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BIRTH RITES. [To articulate religious values and traditions reflected in birth rites in modern Islamic societies, this entry comprises two articles: Legal Foundations and Modern Practice.]

Legal Foundations

Islam has relatively few birth rites compared to other Near Eastern religions, and those that exist are recommended (sunnah) rather than obligatory. Structurally, this may be accounted for by the Muslim belief that Islam is the natural religion (din al fitrah). As the hadith says, “the child is born according to its nature; it is his parents who make him a Jew or Christian” (Sahih Muslim, Kitab al-qadr). Since humans are born Muslim, it makes sense that there is no need for a rite of initiation such as baptism or circumcision.

Works of piety are filled with supplications to be uttered during the act of conception, such as this hadith. “If you intend to go to your wife, say: In the name of God, O God, protect us against Satan and keep Satan from the one you have bee stowed upon us and if He has ordained a male child for them Satan will never be able to do any harm to him” (Sahih Muslim, Kitab al-nikdh). The pious are also enjoined to orient the marital bed toward the qiblah and the like.

The most notable birth rite attested in legal sources is the `aqiqah, a ritual substitution in which the child’s hair is shaved on the seventh day, and money, gold, or silver is given to the poor of value equal to the weight of the hair. As part of the ritual complex an animal is sacrificed (one for a girl child, two for a boy), and the child is named. It is best to give a child a “good Muslim name” like Ahmad or Muhammad, or a name compounded with a name of God like `Abd al-Qadir, “bondsman of the Powerful-One”; but any name is acceptable as long as it is not heathenish, for example, `Abd Shams, “slave of the sun.” At the time of the `aqiqah it is also recommended to speak the call to prayer in the child’s right ear and the summons to prayer (iqamah) in the left ear. The sacrifice should be of a one year-old sheep or a two-year-old goat. The bones must not be broken even in cooking, and the meat is in part to be distributed to the poor. Also recommended is tahnik, a rite in which a parent or pious person of either sex chews dates until they are soft and puts them into the mouth of the newborn child.

Circumcision is quite significant from the popular perspective, but it receives relatively little space in legal texts. The schools range from regarding it as recommended for men, to obligatory; for women, the assessments range from “it is a kindness” to seeing it as obligatory. It is significant that the Shafi`i school, the school historically identified with Egypt, is most emphatic in requiring circumcision for both men and women. For most schools the matter is of less theoretical significance: thus one who converts to Islam and fears circumcision may fore go it. For both men and women the ritual takes place between the age of one week and fifteen years, depending on local custom. In fact, it is local custom that determines the significance of the ritual, its timing, and the manner of its observance. Where it is observed as a rite of passage into manhood circumcision often involves parading the subject, dressing him elaborately (sometimes as a girl, to deflect the evil eye), and feasting. Female genital excision, surrounded by the taboos of female sexuality, is almost always performed with less fanfare. [See Circumcision; Clitoridectomy.]

Popular culture includes many other rituals connected with childhood and birth, but most of these have no foundation in normative Islamic sources. The announcement of the birth to the father is often the occasion for celebration and gift-giving. Special foods are cooked for the child and mother and the afterbirth and umbilical cord are often disposed of ceremonially.

[See also Rites of Passage.]


Most legal works have a discussion of the `aqiqah ceremony in the section on sacrifice in the book on pilgrimage. If the book contains a discussion, it is usually in the section on purification preceding the section on ritual prayer.

Granqvist, Hilma. Birth and Childhood among the Arabs. Helsingfors, 1947.

Wensinck, A. J. “Khitan.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., vol. 5, pp. 20-22. Leiden, 1960-.

Zwemer, Samuel M. “The `Akika Sacrifice.” Moslem World 6.3 (1916): 236-252.


Modern Practice

Rites surrounding birth operate at the interface of social, cultural, and religious systems. Muslim communities are not only aware of the formal doctrinal requisites of Islam at such a moment but are also particularly sensitive to family and kin values. Intersecting these are local cultural concerns, many of which operate in loose relationships to Muslim law and norms. Hence the birth of a child activates many of the intangibles that support a Muslim community.

