Circumcision – a cultural norm or a religious duty?

Published: May 29, 2015

Malaysian boys wait their turn during a mass-circumcision ceremony at the Tuanku Mizan Army hospital in Kuala Lumpur. PHOTO: AFP

Some stories leave one with a sense of anxiety. And for me, this was one such story. I got up uneasy after reading it, not really wanting to discuss it, but the writer in me just had to pick up a pen and paper.

Should a four-year-old boy be circumcised if the parents have a different opinion on it?

recent case in Boca Raton, Florida, opened the debate on this matter. It makes an interesting case and raises the fundamental question about the rights of parents, and their prerogative to raise their children in their religious traditions. Parents have a right to either accept or reject circumcision on matters of faith. But if one parent refuses to follow the religious traditions of the other, the child may bear the consequences, and therein is the dilemma.

This case raised multiple issues pertaining to the rights of children, parents, interfaith marriages, and social customs and traditions. Needless to say, this issue impacts people belonging to Islam and Judaism. If the mother, belonging to a different faith, refuses to allow the circumcision of a male child, would it cause a rift within the marriage? In that case, such an issue needs to be documented in a pre-nuptial agreement. In marriages, interfaith or otherwise, children follow, hence it would be prudent to decide on them prior to the birth of the child so as to avoid making the child a pawn piece in a marriage, not to mention the all-important issue of raising a child.

Muslims, for the most part, consider this practice mandatory. It is a practice that was introduced at the time of Prophet Ibrahim (PBUH) and has continued since. But is it really mandatory?

On a closer look at the sacred writings of Islam, I realised that the issue of circumcision, and it being a mandatory practice as most Muslims believe it to be, is as controversial as the zabiha issue.

There is a divide between learned scholars of Islam on this issue. And the question – is circumcision an age-old tradition or a compulsory practice in Islam? Is it a cultural norm or a religious idea?

Since I’m no scholar on Islam, my knowledge on this issue, like most other controversial Islamic issues, is hazy. Hence I turned to Dr Aslam Abdullah for his insight into the issue. According to him,

“The Holy Quran does not mention of circumcision. It makes no request for circumcision of men or women. In numerous verses of the Holy Quran, Allah (SWT) tells us that he has created everything, including human beings, in the most perfect form. In Chapter 95 (The Fig), the Holy Quran explicitly states with regards to the human creation that man is most certainly made in best stature.

In Chapter 27 (The Ants), it is clearly said that Allah (SWT) perfected all things. On various other occasions, the Holy Quran clearly states that Allah (SWT) perfected man from clay, and one such mention is in Chapter 32 (The Prostration).

Hence the only place where circumcision is mentioned is the Hadith. Circumcision, according to many scholars, is a matter of personal choice. It is not compulsory in Islam, it is only mentioned in the Hadith and is mentioned in the same context as cutting ones hair or nails.”

I talked to Dr Nudrat Nauman, a prominent paediatrician practicing medicine for over a decade, on the issue of circumcision.

“The American Academy of Paediatrics clearly states that new scientific evidence shows the health benefits of new-born male circumcision outweigh the risks of the procedure.”

In an article titled New Evidence Points to Greater Benefits of Infant Circumcision, But Final Say is Still Up to Parents published on AAP’s website states,

“Since the last policy was published, scientific research shows clearer health benefits to the procedure than had previously been demonstrated. According to a systematic and critical review of the scientific literature, the health benefits of circumcision include lower risks of acquiring HIV, genital herpes, human papilloma virus and syphilis. Circumcision also lowers the risk of penile cancer over a lifetime; reduces the risk of cervical cancer in sexual partners, and lowers the risk of urinary tract infections in the first year of life.”

Like any other decision-making regarding a minor, the decision to make a male new-born undergo circumcision is a parental decision, but is it ultimately the right thing to do if the child has matured to an age where fears have set in?

I know what my answer is; do you know what is yours?

Bisma Tirmizi

Bisma Tirmizi

The author lives for the simple pleasures and her musings over a cup of tea almost always find a way to be the written word. She also writes for Her book 'Feast With A Taste Of Amir Khusro', published by Rupa Publications, is available in stores now.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Bairooni Haath

    I think being circumcised in Pakistan is part of being safe. Recommend

  • Critical

    Circumcision were logical in a desert culture 2000 years ago with less access to water to keep your privates hygenic….I dont think its a big deal in the modern world where where we have invented soaps and hand sanitizer…

    If circumcision is so important to keep yourself healthy,then around one third of world’s population lives in India and China where circumcision isnt common among the majority religion and combined with the lack of hygenie due to poverty,We should see a spike in the urinary related diseases in these countries compared to others….But no data suggests so..

