CIRCUMCISION, Pers. ḵatna, sonnat (formally also taṭhīr or ḵetān), ḵatnakonān, and sonnatkonān; the last two terms also refer to the festivities associated with the circumcision ritual. In Persia all Muslim and Jewish boys were and still are circumcised. The age of circumcision has varied from a few days after birth to the thirteenth or, less commonly, fifteenth year of life. In modern Persian cities the operation is carried out in the hospital where the boy is born two or three days after birth, but in villages and rural areas there is a greater variation in the time of the operation. The ritual of circumcision was adopted by the Persians along with Islam itself, as were numerous popu­lar practices prevalent among Jewish and Arab peoples. In males circumcision consists of the surgical removal of the foreskin, or prepuce, a loose fold of skin that covers the glans penis and is attached to the penis at the corona glandis; in females not only the prepuce covering the clitoris may be removed but also the clitoris itself (clitoridectomy) and even part or all of the labia minora (excision, Ar. ḵafż). In extreme instances the clitoris, all of the labia minora, and the adjacent parts of the labia majora are removed, and the two sides of the vulva are stitched together so that only a small opening for urination and menstruation remains (infibulation; Giorgis, p. 25). The vaginal duct might be reopened just prior to or after marriage by surgical means or by coitus (defibulation). Excision, infibulation, and defibulation were only rarely practiced in Persia in the past and only in a few geographi­cal areas.

As far as it is possible to tell, the Indo-Europeans generally did not practice circumcision. There is also no reference to it in the literatures of the ancient Indian and Iranian peoples. Neither the Avesta nor the Zoroastrian Pahlavi texts mention circumcision or any other form of ritual alteration of the genitals, from which it may be concluded that circumcision was not practiced in Persia before the advent of Islam. Even later some Persian converts were still not circumcised, for instance, the Persian warrior Afšīn, who was allegedly found to be uncircumcised during his trial. According to an anecdote reported by Abū Ḥayyān Tawḥīdī (d. 400/1009; II/2, p. 766), the poet Farazdaq called his competitor Zīād Aʿjam, who was of Persian descent, aqlaf “uncircumcised.”

Egyptian mummified remains and Jewish and Arab textual and folk traditions show, however, that the ancient Hamito-Semitic civilizations in the Middle East practiced circumcision (Sandison, p. 422; La Barre, 1972, p. 561), and in the 5th century b.c.e. Herodotus reported the practice among Egyptians and others (2.36.104). There is reason to believe that in Egypt circumcision was origi­nally a rite preparatory to marriage and that it was only later in history that infants came to be circumcised (Smith, p. 328; Elliot-Smith, p. 75; and see Encyclopaedia Biblica, s.v. Circumcision, par. 6; cf. Joshua 5:2ff.; Exo­dus 4:25; La Barre, 1984, p. 106 n. 34). The Jews practiced circumcision as prescribed in the scriptures (Genesis 17:1-27), and so did the Christians at first (Luke 1:59), though they soon gave it up (cf. Romans 3:30-31; Galatians 5; Bagatti, p. 106).

