Conference in Helsinki 30 September 2012 (oral version) on circumcision

Islamic concept of law and its impact on physical integrity: comparative study with Judaism and Christianity

by Sami Aldeeb

I wrote a large book in Arabic, French and English on male and female circumcision

English version foreworded by Marilyn Milos. Arabic version forworded by Nawal Al-Saadawi

You can get the Pdf version free by writing to me

This is an oral version of my conference given in Helsinki 30 September 2012. I am now preparing a large version for publication which will be soon available.


I offer you first of all three minutes English film with Arabic subtitles

أفكار الله العبقرية Brillant idea of God

It is a summary of my speech. After that you will be able to sleep

Muslims represent about 20% of World population. They are the Major male and female circumcisers

When a British driver goes to France, he drives on the right side without complaining.

When Malian family goes to France, it practices female circumcision although forbidden. In France, burqa is forbidden, nevertheless, some Muslim women continue wearing it.

Why the English driver has no problem respecting French law, while some Muslims do not respect it? The answer is very easy: they have a different concept of law. In fact, we can say that there are three concepts of law: dictatorial, democratic and revealed.

Three concepts of law

The democratic law

According to this concept, people decide its law and change it, according to their interests and tastes… as they do with the cheese. In the democratic countries, the law is territorial. But you need courage to do it.

No courage = no brain = no morality.

The dictatorial law

In this system, law is done by a dictator. Either you obey or he cuts off your head.

The revealed law

We find this concept of law among Jews and Muslims, but less among Christians

Jewish concept of law

The Bible says:

Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do; you shall not add to it or take from it (Deuteronomy 13:1).

This shall be a perpetual statute for you and your descendants wherever you dwell (Leviticus 23:14).

Maimonides (died 1204) writes: “It is clearly stated in the Torah that it contains the Law which stands for ever, that may not be changed, and nothing may be taken from it or added to it”. According to Maimonides, if one pretends the opposite, “he shall die by hanging”.

Christian concept of law

Jesus was not a jurist; he has never practiced a political function. He was a moralist, a hippy.

– He refused the stoning against the adulterant woman (John 8:4-11)

– He refused to divide the succession between the two brothers (Luke 12:13-15).

– He abolished the law of retaliation (Matthew 5:38-39).

Roman Empire after its Christianization kept following the Roman law. The jurist Gaius (d. v. 180) defines the law as being “what the people prescribes and establishes”. The modern democratic system is based on this concept of the law.

Islamic concept of law

It is not for a believer man or woman, when God and his messenger have decided on a matter, to claim freedom of choice in their matter: whoever disobeys God and his messenger is manifestly misguided (33:36).

The Egyptian Muhammad Mitwalli Al-Sha’rawi (died 1998) said:

If I were the person responsible for this country or the person in charge of applying God’s law, I would give a delay of one year to anyone who rejected Islam, granting him the right to say that he is no longer a Muslim. Then I would apply Islamic law to him by condemning him to death as an apostate.

Speaking about circumcision, Jad al-Haq, the Shaykh of al-Azhar (d. 1996) had declared in a fatwa issued in 1994:

If a region, out of a common accord, ceased to practice male and female circumcision, the Head of State should declare war against it because circumcision is part and parcel of the rituals of Islam and its specifities. This means that male and female circumcision is obligatory.

Where do Muslims find God’s will?

The Koran:

O you who believed! Obey God, and obey the messenger and those charged with authority among you (4:59).

The Islamic law has two principal sources: the Koran and the Sunnah (tradition) of Muhammad.

The Sunnah:

Sunnite Muslims grant a particular attention to six collections.

Shiites have their own collections

 The future under the shade of Fundamentalists

After the recent events in some Arab countries, fundamentalist Muslims expressed clearly their will to apply Islamic law which covers every aspect of life. One should expect a situation similar to that which prevailed under the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Hani Ramadan, grandson of Hassan al-Banna, founder of Muslim brothers, is born in Switzerland and studied in Swiss universities. When he was asked on the Swiss television whether he condemns the stoning for adultery, he said that he cannot do that because God dictated this punishment as did the Bible. Therefore, we should be prepared for every kind of surprise, even the return to slavery. And this is not a joke. Muslim brothers are in favour of male and female circumcision

Impact of the religious concept of law on male and female circumcision

Jewish position

There are two main texts in the Bible which prescribe male circumcision. The first relates to Abraham who, at the age of 99 years, received the following order from God:

You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. Throughout your generations every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old, including the slave born in your house and the one bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring. Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant (Genesis, Chapter 17).

