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Swine Disease, Politics, and the Prohibition of Pork

It is commonly known that Muslims, Jews, and some Christians do not eat pork. In the Bible (King James Version), one can read,

And the swine, though it has a split hoof completely divided, yet it chews not the cud; it is unclean to you. Of their flesh shall you not eat, and their carcass shall you not touch; they are unclean to you. (Leviticus 11:7ï؟½8)

And among other verses in the Qur’an addressing the issue, we read,

[He (Allah) has only forbidden you dead meat, blood, the flesh of swine, and that on which any other name has been invoked besides that of Allah. But if one is forced by necessity, without willful disobedience or transgression of due limits, then he is guiltless. For Allah is Forgiving, Most Merciful.] (Al-Baqarah 2:173)

According to an authentic saying of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), the trade of swine is also prohibited in Islam (Al-Bukhari: Volume 3, Book 34, Number 438).

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Peoples of various faiths and backgrounds often express curiosity about these restrictions on both diet and trade. In many places, pork products, such as pigs’ feet or certain kinds of sausage, are considered delicacies. They are such an integral part of these cultures’ cuisines that people often do not comprehend why this meat in particular is singled out for prohibition.

Muslim scholars are typically cautious in their response. Unlike the Bible, which (in the English translation) explicitly calls the meat and carcass of swine unclean, the Qur’an (Al-An`am 6:145) describes it as rijs, an Arabic word denoting impurity or ï؟½ according to Sheikh Muhammad Salih Al-Munajjid, a prominent lecturer and author residing in Saudi Arabia ï؟½ “anything that is regarded as abhorrent in Islam and according to the sound human nature.” (Al-Munajjid)

Although pigs are associated with numerous zoonoses (animal diseases that can be transmitted to humans), rijs can be spiritual or physical. Thus, most scholars say that the potential for pigs to infect humans with diseases is not automatically the reason for prohibition. Obeying the commandments of Allah is also an expression of a believer’s faith.

However, we know from the Qur’an (Al-A`raf 7:157) that Allah’s laws are not arbitrary. It is therefore only natural for people to seek out the possible wisdoms behind these laws from worldly (scientific) sources. Doing so is in line with Islam’s emphasis on seeking knowledge and taking the time to reflect on the intricacies of Allah’s vast creation.

In the case of pigs, there are certainly many “worldly” reasons not to consume their meats or come into contact with them.

They Eat Anything

Swine Disease, Politics, and the Prohibition of Pork

In some cultures pork eating is an integral part of their cuisines, like these pork sandwiches at a food stall in Beijing. (Reuters)

Pigs are highly adaptable and will generally consume anything available, which is why they are used for garbage collection in some countries.
Pigs are highly adaptable and will generally consume anything available, ranging from plants, leaves, grasses, worms, snails, and eggs to rotting carcasses, excrement, garbage, disease-ridden rodents, and other animals (Dewey and Hruby).

Pigs have played a role in the waste-management systems of many countries. In the US, for example, pigs were once allowed to roam the streets in order to eat garbage of all types, and the early 1900s saw numerous “piggeries” established to help manage the country’s mounting garbage problem.

Through the late 1960s, garbage and offal were fed in the most hideous of conditions to pigs making piggeries a prime breeding ground for diseases and causing the spread of trichinosis (a type of roundworm infection) in the human population (Hickman and Eldredge; Milestones in Garbage: A Historical Timeline of Municipal Solid Waste Management; Trichinosis).

When other disease-infecting pigs (with vesicular exanthema) threatened to wipe out the pig population of the nation’s piggeries, new laws were enacted, stating that the garbage fed to pigs had to be cooked instead of raw. In many US farms, cooked garbage still makes up the staple diet of the hogs that are later slaughtered and put on the market for popular consumption.

Modern piggeries are now called swine “garbage-feeding facilities” and are regulated by the government; however, these regulations generally do not apply to individual pig farmers, who may feed various types of household waste to their pigs at home (Hickman and Eldredge; Swine Garbage Feeding; Mebus).