According to Jāḥeẓ (VII, p. 27), the pre-Islamic Arabs practiced circumcision of both sexes. Flavius Josephus in the 1st century c.e. reported that Arabs were circumcised at the age of thirteen years, because that was the age at which their ancestor Ishmael was circumcised (Josephus, 1.12.2), a legend that has survived in Jewish sources (Ginzberg, I, p. 273). This rationale was also subsequently adopted by the Persians (cf. Massé, Croyances, p. 51). It may be noted as well that, although the Muslim prophet himself, like Seth, Noah, and even Moses in the Jewish tradition (Ginzberg, I, pp. 121, 147, V, p. 399), is said to have been born circumcised (Jāḥeẓ, VII, p. 27; Ebn al-Jawzī, p. 6: cf. S. Thompson, no. T585.9 “child born circumcised”), there is no mention of the circumcision of any one of his companions, many of whom converted to Islam as adults; references to adult circumcision of converts to Islam are not rare, however (see Massé, Croyances, p. 51). The companions must, therefore, have been circumcised; that circumcision was already a religious requirement is clearly attested by common pejorative use by Arabs of the terms aqlaf and aḡlaf “uncircumcised” in referring to non-Arab, especially Persian, converts (cf. Abū Ḥayyān Tawḥīdī, II/2, p. 766) but rarely in referring to Arabs. More important, some Arab tribes of the provinces of Ḥejāz and ʿAsīr, now in Saudi Arabia, seem to have preserved until recently some elements of a pre­-Islamic circumcision ritual. Among these tribes the operation was performed on the male, not in childhood, but at the time of marriage and in the presence of the bride, who would be seated in front of her future husband playing a drum. It is reported that the circumciser would remove not only the prepuce but also the skin of the entire phallus, together with the skin of the adjacent areas of the abdomen and the thighs. Throughout the operation the groom was to bear the pain with no expression of discom­fort, or the bride could refuse to marry him on the grounds that his behavior was not “manly” enough (for ethno­graphic references, see Henninger, 1938; idem, 1940-41, devoted entirely to this practice; Remondino, p. 55; Patai, 1983, p. 89; idem,1987, p. 8; see also Burton’s account in J. Hastings, ed., Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, s.v. Circumcision, p. 679). It is not improbable, however, that the accounts of such circumcision rituals are exaggerated, and sometimes entirely fictional, as such an extensive removal of skin would most often lead to infection and death (Richard Burton’s estimate of a fatality rate of 20 percent as a result of the operation, cited in Henninger, 1938, p. 956, seems very low; cf. Doughty, I, pp. 128-29, where the unreliability of the accounts is emphasized).

The Koran contains no explicit reference to circumcision, but the hadith literature provides a rich source of information on both male and female circumcision. According to a prophetic tradition, transmitted by the Prophet’s wife ʿĀyeša, Moḥammad is supposed to have said that ḡosl (general ablution) becomes necessary if the “two circumcised members” touch (Kolaynī, III, pp. 46-­47; Mālek, I, pp. 45-47, traditions 70-75; Ebn Māja, I, p. 199; cf. Termeḏī, III/2, pp. 475-76). The prophet is further reported to have advised a female circumciser not to cut off the whole clitoris (Jāḥeẓ, VII, p. 28; Ebn Qayyem, p. 152; Saadawi, p. 39). In Sangsar in Persia a ritual of mock female circumcision, during which the circumciser (ḵattāna) merely mimics cutting off the clitoris is attested (Dānešvar, 17, p. 299). Whereas male circumcision is required by religion, opinions on female circumcision vary. The general position of orthodox jurists is that, although it is unclear whether such circumcision is a duty or only a sonna (tradition), it is necessary in order to reduce the alleged “excessive sexual desire of women” to a level of “desirable moderation” (Asaad, p. 10; Jāḥeẓ, VII, pp. 27-28; cf. Balāḡī, pp. 144-45; see also ʿAbd-al-­Rāzeq, pp. 73-94, for the views of contemporary jurists). According to one tradition, it was an honor for women to be circumcised (Ḥūt, p. 468). In Persia female circumci­sion never became widespread. Jāḥeẓ states that the reason why Indian, Roman, and Persian women are given to adultery is that they are not circumcised (Jāḥeẓ, VII, pp. 28-29).

