By Arshad Alam, New Age Islam
16 September 2017
Certain Religious practices make us dogmatic, even to the point of becoming an unthinking, unreflective community. Some commentators have pointed out that as a religion, Islam asks us to constantly reflect on the world and ourselves, and yet at times, we end up doing exactly the opposite.
The issue of male circumcision amongst Muslims is a case in point. How come this mindless ritual continues in Muslim society without any debate regarding the necessity of this procedure? There is some talk now about banning female circumcision in practiced is some Muslim communities in Africa and amongst the Bohras worldwide. And it is a healthy development that some women have started to raise their voices against such a horrific practice which actually is correctly understood as female genital mutilation. Yet there is surprising silence when it comes to mutilating the genitals of Muslim boys. After all, cutting of the foreskin is nothing but genital mutilation. The problem gets compounded due to the fact that in majority of the cases, this mutilation happens with boys who are of a very tender age and thus unable to give their informed consent. In the name of religious tradition, the average Muslim family today may be guilty and responsible for scarring their baby boys for life.
Today the ritual, which has its basis in religion, is justified in the name of science and hygiene. Ask any educated Muslim and he will tell you the medical benefits of circumcision including the ‘fact’ that it prevents HIV-AIDS. They will also tell you that circumcision is done due to considerations of hygiene. None of this is either logical or even true. If the reason for circumcision was personal hygiene, then the simple thing to do is to remain clean rather than cut of part of a human body.
There are other parts of the human body which require to be clean and that are what we do: we clean it. We do not cut it off! So why is it that when it comes to the foreskin, we are obligate to cut it off rather than keep it clean. The medical value of circumcision, especially in terms of containing sexually transmitted diseases is still a contested one rather than a matter of finality. The one study conducted by the UN in Africa did link circumcised men with low risk of STDs but then it was later found that the experimental group was already less prone to such diseases calling into question the whole methodology behind this research. Moreover, this study of the UN was specifically concerned with adult circumcision.
What we are talking about is infant and child circumcision where the risk of sexually transmitted diseases is nearly absent. There is nothing to suggest therefore that circumcised boys and men are better off in terms of health and hygiene as compared to non-circumcised men and boys. In fact this linkage of circumcision with medical benefits has to so with its popularization in the Anglo-Saxon world during the 19th century. Operating in a very different world and subscribing to a very morality, the medical science of that time in that part of the world linked a lot of problems in men’s youth to their ‘unhealthy’ practice of masturbation.
Circumcision initially came as a deterrent for masturbation as the doctors opined that the pain would be so much that it will train the mind not to think about baser instincts for the whole life. Such Victorian morality was the reason for the popularization of male circumcision both in Britain and in America. It was only much later that it was linked with medical benefits and issues of hygiene, obviously as an attempt to justify the practice which started for completely non-medical reasons. But since the Whites were doing it, the Muslims across the world bought into this medical benefit of circumcision thesis in an attempt to validate their own practice and partly to proclaim the superiority of Islam.
Scientific rationalizations apart, the fact remains that the practice is fundamentally religious in its calling. Obligated in Judaism through the covenant which Abraham made with God, the practice is fundamental to their religion. However, there is some evidence to claim that the Jews borrowed this practice from the Egyptians among whom the practice was present as a marker of higher social status. And yet we find that circumcision has been practiced widely in different cultures. From the Australian aborigines to many cultures in Africa, we find evidence of this practice. It is beyond comprehension that different Gods at different places and different times would make the same demand of sacrificing the male foreskin as a mark of the covenant between men and God. The origins of this practice therefore must have a much more deeper anthropological reason but that’s another debate for another time.
The Quran however does not obligate Muslims to undertake the practice and yet today if you are not circumcised then you will have difficulty in making the claim that you are a Muslim. It is considered a Sunna but then there is no evidence to suggest that the Prophet himself was circumcised. There is a fantastic Hadis which says that he was born circumcised but then again it is not the same thing as saying that he underwent circumcision. In short, there is no religious justification also for this practice to continue amongst the Muslims. If God says that he has made man perfect and that bodily integrity should not be harmed even after one’s death, then why are Muslim hell bent to make modifications in God’s plan? Isn’t it playing with the divinity to cut a part of human body which is part of the original design of God?
It must be welcomed that now there are some women groups who are raising the voice against female circumcision, but then we should also raise our voices against male circumcision. The pain that is felt after the body is cut is perhaps common to both genders. So why this silence about circumcision and the pain that it inflicts on the male body. Is it because we believe that males need to undergo pain as a sign of future masculinity?
Arshad Alam is a columnist with www.NewAgeIslam.com
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