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Many religions and faiths are classified by non-religious people as restrictive and filled with nonsensical rules and regulations that nobody should follow. The holy texts are concerned with every aspect of people’s lives starting from their dietary choices and ending with proper positions during sex. This gives the impression of unnecessary micromanagement and control over others that has no place in the 21st century. Indeed, the majority of these rules strike a modern person as odd at best and invasive at worst. However, there is a hidden wisdom to almost every rule that goes beyond the typical explanations given by the majority of religious texts.
Islam is considered one of the stricter religions when compared to Christianity and Buddhism. It requires its followers to obey many rules on a daily basis, starting with five prayers a day and ending with some of the more obscure restrictions such as not listening to music for idle pleasure. One of the more familiar restrictions for Islam followers revolves around eating pork. Pork is considered “dirty” according to Islamic teachings, but few ever go beyond that simple explanation. The same goes for the consumption of drugs and alcoholic beverages. Music, pork, and alcohol are strongly rooted in the very core of western society. Naturally, such restrictions find little appreciation in cultures with evolved traditions in music, cuisine, and beverage production. The purpose of this paper is to analyze the restrictions found in Islam on listening to music, consuming pork, and utilizing alcohol and drugs from not only religious, but also a more worldly perspective that involves scientific, medical, and governance concerns.
Worldly Perspectives when Analyzing Religious Prohibitions
Engaging in a worldly analysis of religious texts, rules and prohibitions mean putting aside any actual religious motivations behind them and looking at other possible explanations that may not be explicitly mentioned in the holy text but are very relevant from political, economic, medical, or sociological perspectives. Aside from guiding the faithful on a path towards Allah, the Islamic texts, namely Qur’an and Ahaadith, also have a purpose of assisting in governance (Lambton, 2013).
Religion used to be a powerful tool of government control throughout human history and remains such even in the 21st century. Although the majority of the governments in the world are secular, religion still plays an important part in everyday life of an average citizen, meaning that the words of the holy texts are still implemented and utilized to govern others. Most governments around the world would prefer their citizens to be healthy, reasonably obedient, trustworthy, hard-working, and abiding the law. It helps the state function better, provide a surplus of food and resources, and contribute towards the well-being of every individual citizen (Lambton, 2013). If we accept the holy texts as an instrument of governance, we must assume that its main purpose is the common good of every individual and the state in general. Therefore, in order to find worldly justifications for every individual rule and prohibition, we need to look at the circumstances under which they were created and identify the potential common good for the people and the state that may have been applicable at that time.
Islam and Pork Prohibition
Many people know that Islam prohibits the use of pork as food. According to the Qur’an, “I do not find within that which was revealed to me anything forbidden to one who would eat it unless it is a dead animal, or blood spilled out, or the flesh of swine – for indeed, it is impure” (DenBoer, 2013, p. 127). Similar notions towards pork can be found in other Middle-Eastern religions, such as Judaism and even Christianity. According to a passage from the Bible, “the pig, though it has a divided hoof, does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you” (DenBoer, 2013, p. 129). Different religions that exist in the Middle East, thus, see value and reason in such restrictions.
Religious texts rarely offer any reasoning behind such prohibitions, aside from the fact that it is the will of God. However, there are numerous worldly reasons that may have contributed towards such passages being included in the text. While pork is prohibited by Islam, the traditions of pork husbandry in the Middle East are thousands of years old. However, the geographical and climatic conditions of the Middle Eastern countries make growing pigs a difficult prospect (Lambton, 2013). The chicken remains the primary source of meat in the Middle East. Compared to pigs, chickens have many advantages. Chickens require less water than pigs (3,600 liters of water per kilo of meat versus 6,000 in pigs), they require less food for sustenance, and produce fewer impurities to be cleaned. In addition, chickens provide eggs, which is an important food source. Lastly, chickens are small, which makes transportation and consumption easier. Before the invention of refrigerators, the meat had to be consumed shortly after the animal is slaughtered. If a family could not eat the entire animal in one go, a lot of meat is wasted. Thus, the first reason for forbidding pork is to promote chicken husbandry – a more cost-efficient food source (Lambton, 2013).
The second reason why pork could have been prohibited is tied to medicine. For a large portion of its history, Islamic countries have endorsed and promoted medical endeavors. While ancient knowledge of medicine was not as advanced when compared to modern healthcare, many ancient physicians have found pork to be unhealthy. Pigs are known for transferring numerous diseases such as “Trichianisis trikinisis, which is caused by round worms, as well as Yersinia enterocolitica, which could cause fever, diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach cramps” (Lambton, 2013, p. 79). Back in ancient times, when the Qur’an was written, even the simplest of diseases had the potential of killing a person.
