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Animals in Philosophy of the Islamic World

Kitāb al-Ḥayawān by al-Jāḥiẓ Source: Wikipedia

Peter Adamson


This is the first in a series of reports based on current research projects in the field of Islamic Studies.


This five year project (2018-2023) funded by the European Research Council, and led by Peter Adamson, will bring to light a rich body of texts written in the Islamic world, which address just such questions about the value and nature of animals. Contrary to common assumptions, such questions were taken seriously in pre-modern thought. Scholars have explored ancient Greek and Indian discussions of animals, but little attention has been paid to the contribution of Islamic culture, which produced for instance philosophical and scientific works on animals, moralizing fables featuring animal characters, and treatises on veterinary medicine and on the types and uses of animals. The project will uncover the changing conceptions of animals revealed in such works, taking an innovative approach which explores the interaction between descriptive and normative accounts of animals. It seeks to understand, for instance, how developments in ideas about animal souls impacted ideas about the ethical treatment of animals. This project will also investigate the historical genesis of this corpus of texts on animals, by exploring the influence of three literary traditions: Aristotelian zoology, medicine, and the founding religious texts of Islam.

The observation driving the project is that classical Islam saw developments in the conception of animals along two axes: there were changes in normative attitudes towards animals and in descriptive accounts of animal nature.

Kitāb al-Ḥayawān by al-Jāḥiẓ

Kitāb al-Ḥayawān by al-Jāḥiẓ
Source: Wikipedia

On the normative front, there are texts like Abū Bakr al-Rāzī’s (d. c. 925 AD) Philosophical Life and Ibn Ṭufayl’s (d. c. 1185 AD) Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān, which argue in favor of benevolence towards animals. We should for instance treat beasts of burden gently and adopt a vegetarian, or even fruitarian, diet. These examples only scratch the surface of a much larger topic: how did thinkers of the classical period think that humans should treat animals? To answer this question, this project is not only considering philosophical works on ethics, but also analyzes more practical works on animals, such as veterinary treatises. Philosophers also “thought with animals,” doing ethics by comparing humans to animals or composing allegories featuring animals. The best example may be an epistle by the Ikhwān al-Ṣafā (‘Brethren of Purity’), which puts critique of human behavior into the mouths of animals. It draws on the genre of animal fables, like Kalīla wa-Dimna, a translation of the Indian Pañcatantra that influenced the Brethren and other authors, such as Farīd al-Dīn ʿAṭṭār and Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna). These works, especially the fables, have never been exploited as a resource for ethical thought in Islam. The project explores their suggestion that animals were imagined as moral agents and not just as the objects of our benevolent concern, an idea also now emerging in contemporary philosophy. A final normative issue is that animals were seen as the object of God’s benevolent concern. The question connects to the former one about ethical treatment of animals: some authors argued that humans should look after animals in imitation of God, caring for that which is inferior to us. Theologians tried to integrate animals into the economy of divine justice  and animals are frequently cited as examples of God’s wise design of His creation. This notion was however balanced by the thought that animals are valuable simply because of their usefulness to humans, as frequently suggested in medical literature and already by Aristotle.

When it came to descriptive accounts of animals, thinkers of the Islamic world developed a rich new philosophical biology. Animals were increasingly presented as complex and sophisticated beings with a significant degree of similarity to humans. There is in fact plentiful material on the nature of animal communication, especially in works on the different kinds of animals and also in writings that follow up on hints in the Qurʾān, for instance when the Brethren of Purity suggest that animal cries and songs are praise of God that we humans cannot understand. Embryology is another important source of ideas on animals, because following Galen, Arabic doctors described the gestation of human and animal fetuses as being closely parallel and even identical in some stages.

