Did You Know Prophet Muhammad Wasn’t Circumcised?
by Dr. David Liepert
It’s not surprising, but it is disappointing. After a German District Court Judge partially banned pediatric circumcisions in Germany earlier this month (when a young Muslim boy almost bled to death after a botched one) Muslims, Jews, Christians, religious rights advocates, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel erupted in condemnation, consternation, Nazi allusions and apologies respectively.
I wonder though, whether Muhammad might have backed the German Judge this time. Because Muhammad wasn’t circumcised, and most Muslim scholars agree Muslims don’t actually have to be either.
So why are Muslims the single largest religious group still practicing ritual circumcision? And why do so many Muslims and non-Muslims alike think it’s an obligatory part of Sharia Law?
Well, since authoritative Islamic documents agree Muhammad considered it as much a part of being a good Muslim as trimming one’s nails or moustache, and since circumcision’s not even mentioned in the Qur’an, you should probably just think of this as Part 2 in my series exploring the vast gulf between Al-Sharia, Allah’s “path to the waterhole” and so called “Sharia Law”.
A few years ago, when a convert Imam asked me if I thought he should be circumcised, I felt perfectly safe giving him a resounding “No!”
Now, the fact is he wasn’t asking me for an Islamic opinion; he was an Imam, after all. No, instead he was asking my opinion as a friend and a physician-confidante: he wondered if it would make him a better husband and a better lover, and so I reviewed the data with him.
* No effect on premature ejaculation. * No provable improvement in a female partner’s sexual experience. Turns out it’s a matter of personal preference. * No provable effect on a man’s sexual experience either, and no effect on sex-drive, except maybe a slight reduction in pleasure from masturbation: something he assured me didn’t matter to him. * And since his wife wasn’t HIV positive, the only possible medical benefits I could tell him he might see from receiving a prophylactic circumcision were a slightly reduced chance of transmitting STDs back to her, including a slightly lower risk for her contracting cervical cancer from HPV, which would only matter if he had more than one partner. Which he assured me he didn’t,
but then he went on to get himself circumcised anyway, for religious reasons.
But the fact we were having that conversation at all really highlights how much confusion there is regarding Muslim ritual circumcision, how little it actually has to do with the religion itself and how much it has to do with the way pre-Islamic practices influenced the development of sharia.
To make a long story short, Jewish, Christian and pagan Arabs before Muhammad all practiced circumcision, because Abraham was circumcised when he was 80, and Ishmael was circumcised when he was 13. And so it continued regardless of the Quran or Muhammad, and eventually got grandfathered into Islam as well, which should have been relatively harmless. But at some point we started doing it to infants and children, and in some places even to infants and children of both sexes, something that has absolutely no place on Al-Sharia, or in Muhammad’s Islam.
And that’s why Jahili/ignorant ritual pediatric circumcision joins my growing “ridiculist” (thanks Anderson!) of pseudo-religious practices Muslims should really take a second look at. Because when our faith is abused contrary to God’s intent and Muhammad’s example, it makes a mockery of our religion, and those abuses only persist because of our own laziness and inertia, which are two more things that won’t stand any of us in good stead come Judgment Day.
Now, quite frankly, I’m not actually anti-circumcision: In fact, I’m circumcised myself, because I was raised as a Christian. And if I hadn’t been, when I became a Muslim I might have chosen to be circumcised then because that’s how they did it in the old days. Muslims traditions declare Muhammad was born without a foreskin, and so many of his companions chose to have theirs (partially) removed to symbolize their commitment to Muhammad’s place in the prophetic succession, and Allah’s Islam.
However, I am completely, unequivocally and absolutely Islamically against anyone being circumcised against their will, or being circumcised because they’ve been coerced on false religious grounds. And so although I’m in favor of religious freedom, I’m against ritual infant circumcision and female genital mutilation alike: a place where, as a Muslim, I’m very content to be.
Because while a few of his followers had themselves circumcised upon their conversion to Islam, apparently not all of them did, which is why both the Hanafi and Maliki Schools (which comprise the vast majority of Muslims world-wide) don’t consider it obligatory, merely highly recommended. However, that recommendation is made to adults, not children!
Up until very recently many Muslims performed it between the ages of 7 and 13, when a boy declared himself Muslim and moved onto adulthood: a ritually limited procedure followed by a party. How much fun would that party have been if the procedure was a bloodbath?
In fact, the Abrahamic practice of infant circumcision began with the Covenant, recorded in Genesis 17, also known as Bereishit “In The Beginning” which that book also makes plain was made with solely the line of Israel. It’s an everlasting covenant, promising greatness, blessings and the land of Canaan in return for—among other things—their 8-day-old-foreskins.
So what does that mean? Well, I think the most obvious thing is that neither God nor Muhammad intended Muslims to replace Jews in the Holy Land. Otherwise, he would have been circumcised on his 8th day, and so the rest of us would have been circumcised on our 8th days too. And the thing is, Israel gets the land in the Quran too. Al-Maidah 5:21 states clearly, speaking to the people of Moses,“O my people, enter the Holy Land which Allah has assigned to you and do not turn back and become losers.” And KatabAllahu, which most Qurans translate as “assigned,” actually means something closer to “Ordained by God-Most-High.”
However, there’s a precondition that makes that fact good news for everyone, including the Palestinians. Because as Genesis 18 explains, to make it all come out right for everyone, God requires that Israel govern the land righteously, according to God’s principles of equality and justice for all his descendents, regardless of their religion.
“Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.” (italics and bolding mine)
There’s no mention of one religion reigning supreme anywhere in there: Abraham wanted what’s best for ALL his children, Jew and non-Jew alike. So in addition to their foreskins, the Covenant requires Israel govern themselves according to Tzedakah,“God’s Benevolent Justice for All,” too. The Quran and the Bible both promise it’s going to happen someday: frankly, I think that’s pretty big news, all on it’s own.
But getting back to circumcision, given all that, ask yourself, why did the rest of us start doing it to infants? I think in part perhaps it was because we weren’t sure they’d do it to themselves when the time came, but isn’t that the whole point?
Isn’t it meaningless, if we trust our faiths, ourselves and our children so little, that we can’t trust them to make their own good choices when their own time comes?
And what does it say about us as parents, that we’d rather circumcise them without their consent when they’re powerless to defend themselves than face that risk?
So Kudos to the German judge, from a Muslim who’d rather submit his own “self” to God instead.