Other diseases that are carried by pigs and are dangerous to humans include porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome, porcine endogenous retrovirus, hepatitis E, swine flu, Menangle virus, and other dangerous afflictions (Lambton, 2013). Pig physiology is considered similar to human in terms of immune systems, digestive systems, and transmittable diseases. Lastly, pork meat is filled with fats, and excessive consumption of it is likely to induce obesity, which has the potential to lead to many other health-related problems. Therefore, another reason for prohibiting pork as a dietary choice in Islam could have been connected with health concerns. Any government is interested in promoted preventive healthcare on a large scale, as it would contribute to other parts of the economy and significantly reduce the burden of caring for the sick. Therefore, the state benefits of prohibiting pork through religion are obvious (Lambton, 2013).
Islam’s Stance on Drugs and Alcohol
Historically, religions around the world have a controversial stance towards drugs and alcohol. Some of the ancient religions, such as shamanism, use alcohol and drugs as a medium of communication with gods. Mediterranean pantheons typically had a God of wine, a nominal patron of pleasure and sensuality (DenBoer, 2013). However, living conditions and cultures of the Mediterranean countries were very different from Islamic and Proto-Islamic states. Forced to grow and develop in harsher and more hostile environments, Islam, like many other religions, declares alcohol and drug usage a mortal sin. From a religious perspective, these items distract the faithful from worshipping Allah, which is the sole reason why they came to this world. However, no one disputes that drug and alcohol addictions are dangerous to the society and the state (Lambton, 2013).
Alcohol, as the most widespread and readily available drug in the history of mankind, had caused a divide between various branches of Islamic followers. The Sufis, who are more moderate and accepting in their perceptions of Islamic teachings, accept the use of wine in small doses and for medical purposes, whereas the Sunni, Shia and the more radical followers of Islam find consumption of any alcohol as Haram, or sinful (DenBoer, 2013).
From a governance perspective, the production and distribution of alcohol is a two-sided coin. On the one hand, it brings economic benefits from trade and taxes, whereas on the other hand it negatively affects the population and the army. Alcohol brings discord to the organized armed forces and can effectively undermine a war effort from within by loosening tongues and making soldiers speak out sensitive information to enemy spies. Alcohol addiction causes a gradual decrease in mental and physical capabilities and has the potential of damaging and destroying families, which are considered the building blocks of any society. Drugs and mind-altering substances have the same effects as alcohol increased tenfold, which is why in Islam drugs are considered the root of all Sin.
Islamic scholars reject the use of drugs as means of communicating with gods. According to Qur’an, Allah is merciful. He would never make his subjects purposefully subject themselves to harmful substances as means of communication. The reasons why the holy texts are so adamantly against drugs and other substances is that back in ancient times the control of the government over imports and exports was not absolute (Lambton, 2013). Smuggling was common, meaning that any serious prohibitions would give rise to an expensive underground black market, which would continue causing harm to individual customers and the society in general. Therefore, the primary method of defense against harmful practices was to declare them Sins, thus using the peoples’ religious devotion to keep them from indulging in alcohol or using mind-altering substances (Lambton, 2013).
Therefore, between commercial profit and national security, Islam promotes the latter. Although many Islamic nations did not abstain themselves completely from wine and other kinds of alcohol, Hashish (Cannabis) and other types of mind-altering drugs were outlawed and persecuted (Lambton, 2013). The benefits of such policies are obvious. Diminished use of harmful and addictive substances improves national health and military aptitude. At the same time, many Islamic countries saw nothing wrong in selling wine abroad, as Qur’an sees no crime in selling wine and drugs to the unfaithful.
Islam and Music
Out of all possible restrictions, music is, perhaps, the most misunderstood and controversial of them all. Islam texts find music to be Haram, depending on the choice of music, instruments, lyrics, and motives. In the 21st century, music is present everywhere – in the radio, in TV, the Internet, and even our cellphones. There is no escaping it, which begets the question if banning music is a legitimate and practical rule to follow. Modern Islamic scholars consider the instructions on music to be outdated. Forced to adapt to the modern realities, official Islamic authorities are typically not very concerned with music and motion pictures. The only group that practices these out-fashioned beliefs in full is the radical Wahhabis, who shun all music that is not dedicated to the worship of Allah as “sinful” (DenBoer, 2013).
