Arabs' Obsession with the Unclean Animal

Wednesday 15 August 201809:09 pm
Many creatures were perceived to be either pure or unclean in ancient cultures, which generally incline towards antithetical views on different aspects of life: good and bad, light and darkness, mortality and eternity and so forth. Such primitive categorization, amid the emergence of religions, became rather spiritual and metaphysical. With humans constantly interacting with animals and lizards, they added different creatures in one of the two categories, either cursing or symbolizing them. This article sheds light on three creatures that have left their mark on cultures and religions in the Near East mostly for being deemed unclean: The pig, the gecko and the snake. How have myths and old stories vilified the trio? And what kind of characteristics have they had in accordance with different religious beliefs and cultures?

Pig: Barbaric Enemy of Horus, Killer of Tammuz

Pigs have had more than its fair share of hatred, having been one of the most repulsive animals in the Near East whether in ancient or modern times. Pigs have been seen as unclean for ages and pork has been forbidden as a result. Many Egyptian, Babylonian, Canaanite and Phoenician myths depict pigs as the agent of wickedness, impulsiveness and violence. For ancient Egyptians, Set, the god of the desert and storms, had a face similar to a boar's. He was the villain in the struggle with Osiris and his son Horus. According to a Babylonian myth that lived through centuries, the boar is also evil, having killed Tammuz the ancient Mesopotamian god of shepherds, before his wife Ishtar goes down to the underworld to resurrect him. In the Old Testament, the Book of Leviticus explicitly prohibits the consumption of certain types of meat, including pork. It chalks the prohibition up to the fact that some animals are not ruminant. However, Christianity does not overtly prohibit pork. This goes in line with Gospel of Matthew, part of which reads, "What goes into someone's mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them". For this reason, pork consumption has been common for Christian communities, especially in the west. From another Christian perspective, nonetheless, pigs are detested, since Christianity is complementary to the Old Testament. Jesus said in the Bible, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them, but to fulfill them". In Islam, divine commands prohibiting pork are recurrent in the Quran, which came in the suras of Al-Baqarah, Al-Ma'ida, Al-An'am and An-Nahl. The pork prohibition is also repeatedly stressed in the Hadith -- accounts of the sayings, actions or habits of the Prophet (pbuh) that are used as teachings on all aspects of life. The Islamic culture considered killing pigs to be a sign that the world would end. According to Sahih Al-Bukhari, the prime source of the Hadith, the Prophet told his companions that the return of Jesus would be a sign that the world would come to an end. Other signs are when he breaks the cross and kills the boar. All the same, there is no apparent reason why Islam prohibits pork. Some people have justified it by saying pigs eat dirt and garbage, others believe diseases are spread from them. Moreover, there is a popular notion that men eating pork would no longer be jealous husbands, which is mostly disdainful in the Islamic culture. For Shiites, the prohibition have other reasons, the foremost of which was Ibn Babawayh's revelation that pigs were cursed, so were rabbits, monkeys and elephants, among other animals.

Gecko: Symbol of Forbidden Sex

According to the Dictionary of Anthropology by Shaker Mostafa Selim, geckos and lizards stood out in the cultures of the primitive peoples. For some, the gecko was sacred, while others believed it was the afterlife form of ancestors. Geckos were also closely linked to magic and superpowers. The ancient Near East civilizations, especially in Mesopotamia, considered the gecko to be a bad omen. According to other myths, geckos used to be men spying on naked women and were punished by being turned into such disgusting creatures. In Islam, there was also hate for geckos. According to Hadith sayings, Prophet Muhammad called on Muslims to kill them for their earliest ancestor had blown the wind that helped ignite the fire in which Abraham was thrown into. The gecko was the only being believed to have helped apostates in their attempt to burn Abraham alive, while all other creatures sought to put out the flames. It is worth noting that the gecko's role in increasing Abraham's fire was mentioned neither by pre-Islam holy books nor the Quran, which gives an impression that the story might have been mere popular imaginations that were somehow documented in the modern Islamic references. Shiites also looked down at geckos, regarding them as unclean and loathsome pursuant to some sayings that go in line with the principles of the Shia doctrine. According to Kitab Al-Kafi, or The Sufficient Book by Muhammad ibn Ya'qub Al-Kulayni, Talhah ibn Ubaydullah asked Imam Ja'far Al-Sadiq about geckos, only for the latter to assure they were unclean. A man would have to wash himself after killing one of them, he said. The question remains why geckos have been so hated while there are a lot more dangerous and harmful insects and animals. Relying on Freud's psychoanalysis, a researcher sought to analyze this hatred with the premise that the repulsion derived from primitive beliefs of Totemism, according to which the gecko is an emblem of manhood in the context of forbidden sex. In other words, the gecko represents penis and eagerness to have sinful sex and sneak to women's bed to invade their privacy. It was believed to be unclean.

Snake: the Emblem of Death and Life

No doubt the snake's frightening nature and appearance had an impact on the collective awareness of the ancient peoples of the Near East. In Egypt, goddess Wadjet, the protector of Lower Egypt, was usually depicted in the form of an Egyptian cobra. She also personifies the Eye of Horus. Such a depiction indicates the mixed feelings Egyptians had towards snakes; considering them holly, imposing and fearsome. On the other hand, the Old Testament mentions snakes on numerous occasions, the most important of which when Adam and Eve were expelled from paradise as Satan disguised itself as a snake while tempting them to eat forbidden fruit. Satan told Eve, "God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil". "Lord God said to the serpent, Because thou hast done this thou art cursed above all cattle and all the brutes of the earth, on thy breast and belly thou shalt go, and thou shalt eat earth all the days of thy life." Another verse that indicates eternal animosity between the snake and human beings reads: "I will make you and the woman hostile toward each other. I will make your descendants and her descendant hostile toward each other. He will crush your head, and you will bruise his heel." In other words, the snake was largely blamed for the banishment of Adam and Eve, a belief that was upheld by Christianity. The Old Testament also refers to the snake as a sign of divine punishments for those who do not obey God's orders. "Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died," according to the Book of Numbers. But because the snake has been related to life and death -- with its lethal venom can only be cured by the antidote extracted from the snake itself -- the Book of Numbers also suggests the serpent comprises a lifeline. Israelites regretted what they did and asked Moses for foreignness. "Then the LORD told him, "Make a replica of a poisonous snake and attach it to a pole. All who are bitten will live if they simply look at it!" The statue that Moses made remained a significant historical landmark, having been worshiped for centuries which urged Prophet Hezekiah to eventually destroy it. On the other hand, Quran does not mention the role of the snake in the banishment of Adam and Eve. However, the snake remains demonized in Islamic culture; there has been a notion that jinn and demons could appear in the form of snakes. Abu Dawud, a Persian Hadith scholar, narrated that the Prophet had said: "Vermin (venomous creatures like snakes) are among the jinn; so if anyone sees one of them in his house, warn three times that if it returns he will kill it." Other terrifying snakes were also mentioned throughout Islamic heritage, like the one appearing in the Punishment of the Grave. In a Hadith cited by Al-Bukhari and Muslim, the Prophet said, "The Kanz (money, the Zakat of which is not paid) of anyone of you will appear in the form of bald-headed poisonous male snake on the Day of Resurrection". Other books mention that the same snake would torment those who do not pray. Furthermore, snakes features in prominent moments throughout Islamic history, like when a snake bit senior companion Abu Bakr while he was hiding with the Prophet inside a cave at Jabal Thawr in Saudi Arabia. Although many of these stories have never been fully verified, they have been widespread through the ages, with Muslims normally heaping scorn on snakes.
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