Debate between Man and the Animals

Perhaps it is an appropriate moment to fulfil a promise, made earlier,[1] to look at an intriguing narrative by those forerunners of the Avicennists, the Brethren of Purity.

This is the discussion between man and the animals, which the Brethren of Purity attached to their 22nd treatise (on zoology).  It should be appreciated by any modern environmentalist.  I shall just give a very brief summary of John Platts’ 1869 English translation of an Urdu version.  An Urdu version is quite appropriate, in a way, as the Brethren of Purity originally took their animal fables from an Indian tradition.  (Any hints in this story about the religious ideas of the Brethren are enclosed in brackets, because they may not be important for the narrative, although they may be of interest for the study of the teachings of the Brethren.)

Men discover an island, where the animals have hitherto lived in freedom without them.  When the men try to subjugate the animals, the latter appeal to the Jinn.  The men plead, from the authority of the Qur’ān, that animals should be their slaves.  The mule pleads the authority of reason and natural justice.[2]  Man points out that he is erect, while they are humbled.  They reply that each is fashioned in his own best interests, and that animals have superior sense faculties.  When man says that he feeds and shelters the animals, he is accused of hypocrisy; and the animals list numerous complaints of man’s tyranny, cruelty and insensitivity, and of his wholesale maiming and killing of animals.[3]

(The pig is bewildered by the widely differing attitudes shown to him by men according to the dictates of their different religions.[4])

When the hare attacks man with some very harsh words over his treachery and deceit, the ass censures the hare for such hostility, saying that all creatures have their good qualities and their defects; that no being is perfect, except God.[5]  The ass, considered by most people to be a fool, is clearly not.

Envoys are then sent to the wild animal kingdoms, to canvas their opinion.  The lion is worried that no animals will be able to match the sagacity of human divines, doctors and lawyers; to which the leopard replies that such might have been the case in the past, but that nowadays such men have taken to the ways of strife, faction and injustice.[6]

The bear explains why dogs and cats get on with humans.  They are covetous, greedy, lazy, shameless and thieving, just like humans.  Humans, therefore, understand them and make life easy for them, in return for service.[7]

(There is quite a long passage detailing the discussion among the eagles and other birds of prey.  The whole company of birds of prey may represent the mystics.  They soar up to the heights, yet live in the wilderness.  The falcon’s description of the owl could be a description of a Sufi, dwelling among the ruins:

“He possesses abstinence and contentment in a degree not found in any other animal.  He fasts all day and wails through fear of God, and during the night he is engaged in prayer and in rousing those who are forgetful of their Maker.”[8])

(Later there is a Neoplatonic sermon, from the cricket, on God as the source of all being.[9]  This paves the way for the remarks of the Jinn, at the re-convening of the court, about the amazing number of archetypal forms (Ideas), which must exist in the mind of God, to produce the exceptional variety of God’s creatures.[10])

The Greek brings up man’s superiority in the arts and sciences.  The bee retorts that there are many insects whose organisational and technical skills are superior.  The Arab points out that man has more luxuries and greater wealth.  The nightingale is delighted to explain to him that it is the cause of much misery to him, and that an unnatural life-style and the wrong foods make him prone to all kinds of ailments.  Man is a slave to his frustrating inventions, his unnatural comforts and his artificial sources of happiness.  The nightingale is truly happy because completely free.[11]

(The Jew says that only men have the blessings of religion.  The nightingale replies that they are only necessary for men, who are such sinners, that they need this means of salvation.  God speaks directly to the animals; it is only to man that he has to communicate through intermediaries.

“And as to your saying that you repair to mosques and convents for congregational prayers, we have no need of such.  For us, every place is a mosque and a qiblah.[12]  Wherever we turn our eyes, God presents Himself to our view.  There is no special obligation on us to pray on Fridays and at ’Id;[13] we are continually engaged, by day and by night, in prayer and fasting.”[14])

The Mede remarks that man is clothed while the animals are naked.  The jackal replies that those clothes are all stolen from animals.  There is then a personal attack on the jackal as a cowardly scavenger.  But, retorts the jackal, all creatures have to kill to eat; only man kills for the sake of killing, in his state of perpetual warfare.  If men wish to lead good lives, they have to leave the company of other men to live with the wild beasts, because beasts are not malicious without cause.[15]

(There is a discussion about angels and their relationship to the soul.[16])

The parrot launches into a diatribe against different types of human activity, e.g. astrologers who deceive the ignorant, philosophers who lead into confusion, fools who amass wealth and property for someone else to squander, false ascetics, untrustworthy lawyers, etc. etc.[17]

(In a discussion on the varieties of religion among men, – unlike the animals, who have only one religion, – the Persian explains that the object of all religions is the same.  Whichever path they choose, it must lead them to God.  The Persian talks at length about the need for mortification, that all true seekers after God keep themselves pure from covetousness and concupiscence, subdue their worldly desires and sacrifice their lives to their God.[18])

The Hindu says that man has more varieties than any other species.  The frog mentions fish.

The Hejāzī (presumably representing the Muslim) says that man can go to heaven.  The nightingale mentions hell.  The Hejāzī refines his argument: man’s soul is at any rate immortal, and some will dwell in the sight of God.  The animals recognise that this is an argument for his superiority, but ask: who comes up to this standard?  The men have to hang their heads in shame.[19]

A group of men, however, is mentioned:

“who dwell nearest to God, who possess praiseworthy qualities, pure and angelic morals, and just and holy characters, whose circumstances are so wonderfully strange, that the tongue is unable to describe them, and the understanding too feeble to thoroughly comprehend their attributes.”[20]

Is this group the Brethren of Purity?  The animals are so impressed by them, that they accept the decision against them.



[1] In the study of the Brethren of Purity, which is the second piece in the section entitled THE LADDER OF ASCENSION.
[2] J. Platts (B.83) pp.1-11.
[3] ibid. pp.12-26.
[4] ibid. pp.27-29.
[5] ibid. pp.31-34.
[6] Ibid. pp.66-71.
[7] Ibid. pp.75-78.
[8] Translated by J. Platts (B.83) p.97.
[9]  J.Platts (B.83) pp.110-116.
[10] ibid. p.123.
[11] ibid. pp.158-171.
[12] This is the direction towards which Muslims turn to pray.
[13] A festival, e.g. at the end of Ramadan, or at the culmination of the pilgrimage to Mecca.
[14] Translated by J. Platts (B.83) pp.175-6.
[15] J. Platts (B.83) pp.176-187.
[16] Ibid. pp.188-190.
[17] ibid. pp.190-209.
[18] ibid. pp.219-224.
[19] ibid. pp.224-233.
[20] Translated by J. Platts (B.83) p.233.

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