Muslim Male Circumcision: Reasons, Rituals and Parties

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party for a boy on the day of his circumcision, Istanbul

Muslim boys are supposed to be circumcised, but it is not a requirement and when it is supposed to take place is not specified. For most Muslims it is a kind of coming of age rite generally performed when a boy is six or seven, and is usually done at least before the onset of puberty. Muslim circumcision is often seen as a ritual that marks a boy’s prompt entrance into the religious community. It is typically celebrated with a large party. Sometimes animist practices accompany the ritual.

Circumcision is practiced by most Muslim men — with it being pretty much universal in some communities — even though the Shafi legal school is the only one that makes it obligatory. Muslim males were traditionally circumcised at age 13 or when they reach puberty. More recently, however, Muslim boys are circumcised at varying ages from birth to puberty. In a few Muslim communities it is done shortly before marriage.

Muslims are still the largest single religious group to circumcise boys. According to the BBC: “Islamic scholars differ over whether circumcision is compulsory for Muslim males: some regard it as obligatory, whereas others view it as an act to be recommended. It is carried out to maintain hygiene and Muslim boys are usually circumcised before they reach puberty. For the majority of Muslims, circumcision is seen as an introduction to the Islamic faith and a sign of belonging. [Source: BBC, |::|]

Websites and Resources: Islam “Sexuality in Islam” by Heba G. Kotb M.D at Archive for Sexology; IslamOnline ; Institute for Social Policy and Understanding; ; Islamic City ; BBC article ; University of Southern California Compendium of Muslim Texts ; Encyclopædia Britannica article on Islam ; Islam at Project Gutenberg ; Muslims: PBS Frontline documentary frontline

Reasons for Male Circumcision in Islam

Muslims carry out circumcision in accordance the precedent set by the biblical covenant between Abraham and God. It is said Muhammad was circumcised. Pre-Muslim tribes did not practice it but circumcision has been practiced since early times by Muslims presumably to distinguish Muslims from Christians, Persians and Indians who did not practice it.

According to the BBC: In Islam circumcision is also known as tahara, meaning purification. Circumcision is not mentioned in the Qur'an but Prophet Muhammad spoke about the practice as it is highlighted in the Sunnah (the Prophet Muhammad's recorded words and actions). In the Sunnah, Muhammad stated that circumcision was a "law for men."

“The main reason given for the ritual is cleanliness. It is essential that every Muslim washes before praying. It is important that no urine is left on the body. Muslims believe the removal of the foreksin makes it easier to keep the penis clean because urine can't get trapped there. Supporters of circumcision also argue that excrements may collect under the foreskin which may lead to fatal diseases such as cancer. Some Muslims see circumcision as a preventive measure against infection and diseases. |::|

Dr. Heba G. Kotb wrote: Circumcision “is definitely a sunnah (although not compulsory, fardh) and it takes after the covenants of Prophet Ibrahim (Prophet Abraham). It is clearly meant for males only and scriptural referance to it is the Torah, none in the Qur’an, but of course in the teaching of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). The Torah says, "And Abraham took Ishmael, his son, and all that were born at his house, and all that were bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham's house and circumcised the flesh of their foreskin in the self-same day as God had said unto him" Genesis 17:22, see also Genesis 17:12. The fact that Christians (unlike Jews and Muslims) ceased to circumcise their boys, was not a decree of Christianity proclaimed by Jesus (PUH). It was Paul who later exempted Christians from circumcision and permitted them to eat pig's meat. There was no proof that Jesus was not circumcised nor that he did eat pig's meat.[Source: “Sexuality in Islam” by Heba G. Kotb M.D., A dissertation presented to Maimonides University, 2004]

Qur’an and Doctrinal Basis of Circumcision in Islam

Abraham and Ishmael being circumcised

As we said before the circumcision of males is not mentioned in the Qur’an but is found in the Sunnah — the recorded words and actions of Prophet Muhammad, where it is stated that circumcision is “a law for men”. In Islam, circumcision is viewed as an act of hygiene. The main reason it is advanced in religion in general is an act of cleanliness and purification.