Although one may think of the old-style piggeries as an unfortunate chapter from the ignorant past, pigs as raw-garbage collectors are still a reality in some areas of the world.


“Major problems with this disease occur in Latin America and non-Islamic parts of Africa and Asia, especially India.”

Similar operations exist all over the developing world and are a major reason behind the spread of disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cysticercosis – a dangerous and potentially fatal disease caused by the pork tapeworm – is “found most often in rural, developing countries with poor hygiene, where pigs are allowed to roam freely and eat human feces.”

The CDC also note that tapeworm and cysticercosis are “very rare in Muslim countries where eating pork is forbidden.” (Cysticercosis)

In Bolivia, says the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), “Many cases that have been diagnosed as epilepsy are, in fact, neurocisticercosis,” cysticercosis that has spread to the brain.

In some regions, according to the FAO, cysticercosis, which occurs in 15 to 60 percent of pigs, “is prevalent in both rural and urban areas and is closely related to the economic standard, aspects of hygiene, and the way animals and people share the same living space. Major problems with this disease occur in Latin America and non-Islamic parts of Africa and Asia, especially India” (FAO Corporate Document Repository).

Hepatitis E is another zoonotic disease of concern. Although Hepatitis E is typically of low virulence, a fulminate (more virulent) form of the disease tends to affect pregnant women more than others and can be fatal, regularly causing death in 20 percent of infected pregnant women in their third trimester.

A study conducted by Iowa State University calls the virus a “significant public health problem in Mexico and developing countries in Africa and Asia” and mentions that cases in the Western hemisphere are on the rise as well. (Hepatitis E; Platt, Yoon, and Zimmerman).

Dr. Anwar Darwish, a professor at the Meat Section of the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Cairo University, Egypt, says that Hepatitis E is also a big problem in Egypt where many people already have Hepatitis C. “So, if they contract [Hepatitis] E on top, it is even more dangerous,”

“Experiments are still needed on this issue,” he added

The California Department of Food and Agriculture further notes that “many foreign animal diseases, including classical swine fever and foot-and-mouth disease, may be spread by feeding raw garbage derived from meat products to swine.” (Swine Garbage Feeding)

Diseases Unique to Pigs

Partial list of zoonosesï؟½related to swine:

  • Balantidiasis
  • Brucellosis
  • Campylobacteriosis
  • Colibacillosis
  • Cysticercosis
  • Erysipelas
  • Leptospirosis
  • Trichinosis
  • Yersiniosis

While many domesticated animals (including cows, sheep, and poultry) are capable of infecting humans with disease, Dr. Darwish says that pigs are unique in that they “harbor almost all the diseases that [can] be transmitted from animal to man.” This is, he says, “unlike other species, where each [can] transmit only some of these diseases.” According to Dr. Darwish, pig diseases may be parasitic, bacterial, or viral.

“The virulence of the disease in pigs is much more than [that of] other animals,” Dr. Darwish says, while explaining the difference between two strains of Taenia (tapeworm) present in both cows and pigs.

The species saginata (cow Taenia) “can be expelled through diarrhea and [can] respond well to drugs,” Dr. Darwish says. The species solium (pig Taenia) “is more virulent, can resist treatment, and can’t be easily washed [out] by drugs causing diarrhea. [The species] saginata sticks itself to human mucosa through suckers, while solium has [both] suckers and hooks and is carcinogenic. If it reaches the brain, spinal cord, or heart, it may be very dangerous,” Dr. Darwish adds.

Some diseases associated with swine occur when people touch or consume raw or improperly cooked pork products, while other infections can be transmitted by being in close contact with pigs, drinking water contaminated with their urine, or even inhaling soil that contains particles of pig waste. It is not always obvious when a pig is ill or infected with a particular type of bacteria – thus, it is considered unwise to touch pigs or handle them without taking certain precautions (Zoonotic Disease Prevention).

