Rituals of Circumcision
By: Massoume Price, December 2001
Circumcision was introduced to the Iranians through Islam and is a rite of obligation amongst Jews. However the practice has a long history in ancient Middle East and was closely related to the rituals dedicated to ancient gods and goddesses of fertility. Ancient Mesopotamian had festivals where the actual sex organ of a young boy was cut off and dedicated to the fertility goddess. The action was later reduced to inducing an incision instead. The blood was offered to the goddess and the occasion was celebrated publicly. In the Old Kingdom of Egypt there was a God of Circumcision to guarantee the fertility related to the river Nile, and early Egyptian myth contended that blood from circumcision of another god fell down and created the universe. In one document from ancient Egypt a man is stating that he was circumcised with 120 males and one hundred and twenty females.
In Jewish tradition circumcision and reasons for it are stated in the Jewish holy book, Torah. A covenant is made between God and Abraham that God would make Abraham a rich and powerful man and the father of a great nation, and in return, Abraham's people would adhere to a certain way of life (described in the Torah). According to the Torah, God commanded Abraham to "circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, as a sign of the covenant between Me and you. At the age of eight days, you shall circumcise every male child born to you throughout the generations". To this day the Jewish people renew the covenant each time a baby boy is circumcised on the eighth day after his birth. The eighth day is chosen because the first seven days represent the creation of the physical world. On the eighth day the baby is said to have transcended the physical world and is ready to enter the covenant made between man and God. But where Judaism is very clear about the religious imperative, the Islamic motivation remains shrouded in mystery. Judaism can point to the chapter and verses in Genesis (17:1-14) as the precise point at which circumcision becomes representative of the covenant and the distinguishing mark of the Jewish people. The Quran, however, remains silent in terms of both the requirement and the reason behind it.
Circumcision was practised by some pre-Islamic Arabs and was a common practice in Africa from very early times. With the Africans it marked the passage from childhood into adulthood. It was and still is practised just before marriage. With the Muslims, it is not mentioned in Quran but is regarded as a tradition of the Prophet and has become obligatory. The prophet Muhammad himself is quoted as saying "It is an ordinance in men and honourable in women" indicating that the practice is very strongly urged, if not required outright. Many Islamic theologians have insisted that Muhammad and indeed all prophets were born circumcised. It is practised on all male children born to Muslim parents as well as males of any age who join the religion. Most literature regarding circumcision is found in ‘hadith’. These are narratives, sayings and deeds of Prophet and his associates recorded by the Muslim scholars and biographers. Legal discussions in the hadith literature about circumcision resemble Talmudic discussions on issues of religious importance to Jews. Additionally, the language used by the Arabic sources evokes the more familiar Hebrew terminology.
Like the Quran, the different reports in the hadith literature reveal little information concerning the reason for male circumcision among the Muslims. On the other hand reports point to circumcision as a sign of one's status as a Muslim, a practitioner of the faith of Allah. Similarly other traditions teach that certain Islamic practices require the participants to be circumcised Muslims. These can include conversion, the pilgrimage to Mecca, inheritance, even prayer.
Shiite traditions regard the practice obligatory and tend to lean toward the extreme side on this issue. One account relates that the earth cries out to God in anguish on account of the uncircumcised. Another notes that Muslims should circumcise their sons on the seventh day, if not, the earth becomes ritually contaminated for forty days. Hadith are reported indicating that Prophet’s grand sons, Hassan and Husayn were circumcised on the seventh day after their birth and Fatima herself is quoted talking about her son’s circumcision on this day.
The most common hadith attributed to the Prophet himself, mentions circumcision in a list of practices known as "fitrah", meaning natural way or instinct. Abu Hurayra a companion of the Prophet quotes him saying, "Five things are fitrah: circumcision, shaving the body with a razor, trimming the moustache, paring one's nails and plucking the hair from one's armpits" (al-Bukhari, al-Jami' al-sahih). In short these are practices that humans by instinct have discovered to be good for them with or without organized religion. All the practices grouped under the fitrah heading indicate a certain understanding of the importance of hygiene that would have been evident to people living in any age, even without the dictates of religion. And at various points throughout history, circumcision has been thought to provide a measure of protection against infections of the foreskin.
In addition, the wording of additional traditions regarding circumcision hints at possibly just such an underlying hygienic understanding of the ritual and its accompanying practices. In these traditions we find that the verb t-h-r (tahr), to cleanse and/or purify is used to indicate that circumcised males are regarded as more pure or clean. Majlesi in his ‘Oceans of Light’ (Bihar al-anwar) has the most elaborate discussions about circumcision. A hadith attributed to Ali reports, "Abraham was told: Cleanse/Purify yourself, so he trimmed his moustache. Then he was told: Cleanse/Purify yourself, and he plucked the hair from under his arms. Then he was told: Cleanse/Purify yourself, and he shaved his pubic area, then he was told: Cleanse/Purify yourself, and he circumcised himself" (Bihar al-anwar). Another hadith reads, "Circumcise your sons on the seventh day it is cleaner and more pure..." (Bihar al-anwar).
