There are really two questions that I get asked about this, and the answers aren’t exactly the same. The first question is what Somalis think of dogs, and the second is what Muslims in general think of dogs. The overall position of Islam on dogs is complicated, and you’ll hear different opinions depending on who you ask. The way Somalis feel about dogs, however, is more negative. Dogs aren’t part of the culture in Somalia, and the few that are there are wild. Because of this, they are more looked down on than in other parts of the world, and are seen as a (pretty dangerous) wild animal.
I am not all clear about the role of dogs or cats in Islam, but I know that there are a lot of Muslims who are misinformed about dogs. Until very recently, I thought dogs were cursed animals because of the way we stayed away from them growing up in Somalia. Nobody ever explained it exactly, but we were told when we were kids that if a dog touches you, our parents have to dip us in the river seven times. The image I had in my head when I heard that was that I was going to be drowned and it was the dog’s fault (give me a break here, I was a kid).
The second thing we were told was that we should stay away from dogs at all cost. If we see a dog, we should run like there was no tomorrow. When I asked why, my mom said it will bite me on the back of my ankles and I will never walk again. So the second image I had in my head was that I was going to be crippled for life and it was the dog’s fault.
The third thing that happened, which made me and dogs enemies, was that I got chased by wild dogs a couple of times, and in some instances, I thought I was going to die because of how scary the dogs were. So, me and dogs were not best friends until I met and got to know my friend’s dog Loki and one of my favored teacher’s dog Maggi.
Some Somalis probably are familiar with my stories and had some scary experiences of their own. I think it is generally understood in the Somali culture that dogs are dirty and shouldn’t be kept as pets. A Somali home is where the family sleeps and eats. It is a sanctuary. It is where daily prayers are recited and performed. It should be daahir (clean) at all times. Traditionally, dogs have been seen as impure.
A pet like a dog or cat will make it hard to keep the home clean.
Another big part of Somali culture is our religion, which affects how we live and what we practice. So on top of dogs being wild, dangerous and not really part of the norm, we have Islam which says it is okay to own a dog, but it is not hygienic and therefore not permissible to keep a dog in the house. If the practice of Islam says you can’t have a dog or cat for a pet, the majority of the Somali people will probably follow that tradition without a question.
What I didn’t know before, but I now know, and some Somalis still don’t know, is that it is okay to touch a dog or any other animal. No animal or any creations of Allah has been cursed in any way. However — and I think this is where the freaking out and the feeling of spookiness about dogs comes from — if the saliva of a dog touches you or any part of your clothing, then you have to wash the body part and the clothing which the dog’s mouth or snout touched.
One of my neighbors in Somalia owned three big black dogs. Everybody thought he was out of his mind. Twenty years later in another continent, I am learning we were wrong and he was right. A Muslim can own a watch dog or a dog for another purpose.
I am glad a reader asked this question, because it was on my mind after an experience I had in downtown St Paul with Loki, my friend’s dog. I usually hang out with Loki and his owner in their downtown apartment. One night my friend was outside of a restaurant picking up dinner, and she asked me to hold Loki while she went inside to get the food. A car stopped at the red light and was at eye level with me. The driver looked at me and did a double take. He stared at me and the dog so much that he was there couple of minutes after the light turned green. He probably wanted to say something like, “What on earth are you doing? Don’t you know you shouldn’t go near a dog?”
Well, sorry, but dogs are part of Allah’s creation and we should treat them well and not be afraid of them.