In Persia customs have varied. In the 13th/19th century circumcision usually did not take place until the fourth or fifth year but had to have been completed by the thirteenth year (Polak, I, p. 198). Today two forms of male circumcision are practiced in Persia. The first is the traditional type, which may be performed at any time between the third day of birth and the fifth or seventh year of the boy’s life but most often occurs during the first forty days. The second is a modern surgical operation, routinely per­formed on newborn boys in hospitals. In Tehran infant circumcision was traditionally performed on the third, fifth, seventh, or ninth day of birth. The first and the second days were thought to be dangerous, because it was considered that the child was too weak to survive the operation (Katīrāʾī, p. 39). In Gīlān it was thought that if, for any reason, a boy was not circumcised by the tenth day, then the operation should be postponed four to five years (Pāyanda, p. 36; cf. Katīrāʾī, p. 39). It has been suggested that the custom of circumcising the child in the first forty days of life was limited to poor families who could not afford the cost of the festivities associated with the circumcision of an older boy (Mostawfī, I, p. 207), but people, especially the poor, may also have avoided early circumcision because of the danger of infections and other complications (cf. Jāḥeẓ, VII, p. 25; Ebn Qayyem, pp. 152-53; Ṭūsī, VIII, p. 5, where legal opinions regarding punishment of the circumciser in the case of a death resulting from circumcision are discussed). Dr. J. E. Polak, who practiced in Persia in the 13th/19th century, stated (I, p.198), however, that he saw only two instances of damage to the glans as a result of traditional circumci­sion. He attributed the low rate of postoperative compli­cations partly to the skill of the circumcisers and partly to the fact that circumcision usually did not take place until the fourth or fifth year, when the prepuce has separated from the glans penis naturally (Polak, I, p. 198). Simi­larly, in Pakistan and India traditional circumcision takes place only after the prepuce has become retractable, thus presenting a far smaller chance of complications (Chatterjee, p. 236).

Usually the family of a boy who is going to be circumcised consults a mullah or an astrologer (monajjem) about an auspicious day for the operation (Pāyanda, p. 36). On the eve of the chosen day, or on the day of the operation itself, the child is sent to the bath accompanied by family members and musicians (Dānešvar, I, p. 31; Šakūrzāda, p. 160; cf. Ṭūsī, VIII, p. 214). Dressed in new clothes, he is then brought home amid great jubilation; there a dallāk (Ar. ḥajjām “cupper, barber”) performs the rite. The dallāk takes the foreskin, pulls it out, and catches it in the crack of a piece of bamboo reed (ney) in order to cut off the flow of blood. He then quickly cuts it off with a sharp blade and covers the wound with ashes from a burned piece of cloth (Pāyanda, p. 38; according to Polak, I, p. 198, a styptic powder was applied, but never water). In Khorasan the wound is additionally treated with a burned egg (Šakūrzāda, p. 161), whereas in Tehran an oil called rowḡan-e ʿaqrab, produced from placing dead scorpions in castor oil, is applied (Katīrāʾī, p. 41 n. 2). The child is often restrained by one or more persons during the opera­tion. In Khorasan a close friend of the boy’s father is charged with holding the child down and distracting him. This man is called kerīb (Šakūrzāda, p. 161 and n. 1). In Šūštar the child’s mother would sometimes distract the boy by releasing a pigeon into the air while crying, kabūtarī “[Look at] the birdie!” (Dānešvar, I, p. 59). In some parts of Persia it is believed that, if the boy’s mother places her feet in water while her son is being circumcised, he will experience less pain, and his wound will heal more speedily. Sometimes the mother is required to recite verse 37 of Sūrat al-najm, “He has not been informed of what is in the scriptures of Moses” (Bahālgardī, p. 25; Massé, Croyances, p. 52; Šakūrzāda, p. 162). After the operation the family and friends of the child’s family give the child money or sweets and kiss him (Šakūrzāda, p. 166; Sayyār, p. 567; Mostawfī, I, p. 281); in wealthier families valuable gifts were brought for the child. (During the reign of Moḥammad-ʿAlī Shah Qājār [1324-27/1907-09] the gifts received on the occasion of the crown prince’s circumcision financed the attack on the city of Tabrīz; Dāʾerat al-maʿāref-e fārsī I, p. 884, s.v. ḵatna.) The circumcised boy is not given water for three days, lest his wound become infected (Katīrāʾī, p. 43; Šakūrzāda, p. 167). Should the wound become infected, the practice in Khorasan is to apply some qūrḵāna oil, believed to have been extracted from the bones of a human corpse (Šakūrzāda, p. 167).