Male circumcision is part of the cleanliness called fitrah. The Prophet Muhammad said according to the Sunnah: “Five are the acts to fulfil to cleanliness called fitrah: Circumcision (Khatna, Khitan), shaving or clipping the hair at the pubes, cutting of the nails, shaving the hair under the armpits, and clipping (or cutting) the moustache.” cited in books of Muslim and Bukhari

The act of circumcision is referred to in Arabic as Taharah which translates to, righteousness, purity or cleanliness. The act of circumcision as recommended in Islam is medically beneficial and reflects the insight of the Islamic accounts.

Circumcision and Islamic Rules About Body Integrity

On the issue of circumcision and Islamic rules about body integrity, doctors Ghiath Alahmad, and Wim Dekkers wrote: Muslims legislate circumcision, a commandment that originated with the Prophet Ibrahim , the first to practice circumcision in accordance with the divine directive. The Glorious Qur’an does not enjoin circumcision directly; however, the relevant ruling is mentioned in the writings of the Qur’anic interpreters who clearly elucidated the importance of following Prophet Ibrahim’s steps: 1) Who can be better in religion than one who submits his whole self to Allah, does good, and follows the way of Ibrahim the true in Faith? For Allah did take Ibrahim for a friend. 2) Say: Allah has spoken the truth, therefore follow the religion of Ibrahim, the upright one; and he was not one of the polytheists. 3) The commandment to circumcise is however mentioned in the a ādīth (singular adīth), reports about the sayings and actions of the Messenger Muhammad . [Source: “Bodily Integrity and Male Circumcision: An Islamic Perspective” by Ghiath Alahmad, MD and Wim Dekkers, MD, PhDb, Journal of the Islamic Medical Association of North America, March 20, 2012]

Five practices are characteristic of the fi ra (sound innate disposition): circumcision, shaving the pubic hair, cutting the moustaches short, clipping the nails, and depilating the hair of the armpits. Among Sunni Muslim jurists, there are some differences in religious rulings on male circumcision. Jurists of the school of Imam Ahmad and al-Shafi`i consider circumcision compulsory. Al-Shafie school considers it recommended during childhood but obligatory only after puberty. Imam Abu Hanifa and Imam Malik consider circumcision to be recommended but not obligatory.This means that if done, its doer is rewarded by God, and if not done, there is no punishment or reward. The scholars agree that circumcision entails the removal of all or the majority of the foreskin that covers the glans only. It has to be done during or at the end of the childhood. All scholars agree that circumcision of the dead is not allowed.

Rare voices, such as Sami Awad Aldeeb Abu-Sahlieh, a Swiss writer of Palestinian Christian origin, have recently called for Muslims to put an end to the practice of circumcision and consider it a violation of the sacred human body. Such voices are unusual, receive little attention, and have no effect on actual practice. Such activists believe that circumcision is in conflict with physical nature and constitutes the amputation of a healthy and functional part of the body. While there are a few rare cases where attempts were made to restore the prepuce, nothing like this has been reported among Muslims.

male circumcision rates by country: 1) more than 80 percent (orange); 2) 20 to 80 percent (yellow); 3) less than 20 percent blue

Muslim Circumcision Customs

According to the BBC: “In Islam there is no fixed age for circumcision. The age at which it is performed varies depending on family, region and country. The preferred age is often seven although some Muslims are circumcised as early as the seventh day after birth and as late as puberty. There is no equivalent of a Jewish 'mohel' in Islam. Circumcisions are usually carried out in a clinic or hospital. The circumciser is not required to be a Muslim but he must be medically trained. [Source: BBC, |::|]

“Circumcision is not compulsory in Islam but it is an important ritual aimed at improving cleanliness. It is strongly encouraged but not enforced. In some Islamic countries circumcision is performed after Muslim boys have recited the whole of the Qur'an from start to finish. In Malaysia, for example, the operation is a puberty rite that separates the boy from childhood and introduces him to adulthood. Traditionally, adult converts to Islam were encouraged to undergo the operation but this practice is not universally endorsed, particularly if the procedure poses a health risk. |::|