Urdu translation of Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ

The Urdu translation of a treatise of Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ by Ikrām ʿAlī in the Fort William College, India
Ob 1870 L. Shoults Collection. University of Otago Special Collections
Dunedin, New Zealand

Already Aristotle had recognized that we share more than the five senses with animals. They also seem to be capable of higher functions that he ascribed to a catch-all power called phantasia. Drawing on Aristotle and later antique authors, thinkers of the Arabic world – especially Avicenna – devised an elaborate theory of “internal senses” that are shared by human and animal alike. Avicenna illustrated the most innovative aspect of his theory, the new faculty of “estimation (wahm),” with the famous example of a sheep that perceives the hostility of the wolf. As has been shown by Remke Kruk, Aristotle’s works also influenced many Arabic treatises on zoology, which meticulously describe the lives, abilities, and uses of both domestic and wild animals. Aristotle’s own zoology raises questions about the demarcation between plant and animal, and between animal and human; the difference between male and female and the role of each in procreation; animals’ purposive or “teleological” design; and their capacities for communication, emotion, and thought. These are questions that have yet to be explored with respect to the Arabic zoological tradition.

Many of the figures who wrote about animals at a philosophical level were also practicing doctors: again, Avicenna is an example, as is Rāzī. Indeed, medicine offered powerful grounds for seeing commonalities between humans and animals. Thus medical works frequently allude to animals, even as the zoological works mentioned above allude to medicine. The project team is examining medical treatises written in the Islamic world against the background of ancient medicine, including veterinary medicine.

Qatari Stamp of al-Jāḥiẓ

Qatari Stamp of al-Jāḥiẓ
Source: catawiki

Finally, even as philosophers and scientists were responding to Aristotelian and medical literature, they absorbed ideas about animals from the Qurʾān and ḥadīth. The project investigates how these religious ideas led theologians and philosophers to modify ideas taken from the Aristotelian and medical traditions. From the long and varied theological tradition, this research project will focus especially on the complex 9th-century author named Jāḥiẓ and on 12-14th-century writings that respond to Avicenna.

Team Members:

Peter Adamson,
Bethany Somma, MA
Rotraud Hansberger
Tommaso Alpina
Sarah de Mendonca Virgi, MA

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Animals in Philosophy of the Islamic World


Peter Adamson


This is the first in a series of reports based on current research projects in the field of Islamic Studies.


This five year project (2018-2023) funded by the European Research Council, and led by Peter Adamson, will bring to light a rich body of texts written in the Islamic world, which address just such questions about the value and nature of animals. Contrary to common assumptions, such questions were taken seriously in pre-modern thought. Scholars have explored ancient Greek and Indian discussions of animals, but little attention has been paid to the contribution of Islamic culture, which produced for instance philosophical and scientific works on animals, moralizing fables featuring animal characters, and treatises on veterinary medicine and on the types and uses of animals. The project will uncover the changing conceptions of animals revealed in such works, taking an innovative approach which explores the interaction between descriptive and normative accounts of animals. It seeks to understand, for instance, how developments in ideas about animal souls impacted ideas about the ethical treatment of animals. This project will also investigate the historical genesis of this corpus of texts on animals, by exploring the influence of three literary traditions: Aristotelian zoology, medicine, and the founding religious texts of Islam.

The observation driving the project is that classical Islam saw developments in the conception of animals along two axes: there were changes in normative attitudes towards animals and in descriptive accounts of animal nature.