The second text contains an order from God given to Moses:

On the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised (Leviticus, Chapter 12).

The Bible considers the uncircumcised as impure. He should not enter the Temple (Ez 44:9), or even Jerusalem (Is 52:1), eat from the passover (Exodus 12 :43), or be buried in the same cemetery as the Jews. Therefore, non circumcised Jews, and even an abortus or a child who died before being circumcised must be circumcised before being buried.

Opposition to circumcision inside the Jewish community

– Moses himself was not circumcised

– Circumcision had been forbidden by the king of Israel Achab (that reigned from 875 to 853 B.C.) and his wife Jezebel.

– In the days of Antiochus Epiphanes (d. 164 B.C.), “certain renegades came out from Israel and misled many, … removed the marks of circumcision, and abandoned the holy covenant”

– Hellenized Jews attempted to redo their foreskins to erase the sign of the covenant.

– Modern time: Jewish reformed current: Friends of the reform, which recalls the group Friends of light formed of Protestant Universalists, opened this debate in 1842 in Frankfort. One of the claims of these secular Jews was to suppress circumcision as sign of distinction.

– Frankfurt health department, exercising the broadening prerogative of governments, issued a regulation intended to assure maximum medical safety in the performance of circumcision. What made the government action controversial and launched the first major debate on circumcision in modern Jewish history was one clause in the regulation allowing for the possibility that some Jews might not want to circumcise their sons at all. This regulation, the department said, applied to local Jews “insofar as they want to let their children be circumcised”.

The Orthodox Rabbi of Frankfurt tried, without avail, to obtain rulings from the city government to exclude both “guilty” father and “innocent” son from the Jewish community. But in this instance, the authorities did not want to interfere in what they regarded as not just a specific religious issue but also a broader one of individual freedom of conscience.

There are six attitudes among the Jews concerning circumcision:

1) Current attitude that remains attached to the traditional circumcision.

2) An approach that asks to introduce reforms on traditional circumcision, and recommends the organization of a similar ritual for girls.

3) Another approach requests the abolition of the bloody circumcision and to maintain the ritual.

4) A further attitude maintains the circumcision but suppresses the religious ritual.

5) Another approach suppresses the circumcision as well as the ritual.

6) Some opponent Jews redo their foreskin to erase the traces of the circumcision.

Before concluding the Jewish position, we have to mention that the Bible does not mention female circumcision. Did Jews practice it in spite of no existence of any biblical prescription? This seems to be the case, according to Strabo, who had visited Egypt between 25 and 23 B.C. There is also the practice of female circumcision in the Falacha community.

Christian position

Only the Gospel according to Luke reports the circumcision of John the Baptist and Jesus (Luke 1:59 and 2:21).

None of the canonical Gospels give us a clear idea of Jesus’ position on circumcision. In the apocryphal gospel according to Thomas, the disciples asked Jesus: “Is circumcision useful or not?” he answered: “If it were useful, their fathers would beget them already circumcised from their mothers. But really useful circumcision is in spirit”.

If one puts aside the gospel according to Thomas, one could say that in appearance Jesus was in favour of the circumcision: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil” (Mt 5:17). But, in fact, many other recorded teaching by Jesus contributed to undermine the basis on which circumcision rested:

– He contested the authority of the religious leaders.

– He violated the sabbath and put mercy above the law.

– He refused to apply the penal norms prescribed by the Bible, forgiving the adulterous woman and annulling the law of the talion.

– He frequented people whom the Jewish law considers unclean: Zacchaeus, Samaritan woman, praised the stranger’s gratitude who come back to thank him the faith of the Roman centurion and of the Canaanite woman. He even enacted the love of enemies.

– He changed the concept of the purity: “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile”.

With Jesus’ teaching, it was not difficult for his apostles to abolish the obligatory character of the circumcision, as one will see it in the following point.

After Jesus’ death, his apostles undertook the mission of spreading his teachings, first among Jews, and then among the pagans. The new community divided quickly over the matter of circumcision, because Roman law forbad circumcising non-Jews. Circumcision was the unique item discussed during the first council in Christian history, as reported by the Acts of Apostles.

By reason of sharing tasks, the theme of circumcision is only in Paul’s letters

Without entering in the complex theological debate, one can summarize Paul’s position by these four passages:

– For a person is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart– it is spiritual and not literal (Rm 2:28-29).

