Circumcision in Islam: A Meaningless Tradition Worth Discarding?

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This article was written for muzlimbuzz.sg (read: I’m running out of things to blog about)

About a week ago, in the midst of raging hijab debates and raucous Halloween debaucheries, The Real Singapore, a local alternative news website, did something rather strange and wholly unnecessary. It decided to publish an article, written by a Muslim man, on his disdain for male circumcision. This was more trick than treat.

To be honest, The Real Singapore is often guilty of the downright bizarre, though not the kind often associated with jack-o-lanterns and creepy costumes. But I suppose in wanting to attract a countercultural audience, they sometimes have to feature opinions which are very much opposed to the mainstream. An article on how circumcision is vile and barbaric, and not an obligation in Islam because no Quranic injunction exists to support it, is undoubtedly right up their alley.

Unfortunately, this particular writer seemed not to understand that Islam does not allow for the cherrypicking of laws to suit one’s motives and feelings. Yes, there may be a difference of opinion with regards to some laws (the permissibility of music comes to mind), but the vast majority of laws are clear and unambiguous.

As a Muslim, one is obligated to follow these laws, and not simply cast them aside on a whim. In Surah Al-Baqarah, Allah commands the believers to “enter into Islam completely”. Interestingly, in that same verse (208), they are warned “not to follow in the footsteps of Satan”, for he is, to believers, a “clear enemy”.

Is circumcision commanded in the Quran? No, it isn’t (and that’s perhaps the only thing the writer and I agree upon). But Islamic law is derived from several sources, not just the Quran, though it is regarded as the primary source. The Sunnah (sayings and teachings) of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) also serves as guidance when deciding how to behave as a Muslim.

In this regard, Muslim men are circumcised because the Prophet Muhammad himself was circumcised and is reported to have said “Five things are part of fitrah (natural disposition of man): circumcision, shaving the pubic hair, trimming the moustache, cutting the nails and removing hair from the armpits”. (Sahih)

Naysayers who claim that following the Quran alone is enough fail to understand that the Quran itself exhorts Muslims to follow the examples of the prophets (peace be upon them all), and that to obey Allah means to obey His Messenger. How does one obey the Messenger if he or she discards the Sunnah?

So if you’ve read this wanting to know if circumcision can and should be discarded as an archaic tradition with no place in the modern world, the plain and simple answer is no. Well, not for Muslim men anyway. But don’t take it from me. Walk over to your nearby mosque or Islamic centre and ask a local alim. Email him. Sign up for one of his classes. There are many in Singapore today, even though we may not be a Muslim country.

Just don’t take your knowledge of Islam from the World Wide Web. In today’s day and age, just about anybody can give you a half-baked ‘fatwa’, without having to spell out his name, let alone his credentials. Don’t learn about Islam from The Real Singapore.

Know that just like any other body of knowledge, there needs to be rigorous, authentic scholarship to determine what gets admitted and discarded from the canon of Islam. This is especially important when one considers what is at risk: the innovation and distortion of the Shariah, which ultimately leads to two phenomena, a refashioning of Islam to please the senses of the liberal democratic world and a hugely splintered faith, with a billion differing schools of thought. The symptoms of these two are already evident, for anybody who cares to look deeper into the crisis facing Islam today.

As such, not anybody can interpret the Quran and the Sunnah. In Abdul Hakim Murad’s Understanding the Four Madhabs, it is clearly listed the conditions that allow someone to claim the right to ijtihad (independent, scholarly reasoning leading to the formulation and codification of Islamic law). These conditions are, among others, mastery of Arabic language, a profound knowledge of the Quran and Sunnah, knowledge of the specialised disciplines of hadith, and knowledge of the views of the Companions, Followers and the great Imams.

To use an oft-quoted analogy, if we don’t subscribe to fly-by-night quacks for medical advice out of fear of the irreversible damage to our physical bodies, how can we be guilty of not doing the same in matters of religion? Taking instruction on religious rulings from just about anybody can result in untold harm on our eternal souls.

This medical analogy can also be used to clear up a long-standing misconception. Islam does not believe in circumcision because of its health benefits, numerous they may be in scientific literature. After all, as Muslims we do not consider science as the ultimate arbiter of truth. Rather, the Quran and Sunnah guides us to what truth is. As such, we are unlikely to be affected by what scientific research has to say about circumcision, negative or otherwise.

Nevertheless, we do not denounce science, or in this case, medicine, entirely. We know of its untold benefits in the modern era. In fact, on the issue of circumcision, a medical opinion, from a genuine doctor of course, can be used to overrule a religious obligation. For instance, if the doctor performing the circumcision feels the patient is at risk of haemorrhaging, or is perhaps too old or weak to undergo the procedure, then the obligation to be circumcised is waived. Some scholars have even said that the obligation is also waived if the person fears the procedure.

So, speaking hypothetically, if the Muslim man who wrote the article bashing circumcision were to explain to his future son the procedure of being circumcised, and if for some reason the son did not feel safe to undergo such a procedure, then, technically, the son wouldn’t have to. And it would not make him any less of a Muslim. Judging from experience though I don’t think any self-respecting seven-year-old kid would pass off that once-in-a-lifetime chance to feel like a tough hero.

However, I fear that there will be parents like the writer who insist that the religious obligation for circumcision is nothing but a fallacy, and in doing so would have already made a decision on behalf of their sons. How ironic, to dismiss such obligations on the basis of them being dogma, while espousing no less rigid an ideology.