Muslims trace the genesis of the practice to Abraham in a manner similar to Judaism. In Islam, Abraham is the spiritual ancestor and the physical forefather of the Arabs, through his son Ishmael. Along with Ishmael, Abraham built the Kabah, the holiest shrine of Islam, and established many of the rituals practiced there. However, unlike the Bible, few of these narratives provide a reason for Abraham's self-circumcision. Rather, they state merely that he did it. Nonetheless, with the patriarch as the first to be circumcised, this group of reports establishes an Islamic connection to the procedure.
Most narratives designate Abraham as the first person in the history of the world both to practice circumcision on others and to be the recipient of this practice The general populace adopted the practice of circumcision as sunnah (tradition) only after Abraham instituted it. According to these reports, Muslims practice circumcision because their genealogical and spiritual forefather practiced it. However other hadith do not conclusively trace circumcision back to Abraham, there are statements maintaining that Adam, not Abraham, was the first to be circumcised (Bihar al-anwar).
Attributing the origin of circumcision to Adam provides a more universal explanation. Adam is not the father of the Arabs alone but of all humankind. In these reports, circumcision appears more as a sign of pre-Islamic monotheistic prophecy. These accounts insist that Adam, along with almost all of the major monotheistic pre-Islamic prophets, was born circumcised: "God created Adam already circumcised, and Seth was born circumcised, as were Idris, Noah, Shem, Abraham, David, Solomon, Lot, Ishmael, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad (Bihar al-anwar). This happened on the seventh day of their birth when both the umbilical cord and foreskins of prophets fell off. The same hadith indicates Abraham was the first one commanded to perform it. When Isaac, Abraham’s son from Sarah was born his umbilical cord fell off but his foreskin did not. Sarah noticed this and she knew her son should be a prophet and informed her husband. Abraham told her that this was because she tormented her maidservant Hagar, Ishmael’s mother. Either to appease Sarah or to correct Isaac's biological imperfection, Abraham circumcises his younger son. In doing so, he imitates a condition characteristic of prophets (Bihar al-anwar).
The obscurity of the origin of circumcision manifests itself further in accounts that do not even attempt to link the practice to Abraham or Adam, but attribute it to pre-Islamic pagan Arab society in general. These reports draw a distinction between the practices of the non- circumcised Zoroastrians and the pre-Islamic pagan Arabs. While the Zoroastrians are said not to practice circumcision, the pagan Arabs are believed to have retained circumcision from their ancestors. The accounts give no specific religious reason for the custom's persistence into Islam other than the fact that pre-Islamic Arabs practiced the act.
This idea appears in a lengthy report regarding Heraclius (seventh century AD), the king of Byzantium. The account is mentioned by both Bukhari a Sunni authority of hadith and Majlesi, the prominent Shiite authority. Heraclius a competent astrologer studied and read the stars at night. Staring into the skies one evening, he read of the arrival of "the king of the circumcised." Interested in discovering identity of this king, Heraclius consulted his advisers regarding any circumcised peoples under his control.
He was informed there are no circumcised nations except for the Jews, and they are too insignificant to worry the king. While they were engaged in conversation, an envoy from the king of Ghassan arrived to inform the king of the rise of Muhammad. When the messenger finished speaking, Heraclius, suspected a possible connection between the horoscope and the report of the messenger. He ordered his men to check the foreskin status of the envoy. They checked and reported that the man was indeed circumcised.
Heraclius then questioned the man about this practice among the Arabs. He confirmed that they indeed practiced circumcision. Realizing that Muhammad must be the leader of the circumcised people whom the stars foretold, Heraclius declared, "This is the king and this is the nation which appeared to me" (Bihar al-anwar; al-Bukhari, Bad al-wahy).
Judaism retains a persistent and clear understanding of male circumcision as both part of and a sign of the covenant between the Jews and their God. The Bible, as well as later liturgical material, remains definite on the matter. Indeed, the very term for circumcision in the Jewish tradition, brit milah, exhibits the religious significance of the practice. Brit milah means covenant of circumcision.
The Islamic tradition, conversely, demonstrates a lesser official degree of commitment to and consideration of the practice. Some of the hadith suggest that circumcision derive from pre-Islamic pagan Arabia. Abraham's self-circumcision is used to prove this point. While other accounts contradict such notions, suggesting a lack of clarity on the part of the early tradition itself. The ambivalence of the tradition regarding a truly Islamic basis for circumcision accounts for the brief attention it receives in the law books. Jurists who saw no Islamic reason for the practice refused to require it in the same way in which they required hajj or prayer. Most agreed merely to permit it.
