The Brethren of Purity were a secret group of Islamic philosophers based in Basra, Iraq sometime during the eighth or tenth centuries. So secretive were they that very little is known about them, but some of their writing survives, including a letter known as The Case of the Animals Versus Man Before the King of the Jinn. This is part of an Oxford University Press series of translations and commentaries. The translation I’m quoting here is by Lenn E. Goodman and Richard McGregor.
In this epistle, animals, birds and insects (interesting inclusion for the time) put humanity on trial in the court of the King of the Jinn for “cruelty, ecological heedlessness and greed”*. In their defence, the counsel for the defence quote the Qur’an, in which the Prophet tells his followers that animals are there for them to use. Horses, mules, and donkeys are “for riding and for splendour, and much that you know not” – which is rather intriguing.
There is immediately a response from a mule, who points out that this usage was never intended to result in abuse, adding, “there is nothing in the passages this human cites to support his claim that they are masters and we slaves.” After all, the mule goes on, the Qu’ran also says that “the sun and moon, the wind and clouds” are also subject to man, but they are not exactly chattels or slaves to mankind. Animals, the mule says, should be under man’s protection, not his figurative yoke.
Before Adam, the mule states, animals lived peacably as they pleased, but as soon as man arrived on the scene they found themselves forced into “exhausting toil and drudgery of hauling, ploughing, drawing water, turning mills, and being ridden. They forced us to these tasks with beatings, bludgeonings, and every kind of duress, torture, and chastisement throughout our lives.”
When the defence arrogantly counter that the animals should be able to tell by man’s bearing – upright, bipedal – that humanity is the master and the animal kingdom his subjects. Nonsense, say the animals. Their many forms are just as divinely given: “You should start from the recognition that all animals are the work of the wise Creator, who made them as He did with reason and purpose, to benefit them and protect them
from harm. But this is grasped only by Him and those who are well rooted in knowledge.”
Frankly, the animals tend to come out best as the arguments fly back and forth. If man claims that his mere ownership of animals is proof of his status as master, the mule points out that some men own other men – slaves. This is due to the “mere turns of human fortune” and not something ordained from on high. In any case, man only looks after us because he fears losing his investment, the mules says. Several witness for the prosecution speak out in detail about what they have suffered at the hands of the “Adamites”, including the Horse:
Your Majesty, had you seen us as their prisoners on the field of battle, bits in our mouths, saddles on our backs, plunging unprotected through clouds of dust, hungry and thirsty, swords in our faces, lances to our chests, and arrows in our throats,awash in blood, you would have had pity on us, O King.
The mule is saltier still as he talks about the indignities and brutalities he has experienced.
Your Majesty, if you consider how dense, vulgar, uncouth, and foul-mouthed humans are, you’ll be amazed at how little they discern their own odious ways, vicious traits, depraved characters, and vile actions, their manifold barbarities, corrupt notions, and conflicting dogmas.
Later a rabbit says that he is indignant to be hunted by men on horses – after all, he says, dogs are carnivores and therefore have a reason to pursue his kind, but horses do not. The horse, he says, should not participate in the chase.
The next day, a better orator stands up in defence of mankind, citing its piety and the heavenly promises of the afterlife, but the animals counter with hell and other punishments, claiming that this balance sets creatures equal with man. Mankind draws ahead again by speaking of holymen and saints, and the animals must concede that they, too, seek to learn from these people.
Finally, the very finest and most highly educated counsel for the prosecution is introduced, a man “Persian by breeding, Arabian by faith, a ḥanif by confession, Iraqi in culture, Hebrew in lore, Christian in manner, Damascene in devotion, Greek in science, Indian in discernment, Sufi in intimations, regal in character, masterful in thought, and divine in awareness.” And then the text abruptly ends.
* Quotation from Robert Irwin’s wonderful, wonderful, Camel, which taught me so much about the bodies of camels and Arabic poetry. and made me laugh too.