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Home » Culture and Art » The History of Circumcision in Iran
 
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CULTURE AND ART
The History of Circumcision in Iran
A Brief History
by:
Last Updated: October, 2009
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Despite strong emphasis on the practice, only one of the four schools of Islamic law ‘Shafeie’ enacted a circumcision "law," ruling it a religious requirement (wajib). Hanafee school maintains that it is ‘sunnah’ (tradition) and thus strongly recommended but not required. The remaining schools of law, Malekee and Hambalee, along with independent jurists, maintain that the practice is permitted (ja'iz), but not required or even recommended. Indeed, even those who require the practice attribute very little space and discussion to it in their books of law. No intention (niyyah) is required in order to fulfill one's obligation; one may be circumcised in a hospital for health reasons or at home. No further ritual action is required in order for any of these to count as the fulfillment of the religious requirement. Furthermore, no set rules define the age at which a child is circumcised except that it should be done before puberty. However, the Shiites believe that the seventh day after birth is the recommended date. There are no set prayers to recite and no authoritative ceremony to follow. It simply must be done and all else is left to the style of the individual or individual community.

Nonetheless, popular practice and opinion consider the ritual to bear almost legal weight. Muslims across the globe adhere to the practice of circumcision almost to the same degree as their Jewish counterparts, among whom the practice is far more detailed and ritualized. All factors mentioned suggest that according to Islam itself, male circumcision does not constitute an organically Muslim component. Unlike African traditions, it is not a rite of passage from boyhood to adulthood either. It is an inheritance from Arab pre-Islamic ancestry sanctified by the Prophet. Its legitimacy lies in the notion of sunnah or Prophet’s tradition. Muslims are required to follow Muhammad’s tradition and live according to his advice and instructions. Since Prophet recommends the practice, therefore it shall be done.

Circumcision Circumcision did not exist in ancient Persia and was not practiced by the Zoroastrians. The term in Arabic is ‘khitan and ‘khatneh’ in Persian. It was practiced on males and occasionally there are reports of females being circumcised in southern Persia, but the practice of female circumcision was not a common one. The most desired day for performing the surgery is the seventh day after birth.

However, in general it is done when convenient and, with many, it is performed when the boys are older between five and seven years old. Until the 19th century, there was a party called ‘khatneh Soorun’. The parties were a lot more elaborate if the boy was older. Da-lock, the local barber who also performed basic dentistry, carried out the actual surgery. A very sharp knife was used to cut the foreskin and the area was covered by fresh ash. Totally burnt and cooled down, the ash was clean and mixed with special oils, covered the cut and reduced the risk of infections. The actual foreskin itself was used to make a special kind of oil known as ‘Roghan e Adam’ (the oil of man). The oil was used as a remedy in a number of occasions including the circumcision itself.

There are accounts of people keeping the foreskin for good luck especially if they wanted baby boys, or feeding it to domestic birds like chickens. Sometime the foreskin was dried and mixed with food and fed to the same boy so that when resurrection happened nothing was missing from the body. The circumcised child would normally wear a long white skirt or a long coloured cloth called ‘longe’; this was special attire specifically worn or used in public baths. Both attires were a lot more comfortable than trousers. There were parties on the same night. With the older kids they received many presents.

Quite often such kids refused to go through the surgery and parents would either bribe or force them to go through the procedure. The child was never left alone for three days. They believed that the dark spirits were after the kid. The barber visited the child on the third day to check the cut and renew medication.

The child’s head was ritually cleaned, a very thick cloth was held on top of the child’s head. Water from the cup of the forty keys was poured over this cloth and was immediately poured back into another container. This cup was made of brass and had 40 holes. The names of the forty saints, or forty ‘Bes m e lah’ (in the name of God) was carved on small pieces hanging around and through the holes. The water pouring through this cup was assumed blessed. This was called ‘Ab e seh’, the water of the third day and was regarded as blessed. The child was not given any drinks for three days to reduce the frequency of urination and therefore prevent pain and complications.

The parties were very elaborate for the rich and were the most ornate save for the wedding celebrations. Fathers believed that if they did not throw a party for the occasion they would die the day after their son’s wedding. There were musicians, dancers, and street performers with elaborate meals. Street entertainers were always invited. The most popular were puppet shows ‘khaymeh shab bazi’ and ‘Luti antar’, male animal trainers performing minor acrobatics and dancing with monkeys and occasionally baby bears.

The next day presents from close relatives and friends would arrive, street performers would show up again. All children in the neighborhood were invited plus close relatives. Celebrations would continue for a few days with the very rich. The barber would visit the child for a few more times and within the first forty days, after he was completely healed, the boy was allowed to take a bath. This was another major occasion and matched only by the pre-wedding bath. Quite often a number of male children in the family were circumcised together to make the children fell more comfortable.

Modern Iranians still perform the circumcision. However, there are no parties for the occasion any more. The surgery is performed at the hospitals by professional medical staff only and mainly at time of birth. Iranians living in the Western countries are aware of the anti-circumcision movement becoming more and more popular in these countries. There is no statistics to indicate what percentage of the population does not practice circumcision. Overall most regard the procedure to be beneficial and hygienic and it is very likely that most still practice circumcision.

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Many thanks to Lynn Margulis for the excellent presentation of the Islamic debate on circumcision. I have used her research extensively in this article.

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