Sunday, July 25, 2010

12. Purity, Gender, and Social Control

A common feature of the Abrahamic religions is their obsession with regulating human behavior. This drive has engendered complex codes stipulating both mandatory and forbidden acts. Human nature is such that some are attracted to such strictures:these individuals seek authoritative guidance and have a fear of freedom.

Yet this regulatory tendency clashes with modern secularism with its emphasis on choice, diversity, and freedom of thought. This conflict has been one of the main reasons for the fact that religion has become problematic in modern life.

Historically, a major emphasis of the social-control apparatus in the Abrahamic religions has had to do with gender relations, specifically with maintaining the subordination of women. That theme receives special attention in the following pages.


As far as we can determine from the writings preserved in the Hebrew Bible (all of which are later than the period they purport to describe), the early Israelite mind was characterized by an obsession with distinguishing between things that are pure (tahor) and things that are impure (tame’; cf. Leviticus 10:10). This quest was characterized by a tendency to accumulate minutiae, a complementary striving for systematization, and the fixing of the corresponding obligations and prohibitions in written precepts.

In fact scholars have detected several strata of concepts of purity and impurity in ancient Israel; these developed over time in response to changing ideological emphases. Moral impurity, one such notion, turned on the dangers of defilement ensuing from grave sins such as idolatry, incest, and murder. Ritual impurity, another notion, concerned contact with various natural substances relating to birth, procreation, menstruation, and death. Transgressions involving ritual impurity had serious consequences, rendering one temporarily unfit to encounter holy space and charismatic objects.

During the latter part of the nineteenth century pioneering anthropologists, such as Sir James Frazer (1854-1941) and William Robertson Smith (1846-1894), began to analyze these primitive avoidance behaviors, aptly comparing them with the concept of taboo found in many tribal societies. For the concept of taboo, see the previous chapter of Abrahamicalia.

The ultimate origins of the ancient Israelite purity system are lost in the mists of time. When fully developed, however, it clearly functioned so that the priestly caste could maintain its control over the society, and for patriarchal Israelite men to subordinate their womenfolk--wives, concubines, daughters, and female servants.

Many biblical purity injunctions concern situations and substances that render one ritually impure, and therefore temporarily disabled from fulfilling one’s obligations to the sacred. Ritual impurity accrues from direct or indirect contact with various natural processes including childbirth (Leviticus 12:1-8), certain skin diseases (13:1-46; 14:1-32), funguses in clothes (13:47-59) and houses (14:33-53), genital discharges (15:1-33), the carcasses of certain impure animals (11:1-47), and human corpses (Numbers 19:1-22). Disconcertingly, some sacrificial procedures can engender impurity (Leviticus 16:28; Numbers 19:7-8). The durations of the ensuing disabilities differ, as do the requisite cleansing procedures.

At all times Israelites must be aware of their ritual status, lest they accidentally come into contact with the sacred while in a state of ritual impurity (Leviticus 15:31). Like a virus, ritual impurity is contagious; if it spreads it may even grow to defile the Tabernacle or Temple, rendering these places impure and unfit for divine habitation. For this reason the refusal to purify oneself would constitute a serious transgression (Numbers 19:20).

A few biblical narratives describe some form of ritual defilement as a punishment for moral shortcomings. Miriam, when she spoke against Moses’ Cushite wife, was afflicted with a “leprous” or “scale” ailment (Numbers 12:10). King Uzziah was similarly afflicted when he sinfully asserted priestly prerogatives (2 Chronicles 26:16-21). Such instances encouraged the unfortunate belief that physical blemishes are signs of unworthiness.

Some modern apologists for Judaism claim that dietary prohibitions (the so-called “laws of kashrut”) are health measures. This erroneous view goes back to the medieval savant Moses Maimonides. Such a view is nowhere expounded in the biblical texts themselves. While this assertion might be true of certain foods, such as pork, there is no known health risk that attaches to the majority of land animals and birds classified as defiling. Conversely, genuine health risks attend the consumption of poisonous plants, but these were not regarded as defiling. In short, Yahweh’s record as a public health officer is dismal.

