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CIRCUMCISION. The rite of passage of circumcision plays varied roles in Islamic society, depending on gender, ethnic orientation, and modern cultural attitudes. There are differences of opinion among the legal authorities over whether circumcision is fard (legally obligatory) or sunnah (the practice of the Prophet), nor is the motive for the operation always clear. Socially, it is obviously a rite of passage of considerable status significance for young boys when it is performed at ten to twelve years of age, as in some parts of the Arab world, to mark their move to male responsibilities. In the religious sphere, the view that circumcision is necessary for conversion to Islam, as the legist al-Malik stressed, is still adhered to by many Muslims.

Other sources speak of circumcision within the context of purification; indeed, in the present-day Arab world the rite is called taharah (purification) rather than the classical khitan. The purification concept probably derives from al-Malik’s Sunnah of Fitrah, where it is linked with cutting nails, trimming the mustache, and removing hair from the armpits and pubic area. Such notions affirm that circumcision is required of both sexes, as Shafi’i (767-820 CE) held. [See Purification.] Some Muslims, however, relate the practice to Abraham and thus see it as part of the original law promulgated among their Semitic ancestors, particularly the Jews.

Finally, circumcision is an outward symbol of the religious process of bringing oneself under the discipline of God’s requirements, reflecting the inner growth of `aql (reason) and the submission of base passions to the higher spiritual requisites of true Islam. When interpreted this way, modifying the sexual organs is a physical expression of the acknowledgment of God’s hegemony over one’s uncontrolled instincts and signals the deeper religious commitment expected of the mature Muslim.

Although the presence of the operation is often regarded by Western writers and many Muslims as evidence of Islamic orthodoxy, it is not universal in the Muslim world: for example, not all Muslims inChinapractice it, and in many Muslim countries the law is not held binding on females. There is also considerable cultural distinction in the time at which the process is undertaken. In Europe and North America Muslims have adopted the cultural norm of having the operation done to their sons in the hospital immediately after birth, but in theMiddle Easta separate rite is undertaken sometime between the ages of two and twelve. An Arab proverb perceptively embodies the initiatory meanings: “The Arab is king on his wedding day and his circumcision day.” In theSudan, this proverbial connection influences the activities: the ceremony is referred to as al-‘Irs (a wedding); and the young boy is dressed like a girl, wears jewelry and perfume, and is painted with henna to ward off the evil eye. Among the Beja people the boys live together in a special but along with the individual who performs the operation. InEgypt, barbers often set up circumcision stalls during holy days, such as the Prophet’s birthday or the mawlids of saints. Being circumcised during a saint’s holy day is held to tie one directly to the barakah of the saint, ensuring fertility and blessings later. On such occasions a sheep is also sacrificed. InMorocco, the rite also parallels the wedding rituals and is supervised by the boy’s mother; it is customary to dress the boy in a white shift, bathe him, shave his head, and paint his hands with henna the day before the rite. Relatives, neighbors and friends join in eating the sacrificed sheep, and small gifts are brought in his honor.

Among the peoples of Java, where the rite is called islaman or sometimes sunatan, the wedding motif dominates. It is a time of great celebration and lavish spending, including entertainment by orchestras and traveling dancing troupes, along with massive receptions for the community. Guests bring presents or money. Sometimes groups of boys, usually related, undergo the rite together, and the celebration usually follows the completion of the boys’ Islamic studies. The rite itself is performed by a tjalak (officially registered operator) who charges for his service and uses a knife called wesi tawa (“iron you can’t feel”). The initiant is placed on a low bed and his mother steps over him three times, signaling her release of her possessiveness and her dispatch of him to his manly responsibilities. Parallel rites guard against unfit attitudes such as envy or jealousy entering people’s hearts, thus undermining the boy’s potential in life. This explicit control of negative attitudes at circumcision appears to be exclusive to the Javanese. Because of the expense of the rite, parents often delay it as long as possible, sometimes prompting the boy to campaign for the rite before his parents can afford it. Among the Brunei Malays, the initiation aspect is stressed, but the ceremony is embellished by dhikr chanting, thus appropriating the sacrality of Sufi ceremonial life.

In contrast, some countries inCentral Africahave distanced themselves from the initiatory meaning of circumcision precisely because of the importance of the rite of passage in traditional African religions. When a tribe is converting to Islam, circumcision is a badge of identity with the new religion, as among the Dagomba; however, the neighboring Nanumba, who do follow a form of Islam, do not circumcise, and indeed regard it as a rite peculiar to the Dagomba. A further development is seen among the Merina of Madagascar, who, though not Muslim, appear to have appropriated some aspects of Muslim circumcision as a means of transferring ancestral power.

The need to take the pain of the operation without flinching is seen by the northern Yemenis as a mark of toughness and manliness. The initiant is surrounded by villagers who cut and toss the foreskin into the milling crowd. The boy finds the skin, is mounted on his mother’s shoulder, and proudly displays the severed section to the adulation of the crowd. This emphasis on fortitude occurs in all Islamic societies, but the Yemeni example is unusual in that it highlights virility more than the passage to Islamic maturity.

It is the norm in Islamic cultures that the older circumcised boy is immediately required to join his father and older relatives in public prayer and is restricted from moving freely between the male and female parts of the house. The Islamic character of his changed status is essential. Where the operation is separate from the passage to maturity, as is increasingly the case among urban and middle-class Muslims worldwide, the change in status requires other kinds of celebrations, such as graduation exercises from special classes held by imams to teach the basics of Islam. Since female circumcision is not practiced by the majority of Muslims, and girls too are increasingly given advanced religious training, the differences in the early life-experience of boys and girls are being reduced. Hence Islamic modernity seems to have reduced the contiguity of the physical operation with the change in spiritual status and thus to have made adolescent experience less differentiated by gender.

[See also Birth Rites; Puberty Rites; Rites of Passage.]


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Eickelman, Dale F. “Rites of Passage.” In The Encyclopedia of Religion, vol. 12, pp. 380-403.New York, 1987.

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Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/circumcision/

  • writerPosted On: November 5, 2012
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