The inadequacy of modern information on this topic probably reflects both a lack of sustained male interest and the paucity of women researchers. In addition, what is available concentrates on practices in specific countries or locales. Although scholarship is not yet able to give a comprehensive picture, enough is known to identify four critical areas that may roughly be called rites of proper production of children, rites of proper protection of birth, rites of validating the existence and person hood of the child, and rites of integrating the child into the Muslim community. Islamic norms impinge upon and sometimes specify these rites, even if outward practice may appear quite foreign to formal Islamic thought.

The Qur’an is quite explicit that the creation of a human is an act of God (40.68-69, 22.6, 96.2-3); it follows that the entire process of bringing a child to be has sacred content. The primary reason for the sex act is procreation, and a traditional Muslim prayed before the  critical first intercourse with his new bride. Among some Muslim men it still is the practice to say “Bismillah” (“in God’s name”) upon ejaculation, expressing the hope and belief that the seed will be subject to God’s overarching plan. An infertile woman in Brunei may seek out a dukun (indigenous practitioner of medicine) to recite bacha-bacha (potent Qur’anic verses) while blowing upon her; a barren woman in Egypt may go on a pilgrimage to a saint’s shrine and leave a note with an explicit vow should the saint successfully intercede for her. Modern Isma`ili women having problems conceiving, including many residing in the West, seek to be present at a ceremony in which the Aga Khan gives a special fertility blessing. Moroccan women may visit the shrine of the marabout, leaving a piece of clothing as a binding vow. Once a woman is pregnant, a wide range of protections come into play, including special foods and satisfying the whims of the mother-to-be.

Perceived defilement must be remedied with ritual ablutions by both partners after intercourse and by a woman after her period. The origins of the notion of defilement are associated with the fall of Adam and Eve; Turkish villagers hold that menstruation is woman’s curse for Eve’s disobedience against God in the Garden, and blood, even the blood of birth, is the primary symbol of mortality. In Iran, as elsewhere, the potency of women’s menses is such that it can cause a defect in another woman’s unborn fetus.

A number of rites are performed at the end of pregnancy to ensure safe birth. South Asian Isma’ili expectant mothers attend the jama’atkhanah between the seventh and eighth month for a special prayer by the mukhi (religious leader). In Marrakesh, there are rites of confinement, signaling that birth is vulnerable to evil; the mother and child remain in the same room for forty days lest crossing the threshold lead to an encounter with malevolent powers. Restoration of safety occurs only following the visit of the mother to an important saint’s shrine. Egyptians customarily whisper the adhan (call to prayer) in the ear of the newborn child to thwart lingering negative influences. This is also the reason for painting kohl around the child’s eyes. Villagers in Iran hold that a child may be born with the evil eye, in part because of astrological influences, so a range of incantations are utilized to free the child, including the names of the “Five” (Muhammad, `Ali, Fatimah, Hasan, and Husayn); such an incantation is held to be `atil wa batil (offensive and defensive). In Lebanon about one-third of Sunnis utilize incense or fumigation to dispel evil from a newborn infant; in the latter practice, incense obtained from a shaykh is thrown into an open fire, and the child is passed through the fumes three (or seven) times while an incantation or prayer is recited. Other villagers in Lebanon believe there are special powers attached to the placenta and do not cut the cord for twelve hours so that the child will not be weakened. In Syria, there is also significant use of amulets for protection, including tiny Qur’ans in pendants suspended around girls’ necks. While some may contend that none of these practices are overtly Muslim, they are loosely allied with notions of the presence of the jinn and “evil envy” among humans noted in the Qur’an, surahs 113- 114, or with the need to protect the newborn child from Satan.

Important rites establish the identity and position of the child in Muslim society. Some of these, like circumsion, are more properly community events; a few are designed specifically for the child. Isma’ilis take the newborn to the jama’atkhanah for the official bay’ah ceremony, in which the child becomes a true member of the faith through swearing allegiance to the imam of the time. [See Bay’ah.] Naming rites are obviously significant for personal reasons, but they differ widely across the Muslim world in terms of complexity and emphasis. They usually take place when the child is officially registered, an act that is necessary so a child’s kin relationships are firmly established under religious law.