Despite strong emphasis on the practice, only one of the four schools of Islamic law ‘Shafeie’ enacted a circumcision "law," ruling it a religious requirement (wajib). Hanafee school maintains that it is ‘sunnah’ (tradition) and thus strongly recommended but not required. The remaining schools of law Malekee and Hambalee, along with independent jurists, maintain that the practice is permitted (ja'iz) but not required or even recommended. Indeed, even those who require the practice attribute very little space and discussion to it in their books of law. No intention (niyyah) is required in order to fulfill one's obligation; one may be circumcised in a hospital for health reasons or at home. No further ritual action is required in order for any of these to count as the fulfillment of the religious requirement. Furthermore, no set rules define the age at which a child is circumcised except that it should be done before puberty. However the Shiites believe the seventh day after birth is the recommended date. There are no set prayers to recite and no authoritative ceremony to follow. It simply must be done and all else is left to the style of the individual or individual community.
Nonetheless popular practice and opinion consider the ritual to bear almost legal weight. Muslims across the globe adhere to the practice of circumcision almost to the same degree as their Jewish counterparts, among whom the practice is far more detailed and ritualized. All factors mentioned suggest that according to Islam itself, male circumcision does not constitute an organically Muslim component. Unlike African traditions it is not a rite of passage from boyhood to adulthood either. It is an inheritance from Arab pre-Islamic ancestry sanctified by the Prophet. Its legitimacy lies in the notion of sunnah or Prophet’s tradition. Muslims are required to follow Muhammad’s tradition and live according to his advice and instructions. Since Prophet recommends the practice therefore it shall be done.
Circumcision did not exist in ancient Persia and was not practiced by Zoroastrians. The term in Arabic is ‘khitan’ and ‘khatneh’ in Persian. It is practiced on males and occasionally there are reports of females being circumcised in southern Persia, but the practice of female circumcision is not a common one. The most desired day for performing the surgery is the seventh day after birth.
However in general it is done when convenient and with many it is performed when the boys are older between five and seven years old. Till 19th century there was a party called ‘khatneh Soorun’. The parties were a lot more elaborate if the boy was older. Dalock, the local barber who also performed basic dentistry carried out the actual surgery. A very sharp knife was used to cut the foreskin and the area was covered by fresh ash. Totally burnt and cooled down the ash was clean and mixed with special oils, covered the cut and reduced the risk of infections. The actual foreskin itself was used to make a special kind of oil known as ‘Roghan e Adam’ (the oil of man). The oil was used as a remedy in a number of occasions including the circumcision itself.
There are accounts of people keeping the foreskin for good luck especially if they wanted baby boys, or feeding it to domestic birds like chickens. Sometime the foreskin was dried and mixed with food and fed to the same boy so that when resurrection happened nothing was missing from the body. The circumcised child would normally wear a long white skirt or a long colored cloth called ‘longe’; this was special attire specifically worn or used in public baths, both were a lot more comfortable than trousers. There were parties on the same night, with older kids they received many presents. Quite often such kids refused to go through the surgery and parents would either bribe or force them to go through the procedure. The child was never left alone for three days, they believed dark spirits were after the kid. The barber visited the child on the third day to check the cut and renew medication.
The child’s head was ritually cleaned, a very thick cloth was held on top of the child’s head. Water from the cup of the forty keys was poured over this cloth and was immediately poured back into another container. This cup was made of brass and had 40 holes where names of forty saints or forty ‘Bes m e lah’ (in the name of God) was carved on small pieces hanging around and through the holes. The water pouring through this cup was assumed blessed. This was called ‘Ab e seh’, the water of the third day and was regarded as blessed. The child was not given any drinks for three days to reduce the frequency of urination and therefore prevent pain and complications.
The parties were very elaborate for the rich and were the most conspicuous after the wedding celebrations. Fathers believed that if they did not throw a party for the occasion they would die the day after their son’s wedding. There were musicians, dancers, and street performers with elaborate meals. Street entertainers were always invited, the most popular were puppet shows ‘khaymeh shab bazi’ and ‘Luti antar’, male animal trainers performing minor acrobatics and dancing with monkeys and occasionally baby bears.
The next day presents from close relatives and friends would arrive, street performers would show up again. All children in the neighborhood were invited plus close relatives. Celebrations would continue for a few days with the very rich. The barber would visit the child for a few more times and within the first forty days, after totally healed, he was allowed to take a bath. This was another major occasion and matched only by the pre-wedding bath. Quite often a number of male children in the family were circumcised together to make the children fell more comfortable.
Modern Iranians still perform the circumcision. However there are no parties for the occasion any more. The surgery is performed at the hospitals by professional medical staff only and mainly at time of birth. Iranians living in the Western countries are aware of the anti-circumcision movement becoming more and more popular in these countries. There is no statistics to indicate what percentage does not practice circumcision. On the whole most regard the procedure to be beneficial and hygienic and it is very likely that majority still practice circumcision.