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The History of Circumcision in Iran
A Brief History
Last Updated: October, 2009


Circumcision was introduced to the Iranians through Islam and is a rite of obligation amongst Jews. However, the practice has a long history in the ancient Middle East and is closely related to the rituals dedicated to ancient gods and goddesses of fertility. It is suggested that male circumcision started as a religious sacrifice and or as a rite of passage. The ancient Mesopotamians had festivals where the testicles 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 Nile River, and early Egyptian myths told 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. At the Artemis temple at Ephesus in modern Turkey, the ancient goddess is portrayed with testicles in front of her body.

Artemis is known as the goddess of the night, the huntress, the goddess of fruitfulness, the goddess of childbirth, Lady of the Beasts, the woodland goddess, the bull goddess, the personification of the moon, and the eternal virgin.

In the Jewish tradition, circumcision and reasons for it are stated in the Jewish holy book, the Torah (Hebrew Bible). A covenant is made between God and Abraham that God would make Abraham a rich, powerful man and the father of a great nation; in return, Abraham's people would adhere to a certain way of life (described in the Torah). According to the Torah, God commandedAbraham 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 circumcision.

Circumcision was practiced 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 practiced just before marriage.

With Muslims, it is not mentioned in the 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 outright required. Many Islamic theologians have insisted that Muhammad and indeed all prophets were born circumcised. It is practiced 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 the ‘hadith’. These are narratives, sayings and deeds of Prophet and his associates recorded by the Muslim scholars and biographers. Legal discussions in 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 hadith literature reveal little information concerning the reason for male circumcision among 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, and even prayer.

Shiite traditions regard the practice as 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 would become ritually contaminated for forty days. Hadith are reported to indicate 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 as 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. Moreover, 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).

Circumcision 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 Kab’ah, 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, Majlesi).

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 the prophets fell off. The same hadith indicates that 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 incorporation 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. Both Bukhari, a Sunni authority of hadith, and Majlesi, the prominent Shi’ite authority, mention the account. 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 the identity of this king, Heraclius consulted his advisers regarding any circumcised peoples under his control.

He was informed that 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 the practice of circumcision comes 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 and prayer. Most agreed merely to permit it.


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