The Question of Islamic Pig Prohibition

Functional Ecology and Evolutionism:

“While functional ecology is required to understand how cultural systems operate, evolutionism is necessary to understand why cultural systems exist as they are and how they come to be” (Diener and Robkin, 1978: 493).

The Cultural Ecology of Islamic Pig Prohibition:

The prohibition of the pig (Sus scrofa) is widespread in the Old World, occurring amongst Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Ethiopian Christians, Yezidi, Mandaeans, Lamaists, and many others. This forbids this animal to perhaps a quarter of the world’s population, in a broad area extending from Morocco through and beyond India. Harris (1974) suggested that this may be understood in terms of ecological utility i.e. that the Bible and Koran banned the pig because pig farming was a threat to the integrity of the basic cultural and natural ecosystem of the Middle East. This was due to its omnivorous nature and food preferences making it a direct competitor to Man and that it was also ill-adapted to the climate.

This ‘high-temperature’ theory has been criticised by other authors, noting that, whilst unable to sweat like humans, pigs can withstand temperatures above 36ºC provided they are able to wallow. Distribution patterns also contradict this theory with the pig appearing in areas from the arctic to the equator and it can apparently live anywhere provided the summers are long enough for grain to mature. Harris’s climatic argument is also criticised as being on too large a scale for an area composed of several biomes. Even ignoring human transformation of local environments with shelters and water, the Middle East can be seen to consist of 3 major oasis regions: the Nile Valley, the Fertile Crescent and the Yemen-Oman region. These are occupied by complex and irrigation-based societies.

The theory about its competition with Man is also argued against by the fact that the diet of the pig can be advantageous. It will eat damaged grain, garbage and even excreta. Other suggestions include its dirty habits or disease-inducing characteristics. These are rejected by modern husbandry and veterinary practices.

The Functional Ecological Explanation:

This analysis attempts to explain the traits or activities of individuals or groups by reference to the contributions these make to the preservation, adaptation, adequate functioning etc, of the systems of which they are a part. As such it is explanation by reference to the ends, goals or purposes which guide the action rather than to the causes which bring it about.

Harris’s explanation conforms to this:

  1. At present (or at some point in the past) Islamic society functions adequately in the Middle East.
  2. Islamic society functions adequately in the Middle East only if ecological goals are reached by proper domestic animal policy.
  3. If religious pig prohibition were present, then, as an effect, the ecological goals would be reached.
  4. Hence religious pig prohibition is present in Islam.

This does not, however, explain the prohibition amongst those living outside the Middle East nor the fact that the pig is suitable for many locales in that region. The major criticism, though, is that d) is only acceptable if the trait mentioned in c) were the only capable of satisfying the needs mentioned. This is clearly not the case.

An Evolutionary Account of Pig Prohibition:

An important aspect of human history since the Neolithic is the evolution of ever more complex hierarchical social systems. In studying these, the adaptation processes by which local populations are adapted to their local environment may be less salient than the appropriation processes by which satellite communities are linked to overarching structures.

The evolution of appropriation processes in the Middle East has led to a series of mechanisms by which food producers can be persuaded first to produce surpluses and then to surrender them to non food producers. Edicts, such as religious pronouncements, tell the peasant what he can grow and raise, and what he may not grow and raise; what he may consume, and what he may not consume; what is his due, and what is due unto ‘Caesar’.

Frazer (1912) argued that the evolution of civilisation brought a change from the pig as sacred and ecologically useful to new opinions expressed by centrally located priests. This is supported by the authors who suggest that pig prohibition reflects not the ecological faults of the animal, but its ecological benefits. Its fitness for local systems rendered villages dangerously rich and autonomous, providing a standard of living, which led to a diminution of tax and tithe.

Harris (1974) argued that pig prohibition was a response to an ecological crisis caused by the growth of population. The authors consider this to be misleading as, whilst populations increased dramatically after the development of agriculture, they remained small by modern standards.

If the large herds of sheep and goat in the region were doing permanent damage to the ecology as he claimed then surely they should have been prohibited rather than the pig. Instead they occupy the position of most favoured species in most Middle Eastern religions. Thus pig prohibition did not follow environmental degradation; rather, it was part of the religiously sanctioned land-use strategy that caused the degradation.

The urban focus of Islam often has mercantile concepts in its main doctrines, and is marked by contempt for land and agriculture. Attitudes towards pigs show historical variation, showing that agrarians may be quick to adopt swine husbandry when weakness of the central government permits it.

In an attempt to realise the political goals of Empire, Mohammed willingly compromised the ecological efficiency of local units with his prohibition of AD 622. Indeed the ecological efficiency led to self-sufficiency, the destruction of which became a conscious goal of Islamic political policy.

Prohibiting pigs prevented surplus grain being fed to the animals rather than being passed to the state and provided adequate grain for all. Prohibition of the pig, and lard, also stimulated trade in olive oil, which passed through the hands of Muslim merchants. Milk, blood and dog were also considered defiling because they provided nomad and villager with local sources of protein and thus autonomy. Wine, imported from Syria and Iraq, amounted to trading with the enemy when expansion north was envisaged and thus prohibited.


Diener, P and Robkin, E (1978) Ecology, Evolution and the Search for Cultural Origins: The Question of Islamic Pig Prohibition. Current Anthropology. Vol. 19. No. 3: 493-540.

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