Kitāb al-Ḥayawān by al-Jāḥiẓ

Kitāb al-Ḥayawān by al-Jāḥiẓ
Source: Wikipedia

On the normative front, there are texts like Abū Bakr al-Rāzī’s (d. c. 925 AD) Philosophical Life and Ibn Ṭufayl’s (d. c. 1185 AD) Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān, which argue in favor of benevolence towards animals. We should for instance treat beasts of burden gently and adopt a vegetarian, or even fruitarian, diet. These examples only scratch the surface of a much larger topic: how did thinkers of the classical period think that humans should treat animals? To answer this question, this project is not only considering philosophical works on ethics, but also analyzes more practical works on animals, such as veterinary treatises. Philosophers also “thought with animals,” doing ethics by comparing humans to animals or composing allegories featuring animals. The best example may be an epistle by the Ikhwān al-Ṣafā (‘Brethren of Purity’), which puts critique of human behavior into the mouths of animals. It draws on the genre of animal fables, like Kalīla wa-Dimna, a translation of the Indian Pañcatantra that influenced the Brethren and other authors, such as Farīd al-Dīn ʿAṭṭār and Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna). These works, especially the fables, have never been exploited as a resource for ethical thought in Islam. The project explores their suggestion that animals were imagined as moral agents and not just as the objects of our benevolent concern, an idea also now emerging in contemporary philosophy. A final normative issue is that animals were seen as the object of God’s benevolent concern. The question connects to the former one about ethical treatment of animals: some authors argued that humans should look after animals in imitation of God, caring for that which is inferior to us. Theologians tried to integrate animals into the economy of divine justice  and animals are frequently cited as examples of God’s wise design of His creation. This notion was however balanced by the thought that animals are valuable simply because of their usefulness to humans, as frequently suggested in medical literature and already by Aristotle.

When it came to descriptive accounts of animals, thinkers of the Islamic world developed a rich new philosophical biology. Animals were increasingly presented as complex and sophisticated beings with a significant degree of similarity to humans. There is in fact plentiful material on the nature of animal communication, especially in works on the different kinds of animals and also in writings that follow up on hints in the Qurʾān, for instance when the Brethren of Purity suggest that animal cries and songs are praise of God that we humans cannot understand. Embryology is another important source of ideas on animals, because following Galen, Arabic doctors described the gestation of human and animal fetuses as being closely parallel and even identical in some stages.

Urdu translation of Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ

The Urdu translation of a treatise of Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ by Ikrām ʿAlī in the Fort William College, India
Ob 1870 L. Shoults Collection. University of Otago Special Collections
Dunedin, New Zealand

Already Aristotle had recognized that we share more than the five senses with animals. They also seem to be capable of higher functions that he ascribed to a catch-all power called phantasia. Drawing on Aristotle and later antique authors, thinkers of the Arabic world – especially Avicenna – devised an elaborate theory of “internal senses” that are shared by human and animal alike. Avicenna illustrated the most innovative aspect of his theory, the new faculty of “estimation (wahm),” with the famous example of a sheep that perceives the hostility of the wolf. As has been shown by Remke Kruk, Aristotle’s works also influenced many Arabic treatises on zoology, which meticulously describe the lives, abilities, and uses of both domestic and wild animals. Aristotle’s own zoology raises questions about the demarcation between plant and animal, and between animal and human; the difference between male and female and the role of each in procreation; animals’ purposive or “teleological” design; and their capacities for communication, emotion, and thought. These are questions that have yet to be explored with respect to the Arabic zoological tradition.

Many of the figures who wrote about animals at a philosophical level were also practicing doctors: again, Avicenna is an example, as is Rāzī. Indeed, medicine offered powerful grounds for seeing commonalities between humans and animals. Thus medical works frequently allude to animals, even as the zoological works mentioned above allude to medicine. The project team is examining medical treatises written in the Islamic world against the background of ancient medicine, including veterinary medicine.

Qatari Stamp of al-Jāḥiẓ

Qatari Stamp of al-Jāḥiẓ
Source: catawiki

Finally, even as philosophers and scientists were responding to Aristotelian and medical literature, they absorbed ideas about animals from the Qurʾān and ḥadīth. The project investigates how these religious ideas led theologians and philosophers to modify ideas taken from the Aristotelian and medical traditions. From the long and varied theological tradition, this research project will focus especially on the complex 9th-century author named Jāḥiẓ and on 12-14th-century writings that respond to Avicenna.

Team Members:

Peter Adamson,
Bethany Somma, MA
Rotraud Hansberger
Tommaso Alpina
Sarah de Mendonca Virgi, MA

Animals in Philosophy of the Islamic World

Animals in Philosophy of the Islamic World