tyrannical vizier as the result of witnessing a shepherd’s cruel treatment of his sheep dog.   Once again in history dogs and people are helping each other through difficult times. They suffer together because the Islamic leadership, like ahrimanic forces, are against them for no good reason.

Yet, so far, dogs and their human friends have managed to survive and all the forces against them have pushed them closer to each other than ever before. “If you don’t have a dog–at least one–there is not necessarily anything wrong with you, but there may be something wrong with your life.” -Vincent Van Gogh.

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