Jesus’ followers divided into two main groups:

– The first group, of Jewish origin, called mainly Nazarenes. It considered circumcision as an obligatory duty and a condition for eternal salvation.

– The second group, of pagan origin, called Christians. It was directed by Paul. It considered circumcision as simply permitted; that doesn’t change anything, or it was even harmful to faith, and constitutes a rupture from Christ.

Church Fathers and theologians were opposed to male circumcision. This is the case of Justin, Origen, Cyril the Great, Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther. They abolished the obligatory character of the circumcision as sign of alliance between God and the Jews, and replaced it by baptism as the mark of entrance into the new covenant opened to all, without distinction between Jews and non Jews, or between men and women.

Nevertheless, some oriental Christians, notably in Egypt, continued to practice circumcision. For divergent reasons, some Western Christians, most notably in the United States, returned to the practice of circumcision, not only for socio-medical reasons, but also for religious reasons.

Muslim position

The Koran is the first source of Islamic Law. Contrary to the Old and New Testament, it makes no mention of male or female circumcision.

As male circumcision is largely practiced among Muslims, classic and modern Muslim authors have not been convinced that the Koran doesn’t speak of it. Therefore, they look for ambiguous verses to interpret in favour of circumcision.

The verses evoked by proponents of male circumcision are as follows:

– Recall that his God tested Abraham through certain words, and he fulfilled them. (God) said: “I am appointing you an imam for the people”. He said: “And also my descendants?” He said: “My covenant does not include the transgressors” (2:124).

– Then we inspired you (Muhammad) to follow the religion of Abraham, the monotheist; he never was an idol worshiper (16:123).

– Such is God’s tincture, and whose tincture is better than God’s? (2:138).

Although these verses don’t say anything about circumcision, proponents deducted thereby that it is obligatory! How did they arrive at this conclusion? They interpreted the expression God tested Abraham through certain words as meaning God tested Abraham through commands, including circumcision. And since the Muslim is held to follow Abraham’s religion, he needs to circumcise himself like Abraham. Then they interpreted the expression God’s tincture as meaning circumcision, instead of Christian baptism. But jurists have not admitted such interpretations unanimously.

Opponents of male and female circumcision affirm that these two practices are contrary to the philosophy of the Koran; this could explain why the Koran doesn’t mention them. Indeed, the Koran insists in several verses that God’s creation is perfected. We mention one of them:

He is the One who shapes you in the wombs as He wills (3:6).

The problem is that Muslims join to the Koran another source, which is the Sunnah, tradition of Muhammad which is considered as important as the Koran. The sunnah serves to complete and to interprete the Koran. As the narrations regarding male and female circumcision are controversial, we have different positions, but the great majority of Muslim Jurists are in favor of male circumcision, and some of them are even in favor of female circumcision, on the basis of these narrations and the interpetation given to the Koran by them.

One of these narrations concerns the circumcision of Abraham who, according to Muhammad, was circumcised when he was 80 or 120 years old.

There are also the narrations regard the circumcision of Muhammad, a model for Muslims, but these narrations are contradictory. These contradictions around an important fact of Muhammad’s life lead us to the conclusion that Muhammad was not really circumcised. This conclusion seems confirmed by the fact that neither Ibn-Ishaq (d. 767) nor Ibn-Hisham (d. 828), the two famous biographers of Muhammad, speaks of his circumcision.

The Sunnite Muslims mention a number of narratives by Muhammad that order male circumcision. The Shiites add some others assigned to their imams.

The Shiites report narratives that consider the urine of the uncircumcised as impure. Muhammad reportedly said: “Circumcise your children on the 7th day because it is purer and makes the flesh grow more quickly […]. The earth becomes impure during forty days with the urine of the uncircumcised”.

According to another narrative reported by Al-Hajjaj Ibn-Arda’ah, Muhammad said: “The circumcision is a sunnah for men and makrumah for women”.

Position of the Mandaean (Sabeian) religion

Up to my knowledge, the only religion in the world which forbad circumcision is the mandaean (sabeian) religion. This group emigrated from the Jordan Valley due to the pressure from the orthodox Jews. The migrants first went to Harran in upper Mesopotamia and entered the southern provinces of Mesopotamia during the third century CE. John the Baptist is their main prophet. They hate Abraham because of circumcision. Mandaeism is pacifistic and forbids its adherents from carrying weapons. Especially after the invasion of Iraq, they have been subject to “murder, kidnapping, rape, forced conversion, forced circumcision and destruction of religious property.

