Are Saudi clerics about to launch a campaign against cat selfies — or a “catwa” as some news outlets have put it? Not really. I wish I could tell you otherwise, because the thing about a ban on cat selfies makes for a much better clickbait headline, but it’s not entirely true.
The story about a ban on cat selfies got picked up on the internet last week, based on a video posted in April. The video shows cleric Saleh bin Fawzan al-Fawzan, a member of the Saudi Council of Senior Scholars, answering questions about doctrine at a public hearing. A moderator from off-camera asks about the practice of taking selfies with cats. The question at first seems to confuse the cleric, but his final response doesn’t so much have to do with cats as it does with photography in general. Video and transcript below:
Moderator: “Someone asked you the following question: A new trend of taking pictures with cats has been spreading among people, who want to be like Westerners …”
Saleh Al-Fawzan: “What?!”
Moderator: “A new trend of taking pictures with cats …”
Al-Fawzan: “With what?”
Moderator: “With cats.”
Al-Fawzan: “What do you mean pictures with cats? Taking pictures is prohibited. The cats don’t matter here.”
Moderator: “They are taking pictures with them, Sheikh. It’s a new trend.”
Moderator: “They are taking pictures with them. It’s a new trend.”
Al-Fawzan: “Explain this trend to me. Taking pictures is prohibited if not for a necessity — not with cats, not with dogs, not with wolves, not with anything.”
As you can see, Saleh Al-Fawzan isn’t bothered at all by cats; he’s bothered by Muslims taking pictures. Certain strains of Islam practice what’s called aniconism — an opposition to icons and graven images. In the most lenient forms of aniconism, the proscription applies only to depictions of Allah or his prophet Mohammed; in stricter interpretations, any figurative art can be forbidden on the grounds that it’s an inferior representation of Allah’s creation. Because of aniconism, a lot of Islamic art is dominated by abstract, geometric shapes. I would guess that Saleh Al-Fawzan’s anti-photography stand is just a modern extension of traditional aniconism.
While dogs are traditionally considered unclean in Islam, cats have a long history of being welcome. Mohammed himself was supposed to be fond of cats, and a popular folktale tells of how Mohammed cut off the sleeve of his robe rather than wake Muezza, his favorite cat, when he was called to prayer.
For a more contemporary example, Reuters this week published the below story about Zahid Sammak, a 23-year-old Saudi man who has turned his own home into a shelter for the stray cats he rescues from the streets of Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia.
None of this should be taken as a sign that I’m ready to collect my toothbrush, passport, and cat carrier and head off to Saudi Arabia. The Wahabi branch of Islam that governs Saudi Arabia is one of the harshest, most conservative varieties in the world, and whether its members love cats or not, the country is rife with civil rights violations. Living as a hellbound atheist has enough annoyances in our own relatively secular society without diving headfirst into a country where the proclamations of someone such as Saleh Al-Fawzan are taken seriously. But neither should we let ourselves get drawn into looking at the Middle East as caricature, which is far too easy if you just read the headlines about “catwas.”