    Why dont they allow the kid to grow up and decide whether he wants it or not when he’s adult…Anyway,once cut,he cannot regrow the skin…so give him the benefit of doubt…

    On a lighter note,if Abrahamic scriptures were taken literally,It would be really an awkward conversation made by Moses to convince every men to circumcise….Recommend

  • MrRollsRoyce

    If circumcision of males leads to better protection against sexually transmitted diseases, why is that an advantage in Muslim societies which have premarital abstinence by definition? What benefit is there of circumcision to counter the problems it causes?Recommend

  • Dr Wajid

    I think since this is an issue related to men, women should stay out of it. It’s only fair to request since women request men not meddle in their affairs.Recommend

  • anon0912

    My answer is I don’t care.Did i really just read see an article on circumcision ? Elsewhere in the world,people are exploring mind boggling things such as the tango of black holes and here we spend our energy arguing on petty issues like this one.Leave it to religious people to thrash spirituality which is the very heart and soul of religion and try to oversimplify it into a set of rules like who said what.The whole philosophy of religion is to have a sense of community,do good all round and to expand your consciousness.Things that were meant to be poetic and philosophical are taken quite literally.Lets just entertain the thought for the sake of argument that the last prophet of god came to this earth in this day and age who is supposed to represent the best of humanity,would he really go round insisting that people who would dare deny Islam and venture into other unknown territories be killed or to encourage something as brutal as stoning?I thought god bestowed reason upon you to recognize good and evil and act accordingly.A paradox perhaps?Recommend

  • fze

    It is safe and better to get circumcised. Matter closed.Recommend

  • EuropeanMan

    A child should never be circumcised.

    Besides, in the case of circumcision there is no difference between culture or religion. It’s culture that became religion with the excuse that G-d demanded it. It has no religious significance, like “love your neighbor like yourself”. Circumcision (better referred to as male genital cutting) is just a blood ritual that is performed out of belief that it connects you to a tribe, just like female genital cutting.Recommend

  • Miracle River

    “Like any other decision-making regarding a minor, the decision to make a male new-born undergo circumcision is a parental decision..”

    Parents have no “rights” over their children. They have responsibilities and privileges. They have as much right to amputate part of their boy’s genitals as they have to amputate part of their girl’s genitals: None whatsoever.Recommend

  • Sardar singh

    Tradition or no tradition,circumcision has brought down HIV prevalence in Zimbabwe and Namibia by 70%. Can you do some reasearch on that.Zimbabwe is running a media campaign for adults,even upto age of 80 to get circumcision as it has greately reduced HIV and AIDS.Recommend

  • Xman

    Bibi circumcision was done not for health benefits, but to embed “us vs them” in the minds of believers against the infidels, and also to separate badly damaged, usually decapitated, dead bodies on the battlefield. A man can be easily labelled “hell bound” if in death found out to be with some innocuous extra flesh. On a separate note there are numerous health benefits for hanging upside down, but please don’t try that on your newborn.Recommend

  • Keen Observer

    One should not that the American Acadamey of the only medical community that recommends circumcision. Some American scientists have their bias as the US had a deep entrenched history with circumcision. With the old guard dying off and with them their beliefs, more and more American children are not circumcised today.
    Every other medical association in every other does not support circumcision and every argument that the AAP has used has been refuted by others (IMO quite persuasively).

    Bottom line is, it comes down to a serious violation of a child’s physical integrity, a piece of his body irreparably being damaged (with far lasting consequences). Parents should never be allowed to do that. Someone should undergo circumcision with their own free will as an adult if they wish. But we can all instinctively feel that (without indoctrination !) not many men would willingly get circumcised, losing 20.000 nerve endings in the process.Recommend

  • forced2

    Notwithstanding STD, circumcision supposedly reduces the risk of testicular cancer. Whether the scribes or tribes of eras past knew this is unlikely, but modern medical science does make this claim.Recommend

  • ather khan

    circumcision is one of the fundamental part of islam. in quran it is clearly stated that all faithful male are obliged to follow the covenant between ALLAH almighty and father of muslim ummah IBRAHIM a.s. but there is no such thing as female circumcision. it was no where found in authentic hadith or any narration by tabei. so this is a bida. but male circumcision is a must.Recommend

  • Minerva

    Sir, a male child who is being circumcised is born out of a woman, his mother,who has equal rights on the child. And circumcision is not a natural phenomena like menstruation.Recommend

  • Denisa Smart El-Sabae

    Circumcision also protects WOMEN from diseases. Don’t overlook that.Recommend

  • Denisa Smart El-Sabae

    Because there’s this concept called SIN, in which people don’t always do what they should.Recommend

  • RFD

    It was the Prophet Abraham [considered a prophet by Muslims] who made
    the Covenant with God to have all males circumcised. Starting with himself.
    Going back in antiquity, circumcision was practiced. And became very
    widespread during Roman Era. It was Roman Army policy to have soldiers circumcised, as part of good hygiene and to prevent infections. Consider,
    30,000 legionnaires, on a forced march, will have a hard time taking
    regular baths, while on a campaign.
    It is mandatory in Islam. Not a choice, as the author conjectures.Recommend

  • نائلہ

    Lol wahhhht? and you’re a doctor? :D Recommend

  • 19640909rk .

