The Qurʾān uses the noun mayta for carrion.
Definitions and Usage
Mayta, a noun deriving from the root m-w-t,carries the same meaning as the masculine form of the word, mayt or mayyit, all of which denote something that is dead (see Death and the Dead). Linguistically, mayta usually refers to animal and mayyit to human corpses (Zabīdī, Tāj, sub m-w-t), although the latter can also signify a ‘mortal being’ as in Q 39:30 (Māturīdī, Taʾwīlāt). As a technical term, mayta refers to animals that die or are killed without being ritually slaughtered (tadhkiya) (Fayrūzabādī, Baṣāʾir 4:538), that is, an animal “whose soul departed without having been ritually slaughtered” (māzālrūḥuhbi-ghayr tadhkiya) (Rāghib, Mufradāt; sub m-w-t; Nawawī, Tahdhīb, 4:146). Yaḥyā b. Sharaf al-Nawawī (d. 676/1277) says, “All [mayta] is prohibited except fish (al-samak) and locusts (al-jarād), which are permissible by legal consensus of the Muslims” (Tahdhīb, 4:146). Abū JaʿfarMuḥammad b. Jarīr al-Ṭabarī (d. 310/923) offers the nuance that the word mayta only applies to land animals and birds that are permissible to consume (Tafsīr, sub Q 5:3), while Abū ʿAbd AllāhMuḥammad b. Aḥmad al-Qurṭubī (d. 671/1273)—who derives twenty-six points of discussion from Q 5:3—applies it also to animals that are impermissible to eat even if ritually slaughtered (Tafsīr, sub Q 5:3).
The word mayta appears six times in the Qurʾān. Mayta defined as carrion occurs four times (Q 2:173; 5:3; 6:145; 16:115) in passages prohibiting the consumption of blood (dam), the flesh of swine (laḥm al-khinzīr), and anything sacrificed for other than to Allah (wa-māuhillabihi li-ghayri Llāh) (see Blood; Food and Drink; Lawful and Unlawful). In Q 6:139 it refers to a pre-Islamic Arab practice concerning stillborn livestock; in Q 49:12 it features in a figurative reference to the act of backbiting.
Since two of the four verses regarding mayta were revealed before the Hijra (Q 6:145; 16:115) and two after (Q 2:173; 5:3), the prohibition of consuming carrion is understood to date from the beginning of the Prophet Muḥammad’s mission, upon him blessings and peace (Rāzī, Tafsīr, sub Q 16:115). Both Q 6:145 and 16:115 are followed by verses (Q 6:146; 16:118) mentioning additional dietary restrictions given to the Children of Isrāʾīl, suggesting that the prohibition of consuming carrion also applied to earlier faiths (Qurṭubī, Tafsīr; Shawkānī, Fatḥ al-qadīr).
The prohibition of mayta
The prohibition of mayta, along with the other prohibitions included in the verse, also responds to certain practices of the pre-Islamic Arabs (see Jāhiliyya). For instance, the verses preceding Q 6:145 describe how the Pre-Islamic Arabs prohibited the consumption and use of certain quadrupeds (e.g. baḥīra, a mount that could not be used for pilgrimage (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr)) and claimed that the live-born offspring of certain animals were only for men to consume (Q 6:138-139). The Qurʾān then states that Allah has provided livestock for consumption, and that Muslims should not follow the footsteps of the devil (Q 6:142). This same admonition appears in the other verses: Q 2:170 describes how the polytheists adamantly followed the way of their forefathers, deeming certain animals sacrosanct, rather than following the Revelation of Allah; Q 5:3 prohibits the pre-Islamic practice of sacrificing animals on stone altars; and Q 16:116 expressly forbids the act of falsely deeming things lawful or unlawful and attributing it to the Divine law, a reference to the consecration of certain animals by the pre-Islamic Arabs (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr; cf. Q 5:103) (see Consecration of Animals). In this light, al-Ṭabarī comments that the dietary rulings of Q 2:173 also forbid anyone to prohibit what Allah and His Messenger, upon him blessings and peace, have not prohibited. Further, the types of carrion listed in Q 5:3 are mentioned because they were regularly killed that way (or found dead) and eaten by the pre-Islamic Arabs who did not consider them mayta (Tafsīr). For instance, if animals strangled themselves on their lead ropes, they would eat them (Ibn ʿĀshūr, Tafsīr, sub Q 5:3).
Q 6:118 (Eat of that over which the name of Allah has been pronounced) addresses pre-Islamic Arab practices, and the next verse rhetorically asks why one would not do so, given that it is permissible (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr). The consumption of carrion is implicated in these verses, in that the name of Allah obviously has not been pronounced over it. Q 6:119 mentions those who ignore dietary laws and “stray according to their desires,” which is a reference to those who argued against the prohibition of mayta. The disbelievers of Makka, according to al-Ṭabarī (Tafsīr), asked why it was permissible to eat what humans slaughtered but not what Allah ‘slaughtered’ (i.e. which died of natural causes). Q 6:121 was then revealed reiterating the prohibition—ʿAbd Allāh b. ʿAbbās (d. 68/688) and others interpret it as applying to mayta, whereas al-Ṭabarī maintains that it applies to idolatrous sacrifices and other impermissible meats—and that the “devils inspire their allies to dispute with [the Believers].”