From the standpoint of the community, the birth of a child is a positive, celebratory event, validating God’s continued beneficence to believers. The first child is particularly important because it demonstrates the fertility of the mother. The Malay Muslims have a feast forty days after birth, with the mother and father dressed in finery and seated in state as at their wedding and the community joyously participating. In Aceh both husband and wife participate in visiting rituals before and after birth, while Muslims in Java carefully perform household food rituals on days governed by the thirty five-day Javanese calendar after the child is born.

Sons are evidently preferred among heartland Muslims because they ensure the family’s economic and genealogical continuity, but daughters are protected by Muslim law and can make marriage alliances that enhance the family’s prestige. However, because they can endanger the family’s honor through inappropriate sexual behavior, girls must be ritually protected, restricted, and trained. First sons are particularly admired; in Lebanon, such a son is called ma’ruth (“the treasured one”).

Sexual distinctions are affirmed very early and are drawn with the shedding of blood: among the fellahin of Egypt, a ceremony of subincision for girls may take place before they reach the age of ten, while in modern Cairo, boys delivered in hospitals axe circumcised within seven days. Traditionally, both these rites are community centered. In Egypt, with the birth of a boy, a ceremony called `aqiqah occurs within the forty-day period, involving shaving the boy’s head, weighing, and giving gold or silver to charity. Community feasting is likely to include the killing of two lambs for a boy and one for a girl.

Men, except for physicians, take no part in the delivery of children; the process is exclusively a female responsibility. Usually older relatives assist midwives in the delivery. Children are swaddled throughout the Muslim world, and the child sleeps near the mother in her room. The Western practice of a separate nursery is held to run counter to the baby’s need for close ties with its mother’s body. The result is that women and children spend far longer in more intimate proximity, at least until the time of puberty, and this provides a close, secure environment that is a hallmark of the Muslim family and that has been held to be the direct result of Islamic notions of the proper structure of human society.

[See also Circumcision; Clitoridectomy; Names and Naming; Rites of Passage.]


Classical understandings of birth rites are found throughout the Encyclopaedia of Islam, 4 vols. and supplement (Leiden, 1913-1938), along with the more recent edition (Leiden, 196o-). Dale F. Eickelman provides a general overview in “Rites of Passage,” in The Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by Mircea Eliade, vol. 12, pp. 380-403 (New York, 1987), with bibliography. Material on human sexuality is found in Basim F. Musallam, Sex and Society in Islam (Cambridge, 1983). Also helpful is the section on Islamic societies in Erika Bourguignon et al., A World of Women (New York, 198o), especially Linda A. Kimball’s “Women of Brunei” (pp. 43-56). The religious assumptions behind the pollutions of menses are explored in an important article by Carol Delaney, “Mortal Flow: Menstruation in Turkish Village Society,” in Blood Magic, edited by Thomas Buckley and Alan Gottlieb, pp. 7593 (Berkeley, 1988), and in the books she mentions throughout. A dramatic presentation of the different worlds of men and women is found in M. E. Combs-Schilling, Sacred Performance: Islam, Sexuality, and Sacrifice (New York, 1989). Two recent local studies are Linda A. Kimball, Borneo Medicine: The Healing Art of Indigenous Brunei Malay Medicine (Ann Arbor, 1979), and Judith R. Williams, The Youth of Haouch el-Harimi: A Lebanese Village (Cambridge, Mass., 1968). Bess Allen Donaldson, “The Evil Eye in Iran,” and Jamal Karam Harfouche, “The Evil Eye and Infant Health in Lebanon,” in The Evil Eye: A Folklore Casebook, edited by Alan Dundes, pp. 66-77 and 86-106 (New York, 1981), as well as Alexander Fodor, “The Evil Eye in Today’s Egypt,” Folio Orientalia 13 (1971): 51-65, provide material on birth and the evil eye. Also helpful are Edwin T. Prothro, Child Rearing in the Lebanon (Cambridge, Mass, 1961), and Hilma Granqvist, Birth and Childhood among the Arabs (Helsinki, 1947)


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/birth-rites/

  • writerPosted On: November 3, 2012
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