Out of all the ancient cultures, Jewish and Muslim cultures were among the few to ban pork. The banning of pork is very clear in both Jewish and Muslim scripture:
Jewish prohibition of pork:
And the pig, because it has a cloven hoof that is completely split, but will not regurgitate its cud; it is unclean for you.Source: https://www.chabad.org/library/bible_cdo/aid/9912/jewish/Chapter-11.htm#v=7&showrashi=true
Muslim prohibition of pork:
He has only forbidden you ˹to eat˺ carrion, blood, swine,1 and what is slaughtered in the name of any other than Allah. But if someone is compelled by necessity—neither driven by desire nor exceeding immediate need—they will not be sinful. Surely Allah is All-Forgiving, Most Merciful.Source: https://quran.com/2/173
The role of pigs in human civilization
In the book Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond, he listed 5 animals that are easily domesticated: cow, horse, sheep, goat, and pig. These 5 animals contributed greatly to the advancements of civilizations in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. The pig is very much a staple in East Asia (China, Korea, Japan) and also in Europe.
The reason for this is very simple: like humans, pigs are omnivores and will eat pretty much anything you feed them. The easiest way is just to feed them any leftover scraps in the kitchen. If you lived in ancient times and are looking for protein sources with low maintenance but high yield, pork is the best option.
This then begs the question: why did the Jewish and Muslim cultures choose to forego this cheap source of protein? Here are a few interesting things about pigs that may shed light on the topic.
1. Pigs are omnivorous scavengers
Cows, horses, sheep, and goats are herbivores. They eat grass and other vegetation that can be found in their surroundings. This is why cowboys and shepherds existed – their job was to get the cows and sheep herd together to the grazing area to eat, and then herd back together to go back to the farm.
This takes a lot of effort compared to rearing pigs. Pigs are omnivorous scavengers, meaning you can feed them just about anything. The good thing is that they’ll eat anything. The bad thing is that – they’ll eat anything. This includes carrion and refuse. This is what has turned the Jewish and Muslim cultures from the consumption of pork.
2. Banning pork is a huge investment
From a religious point of view, we do not eat pork because it is forbidden in the scripture and we want to be good Muslims. But from a socio-economic perspective, banning pork can be seen as an investment in hygiene and optimal health.
The reason I call it an investment is because it is undeniable that pork consumption was what helped many civilizations to grow into huge empires, for example the Chinese and other East Asian peoples. In fact China is still the leading producer of pigs worldwide. The banning of pork means that the Jewish and Muslim societies had to figure out how to maximize other protein sources.
3. Pigs were replaced by chicken for most Middle Eastern cultures
Knowing what we know now, it’s easy to see why pork was popular in East Asian cultures. Pigs need a steady supply of water and feed, and both of these were in abundance in the paddy fields of Asia. They have abundant rivers, and hence ample vegetation with which to feed the pigs.
In the arid deserts of the Middle East where water is more precious, this can become a problem. Therefore the middle eastern societies preferred to raise sheep, goats, and cattle. Unlike pigs, sheep and goats can be herded over longer distances. This is why the Ottoman Turks had a diet that is heavily reliant on meat and fats. It was not until they settled in Anatolia that they started to add fruits and grains into their diet.
Early Mesopotamian cultures did rear both sheep and pigs as livestock, and slowly started to ban them starting with the Jews and later the Muslims. One theory is because they started rearing chickens circa 1000 BC. Chickens require less space and water compared to pigs, are easier to move around, and as a bonus, they also lay eggs which in itself is a very precious food source.
So instead of rearing both pigs and chickens, they started to just focus on chickens to save water and feed. The Middle East today are one of the biggest consumers of chicken and eggs.
4. Banning pork might also be a status thing
Pork is easier to raise than goats, sheep, and cows, which makes it a very cheap source of protein, together with chicken. It takes way more time and resources to produce 1kg of mutton and beef compared to 1kg of pork. So if a tribe comes out saying they will abstain from pork and only eat beef and mutton, that might be a signal to their status compared to other tribes.
The banning of pork happened way before the introduction of chicken to the Middle East, and beef and seafood has always been exorbitantly expensive, so the only forms of meat available were pork and mutton. The Ancient Egyptians did consider pork a lower status meat though, and only poorer Egyptians ate pork.
There really is no good answer for why Jews and Muslims are forbidden to consume pork, aside from the fact that it is dictated by scripture. However, it’s still fun to read and study about the role that pork consumption has played in human civilization, and also how the banning relates to socioeconomics of the Middle East.