The role of circumcision (khitan) in Islamic society has shifted dramatically due to issues of gender, custom, and law. Nowhere mentioned in the Qur_an, circumcision was a common practice in Arabia that was incorporated into the Islamic legal system to varying degrees and for a variety of reasons. Both Josephus and Philo of Alexandria note its presence in Egypt, Ethiopia, and Arabia prior to the coming of Islam. Philo observes that Egyptian males and females were circumcised after the fourteenth year before marriage, while Josephus claims the Arabs performed it just after the thirteenth year, at the time Ishmael was circumcised.
Legally, Islamic scholars debate whether the practice is obligatory or sunna (customary), or whether its obligations be extended solely to males, or to males and females. Al Shafi_a considers the practice an equal duty for both sexes, while Malik and others consider it sunna for males. The disagreement over gender requirements continues in current cultural practice. Female circumcision is embraced in southern Egypt, Ethiopia, Somalia, the Sudan, and West Africa, and a minor form is practiced by Southeast Asian Shafi_is in Indonesia and Malaysia. It is condemned by many Muslims and non-Muslims who reside outside of these areas, mostly for humanitarian and health reasons. Many legal schools also deliberate the time a circumcision should be performed. Some recommend the seventh day following the birth of a male child, while others propose its performance after a child reaches his tenth birthday. Again, such legal variation is mirrored in contemporary practice. In the Middle East, circumcision occurs between the ages of two and seven, while in Europe and North Africa male Muslims are circumcised in hospitals immediately after birth. Suffice it to say that today there is no standard orthodox practice when it comes to circumcision.
Not all Muslims practice circumcision (specifically, those in China), and many who do adhere to vastly different cultural norms. The justifications for circumcision also vary dramatically in Islamic sources and practice. Many hadith link circumcision with purification (tahara). It often appears in lists that include other acts of general hygiene, including the clipping of nails, the use of the tooth-stick, the trimming of mustaches, and the depilation of both the armpits and the pubic region. Some hadith also link the practice back to Ibrahim, who circumcised himself at the age of eighty with a pickax. Unlike Judaism, Islam does not view circumcision as the sole signifier of the covenant between God and his people. Circumcision stands as just one of many tests Ibrahim performed to demonstrate his adherence to the true faith. Many Muslims bypass these exegetical intricacies and simply take the view that Muhammad mandated the practice. The legal and customary support for circumcising just prior to the onset of puberty also suggests the practice was performed as a rite of passage, one that would ready an individual for marriage. As a rite of passage, male circumcision ceremonies in places like Java and Morocco are accompanied with purificatory rites, sacrifices, and feasts. When conducted today, female circumcision is a much less celebratory act, rarely accompanied by such festivities. To interpret circumcision in Islam from a religious studies standpoint, the manipulation of the genitalia exemplifies ultimate divine control over one’s human, procreative instincts. Thus one cut symbolizes a total submission to God.