Relation between religion and medicine

What should prevail: religious norms or medical norms? We can distinguish in this aspect four attitudes:

A) Circumcision: divine order, not medical

A British Jewish physician writes:

Circumcision represents the covenant made between God and Abraham, and Abraham’s descendants, according to the Torah […].There is no reason to seek justification based on health or other grounds; circumcision is a commandment from God and as such no intervention would persuade religious Jews to stop performing this ritual.

Egyptian Muslim jurist asks: “What are we to do if science contradicts religious norms?” and then answers:

What counts is the religious norm even though it contradicts science. It ensues because respect for religious norm is in itself obedience to God even though we don’t see the reason behind this norm.

B) Circumcision proves religion’s veracity

Egyptian author writes:

Female circumcision is a law of nature. It is a general principle confirmed by heaven and sustained by prophecy. One cannot therefore abandon it […]. Science must work to prove and not to contradict this cosmic truth [coming from God].

C) Circumcision has no relation to religion

Opponents to male and female circumcision believe it has no link to religion or that it is even contrary to religion. They try to assign it to economic and social considerations.

D) Physicians must not take account of religion

This trend holds that a physician is expected to report scientifically what nature reveals to him, and that his observations and reporting must in no way be influenced by issues of ethics, morality, personal or social gain, race, nationality, patriotism, religion or creed.

Relation between religious norms and internationational and national norms

Omission of male circumcision

In 1992, I asked Dr. Leila Mehra from the WHO: “Why the WHO is concerned only with female circumcision and doesn’t consider male circumcision?” She responded in a meeting held in her Office in Geneva on January 12, 1992: “Male circumcision is mentioned in the Bible. Do you want to create problems for us with the Jews?”

Phenomena which is never mentioned in Law Faculties and ignored by the public: four major human rights documents have omitted the right to physical integrity:

– The universal declaration of human rights, 1949

– The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966

– The Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989

– The European convention of human rights, 1950

The right to physical integrity was added only in 2007 in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. Article 3, paragraph 1, states : « Everyone has the right to respect for his or her physical and mental integrity ».

Male circumcision was never treated by the United Nations or by any of its affiliated organization : UNICEF and WHO, contrary to female circumcision which is condemned by many international resolutions. Almost every year, the United Nations and its affiliated organizations organise conferences against this practice.

The international and national legislatures, as well as the NGOs, that adopt the same position, violate a fundamental principle of human rights: the principle of non-discrimination. This principle is mentioned practically in all international documents and Western and African constitutions.

Religious and cultural rights

The right to perform circumcision as a religious or cultural demonstration is invoked by proponents of male and female circumcision.

Professor Freeman of the London Law School:

To deny a Jewish or Muslim child a circumcision is to undermine that child’s right to cultural heritage and identity.

But he refuses to consider female circumcision as a cultural right.

Jomo Kenyatta doesn’t hesitate to compare clitoridectomy in his tribe to male circumcision in the Jewish community:

Clitoridectomy, like Jewish circumcision, is a mere bodily mutilation which, however, is regarded as the conditio sine qua non of the whole teaching of tribal law, religion, and morality. The initiation of both sexes is the most important custom among the Kikuyu. It is looked upon as a deciding factor in giving a boy or girl the status of manhood or womanhood in the Kikuyu community.

Africans ask not only to exercise this right in their respective countries, but also in Western countries where they immigrate.

The question: what has priority: community or individual rights?

A basic international human rights rule is that individual rights are considered fundamental and have priority over collective rights. In the name of tolerance toward religion or culture, a community cannot ask the legislature to close its eyes to violations of fundamental individual rights.

It’s appropriate at this point to recall the Geneva oath of the WMA:

I will not permit considerations of age, disease or disability, creed, ethnic origin, gender, nationality, political affiliation, race, sexual orientation, or social standing to intervene between my duty and my patient.

This quotation means that the physician must not be influenced by religious or cultural reasons in his medical intervention.

If each community were allowed to apply all its religious or cultural norms to the detriment of individual fundamental rights, humanity would sink to barbarism.

German decision and Swiss situation

What we discussed has its concrete application in the German decision and the reaction it provoked in Germany and in other countries as Switzerland and Austria, two germanophone countries.

Switzerland forbids assault against physical integrity, which is guaranteed by the constitution. But in 2011, a norm was adopted condemning female circumcision practiced inside or outside Switzerland. It is called Female genital mutilation (article 124 Swiss Criminal code). So, male circumcision was excluded.