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However, in order to understand the roots behind restriction on music in Islam, we need to look upon its creation in a historical perspective. In ancient and medieval times, music was one of the primary forms of entertainment along with theater and physical competitions. From a societal perspective, the profession of a musician is not essential to the existence of the state. A musician, unlike a farmer or a doctor, does not produce anything, therefore does not directly contribute to a country’s wellbeing. Like any form of entertainment, music can be addictive. Modern forms of entertainment addiction include binge TV marathons, computer addiction, social media addiction, and others. It is possible that a penchant for entertainment and music was a more serious problem in the past, with a potential to cause workflow disruptions and make individuals lazy and passive.
Nevertheless, I believe the primary reason for music being forbidden by the religion was that it was potentially dangerous to the state. Music and poetry motivate people. This motivation could be used to promote undesirable political agendas and spread messages of grief and hopelessness in times of strife. Similar calls for control and censorship of poetry and music can be found in Plato’s Republic, which is dedicated to the founding principles and mechanisms used in ancient and modern governance (Lambton, 2013). According to the Islamic texts, the only types of music permitted by the Qur’an are songs that worship Allah and encourage the listeners to perform daring, heroic, and worthy deeds. Songs with political messages behind them, mourning songs that bring about sadness and depression, and music that promotes sex, the use of drugs, and reckless behavior is usually frowned upon. In other words, Islam encourages the use of music in order to mobilize the society rather than divide and separate it. It sees music as a useful tool for controlling the peoples’ moods and motivations. For any government, it is paramount to see its people happy, as happy citizens are less likely to turn to crime, rebel, and commit to disruptive behavior (Lambton, 2013).
Songs and music that promote sexual promiscuity and careless behavior are traditionally frowned on by religion and government for several reasons. The message promoted by such media has the potential of disrupting families, which are considered the building blocks of the society, which provide a stable increase in population and contribute to the society through labor and performing other civic duties. Promiscuity and careless behavior disrupts such social connections and has the potential of bringing about orphans, who become a burden for the society and potential criminals if left without proper care. Thus, Islam seeks to put restrictions on music not only for religious but also for practical concerns. Nevertheless, out of all three prohibitions, the restrictions on music in Islam were least enforced. As civil authorities likely discovered, banning music was not really an option due to a lack of total control over the population. Heroic sagas and prayers to Allah, while important, soon lost novelty and entertainment value, without other genres of music and song to complement them and provide contrast. Nevertheless, the prohibitions remained in Qur’an as relics of the past, but without much power or sway over the populace (DenBoer, 2013).
Islamic Prohibitions in the 21st Century
As our analysis showed, all three prohibitions reviewed in this paper had their reasons for coming into existence, based on political, economic, social, medical, or governance concerns. Religious texts, however, have a tendency of being dogmatic (DenBoer, 2013). Once released, they do not receive any adjustments or updates to keep up with changing times. Qur’an is no different. Many of the tenets and prohibitions mentioned in it are impractical at best and harmful at worst, and rightly so. Of course, the issue with providing edits and updates to holy texts contradicts the very idea of religion, as the Qur’an is considered to be written by Allah himself through the hand of its prophet, Mohammad (DenBoer, 2013). Therefore, as Allah is almighty and all-knowing, the very idea of the scriptures becoming outdated is considered blasphemous in religious circles.
However, if we accept religion as a social construct aimed at stabilizing the society and promoting the greater good, then the mission of keeping its message attuned to modern realities becomes easier. However, some restrictions, while impractical, are engrained into peoples’ minds by centuries of practice and tradition (DenBoer, 2013). The ban on pork is one such example. Modern technology and high standards of animal husbandry and hygiene remove the majority of concerns behind the consumption of pork that were present in the medieval period, yet millions of people still see pork as impure. Same goes for products derived from pork, such as gelatin, which has none of the properties that pork allegedly has. Same holds true for other religions, as all of them suffer from the inability to promote change due to the concept of infallibility of divine will. Unless a new Prophet emerges and brings about the updated version of Qur’an, it is unlikely for Islam to change its stance on some of these problems anytime soon.
Islam is not just a set of practices, rulings, and beliefs that exist to inconvenience its followers. It is a complex system of laws and regulations based on contemporary practices in law, philosophy, medicine, economics, and other important areas of life. Almost every regulation was created for a reason and with a purpose to serve the common good and ensure the prosperity of a nation in a hostile and dangerous environment. However, as globalization envelops the world, barriers and borders are taken down, and new values become prevalent in the society, Islam needs to adapt as well, in order to continue to function as a pillar for the Islamic nations without having to rely on outdated sets of terms and conditions that no longer benefit the society and the government.
DenBoer, J. T. (2013). The history of philosophy in Islam (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.
Lambton, A. K. S. (2013). State and government in medieval Islam. London, England: Routledge.