Q 5:3 lists ways of animal death which would classify them as mayta (Rāzī, Tafsīr, sub Q 16:115): those that have been strangled (munkhaniqa) or beaten (mawqūdha), have fallen from a cliff or into a well (mutaraddiya), have been gored by another animal (naṭīḥa), or have been scavenged or hunted by predators (māakala al-sabuʿ) (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr, sub Q 5:3). Elsewhere, the Qurʾān refers to carrion as filth (rijs, Q 6:145). The same verse includes another category of animals already killed that are also impermissible to eat: that which is killed for other than Allah (māuhilla li-ghayri Llāh bihi) and those ritually killed by the pre-Islamic Arabs on stone altars as an ostensible means of attaining nearness to Allah (dhubiḥa ʿalā al-nuṣub); the Qurʾān refers to these practices as fisq, a gross moral offense (maʿṣiya) (Q 5:3; 6:121, 145). Since such animals were not slaughtered according to Islamic ritual prescription, their meat was also classed as carrion. Ifthe animal is injured through one of the above causes, but is still alive and is ritually slaughtered (illāmādhakkaytum), it remains lawful for human consumption(Ibn Qudāma, Mughnī 13:314; Ṭabarī,Tafsīr; Zamakhsharī, Kashshāf; Ibn al-Jawzī, Zād; Ibn ʿĀshūr, Tafsīr, sub Q 5:3).Al-Rāzī explains that when an animal dies without having been slaughtered, the blood remains trapped in its body, rots there, and causes the meat to become harmful. This is why one that has been strangled, beaten, crushed through falling, or gored to death is considered mayta: because the blood has not flowed out (Tafsīr, sub Q 5:3; see also Ibn ʿĀshūr, Tafsīr). The reason underlying the impermissibility of blood—which was consumed by the pre-Islamic Arabs—is its filthiness (qadhāra); and the wisdom behind the prohibition of consuming carrion is due to its harmful qualities (Ibn ʿĀshūr, Tafsīr, sub Q 5:3). It is the process of slaughtering that separates the impure blood from the pure meat (al-Marghinānī, al-Hidāya 3:393).
Jurists discuss other kinds of meat that are also considered to be mayta. For instance, animals slaughtered or hunted by people who are not Muslims, Christians, or Jews are impermissible to eat—again with the exception of fish and locusts, since they are not subject to slaughter (Ibn Qudāma, Mughnī 13:296-298; Zamakhsharī, Kashshāf; Qurṭubī; Rāzī, Tafsīrs; sub Q 2:173). Likewise, animals slaughtered by anyone, but not according to the ritual prescription would fall under mayta (Jaṣṣāṣ, Aḥkām al-Qurʾān and Rāzī, Tafsīr, sub Q 2:173), as would an animal hunted by someone in a state of pilgrim sanctity (iḥrām) (Ibn Qudāma, Mughnī 13:338). A limb severed from an animal while it is alive is also deemed to be mayta (Ibn Rushd, Bidāyat al-mujtahid 2:203).
There are exceptions to these legal proscriptions: Anyone in dire need (fa-mani-ḍṭurra) who is driven to consume carrion is forgiven, whether this arises through coercion or starvation (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr,sub Q 2:173). Fakhr al-Dīn Muḥammad b. ʿUmar al-Rāzī (d. 606/1209) says, the same rationale allows the use of carrion to treat an illness or as part of a medicinal compound (Tafsīr, sub Q 2:173). The prohibition of eating carrion also affects its other possible uses. Related issues addressed by jurists include whether it is lawful to tan its hide, make use of its fat, milk, fur, or wool (Jaṣṣāṣ, Aḥkām al-Qurʾān, sub Q 2:173). For details of juristic rulings on such issues, fiqh manuals should be consulted.
The word mayta is used in a different register in Q 49:12: Do not backbite one another. Would any of you like to eat the dead flesh of his brother? Backbiting someone in their absence is likened to eating his dead flesh because he is unable to defend himself: it is as if he were dead (Ibn ʿĀshūr, Tafsīr). In the verses prohibiting carrion, mayta is contrasted with the lawful (ḥalāl) and goodly (ṭayyib) food that Allah has provided (Q 2:172; 5:4; 6:141-4; 16:114). Backbiting is likened to eating carrion because it is seen as similarly repulsive; they bear similar prohibitions (Suyūṭī, Durr). The same comparison occurs in a hadith, according to which two women no longer able to bear their fasting were brought to the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace. The Prophet asked them to vomit—and they regurgitated blood, pus, and meat. The Prophet said, “These two fasted from what Allah made permissible but broke their fast on what Allah forbade them. One sat next to the other and they began to eat people’s flesh (i.e. they would come together to backbite)” (Aḥmad, Musnad, 39:60 §23653; see also Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīr, sub Q 49:12). “To eat people’s flesh” means backbiting (Ibn BaṭṭālSharḥ Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī, 4:25).
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