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Circumcision Controversy

On June 26, 2012  a German court in Cologne ruled that circumcising young boys  represents “grievous bodily harm” and according to the court violated the child’s “fundamental right to bodily integrity”, which was more important than the parents’ rights. Obviously conscious that its ruling would be perceived — at the very least by Muslims and Jews — as an attack against freedom of religion, the court argued that religious freedom “would not be unduly impaired” because the child could later decide, as an adult whether or not to be circumcised. Of course for particularly militant atheists in the West, even parents raising their children in their own religion is a violation of children’s rights and the child should be left without religious education and then be able to choose whatever religion, or none at all, which would presumably be, for militant atheists, the preferred choice.

The court’s ruling was based on a particular case involving a four year old Muslim boy who was circumcised by a licensed German Muslim doctor. There were minor complications, renewed bleeding, so the doctor had the child taken promptly, as a precaution, to a hospital and apparently the hospital, just as promptly, notified the police.

(The court, the press, the public  (both German and global) and the Muslim 500 use the word “circumcision” to mean “male circumcision”. From the German legal perspective so-called “female circumcision” or “female genital cutting” is forbidden by law. And what passes for “female circumcision” in the Muslim world — which really means the African world, Egypt and Sudan as well as the Christians of Ethiopia and other non-Muslims peoples — is genital mutilation or euphemistically “genital cutting”. It is not the basically symbolic light touch of young girls that would not hinder sexual satisfaction but conceivably improve it as alluded to in Hadith, and since then rarely practiced anywhere.)[8]

Leaders and spokesmen for both the larger (well over a million) Muslim community in Germany and the far smaller (over 100,000) but far more influential  and positively perceived Jewish community immediately and fiercely denounced the court decision in separate statements, citing the freedom of religion guaranteed in the German constitution. By September hundreds of German Muslims and Jews would hold a joint rally in Berlin.

The symbolism of the site was clear —Berlin’s Bebelplatz Square, known as the site for the infamous Nazi book burning ceremony.  As early as June the spokesman for Germany’s Prime Minster Angela Merkel declared “we know a swift solution is necessary and that it can’t be put off…circumcisions that are carried out responsibly must be possible in this country without punishment.” At the time, the German parliament was in summer recess, and in the Fall the Christian Democratic Party dominated government announced it would join with the Social Democrats and the Green Party in preparing legislation that specifically legalized male circumcision but protests continued. While the Cologne court was a local court, meaning that the ruling did not apply to the other states that make up the German Federal Republic, there has been concern that a number of doctors elsewhere in Germany might refuse to carry out the procedure for fear of arrest.

In Islam it is the Prophet’s Muhammad’s (PBUH) sayings (Al-Hadith) including the most Canonical Sunni collections of Hadith,  Bukhari, Abu Daoud and Ibn  Hanbal that require the circumcision of male children.[9] Historians  have suggested that circumcision was carried out by many Arabian tribes prior to the time of the Prophet and there is even a traditional text stating that the Prophet was born without a foreskin. For the Prophet as well as for the Jews (The Bible: Genesis 17.9-14 and Leviticus 12:1-3) it is Ibrahim ( Abraham) who is told by God to circumcise: for the Muslims this is implicitly a covenant with God; for the Jews it is explicit but clearly applicable, according to the biblical text (Genesis 17.6-7) to the descendants of Ishmael.  And for the Muslims, again, according to canonical Hadith, the Prophet said there are five things which are part of the fitra (the innate nature of mankind, recognized by the Abrahamic Prophets), and the first is circumcision (or the 5th  aspect of  fitra in other versions.)

There are a few curious aspects to this contemporary issue. The first, that public opinion polls suggest most Germans supported the Cologne court, whereas the press and the political leaders, more sensitive to global opinion, possibly including concern about the reaction of  Muslim countries, but clearly concerned about global memory of  Hitler’s systematic murder of the Jews of Europe, responded with across the mainstream political board condemning the court decision. The lead was taken by the more left wing parties, the Social Democrats and the Green party, most likely because during Nazi rule it was the leaders of the German Left that were more vigorously and extensively persecuted and murdered in the camps, than from the German Centre and conservative parties.

But elsewhere in the West, in Europe, and particularly in American and British left-liberal circles there has been a growing chorus against circumcision over the past few decades that reflects the increasing shift of  liberal concerns from social justice issues to what might politely be called “lifestyle issues.” In 2011, the city of San Francisco — a stronghold of  American lifestyle liberalism — was about to put a measure calling for a municipal ban on circumcision  on the November 2011 ballot, until a judge ruled, on a technical point, that local authorities did not have jurisdiction to regulate health care professionals.

Indeed the percentage of American children being circumcised — where it was practiced by a majority of Americans who were neither Jewish nor Muslim but who did it for hygienic reasons — had begun to decline from a highpoint of 70 per cent by the turn of this past century. And the American Medical Association no longer recommended the practice.

Typical of the times: as early as the year 2000 an American scientist published with quite reasonable hesitation in fear of a backlash, the findings of scientifically controlled research in East Africa where two tribes, neither Muslim, but sharing similar cultural and moral practices and differing only in that one tribe practiced circumcision as an initiatory rite and the other tribe did not. The circumcised tribe had significantly lower rates of HIV infection than the uncircumcised. This finding was not widely publicized and was even ignored or dismissed by a growing number of secular opponents of circumcision. But in more recent years as reported in the U.S. government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (link: www.cdc/hiv/malecircumcision) a number of scientific studies have consistently established that male circumcision not only significantly reduces the danger of HIV for heterosexual genital sex, but also for other STD (sexually transmitted diseases.)

Despite these latest findings, the undertow of opposition to circumcision continues to surface in numerous blogs in the West that echo the language of the Cologne court.  What this suggests: just as recent political events in Egypt have demonstrated that when defeated in free elections, some of the most militantly secularist liberal democrats are ready to sacrifice liberal democracy for the sake of secularism, so it appears that the Faith (which is beyond a rational appreciation) in  Science, almost as an alternative religion, and known as such as Scientism, will be sacrificed for the sake of militant atheism.

The age of circumcision varies in practice from region to region. The majority of Sunni Ulema have declared it should take place before the child’s10th birthday, but there are Hadith in the Sunni collections (Al-Hakim and Al-Baihaqi) that the Prophet circumcised his grandsons on the 7th day. No doubt for that reason, the Shi’a jurists also call for circumcision on the 7th day.

But increasingly educated urbanized Sunni Muslims in Egypt, elsewhere in the urbanized Arab and Islamic world have the procedure performed at the birth by a doctor at a hospital.

In Judaism, following the letter of the biblical version of the covenant, circumcision has always occurred on the 8th day and it is a moment of great celebration. So it has been in Islam for many centuries in the Arab world, in Turkey, Indonesia, Malaysia and many other Muslim countries, with sheep or cattle sacrificed on the occasion, even if the procedure takes place several years after birth.  It is a pity if the positive factors of a clinical procedure in a hospital should preclude a sense of celebration that has characterised Traditional Islam.

As for adult male converts there are different understandings in Hadith and within the schools of law; in some citations circumcision is mandatory and in other citations it is not. Of course Muslim converts of Jewish origin since the time of the Prophet and the sahaba  (Companions of the Prophet)  never have been concerned with that problem.

–S. Abdallah Schleifer
Professor Emeritus & Senior Fellow
Kamal Adham Center for Television & Digital Journalism
The American University in Cairo

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