|Muslim circumcision practices|
Although most Muslim fathers want – insist –that their sons should "look the same" as them, Islam does not impose an obligation on parents to circumcise their children. Furthermore, its recommendations about circumcision apply to women as much as men. The Koran, the Moslem bible, makes no mention of circumcision at all, but the prophet Mohammed is reported to have stated that "Circumcision is a sunnah for the men and a makrumah for the women". (Note the reference to men and women: nothing about boys and girls.) The term sunnah means customary or traditional; the term makrumah means meritorious. The most you could conclude is that circumcision was customary for men and meritorious for women, and thus desirable for both but obligatory for neither.
In these respects Islam is quite different from Judaism, which requires the head of the household not only to circumcise his baby sons at eight days, but also his male servants and employees, which makes no mention of women in this context, and in which the rule of circumcision is stated prominently in the first book of the Jewish bible.
Circumcision is not one of the Five Pillars of the Faith, which consist of: daily prayer, the profession of faith, the giving of alms, fasting at Ramadan, and the pilgrimage to Mecca. Mohammed laid down five further rules for Moslem men, but they did not include circumcising their children: shaving the pubic hair; circumcision; trimming the moustache; plucking the hairs from the armpits; and clipping the nails. These constitute the fitrah, or laws of personal deportment, to which a pious man in pursuit of perfection must conform. According to Sami Aldeeb, "They are not compulsory, but simply advisable". The vital point about this list is that circumcision is a recommendation for adult men, perhaps no more important than trimming their moustache or shaving their pubic hair. It is thus less obligatory than the rule of prayer at least once a week, the pilgrimage to Mecca, fasting at Ramadan or abstention from alcohol and pork. There is certainly nothing in the fitrah which requires a father to circumcise his children.
There is no unanimity among Islamic theologians as to whether Mohammed himself was circumcised and how it happened. Some say that he was born without a foreskin, others that he was circumcised by an angel or his grandfather.
It is thus obvious that, whatever traditions may have evolved in particular cultures over the centuries, Islam does not require parents to have their boys and girls circumcised; and that parents who do have them circumcised cannot appeal to rules of their religion as a justification for this assault. Some Moslems even question whether circumcision itself is necessary and suggest it was merely a custom taken over unthinkingly from desert Arabs when Islam arose in the seventh century. The Egyptian Dr Nawal El-Saadawi writes:
"If religion comes from God, how can it order man to cut off an organ created by Him as long as that organ is not diseased or deformed? God doe not create the organs of the body haphazardly without a plan. It is not possible that He should have created the clitoris in woman’s body only in order that it be cut off at an early stage in life."
As a woman and a victim of circumcision herself, she was referring to the female genitals, but the point is equally applicable to the male foreskin – the part of the penis removed by circumcision.
Sami A. Aldeeb Abu-Sahlieh, "Jehovah, his cousin Allah and sexual mutilations", in George C. Denniston and Marilyn Milos (eds), Sexual mutilations: A human tragedy, New York, Plenum Press, 1997
Available online at
Dr Sami Aldeeb, "To mutilate in the name of Allah or Jehovah: The legitimation of male and female circumcision"
Medicine and Law, Vol 13, No 7-8, 1994, pp. 575-622
Also available at
Dr Aldeeb's home page:
Sami A. Aldeeb Abu-Sahlieh, Male and female circumcision among Jews, Christians and Muslims: Religious, medical, social and legal debate, Warren PA, Shangri-La Publications (Marco Polo Monographs, No. 5), 2001
The marsh Arabs: Report by an English traveller
When he was travelling through the marshy region of the lower Euphrates River in the 1930s (present-day Iraq), the British traveller Wilfred Thesiger encountered many Arab people who did not practice circumcision, and others who did and suffered nasty injuries and infections as a result of the operation. His report makes a mockery of the ill-informed statement by the Australian College of Pediatrics (1996) that circumcision "probably originated as a hygiene measure in communities living in hot and dry environments". On the contrary: cutting flesh in primitive conditions was about the least hygienic thing anybody could do, carrying a high risk of bleeding, infection and permanent disability or death, as Thesiger found.
Circumcision, although nowhere mentioned in the Koran, is generally regarded as obligatory for Moslems following the example of the prophet Mohammed himself, who was circumcised in accordance with Arab custom. No uncircumcised person may lawfully make the pilgrimage to Mecca. Among the tribes in southern Iraq … the operation was often deferred until manhood … and was seldom performed before puberty. It was done by specialists who travelled round from village to village in the summer. Their traditional fee was a cock [!], but more often they charged five shillings. The examples of their work which I saw were terrifying. They used a dirty razor, a piece of string and no antiseptics. Having finished, they sprinkled the wound with a special powder, made from the dried foreskins of their previous victims, and then bound it up with a tight rag. People living under these conditions acquire a remarkable resistance to infection, but they could not resist this, and boys sometimes took two months to recover, suffering great pain in the meanwhile.
One young man came to me for treatment ten days after his circumcision, and although I am fairly inured to unpleasant sights and smells, the stench made me retch. His entire penis, his scrotum and the inside of his thighs were a suppurating mess from which the skin was sloughing away, the pus trickling down his legs. I cured him eventually with antibiotics.
In spite of the social stigma of being uncircumcised, some boys not unnaturally refused. In other cases the fathers would not allow their sons to be operated on because there was no one else to look after the buffaloes. A few maintained that they had been circumcised by an angel at birth, a superstition that is also current in Egypt. Later I visited villages … where I heard that hardly anyone was circumcised.
Wilfred Thesiger, The marsh Arabs, London 1964, pp. 101-2
Further information on Islamic circumcision
The comprehensive study by Dr Sami Aldeeb, To mutilate in the name of Allah or Jehovah: The legitimation of male and female circumcision, is available at http://www.quran.org/circumcision.htm
Also available at
A site maintained by Moslems who oppose circumcision
A Moslem site explaining why women should be circumcised and listing the hygienic and medical benefits
A semi-pornographic and sexual fetish site, favouring circumcision, whether elective or compelled