The oldest falling cat explanation

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-
, 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!

A printed copy of the translated book is roughly $400 these days; fortunately, due to the magic of the internet, I was able to find the relevant passage online.

One day Mostafa- God’s blessings and peace be upon him- was seated in the prayer-niche of the Mosque of Qoba and the noble Companions-God be pleased with them all-were present in his company. Suddenly a snake that had taken flight entered through the door and hid itself under the Messenger’s skirts. The snake said: ‘Oh Messenger of God, I am fleeing from an enemy. Since you are the refuge of both worlds, give me protection!’ Following in its tracks, a hedgehog came in and said: ‘Oh Messenger of God, turn over my prey to me. My young ones await me.’ The Messenger ordered that the hedgehog be given some innards and, having satisfied it, they sent it on its way. The Messenger said: ‘Oh snake, come out now and be off! Your enemy has departed and is gone.’ The snake replied: ‘But let me display my skill before I leave.’ And it wrapped itself around the Messenger’s waist like a belt and intended to bite him mercilessly. The Messenger presented his blessed pinkie to the snake for it to bite and when the snake brought forth its head to inflict the bite, Abu Horeyra- God be pleased with him-who bore in his breast: ‘The cloak of every community is a sage and the sage of my community is Abu Horeyra’, and who had set the crown of kindness on top of his head, undid the opening of a blessed sack and a black cat jumped out. The cat tore the snake to pieces with its claws and then walked gracefully to the Messenger. That very moment the Messenger said: ‘Love of the cat belongs to the faith. Love, even if it be a cat!’ And with his blessed hand he stroked the cat’s back. The result of the blessings of that caress is that as often as a cat is thrown from high roofs, it necessarily lands on its feet and its back doesn’t touch the ground.

This version is much more interesting than the one passed on hundreds of years later!

“Abu Hurairah” literally translates to “Father of the Kitten,” and was the nickname of Abdur-Rahman ibn Sakhr Al-Dawsi Al-Zahrani, one of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad. He was a lover of cats, and explained personally the origin of his name as follows:

I was called Abu Hurairah because I would tend to the goats of my family, and one day I found a stray kitten which I placed in my sleeve. When I returned to my people they heard the kitten purr in my sleeve and they asked, “What is that, O ‘Abd Shams?” I replied, “A kitten I found.” “So you are Abu Hurairah (Father of cats),” they responded and the name stuck thereafter.

So I am delighted to see that we can, in fact, trace in writing an attempt to explain the cat righting reflex some 700 years! The story may, in fact, be much older and passed along by Rumi, though I am content with knowing that it goes that far back. (Of course, I don’t think the story is literally true, so I am not expecting to trace it all the way back to Muhammad.)

This is what I love about studying history, and the history of science — it’s always a fun expedition to learn new things.

* Special thanks to Morteza Karami for his help in tracking down this story. I literally could not have done it without you!

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