“Religious authority is not forced,” al-Hasanat said. “We only give advice. If someone takes it, great. If not, what can we do? I give him a fatwa, and he decides.”
It’s not unusual for a fatwa to cause conflict, said Jenny Berglund, a religion professor at Södertörn University in Sweden. “When there was an Iranian fatwa saying it was okay to kill Salman Rushdie, for example, a lot of people went around trying to kill him,” Berglund said.
The lack of force in Jordan’s fatwa system is what enabled Jordanians to misinterpret the grand mufti’s words, even as they acknowledge the importance of having religious approval for killing. “In Islam, if you want to kill animals, it’s not easy. But if the animal is a threat to humans, you can kill it,” said Rawashdeh, uncle of the girl who died. “It would be forbidden to kill dogs if the mufti didn’t speak this way.” The girl’s death had been caused equally by the dog and by the doctor’s mistake of not treating her for rabies, he said. Still, he supported the supposed fatwa. “Any stray dog should be killed, because they hurt people,” he said.
Dogs have long been considered unclean in most schools of Islamic law, said Berglund, who published a paper on the status of dogs in Islam. But there is no basis in the Koran or hadith for mass killings of dogs—nor is there an imperative to do so in the fatwa. The driving force behind Jordan’s dog shootings is not Islamic government, it seems, but Jordanian people’s preexisting irritation with an uncontrolled stray dog problem. In 2014, for example, local media reported that residents were asking the municipality of Zarqa to get rid of strays after dogs attacked an elderly woman and several children, but that the officials refused, saying that killing dogs was forbidden and against Islamic law.
“Probably a lot of people in Jordan are just fed up with stray dogs. It’s a very human thing. You pick up this fatwa to get rid of the dogs harassing your family and stealing food,” Berglund said. “If this mufti had said it’s permissible to kill horses or donkeys, people wouldn’t have started to kill horses or donkeys. There are plenty of fatwas on helping the poor, too, but look how many people do nothing for the poor.”
In this case, religion may be serving people’s social aims, not the other way around. Whereas foreigners assumed the “war on dogs” was coming from the demands of strict religious authority, it may actually be the opposite: Jordan’s religious flexibility has allowed space for dog-haters to use a fatwa as an excuse to kill them.
On November 12, Jordan’s Dar al-Iftaa issued a new fatwa, quoting the Koran’s call for mercy toward animals and clarifying that animals should only be killed in self-defense, and even then, only humanely. Yet the killings have continued, and will go on unless legal and social solutions are found.
“It’s forbidden to kill dogs like this. It’s outside the fatwa,” al-Hasanat said. “But this is just my advice.”