“The ritual dates back to the time of the Prophet Muhammad. According to tradition Muhammad was born without a foreskin (aposthetic). Some Muslims who practise circumcision see it as a way of being like him. Circumcision was also practised by past prophets. Dr Bashir Quereshi, author of Transcultural Medicine, explains: "Every Muslim is expected to follow the way and the life of the Prophet Muhammad. Therefore, all Muslims - devouts, liberals or seculars - observe this ritual. Muslim are obliged to follow not only Allah's message in the Holy Qur'an but also what the Prophet said or did, as proof of their dedication to Islam." |::|

Turkish Circumcision Ritual

A British woman married to a Turkish man posted on Turkish Travel Center: In Turkey, the deed is done at any time during a boy’s life and it is not a private occasion either. Family, friends, neighbours, long lost uncles, and random strangers suddenly appear to celebrate until early morning. Known as a sünnet party, the word ‘privacy’ is not used when describing the process to foreigners.

The boys getting the snip, were my three Turkish nephews through marriage and they were aged eight, four and seven months. To my relief, he told me that times had changed and my three nephews would not be lying down on the kitchen table to have their courage tested to the limit. In the past, that was normal but the three boys were going to hospital weeks before the party and the procedure would be performed by someone who at least had a degree and expert knowledge of the male anatomy. To my surprise, my husband proudly recalled his memories of being circumcised. His uncle performed the procedure at home and he remembers receiving a big watch as a present.

Most males in Turkey are circumcised. It is the first step on the ritual path to becoming a man. A circumcision and completion of military service are two major events throughout a boy’s life. The emphasis in Turkish culture about boys growing up to be strong men is the hope and belief, that they will be a good husband, son and father, one who will protect, honor and love his family at all costs, while ensuring they want for nothing.

Last month, I read a fiction book written by Elif Şafak called Honour. The story is not true but Elif has used many real cultural references. One chapter tells of a boy living in a vıllage in the East of Turkey. He ran away from his circumcision party, hid in a tree, and when found, he cried to his mother. She feigned sympathy until he came down from the tree, then scolded him for embarrassing her in public. That is the strong emphasis on the Turkish circumcision ritual as it is the first step from a boy to a man.

Turkish Circumcision Party

The British woman posted: When the day of the circumcision party arrived, I was still not ready to join in the celebrations but as a family member; my presence was strongly required. The biggest shock was to come though. I had expected a small house party with roughly thirty guests. When we arrived, my estimation was severely off the mark. The street was cordoned off. Every spare inch of space had been used, leaving no room to move. Loud noises alternated between insistent chatter and traditional Turkish music. A van in the corner was hurriedly laying out many trays of food and the owner was struggling to keep up with the demand for refreshments on this hot summer day.

Tables had been set out in rows and large white canopies erected to keep out the glare of the midday sun. My three nephews appeared wearing the traditional circumcision suit with large grins on their faces. They were the focus for the day and enjoying the attention. Dressed in white trousers and shirts, with blue dickey bows and elaborate capes, they ran through the crowds laughing and joking with their friends. Their pointed feather caps reminded me of the uniform worn by disciplined English marching bands, but this day was certainly not synchronized or orderly. At the end of the street, children were patiently waiting in line for a ride on a horse that looked remarkably calm despite the loud noise and screaming kids running around it.

I was by now getting used to the public display of what I considered a private moment, but there was more to come. The two older boys would sit on horses and ride through the streets, following a music band sitting on the back of a hired van. Cars would follow the horses beeping their horns in joy at this special occasion that had occurred in our family. Everyone in the town would know what had happened to the bits between their legs.

I have not been to a circumcision party since then. Sometimes I see the boys of our town on their special day, riding around on a horse or in a van, dressed in the traditional white and blue suit. Rumours say the council donates money to the poor families who cannot afford the procedure. They do this for one day every year so all those young boys having the procedure at the same time get to have a bigger party than normal.

