Although not strictly of Indian origin, there are some very early references in Islam – going back to the times of the great Prophet himself – which deeply influenced the attitude of Muslims living in India, towards cats. In general, one is aware that as a domestic animal, cats were looked at with affection, often with reverence, in Islam because of the view that the great Prophet took of cats, starting with his own pet cat, Muezza. His attitude was taken as a model which was widely followed in the Islamic world, including in India.

There are no connected accounts of cats from those early times, but much can be learnt about attitudes from what is recorded in the Hadith – a collection of traditions containing sayings of the prophet Muhammad which, with accounts of his daily practice (the Sunna), constitute the major source of guidance for Muslims apart from the Quran. It is of interest to go back to recalling what was recommended in Islam from the very beginnings of its foundation as a faith.

Two different stories are told of how a cat saved the Prophet’s life. One legend has it that the reason the Prophet loved cats so much was that his life had been saved by one. A snake had crawled into his sleeve and refused to leave. A cat was called and asked the snake to show its head, in order to discuss its departure. When the snake finally appeared, the cat pounced on it and carried it off.

About the other this is what Annemarie Schimmel has noted:

There are variants of the story of how the cat of Abu Huraira (a close companion of the Prophet) which he always carried in his bag, saved the Prophet from an obnoxious snake, whereupon the Prophet petted her. It is believed that the mark of his fingers is still visible in the four dark lines on most cats’ foreheads, and, because the Prophet’s hand had stroked her back, cats never fall on their backs.   

Regarding the Prophet’s personal pet, Muezza, it is recorded that Muhammad awoke one day to the sounds of the adhan prayer. Preparing to attend prayer, he began to dress himself; however, he soon discovered his cat Muezza sleeping on the sleeve of his prayer robe. Rather than wake her, he used a pair of scissors to cut the sleeve off, leaving the cat undisturbed. Another story is that, upon returning from the mosque, the Prophet received a bow from Muezza. He then smiled and gently stroked his beloved cat three times, giving all cats the ability to land squarely on their feet.

In Islam, the punishment for troubling or torturing cats is severe, according to the traditions associated with the Prophet who advocated kindness to creatures. In the faith a special place is held for cats as lovable and cherished creatures, and mistreating a cat is seen as a serious sin. Al-Bukhari reported a Hadith regarding a woman who locked up a cat, refusing to feed it and not releasing it so that it could feed itself. The Prophet Muhammad said that her punishment on the Day of Judgment will be torture and Hell.

It is believed that you will suffer no harm if you drink from the cat’s water provided no impurities are seen in the cat’s mouth. In another story from the Hadith, it is stated that when a cat ate a pudding put down during prayers, the person who was in charge of the pudding ate from the same plate as the cat and the Prophet said this was all right as the cat is not unclean and is “one of those who go around amongst us”.

The Prophet of Islam was once performing ablution (wudhu) for prayers from a pot of water. A cat passed there and turned its eyes at the pot of water with a thirsty look. The Prophet realised at once that the cat was very thirsty, so he stopped the ablution and placed the pot before the cat. Only after the cat had fully quenched its thirst, did the Prophet resume the ablution. Dawud ibn Salih ibn Dinar at-Tammar quoted his mother as saying that her mistress sent her with some pudding (harissa) to Aisha (one of the Prophet’s wives) who was offering prayer. She made a sign to her to place it down.

A cat came and ate some of it, but when Aisha finished her prayer, she ate from the place where the cat had eaten. She stated: “The Messenger of Allah said it is not unclean: it is one of those who go round among you.” She added, “I saw the Messenger of Allah performing ablution from the water left over by the cat.”

These references apart, there is a moving story about a cat feeding a blind cat which is often repeated for emphasising the kind nature of cats. The story involves Ibn Babshad, a grammarian, and was recorded thus at the end of the fourteenth century by the Egyptian theologist and zoologist Damiri: “The grammarian Ibn Babshad and his friends once sat on the roof of a mosque in Cairo. My friends ate something. When the cat passed by, they gave her some pieces of food. She took the food and ran away, but then came back again and again. Scientists followed the cat. They saw her running away to a nearby house with a blind cat sitting on the roof. Next to her, our cat left the brought pieces of food. Ibn Babshad saw this as a concern for the blind animal on the part of Allah, and this shocked the scientist so much that he left all his possessions and began to live in poverty, relying entirely on Allah until his death in 1067.” To sum it up, an essay on cats in Islam notes:

Islam teaches Muslims that, in relation to a cat:

• the cat should not be sold for money or other traded goods.
• cat’s saliva is harmless unless the cat has “visible impurities” in the mouth.
• that Muslims are free to live with cats but they must treat cats well, providing the cat with enough water and food and giving “roaming time” (a degree of freedom of movement).

The life of Abu Huraira is often cited as an example to follow among Muslims. As a native of Yemen, he came to the Prophet the fame of whose piety was spreading fast and developed great respect for him and his beliefs. He soon became famous as a companion of the Prophet and a major narrator of his sayings. Many parts of the Hadith come from him, since he is believed to have had phenomenal memory and could recall conversations of long ago exactly as they took place years ago. Abu Huraira was not his real name, but a nickname which was given to him – it literally means “father of kittens” – because he used to care for a small male cat. Since the word cat “comes from Arabic qit/Hirra, but a tiny male is called hurayrah: the name stuck”.

On account of his love of cats which he imbibed from the example of the Prophet himself, he started looking after hosts of cats, and always carried a small one in his bag. Much of his life, Abu Huraira lived as a destitute but slowly he rose greatly in stature and was even appointed governor of a region by the Caliph Omar, a position he voluntarily left later because he did not want to live in luxury which early Islam did not approve of. He died at the age of 78, having led an exemplary life as a devotee of the Prophet and of the faith. It is for his kindness to animals in general but to cats in particular that he is remembered with respect and his name has survived for centuries.

Excerpted with permission from The Indian Cat: Stories, Paintings, Poetry, and Proverbs, BN Goswamy, Aleph Book Company.