At highest risk for disease are those who handle swine on a regular basis, especially those who work in farms or in slaughterhouses and those who work as veterinarians. “If we [in vet medicine] find even one [tapeworm] cyst on the carcass of a pig, we exterminate the whole [carcass],” Dr. Darwish says, highlighting the dangers of these cysts to people working in the field of animal research.

Swine Politics

“Who can guarantee that there are no other undiscovered diseases in the swine’s flesh?”

It is interesting to note that many of the diseases associated with pigs are also present in carcasses of other animals forbidden for consumption in Islam, including cats, dogs, rats, bears, and beasts of prey. Bear meat, for example, is currently the leading cause of cases of trichinosis in the US (Trichinosis).

While most people in the Western World would not dream of eating dogs, cats, or rats (and would express disgust when hearing of people in other parts of the world who do eat these animals), it seems that there is a peculiar cultural bias when it comes to swine. Such a bias exists despite the fact that many people are well aware of the dangers swine poses to human health and are old enough to remember the trichinosis outbreaks that plagued the US during the first half of the 20th century.

Swine herding, along with the production, sale, and export of swine products, is a billion-dollar industry in the US which may be a reason for downplaying the role of swine in various health conditions (US Breaks Pork Export Volume and Value Records).

Raising pigs requires enormous vigilance, care, and attention to their health and hygiene. In many countries, regulations may exist but are not meaningfully enforced, and the potential for disease to spread to humans is ever-present.

While some of the above diseases are admittedly rare, others are much more common, depending on the area of the world, the conditions pigs are raised in (and what they eat), the personal hygienic habits of the people responsible for the pigs, and other factors.

A disease that has been controlled for the time being in a particular location may easily appear again in the face of shifting government policies (and people’s willingness to follow them), access to equipment and vaccines, wars, natural disasters and their impact on the environment, economic conditions, migration patterns, and people’s level of knowledge and education (Arnold and other sources).

Several years ago, Egyptian writer and scholar Sayyid Qutub (1906-1966) commented on the controversy surrounding pork consumption when he wrote,

Some people may argue that modern cooking facilities could eliminate the affliction of these worms by the high temperatures used, but these people overlook the fact that it took them centuries to come to know about this one disease. Who can guarantee that there are no other undiscovered diseases in the swine’s flesh?

Are we not supposed to trust the sacred law which preceded human science by tens of centuries and let it give us the decisive ruling on the matter? Are we not supposed to adhere to its laws whereby permission and prohibition come from our Lord who is full of wisdom and well acquainted with everything? (Al-Majid)

For many Muslims, the sentiments of Qutub and other scholars, combined with sound scientific data, provide the intellectual stimulation and food for thought to continue research on this issue, which is almost certain to magnify in importance as time progresses and environmental conditions deteriorate around the world.

(Interview with Dr. Anwar Darwish conducted by Mona Salama.)


  • Al-Majid, Sami. “Dietary Law.” Islam Today. Accessed 6 Oct. 2007.
  • Al-Munajjid, Muhammad Salih.ï؟½”What Is the Reason for the Prohibition on Pork?” Islam QA. Accessed 3 Oct. 2007.
  • Arnold, L. Kristian. “Trichinosis.” eMedicine. 28 Mar. 2005. Accessed 6 Oct. 2007.
  • “Cysticercosis.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 17 Oct. 2003. Accessed 4 Oct. 2007.
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  • Epstein, Jack. “From Cairo’s Trash, a Model of Recycling: Old Door-to-Door Method Boasts 85% Reuse Rate.” SFGate. 3 June 2006. Accessed 19 Sep. 2007.
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  • The Leptospirosis Information Center. Accessed 17 Sep. 2007.
  • Mebus, C.A. “Vesicular Exanthema of Swine.” The University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine. Accessed 20 Sep. 2007.
  • “Milestones in Garbage: A Historical Timeline of Municipal Solid Waste Management.” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 7 Nov. 2007. Accessed 19 Sep. 2007.
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This article is from Health & Science’s archive and was originally published at an earlier date.