So when writing my book Falling Felines and Fundamental Physics, on the history and science of how cats land on my feet, I attempted to track down the oldest explanation in print that attempted to explain why cats seem to always land on their feet, whether scientific or not.
The potentially earliest story I found is a legend about the Prophet Muhammad. The version that I posted in my book is given below:
The Prophet Mohammed had one day gone far into the desert, and after walking a long distance, fell asleep, overcome with fatigue. A great serpent – may this son of Satan be accursed! – came out of the bushes and approached the Prophet, the Messenger of Allah – whose name be glorified! The serpent was on the point of biting the Servant of the All-Merciful, when a cat, passing by accident, fell upon the reptile, and, after a long struggle, killed it. The hissing of the expiring monster awoke the Prophet, who understood from what danger the cat had saved him.
“Come hither!” commanded the Servant of Allah.
The cat approached, and Mohammed caressed him three times, and three times he blessed him, saying, “May peace be upon thee, O cat!” Then in further token of his gratitude, the Messenger added, “In return for the service thou hast done me, thou shalt be invincible in combat. No living creature shall be able to turn thee on thy back. Go, thou art thrice blessed!”
It is in consequence of this benediction of the Prophet that a cat always alights on its feet from whatever height it may fall.
This version of the story came from the 1891 book The Women of Turkey and Their Folk-
Lore, written by English folklorist Lucy Mary Jane Garnett. Garnett referenced a book only a few years older, which in turn got the story from a theology student.
At the time, I was unable to trace the story back any further. If it came from anywhere near the time of Mohammed, it would definitely be the oldest falling cat explanation known, but it could of course be much, much more recent, as often happens with such stories.
A couple of years ago, however, a former student of mine read my book and did a little research, and confirmed that the story is, in fact, much, much older!*
It comes from the book with the (translated) title The Feats of the Knowers of God, written by Shams al-Dīn Aḥmad Aflākī and published around 1318. It is a collection of lectures given by the influential Persian poet, Muslim scholar and Sufi mystic known as Rumi (1207-1273) to his followers. In this collection, we find the origin of the story that Garnett referenced some 570 years later!