PERSPECTIVE: A common misconception that people have is that Muslims are prohibited from touching dogs.
As explained by the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS), touching dogs is not against Islamic law, and it is not a sin. However, any area that comes into contact with a dog's saliva will have to be cleansed seven times— once with water mixed with earth (soil), and six times with clean water. This cleansing method is referred to as 'sertu'.
Ahmat Sharezza Ahmat Ja'affar, 28, is a Malaysian living and working in Singapore. For the past four years, he has been a veterinary nurse at Brighton Vet Care. As a vet nurse, he has to care for pets, including dogs, and help treat them.
Speaking to Mothership, Ahmat shares how he pursues his passion for animals while maintaining his religious belief and obligations as a Muslim.
As told to Syahindah Ishak
Why do animals mean so much to you?
Growing up, my mum would bring stray cats back home and take care of them. When one cat passes away, she will adopt a new one. Our house would be filled with cats.
I guess my love for animals started from there.... I just really love animals, lah. I find them easier to deal with than humans. *Laughs*
What's your favourite animal?
I love all animals but I have to say cats, lah.
How did you become a vet nurse? What did you study in school?
When I got older, I took my passion for animals seriously. I studied agricultural and animal sciences at Universiti Putra Malaysia, and got my bachelor's degree.
After that, I went to Singapore and jumped straight into work as a veterinary nurse. I've been with Brighton Vet Care for nearly four years now.
Okay, let's not beat around the bush anymore. As a Muslim, how do you handle dogs on a daily basis?
*Laughs* I get asked this question probably a thousand times.
Okay firstly, I think people need to understand that as Muslims, we can touch dogs. Only certain parts of a dog, such as its saliva, are considered impure in Islam. That's when we have to wash the area that touched the dog's saliva seven times— once with water and soil, and six times with clean water.
Actually, nowadays there are soaps specifically made for this, which makes washing easier. You can find it online or in shops.
I have a few of these soaps with me. I put one in my clinic, and one at home. It's basically like a normal soap, but it is made out of clay soil.
So after I deal with the dogs, I will wash my hands with the soap. When I go home, I will also shower using the soap to be safe because there are some parts of my body that might have accidentally come into contact with the dog's saliva.
Also, when I was studying in Malaysia, we had a subject that was dedicated to this— on what is halal (permissible) or haram (not permissible) with regard to animals. We were taught how to deal with dogs or pigs, and how to perform the Islamic cleansing ritual.
And these animals, including dogs, they are my responsibility as a vet nurse. It is my responsibility to treat them, provide good service for them, and take care of them.
So being a Muslim has never stopped you from pursuing your passion?
Not at all.
There are people who come up to me and ask: "Eh Ahmat, you seriously working with dogs?"
I will just reply: "Why not?"
I mean, I'm not doing a bad thing. I'm helping these animals. These animals also have feelings, they also feel pain like we do. So why not?
Has your family ever questioned your career choice?
I'm very lucky. They have supported me from the beginning. They know that my passion is towards animals. They never had any doubts about what I do.
I know there are some parents or family members in the Muslim community who won't allow their children to work with dogs. But it was never a problem for my family.
And being a vet nurse is a good job. I'm doing something good. I believe that Islam teaches us to do good and to care for other beings.
Why do you think some Muslims still feel very wary around dogs?
In my opinion, I think this is more common in the older generation who immediately think that dogs are haram or that they are impure, without understanding the Islamic law fully.
It's important to educate ourselves and know what is right or wrong, without being too quick to jump to conclusions.
I mean, if you're a Muslim and you touch a dog, just wash yourself.
I understand that some people want to avoid touching dogs because having to wash seven times is quite a hassle. But if a dog comes up to you and licks you or something, it's not the end of the world.
Actually, while I was doing my research, I went through every single vet clinic in Singapore and it was crazy because I could hardly find any Muslims in the veterinary industry.
Ya, there aren't a lot of Muslims.
