While Googling in preparation for the possible adjudication of a dispute in a CalPundit comment thread, I came across the introduction of a coffee table book entitled Cats of Cairo. I could not imagine a cuter collection of sappy Orientalism.
[E]very visitor to the Islamic world is aware of the innumerable cats in the streets of Cairo - and of Istanbul, Kairouan, Damascus, and many other cities. Virtually everywhere, one is reminded of the saying popularly attributed to the Prophet Muhammad: "Love of cats is part of the faith."Running in parallel is the introduction to Zen Cats, which may conflate the notions of nirvana and sleeping for twenty hours a day.
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The life of a cat has always been considered precious throughout the Islamic world: in Turkey it has been thought that even to build a mosque was not sufficient to atone for the killing of a cat, and in Muslim Bengal only eleven pounds of the most precious commodity, salt, was acceptable blood money for the death of a cat.
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But in the urban areas of Arabia and of other countries that became Islamized in the seventh and eighth centuries, cats played an important role, and folktales abound. For example, everyone knows how, according to folk tradition, the Prophet Muhammad cut off his coat sleeve because he had to get up for prayer and was loath to disturb his cat Muizza, peacefully sleeping on the sleeve; or how a cat gave birth to her kittens on the prophet's coat, and he took care of the offspring. Therefore, numerous friendly sayings about cats are attributed to him. For the future generations of Muslims, it was essential to know that the cat is a clean animal - even if she drinks from the water in a bowl, this water can still be used for the ablutions before prayer (while the dog's saliva renders everything impure). Thus we often find cats in the mosque, and they are gladly welcomed there not only because they keep the mice at bay, but also because the pious think that the cat herself performs ablutions, while purring is often compared to the dhikr, the rhythmic chant-ing of the Sufis.
To show mercy to animals, and in particular to cats, was considered meritorious. A lovely Sufi tale tells how Shibli, an Iraqi Sufi of the tenth century, appeared to someone in a dream after his death, and recounted how God Almighty had shown mercy to him. Being interrogated by the Lord as to whether he was aware which of his acts had gained him forgiveness, Shibli - so he told the dreaming person - had enumerated a long list of virtuous acts, supererogative prayers, travels in search of knowledge, fasting, almsgiving, and much more. "But the Lord told me: 'Not for all this have I forgiven you!' And I asked: 'But then why?' And He said: 'Do you remember that winter night in Baghdad, when it was snowing and you saw a tiny kitten shivering on a wall, and you took it and put it under your fur coat?' 'Yes, I remember that!' 'Now, because you had pity on that poor little cat, I have mercy on you.'"