Lurking in the Margins of Creation: Pigs in al-Qazwini’s (d. 1283) “Wonders“

One can hardly imagine a more demonized creature in Islam than the pig (khanzir). It is as if the Qur’anic text doomed it a priori, without even leaving some room for rehabilitation, forever forcing in into the trenches of a formally marginalized cultural and religious space, with the domain of the culinary logically to follow. Take a brief look at the divine regulations of the Qur’an:

“These things only has He forbidden you: carrion, blood, the flesh of swine, what has been hollowed to other than God. Yet who so is constrained, not desiring nor transgressing, no sin shall be on him; God is All-forgiving, All-compassionate” (2:173)

“Forbidden to you are carrion, blood, the flesh of swine, what has been hallowed to other than God, the beast strangled; the beast beaten down, the beast fallen to death, the beast gored, and that devoured by beasts of prey – excepting that you have sacrificed duly – as also things sacrificed to idols, and partition by the divining arrows; that is ungodliness.” (5:3)

“Say: ‘I do not find, in what is revealed to me, aught forbidden to him who eats thereof except it be carrion, or blood outpoured, or the flesh of swine – that is an abomination – or an ungodly thing that has been hallowed to other than God.” (6:145)

“These things only He has forbidden you: carrion, blood, the flesh of swine, what has been hallowed to other than God. Yet whoso is constrained, not desiring nor transgressing, God is All-forgiving, All-compassionate.” (16:115)

And yet, it’s precisely the unambiguity of its image and normatively imposed enduring ill fate, that fly in our face the inevitable question.

If a swine remains one of the arch-villains of a proper Islamic ethos, how can its existence be justified, and what expressions this possible justification might take? In other words, how can the religious prescription to avoid it, be reconciled with its origin as one of the creatures of Allah, who is to be served as the ‘Creator of everything’, and ‘Guardian of everything’, as the Qur’an (6:102) puts it? What spaces can the poor creature be found to inhabit, placed there by the Islamic authors? One of the telling attempts to find its ontological niche in the cosmological grand design, and to squeeze it somewhere within a universal order, just as divine, as the condemnation itself, are the ones undertaken by al-Qazwini (ca. 1203-1283). His mirabilia under the title “Wonders of creatures” [or ‘creation”, in some translations, ‘Aja’ib al-Makhluqat], has remained for centuries one of the most authoritative cosmological works within the Muslim majority lands.

And once we place the swine outside of the religious domain of Muslims, we find out that al-Qazwini allocates some curious qualities to it:

A pig [or rather ‘boar’, judging by illustrations to his remarkable text], combines features of other animals: has protruding teeth like the elephant, its head resembles the one of a bull, has a divided hoof like the cow. If you bury a quince in the ground, says al-Qazwini, it will turn over the whole of the ground, until it finds the quince; one of the most prolifically procreating animals it is: it gives birth to up to twenty small pigs. It is capable of eating snakes without getting hurt by their poison, and it’s better, more cunning than a fox. Once a horse-rider goes after it, the boar starts running until the rider gets tired, and turns on the rider and his horse, strikes them with its teeth, and kills them. If it hungers for three days, and then eats, in the course of two it gets fat – and that is something that the Christians from the lands of Rum [Byzantium] do with it. In case it gets ill, it eats crabs, so that the illness passes away. If it gets fastened to the back of a donkey, and the donkey urinates, then it immediately dies. Its voice scares the elephant away. Its parts are also known to possess special characteristics: if a person wears a tooth of a boar, the person grows dignified among people, and is being protected by the evil eye.

Below stays the pictorial evidence itself from al-Qazwini’s manuscripts of various ages and geographical areas. A pig remains always hairy, sturdy, resilient, inevitably toothy, hiding from the fore front of a Muslim life – and yet stably grounded in the backstage.

Enjoy the wonders of a swine [creation], with the manuscript data collected below.

  1. Sackler Collection, Aja’ib al-makhluqat (Wonders of Creation) by al-Qazvini; recto: Harish/Unicorn (Harish), Wild Pig (Khanzir); verso: Bear (dubb), early 15th century
  2. Qazwīnī, Zakarīyā Ibn-Muḥammad al-: Kitāb ʿAǧāʾib al-maḫlūqāt wa-ġarāʾib al-mauǧūdāt – BSB 463, Palestine?, 1750-1770 [BSB-Hss 463]
  3. Qazwīnī, Zakarīyā Ibn-Muḥammad al-: Kitāb ʿAǧāʾib al-maḫlūqāt wa-ġarāʾib al-mauǧūdāt – BSB 464, Wāsiṭ, 1280 [BSB-Hss 464]
  4. Library of Congress, World Digital Library, 16th century, Iran
  5. Cambridge Digital Library, MS Nn.3.74, 16th century
  6. Gallica, ca. 1762-1763
  7. Gallica, ca. 1601-1650
  8. British Library, ca. 1300
  9. Digital Staatsbibliothek, Berlin, ca. 1816
  10. Digital Staatsbibliothek, Berlin, 1695
  11. Digital Staatsbibliothek, Berlin, 1500
  12. Digital Staatsbibliothek, Berlin, s.a.