Cats are perfect to most people, but not to my 42-year-old mother. She is just like any of my 17-year-old friends’ parents – she is spirited, sparky, generous and can be feisty when she needs to be. She cooks arguably the best chicken parmesan in the world, and also has impeccable taste in Bollywood music. But there is one annoying trait that makes her different from the other mothers – she unequivocally loathes all animals, unless they are in a palatable format, like her chicken parmesan.
In Britain, a hatred for pets is unheard of, any bitterness towards animals is considered completely unacceptable. After all, we are considered a zoophilist nation. Throughout lockdown, pet ownership has surged. According to statistics from the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association, there are now 34m pets in the UK including 12m cats and 12m dogs, along with 3.2m small mammals, such as guinea pigs and hamsters, 3m birds and 1.5m reptiles.
Much to my disappointment, my mother never wished to join these legions of pet-lovers, particularly when it came to cats. Growing up I was always aware of this hostility. Whenever we used to visit family and friends who owned cats, I would have to notify them half an hour in advance to hide them, in fear of my mother’s reaction. The odd time that a relative did allow a cat anywhere near her, she would become hysterical. We couldn’t help laughing at her overreaction and yet her fear of cats was genuine.
Partly it was based on watching a scary video about a cat in her childhood. She vividly remembers watching a black cat, with daunting green eyes, jumping into a man’s mouth and suffocating him. Since then she has said there is something disturbing about their piercing stare and how quickly they can dart away, vanishing into thin air. If pushed, she has even gone so far as to say: “Cats are Satan incarnate, who use their cuteness and adorability to bewitch and do the devil’s work.”
In complete contrast, I am an ailurophile. I love cats with a passion. I love their intelligence, inquisitiveness and how unassailable they seem. Like many teenagers in lockdown, sweating through hours of home learning while struggling to remain positive, I really wanted a cat. I am not alone; a total of 3.2m UK households have acquired a pet since the start of the pandemic.
No surprise that so many young people are, like me, behind this trend. Almost two-thirds of new owners are aged between 16 and 34 and 56% of new pet owners have children at home. So I tried my best to convince her. Inevitably, it took me a while.
My first attempt to persuade her failed, in the end my mother’s fears won out. Then I thought I would try again, so, without telling my mother, I put a deposit down on a kitten, But the seller was a scammer and it all fell through.
Nevertheless, I still wanted a cat, and desperately needed my mother’s approval, so she could allow me to buy a cat from a reputable source, without trying to acquire one clandestinely on the internet. In the end, there was only one approach that I knew could work. I used my religion to convince her.
We are practising Muslims and I eventually realised that this was the way to her heart where cats were concerned and I wondered why I hadn’t tried this approach earlier.
In Islam, cats are viewed as holy animals. Above all, they are admired for their cleanliness. They are thought to be ritually clean which is why they’re allowed to enter homes and even mosques. According to authentic narrations, one may make ablution for prayer with the same water that a cat has drunk from. It’s even permissible to eat from the same bowl that a cat has eaten from.
Unlike dogs, cats have been revered for centuries in Muslim culture. So much so, that one of Prophet Muhammad’s companions was known as Abu Hurairah (Father of the Kittens) for his attachment to cats. The Prophet himself was a great cat-lover– Muezza was the name of his favourite cat.
There is a famous tale told in the Muslim community about the Prophet Muhammad’s relationship with cats. The story goes that Muhammad awoke one day to the call of prayer. As he began to dress he discovered that Muezza was sleeping on the sleeve of his prayer robe. Rather than wake her, he used a pair of scissors to cut the sleeve off, anything as long as the cat could remain sleeping undisturbed.
Truth told, I would have liked a dog, but Islam forbids Muslims to keep them. If they do, there’s a punishment – whoever owns the dog loses good deeds each day, although there are exceptions to this rule. Keeping dogs for hunting, protecting livestock and guarding crops is allowed.
For these reasons, I was never allowed near a dog and the idea of owning one never seriously crossed my mind. But it’s an infallible part of British culture: we are a nation of dog-lovers, so as a child I did feel that I missed out. I could never play “fetch” with a dog, or get close to one. In my culture, they’re viewed as dirty and if I had even stroked one, I would have to shower.
Yet as a nation, we compare cats unfairly to dogs. Even the most affectionate and characterful cat may make a poor first impression. Cats communicate subtly and quietly. With dogs you get what you see – they have no hidden traits or personality quirks. Unlike dogs, cats can live an independent life in parallel with their owner. They do not demand walks or need taking outside to poop, and they don’t require a lot of space; all you need is a sofa, and soon enough you will have a purring cat sitting on your knees.
In the end, it only took a couple of weeks of telling my mother how seraphic and spiritual cats are in Islam for her to fall in love with the idea. It felt like a sacrifice for her, but she knew how much I wanted one. Mothers being mothers, she also spoke to lots of different Muslims about their cats, and eventually, her fears melted away.
So, despite the odds, I got a kitten. Within weeks of Milo moving in with us, my mother’s attitude changed and now after three months, she has fully adopted him as her fifth child. Energetic and tormenting as a teenager, he’s also slender, cute and as vulnerable as a baby, which I think appeals to my mother. It helps that he has beautiful green eyes and the softest fur, too.
At first she was fearful and dubious around him, but gradually she got to know him. One day, much to my astonishment, I came back from a stressful day at college to see Milo sitting peacefully on her lap while she watched TV. Now she does everything for him: cleans out his litter tray, feeds him and plays with him. As soon as she wakes up, she runs down the stairs to kiss him in the morning.
It is highly amusing when I remind my mother of how she used to feel about cats. Now she’s the proud owner of Milo and has researched more about the prevalence of cats in Islam, she says: “Cats are a blessing from God, who provide their owners with nothing but happiness and positivity.”
Every day, my mother spends hours gawking at him, besotted. She spams everyone with WhatsApp photos of Milo and texts me every couple of hours about how her favourite child is doing. She comes back from shopping weighed down with presents and toys for him.
Who’d have thought that Islam would help to cure my mother’s ailurophobia and turn her into a fully fledged cat-lover? I sometimes think she loves him more than me. She says that he is like a playful, charming teenager who doesn’t answer back. Well, she’s not wrong.