The earliest evidence for female circumcision comes from Egypt, where some mummies dated 200 b.c.e. show evidence of clitoridectomy (El Dareer,1983, p. 41). Today ritual female circumcision is practiced in many third-world cultures. A variety of nonritual or medical circumcision, allegedly performed in order to enhance the sexual pleasure of the female, is still practiced as elective surgery in the United States; according to a report by the World Health Organization issued in 1976, the United States is the only industrially advanced country in the world that still allows this type of surgery (Wallerstein, 1980, p. 164; cf. Isenberg and Elting, pp. 104-08). In Persia female circumcision was always quite rare and restricted to a few areas (Massé, Croyances, p. 51). The Arabs of Sūsangerd circumcised their daughters at the age of seven or eight years. The circumcised member was kept until the day of the girl’s wedding, when it was worn around her neck. This practice is also reported from the Sunnis of Kurdistan (Dānešvar, I, p. 92). Excision was once common among the Persian Sunnis of the Persian Gulf region, the Kurdish tribes, and the Arabs of Ḵūzestān. Depending on local custom, the operation might be per­formed at any time from the first year of life to the age of sixteen years (Dānešvar, I, p. 218). Infibulation was practiced among the gypsies and the natives of the islands of Hangām, Qešm, and Lārak, where it took place during a festive ceremony when the girl was five or six years old. She was first placed over a container of sand and made to lean back on a pillow. Then an old woman who was a professional circumciser (Ar. ḵattāna or qaṭṭāʿat al­-bozūr) would perform the ceremony. Local musicians would play loud music to drown the girl’s cries of agony. The operation would end with the stitching together of the labia majora by means of a silken thread. This was called qofl kardan-e doḵtar “the locking of the girl.” In wealthier families a gold or silver wire was used instead of the more customary silken thread. The girl’s family and that of her future husband (if she had already been spoken for) would attend the ceremony. Once the actual operation was finished they would dip their fingers in her blood, which was caught in the container of sand. They were to keep the blood on their fingers for twenty-four hours (Dānešvar, I, pp. 218-19). Reports of infibulation and defibulation have sometimes been doubted but are supported by accounts of similar practices in other parts of the world (cf. the data in Giorgis, 1981; Mustafa, p. 305; Asaad, 1979; Cook; El Daree).

Numerous magical beliefs and practices are associated with circumcision. For instance, it is believed that the number of boys being circumcised in a household at one time must always be an odd number (one, three, five, etc.); otherwise misfortune will strike the household (Massé, Croyances, p. 52). In order to ensure an odd number, a boy is sometimes brought in from outside the family and circumcised along with the sons of the household. If none is available, a rooster may be slaughtered on the day of circumcision so that “three bloods” are shed in the house on that day (Pāyanda, p. 38; Mostawfī, I, p. 207). A boy who dies uncircumcised dies an infidel, and the parents are considered responsible (Pāyanda, p. 37). This belief recalls the Jewish custom of circumcising the child who dies before the eighth day of life, the day traditionally reserved for circumcision (Ginzberg, VI, p. 341 n. 118). As a matter of fact, Jews hold that no one who is circum­cised will go to hell, except for minim, or sectarians (Midrash Rabah 19:4). Even so, it is claimed that an angel will come from heaven to reset the foreskins of circum­cised minim, so that they may go to hell (Bagatti, p. 106). All four schools of Muslim law agree, however, that it is not necessary to circumcise the dead; nor is it necessary to perform the operation if circumcision may cause the death of the child (Ebn Qayyem, pp. 156-57).

A father is responsible not only for arranging his son’s circumcision but also for celebrating it with a proper feast. If he fails to do so, he will die before the son’s wedding (Katīrāʾī, p. 44). To avoid this fate, many fathers give great feasts on the occasions of their sons’ circumcision (e.g., Šakūrzāda, p. 160 n. 1). Such big circumcision parties may be traced to at least the 5th/11th century in Khorasan, when Sultan Masʿūd I Ḡaznawī (421-32/1030-­41) celebrated the occasion of the circumcision of some of his sons with a week-long festivity (Bayhaqī, ed. Fayyāż, p. 653).