    Circumcision has no benefit vis-a-vis HIV.Recommend

  • Visibly

    Arguments that cutting something away is associated with health is not a good argument at all.
    I.e., following that line, it would be good for girls to have their ovaries taken out (menstruation, pregnancy, birth are all damaging for the girl/woman’s health). And all boys should be castrated, and early, to avoid all that aggression that makes men so extremely violent and deadly, compared to women.
    Or we should take out appendixes to start with, or draw out all toe nails causing that otherwise can problems.
    But why don’t we do that? Well, because the danger of having them is associated with benefits.
    So, in case you don’t know it: Cutting of the tip of the penis is associated with side effects that you otherwise would not experience, and you then cut off the most sensitive part of the male body.
    The risks that are reduced with circumcision are small, and would be much better handled by using soap and water, and when that time comes; condoms.Recommend

  • Anonymous

    Dr denotes to anyone with a degree such as PhD in their respective field not necessarily in medical.Recommend

  • نائلہ

    I was relating to his presumed intellect…..?Recommend

  • Gul Zaman Ghorgasht.

    However, to denote yourself as a doctor, on a blog comment,
    somehow reeks of an inferiority complex. Affixing a doctor
    to your name gives your comment more validity? Nahh,..
    more likely, people will take it with a bag of salt. Suspect.

  • Hugh7

    This is not true. A recent study in Uganda confirmed that cutting men increases the HIV risk to women. The claim that cutting men protects women from cervical cancer was found to be mistaken (Jewish women have genetic protection against cervical cancer) and a more recent claim to the same effect was actually a claim about cervical cancer rates in different countries. Men with an STD are just as likely to give it to a woman whether they are cut or not.Recommend

  • Hugh7

    Two surveys were done in Zimbabwe, before and after the circumcision campaign began. Both found more of the circumcised men had HIV than the non-circumcised. In 9 other countries (out of 18 altogether), surveys found the same result.Recommend

  • Hugh7

    Sikhism does not endorse male genital cutting.

  • Hugh7

    Funny, in that case I’ve been in danger since World War 2. Shouldn’t my foreskin have exploded by now?Recommend

  • Hugh7

    So do all Muslims follow all the other tenets of Judaism?Recommend

  • Hugh7

    ” It was Roman Army policy to have soldiers circumcised, as part of good hygiene and to prevent infections. Consider, 30,000 legionnaires, on a forced march, will have a hard time taking
    regular baths, while on a campaign.”
    That seems very unlikely, considering the Emperor Hadrian banned the operation. Where did you hear that?Recommend

  • Hugh7

    Under the conditions it began, with stone tools and no asepsis, circumcision would have killed far more boys than it ever protected from anything. Rabbis would earnestly debate how many brothers might be allowed to die of it before one might be spared.Recommend

  • Hugh7

    We can multitask, and consider matters both great and small. It’s not petty when babies can die of it and men grow up to hate that it was done to them.Recommend

  • True Pakistani

    Female circumcision Is mandatory..Recommend

  • RFD

    As they say ignorance has no bounds. Specially invented facts.
    Stone age people would be more worried about where their next
    meal was coming from, or how to survive and stay alive. Rather
    than using stone tools to circumcise.Recommend

  • RFD

    Considering circumcision is not allowed in hindu society,
    pretty much explains your sense of deprivment and inferiority.Recommend

  • RFD

    Well, your hatred is showing through. Regardless of
    the surprising command of the English language.Recommend

  • RFD

    Who are you to question that? Do all hindus pray to Shiva
    or Ram?. The question is moot.Recommend

  • RFD

    Went to the website. There is nothing there. It’s fake.Recommend

  • Gratgy

    If Allah did not like men having foreskins then he would not have given it in the first placeRecommend

  • RFD

    There is no record of two surveys done. In Zimbabwe.
    Plus 9 other ‘nameless’ countries that you invented.Recommend

  • RFD

    Well when your religion forbids it, like in Hinduism, then people
    will not understand it. After all they invented plastic surgery
    5000 years ago.Recommend

