Cats Make Beautiful Women: Islam Versus Christianity

Old Maids at a Cat’s Funeral, John Pettit, 1789

The idea of a cat who turns into a woman is found in the legends of all countries and peoples.
Fernand Mery

"There was once a black cat, and every night she would crawl up through a dark well deep below the ground. Then she would shed her cat skin and go to the owner of a nearby house in the form of a woman. They would savor the joys of love night after night until morning prayer at which time she would disappear below ground again. Every morning when he awoke he would find some money she left for him in appreciation of their time together. Through the years their friendship grew so strong that she helped his daughter go on pilgrimage to Mecca."  
Moroccan folktale

Unlike similar stories from Christian lands, the Moroccan tale came from a culture that esteemed cats prior to the advent of Islam, and continued to do so afterwards. By contrast, here are three story plots from Christian Europe: (1) A man realizes that his demure young bride is really a cat when she drops to all-fours and chases a mouse. (2) A man awakens to find that a cat is lifting the latch to come into his bedroom. He cuts the cat's paw off with an axe, and realizes that his wife is not in the room. She comes home days later with a missing hand. (3) A man surprises a coven of black cats in the midst of a Satanic ritual. He slashes the leg of one of the cats with a sword, and his wife comes home the next morning with a sword wound in her leg.

Why cats, and why only female cats? Why not dogs? One night, Peggy had an erotic dream about our blue heeler (a beautiful dog with a delightful musk), and I learned from decades of walking dogs that the first thing people ask is whether it's a boy or a girl. Members of both species can be sensuously beautiful, and humans clearly care about their gender, so why are there no erotic stories about dogs becoming women and marrying men?

In pre-Enlightenment Christendom, stories about cats that could adopt the form of humans and humans that could adopt the form of cats accompanied the church's brutal subjugation of anything that represented mystery and sensuality. Although roosters and billy goats were also said to be consorts of Satan, they were comedic failures compared to the grace, beauty, and sensuality of cats and women. It was quite another story in the Muslim world. The following is from the Wikipedia entry Islam and Cats:

"In Islamic tradition, cats are admired for their cleanliness. They are thought to be ritually clean, unlike dogs, and are thus allowed to enter homes and even mosques... Food sampled by cats is considered halal [clean] and water from which cats have drunk is permitted for wudu [ceremonial cleansing]."

According to Islamic legend: cats won't walk across a Koran; they seek out people who are praying; they land on their feet because Mohamed blessed a cat by touching its back; the letter M on the forehead of tabbies is the imprint of Mohamed's fingers; Mohamed cut off his sleeve rather than disturb his cat, Muezza, who was asleep on it; Mohamed re-routed his army because a nursing cat was in their path. The following words of Mohamed are from the Hadith (a Moslem text second only to the Koran): "Affection for cats is a part of the faith;" and here are a few other other examples of the affection Muslims feel for cats: a 13th century sultan, al-Zahir Baybars endowed a still extant cat sanctuary in Cairo; cats are welcome in mosques and there was even a Medieval era cat hospital to which people brought food in the belief that doing so would win them the favor of Allah. I could go on.

No living thing fared well when Christianity dominated Europe, but when it came to unbridled cruelty, only heretics were persecuted as viciously as cats and women, and no women suffered more than "old maids," who, after being tortured, were often burned to death along with their cats. In what is surely the supreme irony of all time, Christians suspected that cats were causing the Black Death, and did their utmost to destroy the one animal that might have saved them. 

For decades, the city of Paris held yearly spectacles in which French monarchs presided over a religious celebration in which cranes hoisted iron cages filled with screaming cats above bonfires so the people could "...have the pleasure of seeing the violent movements and hearing the frightening cries that these poor unfortunate beasts are forced to make" (the words of Jean Meslier, a French priest of the period who, upon his death, was found to have been an atheist). If the Bible is God's word, why didn't God insert a verse to stop all this, something like, "Upon pain of hell, thou shalt never, for any reason, kill or torment any person or other creature wantonly or in my name"?

The cat's bad reputation among Christians originated in its high esteem by pagans. What Christianity couldn't appropriate (it made Christian saints out of pagan gods, and Christian holy days out of pagan feast days), it sought to destroy, and the cat's position was worsened by the fact that, unlike its predecessors, Christianity denied that non-humans had a soul. Because cats reminded the Holy Catholic Church and its Protestant off-shoots of women, the way was paved for stories in which, through the help of Satan, cats could become women and vice versa.

Cat in Arabic
When the Enlightenment robbed Christianity of much of its temporal power, the supposed supernatural relationship between cats and women degenerated into a low comedy about cats and old maids that continues to this day (it's a small step from being a "cat lady" to being a "crazy cat lady"). While being mocked was certainly preferable to being burned, the fact that men continued to feel threatened by any woman who could resist their masculine allure didn't speak well of men who, after all, had a long history of doing everything they could to make it legally and economically hard for women to survive without them.

Since every member of the cat family is referred to as "she" simply by virtue of being a cat, the threat to men that is posed by cats would not appear to come from any notion of women preferring cat masculinity to human masculinity, but rather from the fact that women and cats have a long history of being equated. I suspect that it would be hard to find a male cat hater who regards women as his equals, and when a 200-pound man proclaims his loathing of a ten pound creature that is scarcely aware of his existence, his first feeling wasn't hatred; it was the terror that came from having his self-image threatened by any creature's refusal to acknowledge his superiority.

Some relevant books, textual links, and a Youtube video that constitute a partial list of sources:

The Life, History and Magic of the Cat by Fernand Mery
Cats of Cairo: Egypt's Enduring Legacy by Lorraine Chittock
Secrets of the Cat: Its Lore, Legend, and Lives by Barbara Holland