The Animals’ Lawsuit Against Humanity
Translated and Adapted by: Rabbi Anson Laytner & Rabbi Dan Bridge
Publisher: Fons Vitae, Louisville, USA
Reviewed by: Roshan Shah
Imagine a team of Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Muslims and Christians from different lands closely collaborating with each other on a joint project for global goodness? Difficult, or even almost impossible, isn’t it? But this is something that actually happened, believe it or not, around a thousand years ago, leading to the production of a remarkable work of great spiritual and literary merit: The Animals’ Lawsuit Against Humanity.
Said to have originally been an Indian tale—which means that it was possibly of Hindu or Buddhist origin—this amazing story was rendered into Arabic in around the 10th century by the Ikhwan us-Safa (‘The Brethren of Purity’), a Muslim mystical brotherhood centered around Basra, in present-day Iraq. It was included as one among their 52 epistles or ‘letters’ (rasa’il), which were intended to convey mystical wisdom about the meaning and mysteries of life. Then, in the early 14th century, this ‘Letter of the Animals’ was adapted and translated by a Jewish rabbi, Kalonymus ben Kalonymus, at the request of Charles, the Christian ruler of Anjou in France. The story remained popular with European Jewish communities into the early 20th century.
This first English version of the story, translated and adapted by two Jewish rabbis, edited by a Christian and beautifully illustrated by a Muslim woman, is a work of great love: love for animals and concern for their plight at the hands of human beings (which is what their ‘lawsuit’ is about), as well as love for all humanity, transcending narrow boundaries of creed. It is a powerful appeal for ecological sensitivity and for inter-community solidarity and collaboration, two things that the world so desperately needs today.
The role of people of different faiths and ethnicities in the production and transmission of this remarkable book testifies to a remarkable openness and willingness among some medieval scholars and mystics to learn from diverse cultures and religious traditions. It indicates that for such people, wisdom was a universal inheritance to be benefitted from, no matter what its source: Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu or whatever. For such men and women of God, wisdom was not the monopoly of any one particular community. Nor did they see the different religions as systems of beliefs and practices neatly set apart from, and in opposition to, each other. God, they recognized, speaks to different people, in different tongues and in different scriptures, all of which possess wisdom. This explains how Muslim Sufis felt no qualms in borrowing this ‘Indian’ story, and how a Jewish rabbi and a Christian king did not hesitate to take it from a Muslim source and make it their own.
The story is set on a remote island, where various species of animals have lived for centuries in peace, free of any human presence. Disaster strikes when a ship is wrecked off the coast of the island. The passengers land on the island and set up settlements. They go about killing the animals for their fur and meat and, turning them into their slaves, force them to work for them. In anguish and desperation, the distraught animals send a delegation of leaders to the King of the Spirits, seeking his intervention against the humans. Aware that they stand on flimsy grounds, the humans appeal to the king against the lawsuit filed by the animals. They marshal all sorts of specious excuses to seek to justify their cruel treatment of the animals. Each time, however, the animals are able to rebut their arguments, so much so that they manage to convince the king of their case.
By the grace of God,’ the king finally announces after hearing both sides, ‘I find myself in favour of the animals, for they have been sorely tested and abused.’ He settles the matter to the mutual satisfaction of both parties, however, after the humans begin to acknowledge the harm that they have inflicted on the animals and the need for them to treat all creatures, including themselves, with loving-kindness. The king allows them to exercise a position of authority over the island, but he warns them to behave responsibly, taking into account the rights of the animals. Only if they cease to trample on the rights of other species can they live up to their function of being vicegerents of God on earth. If they fail to live up to this commitment, he tells them, they will spell their own doom. ‘Should you err,’ he declares, ‘theanimals will begin to disappear, one by one, forever, from the face of the earth; and the air in your settlements and fortresses will become dangerous to breathe […] the seasons will be reversed and your climates turned on end […] the animals you eat will bring sickness and death upon you […] and you will no longer rule the earth.’
A timely warning, that.
This beautiful book raises crucial issues related to the meaning and purpose of human existence, the rights of non-human creatures and the appropriate relationship between human and non–human forms of life. As the noted Islamic scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr remarks in his Introduction to the book, this remarkable story ‘negates completely that concept of man based on […] pride which enables modern human beings to utilize, dominate and destroy other species always with the pretext of fulfilling so-called human needs, making the rights of man over other creatures absolute.’ Although written around a thousand years ago, the story’s message continues to be of immense relevance in our day, when, as Nasr says, human beings ‘have adopted modes of living totally out of harmony with the natural environment and a way of life based on complete disregard for the life of other creatures, a way of life which has made modern human beings an endangering [….] species.’
Love and concern for non-human forms of life and for fellow beings of other faiths, persuasions and ethnicities—these are the twin messages of this delightful book. ‘May the multi-faith cooperation that informed the transmission of this tale and the publishing of this version of it,’ the translators of this work pray, ‘inspire people of faith everywhere […] to overcome their theological differences and recognize their overwhelming similarities to work together for the common good of humankind and other living creatures.’ They dedicate this touching story to the ‘hope that the time will come when we humans treat all sentient beings with compassion and respect.’
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