  • RFD

    Well, considering hindus are not allowed to circumcise due
    to some hardpressed unknown tenets, invented 5000 years
    ago….by unknown sadhus and swamis…says a lot.Recommend

  • anon0912

    Obviously,you never understood what i was trying to say.You probably don’t live here,so you don’t get it.Religion as a whole has been reduced to issues like this one where people follow it blindly instead of asking questions liked the one i posted above contemplating their very fundamental and core beliefs.Even half of these people who say no here and who live here will go ahead and do it anyways because it is deemed acceptable by religion and hence society.You have to isolate the problem to its very roots and not just stick a band aid on it for the time being and hope everything is gonna be alright.As far as the question goes if it is compulsory in religion ? Once the masses start to practice it,it doesn’t really matter.The lie becomes the truth.And circumcision is pointless in modern times which just reduces the sensitivity and hence pleasure,another point proving religion is indeed not timeless.Recommend

  • RFD

    No, he never banned this practice. YOUR perfidy manufactured
    this fact. For whatever reasons that are percolating in the
    dark recesses of your mind..Recommend

  • fze

    who is asking you get circumcised? Some people can’t tolerate other people’s view point. LOL!Recommend

  • Jhon Murdock

    Your ignorance makes our teeth hurt.Recommend

  • RFD

    But of course ! So you changed your name?
    Try Golmal, [better name]. Fits an Indian like
    a Nehru toupee..Recommend

  • Gratgy

    Why should anyone in his clear mind cut a part of himself that has survived over millions of years of evolution? Recommend

  • Gratgy

    You mean only Indians have common senseRecommend

  • Gratgy

    Circumcision is an Arab custom where there was no water to wash and caused infections due to poor hygiene. Hindus are not forbidden from circumcision.Just like cutting off ones hand is not forbidden in Hinduism but common sense usually prevailsRecommend

  • Jhon Murdock

    It’s GolmaalRecommend

  • Gratgy

    According to the Historia Augusta, the Roman emperor Hadrian issued a decree banning circumcision in the empire and some modern scholars argue that this was a main cause of the Jewish Bar Kokhba revolt of 132 CERecommend

  • ather khan

    no, just the rules that were allowed by our Prophet MUHAMMAD sws.Recommend

  • Indian

    You just need to keep it clean.. wash it simple.. why cut it and torture yourself…Recommend

  • Hugh7

    Thanks Gratgy. Whose perfidy manufactured the claim that “it was Roman Army policy to have soldiers circumcised” from the dark recesses of whose mind? Yours, RFD?

    (“perfidy”! “dark recesses”! Wonderful!)Recommend

  • Hugh7

    “But Moses’ wife, Zipporah, took a flint knife and circumcised her son” Ex 4:25
    “So Joshua made himself flint knives and circumcised the sons of Israel at Gibeath-haaraloth.” Josh 5:3
    Flint is a stone. But it began long before this.Recommend

  • Hugh7

    The operative word is “supposedly”.

    The AAP itself admits in its 2012 policy that circumcision is a greater risk for penile cancer than a healthy foreskin, and that the risk comes from a readily detected and treated abnormality (true phimosis) that has been neglected, in old men who probably smoked. Thus more than 1000 babies would have to be circumcised (with all the operation’s risks and harms) in vain to prevent one case.

    The prostate cancer claim only reaches statistical significance by some clever data-mining, adding late-cut (after sexual debut) men, who are at MORE danger of prostate cancer, to always-intact men so that they can say “early circumcision correlates with less prostate cancer”. They also wrongly assumed that none of their control group of men who had not been diagnosed with prostate cancer actually had it, when 30% of men have it on autopsy. This destroys what little significance the claim ever had.Recommend

  • Hugh7

    If men want to get (the best) part cut off, let them. Just don’t do it to anyone without their consent.Recommend

  • Hugh7

    I am free to question what I want, happy to live in a country where I won’t get 1000 lashes for it. I wasn’t talking about Hindus. The Qu’ran does not mention genital cutting, male or female.Recommend

  • Hugh7

    Get your computer fixed.Recommend

  • Hugh7

    Cameroon, Guinea, Haiti, Lesotho, Malawi, Niger, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe

    DHS Comparative Reports No. 22
    Levels and Spread of HIV Seroprevalence and Associated Factors: Evidence from National Household Surveys

    http://dhsprogram . com/pubs/pdf/CR22/CR22.pdfRecommend

  • forced2

    So don’t get circumcised, no worries…Recommend

  • Awais r

    Whattey funny logic. If Allah had forbidden pork, he would have not created pigs.

    Dont try to be smarter than God.Recommend

  • Gratgy

    Your logic is flawed, mine is not. The Quran does not forbid pigs existence, it only forbids eating of pork.Recommend