Customs involving food, including eating special food or avoiding certain kinds of food, are common in many cultures. The two major religions associated with the Middle East, Judaism and Islam, both restrict the consumption of pork and pork products. Though there will always be exceptions to this custom, such as atheists, Christians or nonpracticing Jewish people and Muslims, pork is not a part of most Middle Eastern diets.
Islamic Religious Prohibition
Muslims consider the Quran to be the word of God. In the Quran, God specifically prohibits the consumption of pork, or laḥmu l-khinzīr, in several places. A commonly quoted verse appears in chapter 2, which says, "He has only forbidden you dead meat and blood, and the flesh of swine, and any food over which the name of the other than Allah has been invoked." Other mentions in the Quran describe pork as "impure" or unclean, meaning it is haram, or forbidden by Allah. Consumption of pork is only allowed in life-or-death situations.
Islamic Cultural Basis
Middle Eastern Muslims also point out that pigs consume a wide variety of foods, including scavenged meat, garbage and insects, which can contain harmful bacteria. Pigs are not known for their cleanliness -- remember, we call a messy room a pigsty -- and pig meat, even when cooked properly, can spread worms like trichinella or the pork tapeworm. Many Muslims say the refusal to eat pig products is a simple public health measure.
Jewish Religious Basis
The Jewish counterpart to halal is the term kosher, or food that has been prepared to conform with Jewish religious beliefs and law. Jews look to their religious texts to determine what is kosher. The book of Deuteronomy refers to pork in chapter 14: "The pig, because it has a split hoof, but does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you. You shall neither eat of their flesh nor touch their carcass."
Jewish Cultural Basis
Like Muslims, the Jewish aversion to pork seems to stem from a sense of disgust because they view pigs as unclean. Some scholars also suggest that special dietary restrictions go back to a schism in early Middle Eastern life between the Israelites and the Philistines. By choosing a special diet and ritual slaughtering practices, the Jewish people could easily differentiate themselves from nonbelievers. Though pork is still not considered kosher, the Jewish attitude toward it in the Middle East has relaxed somewhat. Pork is even sold in some cities in Israel, whereas its sale is forbidden in some predominantly Muslim countries.
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