A number of magical features are attributed to the foreskin. Often it is strung on a string, sometimes with garlic and onions, and the circumcised boy is made to wear it around his neck or his ankle until the wound heals. If it is thrown away near a goldsmith’s shop the boy will grow up to become a wealthy man (Dānešvar, I, pp. 31, 59). In Shiraz the foreskin is put on a string, which is tied around the boy’s ankle for forty days until it dries. It is then powdered, mixed with powdered rock candy (nabāt), and fed to the child (Dānešvar, II, p. 56). A similar practice is reported from Khorasan, where its purpose is to ensure that the child may rise intact on the day of resurrection (Šakūrzāda, p.167; Massé, Croyances, p. 53). The foreskin is sometimes fed to chickens (Katīrāʾī, pp. 41-42) or roosters (Hedāyat, p. 195); in Khorasan it is believed that the boy will then grow up to be a fighter (Šakūrzāda, p. 167). Throwing the foreskin into the house or the store of a Jew is believed to have a calming effect on the boy; burying it will make the child wise and prudent (Katīrāʾī, pp. 41-42). Women coveted the foreskin be­cause it was believed that ingesting it would cure barren­ness or enable them to bear sons (Dānešvar, I, p. 31, II, p. 56; Katīrāʾī, p. 41; Hedāyat, p. 116; Šakūrzāda, p. 167). The practice of swallowing the foreskin for its magical effects is also attested among Jewish and Arab women throughout the Middle East (Patai, 1987, p. 160; Westermark, II, p. 427; Legey, pp. 107, 175). A wife may secretly put the dried and powdered foreskin of a circum­cised boy in her husband’s food as a love charm (Massé, Croyances, p. 53).

The origin of the ritual of circumcision and its rationale are not known. According to the religious tradition, it is a divinely sanctioned sonna; male circumcision is traced back to Abraham’s circumcision of Isaac and female circumcision to Sarah’s circumcision of Hagar (Ebn Qayyem, p. 154; Jazāʾerī, I, p. 77). Hygienic reasons have also been adduced to explain and justify circumcision, including, for instance, reduction of the chance of cancer of the glans, venereal diseases, and a multitude of various diseases (Remondino, pp. 161-200, 208, and chaps. 18­-25; Shoen, p. 1308; Dāʾerat al-maʿāref-e fārsī, I, p. 884; Ravich; for opposing views see Wellerstein; see Bettelheim for a psychological interpretation of the rite). Recently circumcision has been said both to lower the risk of acquired immuno-deficiency syndrome (AIDS; Simonson et al.; Cameron et al.; Marx; Spicer; Wiswell, p. 862) and, on the contrary, to increase the risk (Hira et al., pp. 584-­85).

By the late 1960s the medical benefits of circumcision had come under attack in countries where it was not practiced as a religious rite. In 1971, in 1975, and again in 1988 the Committee on the Fetus and Newborn of the American Academy of Pediatrics (A.A.P.) took a stand against routine circumcision of the newborn. In 1983 the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists joined the A.A.P. in opposing routine circumcision. This development led to a fall in the rate of circumcision in the United States, from 85 percent to 70 percent in the period 1978-84 and to 60 percent in 1990 (Schoen, p. 1308; Thompson et al., pp. 610-11; Task Force, pp. 388-391; Times, 31 August 1981, cited in La Barre, 1984, pp. 136­-37 n. 47, cf. p. 126). It has become the majority opinion among pediatric surgeons and pediatricians world wide that routine neonatal circumcision is not justified and should not be performed (e.g., in India: Chatterjee, pp. 236-37; in South Africa: Cywer, p. 233; in the United States: Coran, p. 229; in Germany: Hofmann von Kap­-herr, p. 227; in England: Rickwood, p. 231). In spite of overwhelming medical evidence against the advisability of neonatal circumcision, the hygienic argument is still cited by many people as the most significant reason in favor of circumcision. This argument is, however, at best pseudoscientific.



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(Ebrāhīm Šakūrzāda and Mahmoud Omidsalar)

(Ebrāhīm Šakūrzāda and Mahmoud Omidsalar)

Originally Published: December 15, 1991

Last Updated: October 20, 2011

This article is available in print.
Vol. V, Fasc. 6, pp. 596-600