Mass Circumcision in Kosovo

Reporting from Gornje Lubinje, Kosovo, Nicholas Wood wrote in The New York Times, “It is hard to place the inhabitants of this unusual village in the web of identities that make up the Balkans. They are neither Serbs nor Albanians, the main ethnic groups vying for control of the internationally administered province of Kosovo. Perhaps the closest match would be to call them Bosnians, which is how these Slavic-speaking Muslims who form a minority here in Kosovo describe themselves. But the language spoken here, a mixture of Serbian and Macedonian, with a few Turkish words thrown in, is not the same as any other in the Balkans, including Bosnia. And Gornje Lubinje's customs, as well as those of its neighboring village, Donje Lubinje, are unlike those of any other people in Kosovo. [Source: Nicholas Wood, The New York Times, July 31, 2006 \=/]

“Every five years, the inhabitants of the two villages, high in the Shar mountain range, close to the boundary with Macedonia, come together for an extraordinary festival - its version of a Muslim rite of passage. For three days, upward of 3,000 people gather here to feast, sing and dance and take part in traditional Turkish sports like wrestling. In a region sharply divided along ethnic lines, Gornje Lubinje's festival this year has attracted Serbs, Albanians and members of Kosovo's diaspora from as far away as Switzerland and Germany. \=/

“But the distinguishing feature of this festival is the ceremony of Sunet, or circumcision, that takes place in one day for all of the host village's boys age 5 or under - 111 of them this year in Gornje Lubinje. (Donje Lubinje will perform the rite next year.) The tradition, whose origins date from beyond living memory, is viewed by almost all residents with almost universal pride as it has come to symbolize this place's special identity. "It gives us a sense of unity," said Rafik Kasi, a local journalist from Gornje Lubinje, whose nephew was being circumcised. Zaber Kaplani, who had traveled from Donje Lubinje, farther down the Zupa Valley, to join the ceremonies, said: "When parents have a boy, they spend months and years preparing for this ceremony. This is one of the greatest traditions we have." \=/

“Some parents chose to send their children to be circumcised at the village's clinic, where this year, on Saturday, two surgeons and a doctor performed operations on 24 boys under local anesthetic. But the vast majority opted to put their children in the care of the nimble hands of Zulfikar Shishko, 69, who normally works in the Ekspres barber shop in the nearby city of Prizen. For €25, or about $32, each, Shishko performed the operation in the boys' homes, without anesthetic. He was accompanied by two burly assistants dressed in red aprons whose task it was to restrain the boys during the operation. ("We have a special technique," said Hajrulla Osmani, one of the assistants.) \=/

“With a scalpel, a bottle of iodine and some scouring powder to help clean his hands after each operation, Shishko had the air of a man possessed as he proceeded to circumcise 87 boys in just over 12 hours. At that pace, Shishko spoke hardly a word as he scurried from house to house. "I would work even faster if they let me," he said, explaining that too many people wanted to talk to him.

“Villagers here say the performing of all the circumcisions on one day has a simple explanation: poverty. "It dates from a period of crisis when people had no money," said Kasi, the local journalist. "It was simpler for everybody to come together and share the expenses." Nobody here could say when the ceremonies were first held in such large numbers. But villagers said they had on occasion been interrupted, by the Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913 and then World War I. There are other Bosnian Muslim villages in the Zupa Valley that once held mass Sunet ceremonies, but now only Gornje Lubinje and Donje Lubinje keep the custom going. \=/

“In each house the scene was virtually identical. Shishko entered and was followed by his assistants and a young imam. In the next room, the mother, grandmother, aunts and sisters stood dressed in white dresses and waistcoats embroidered in gold and waited for the operation to finish. When the job was done, a Romany band struck up outside, and relatives squeezed their way to give money to the boy, who was lying covered on the floor or a bed. Screams of pain and pulsating music punctuated the day, but Kasi said, "Our trust in God gives the boys strength to overcome the pain." \=/

“It was hard to find anyone to criticize the pace or the skill of the practitioner. "He's better than a surgeon," said Ibrahim Bilibane, a construction foreman from Donje Lubinje. In the Bajrami household, Sehizada Bajrami, 23, was visibly distressed as Shishko entered and approached Selhan, her 30-month-old son. With tears running down her cheeks, she whimpered, "I can't decide what I feel." But her father-in-law, Advi Bajrami, 83, intervened. "She's full of joy," he said.” \=/

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: “Sexuality in Islam” by Heba G. Kotb M.D at Archive for Sexology; Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: ; Arab News, Jeddah; “Islam, a Short History” by Karen Armstrong; “A History of the Arab Peoples” by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art,, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Library of Congress and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2024

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