In Switzerland, a Parliamentarian, Jacqueline Fehr, would like to present male circumcision to the Swiss Parliament. When asked about angering the Muslims and Jews by her position, she said that her interest is the right of children according to international convention. If we should accept religious traditions, we should then also accept polygamy. She adds that her intention is not to forbid male or female circumcision, but to delay it until the concerned person decides for himself.

But there is no chance to have her position adopted because politicians are ignorant and coward.

No courage = no brain = no morality.

In Switzerland the crime of male circumcision is committed every day in public hospitals. Nobody dares to criticize it. I gave an interview to the Swiss television, but my intervention was cancelled from the program.

Remedies proposed by liberal Muslims

The problem we have with circumcision is present with other questions as stoning in case of adultery, cutting off the hand of the thief, eye for eye, women rights, etc.

When a tree is sick, it is not sufficient to treat the leaves; it is necessary to take care of the roots. Here are some methods proposed by liberal Muslims.

1. To cut the Koran in two

Some Muslim liberals think that the true Islam is represented in the chapters of Mecca while the chapters of Medina represent a political conjunctural Islam. They consider therefore that the first chapters of the Koran repeal the seconds. So they empty the Koran of its juridical subsistence. The Sudanese thinker Muhammad Mahmud Taha has been hung January 18, 1985 because of this theory.

2. To keep the Koran and to throw out the Sunnah

Some liberals, called Koranists, think that they have only obligations toward the Koran, word of God, and they refuse the Sunnah, judged as human manufacture and unreliable, having been compiled long time after the death of Mohammed.

3. To distinguish between the Shari’ah and the Fiqh

4. To consider Mohammed as the last prophet

The Koran declares that Mohammed is the last of the prophets (33:40). For some thinkers,. Muhammad is to be considered as the last baby bottle; after him, humanity does not need prophets or holy books.

5. To cut the umbilical cord

The Egyptian philosopher Zaki Najib Mahmud (died 1993), an adept of scientific positivism, believes that one should take from the Arab past or the Western present only what is useful to the Arab society. To judge what is useful and what is not. This attitude supposes the dismissal of all holiness from the past.

6. What if God were in Rimini to tan?

Husayn Fawzi (d. 1988) is a free Egyptian thinker, scientist, author of numerous works. For him, “God created the world in six days and took a rest the 7th day, and he is still resting. Therefore, God could not send the prophets who came after the 6th day”.

7. What do fundamentalists think about liberal Muslims?

Al-Qaradawi, qualified as moderate, says:

A secular [Muslim] who rejects the principle of applying Islamic law has from Islam only the name. He is considered as apostate, he is separated from his wife and children, and one applies to him the norms concerning recalcitrant apostates, in this life and after his death [which means that he should be buried like a dog in a hole].

Remedies proposed by the West

1. Interreligious dialogue

It serves only to travel and to eat.

2. To prepare experts and imams

The German decision was influenced by the writing of a law professor, who has been influenced by his own professor when he was young. But as German politicians are generally coward and ignorant, they are ready to establish a law allowing male circumcision. Germans are known of being tuff people. They have very strong character. Despite their difficult past in relation with the Jews, the German judge took an appropriate decision which touch the Jews. We should sustain this trend in front of the ignorant politicians.

3. To redefine the revelation

I suggest that the West starts to teach in its Faculties of Theology and in its schools:

– that “revelation”, understood as definitive and valid text forever is a wrong and dangerous concept for humanity;

– that “revelation” is not the word of God to man but the word of man on God, made of human imperfection

4. To be firm and coherent

Do not preach water and drink wine on the political plan. You cannot allow male circumcision while forbidding female circumcision, which will be considered as discriminatory against the boys as well as against the non-Jewish traditions.

5. Mixed marriages

People should be informed and sign a contact saying that circumcision should not be done before 18 years old. This is what I advise in a booklet published in four languages. The State must impose such a contract.

6. Doctors

When you see a physician in white clothes don’t take him for an angel. Doctors should be educated. In Switzerland, medical students study five minutes circumcision in their academic curriculum: five lines in their textbooks.

7. Theologians

When I wrote my book on male and female circumcision, I presented it to the Faculty of Theology in Lausanne to obtain academic title. A professor came to me and prayed me to cancel my demand because my book will destroy the Faculty: Jews, Christians and Muslims will be against the Faculty.


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