Is it because most Muslims still feel wary about handling dogs? Why do you think there aren't a lot of Muslims in this field?
I don't think that they are scared or worried about handling dogs. I think they are afraid of people's perspective on them, especially from the Malay/Muslim community. That's what I think personally, lah.
What would you say to young Muslims who want to pursue a career in the veterinary industry?
Don't be scared of what other people say. Don't bother yourself with all the negativities because if your passion is towards animals, then just go for it.
As Muslims, we must also properly educate ourselves about our religion. Know what is right and wrong, and how to handle dogs properly. Know how to wash yourself afterwards.
And just remember that we, as Muslims, must be good to all animals. Islam taught us that.
Do you remember your first time dealing with a dog as a vet nurse? What was that like?
Yes I remember it clearly. I dealt with a big dog.
My boss had already warned me that it was a big dog. She told me to speak up if I'm not familiar with anything.
I wanted to give it a try, you know? When I was studying, I was only given the chance to handle and restrain small dogs.
But on the job, I had to do all sorts of things, like draw blood from the dog, for example. It was a good learning experience for me. I'm always learning on the job.
How did you feel when you first saw the dog?
Actually, I did feel slightly afraid, lah. It was a very big dog and I didn't have much experience. But it turned out okay.
Over the years, I realise that some dogs may appear aggressive and big, but they end up being very clingy and manja (pampered), it's very cute.
How do the pet owners, especially non-Muslims, react when they see you? What do they say?
There are so many clients — not Muslims — who will come up to me and ask if I'm a Muslim. After I tell them that I am, they will ask if I can touch dogs. That's when I educate them, and they will eventually understand.
There are also some clients who get a bit shy and awkward when they see me. It's like they want to ask me some questions but they also don't want to offend me, you know? I will just act as per normal and do my job. When they see me treat their dogs, then I can see them getting calmer. Some of them will also end up asking me questions, and then I will just explain to them.
What about Muslim clients? What do they say to you when they see you?
So far, they've been very understanding. There's no judgement or anything like that. I'm very lucky, I have good relationships with my clients, both Muslims and non-Muslims.
I think Singaporeans are generally more open nowadays.
In your four years as a vet nurse, how many dogs do you think you've dealt with in total?
*Laughs* So many, lah. Probably hundreds. One day of work is about 12 hours so I deal with dogs, cats, hamsters, and all kinds of pet animals.
So at least a hundred dogs.
What are some of your memorable moments as a vet nurse?
I've been bitten by dogs and cats many times, which is normal for this job. I think my colleagues have it worse. One of my colleagues got bitten on his butt by a big dog. *Laughs*
Is it difficult to handle dogs?
I mean, of course when I have to restrain the dog to draw blood, it can get tough because these animals don't know what's happening and it might be a shock to them to suddenly be restrained. But so far, it's been okay for me. Like I said, I've gotten bitten here and there but it's all normal, lah.
Actually, dogs are easier to handle than cats.
Ya, cats are just something else. I feel stupid when I fight with cats. They have more personality than dogs, you know?
So when you try to approach or restrain cats, especially those who are already in a bad mood, it's crazy I tell you. They run around so quickly, and their bite is actually a lot more painful than a dog's bite.
If I have to choose between restraining a dog or a cat, I would rather restrain the dog. Dogs are still okay, more manageable.
Do you have a favourite dog breed?
Of course. My favourite breed is the Pomeranian. They are very small and cute. They can get aggressive at times but they're very small so they can't do much.
Do you think you'll still be in this industry 10 years down the road? What will your future look like?
I really really like this job. I seriously cannot see myself working in an office and interacting with humans, no offence to you lah. *Laughs*
No, it's okay, I completely get it.
Ya, this is my passion. I can never let go of it.
Regardless of what happens, I will always be working with animals. I just love them.
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Top images courtesy of Ahmat Sharezza. Quotes were edited for clarity.