Apart from these types of ritual impurity, the Hebrew Bible is concerned with another dimension of purity and impurity, which is commonly termed moral. Moral impurity stems from committing heinous acts considered inherently defiling. Such conduct includes certain sexual sins (cf. Leviticus 18-24-30), idolatry (19:31; 20:13) and bloodshed (cf. Numbers 35:33-34). These “abominations” (to’ebot) produce an impurity that morally (but not ritually) defiles the sinner (Leviticus 18:24), the land of Israel (Leviticus 18:25; Ezekiel 36:17), and the sanctuary of God (Leviticus 20:3; Ezekiel 5:11). This defilement could be truly disastrous, entailing the expulsion of the people from the land of Israel (Leviticus 18:28; Ezekiel 36:19).

In recent times there has been an effort to interpret these behaviors and the stigma attached to them as symbolic. That does not seem to be the case. For those who observed them, these taboos were all too real. The priests, and others who interpreted them, sought to bring them together in to an kind of iron cage that would imprison the whole people of ancient Israel--and of course make them subject to the will of the priestly and royal elites.


Tamar was the daughter of King David and sister of Absalom. According to the narrative in 2 Samuel 13, she attracted the attention of her half-brother Amnon, the heir apparent to the throne. Despite the prohibition of sexual relations between half-brothers and sisters (Leviticus 18:11), Amnon had an overwhelming desire for Tamar. Following the advice offered by his cousin, Jonadab, he lured Tamar into his quarters by pretending to be sick and desiring her to cook a special meal for him. While in his quarters, and ignoring her protests, he violated her. Two years later Absalom, Amnon's half-brother and Tamar's full brother, sent his servants to kill Amnon at a feast to which he had invited all the king's sons. As in similar stories in the Hebrew bible the key issue seems not to have been to secure justice for the victim of the rape herself, but to erase the stain of dishonor to the family and clan,

We turn now to a very different story, the events at Sodom. The encounter at Sodom is part of a larger cycle of incidents involving Abraham and Lot. By the time we reach the end of chapter 18 of Genesis, God has already decided to destroy Sodom. Before the decision is carried out, two special messengers are dispatched to Sodom to see if there might be reason to reconsider (18:21).

The two messengers plan to spend the night in the street. Lot persuades them to be his guests instead. Lot is not in fact a citizen of Sodom. He is only a sojourner there himself, a resident alien (19:9). When the men and boys of Sodom become aware of the presence of the foreign visitors, they surround Lot's house. The mob insists that Lot "bring out" his guests so that they may "know" the strangers (19:5).

Lot is so upset over their request that he offers to let them molest his two virgin daughters, if only they will leave his two guests alone (19:8). This proposed substitution does not satisfy the mob: they want to have their way with the two men. When the crowd threatens to become violent, Lot's two guests intervene just in the nick of time. The messengers have seen enough. God's earlier decision to destroy Sodom will stand (19:12–13).

Despite much quibbling by later interpreters, it is clear that this story is one of attempted homosexual rape.

A somewhat similar story occurs in Judges 19:1–30. A Levite, escorting his run-away concubine back home to Ephraim from her father's home in Bethlehem, finds that he has to spend a night in Gibeah. He is prepared to camp out of doors in the open square of the city. But then an old man, himself a native of Ephraim and now a resident alien in Gibeah, invites his compatriot to be his overnight guest (19:15–21).

The peaceful scene is rudely interrupted when the men of the city demand that the old man bring out his guest to them, in order that they might "know" him. The old man is so upset about their request that he offers to let them molest his virgin daughter and the Levite's concubine, rather than abandon his guest to the unruly mob.

The men of Gibeah persist until the man pushes the concubine out the door. They "know" her and abuse her all night. By the next morning she is dead. The abomination (20:6) arouses such a furor that the people of Israel go to war against Gibeah over the incident (20:19–20).

It is hard to dispute the conclusion that rape is one of the most heinous crimes imaginable. Yet the attitudes towards it in the Hebrew Bible are various and contradictory.

We proceed further in the book of Judges.

“So they sent twelve thousand warriors to Jabesh-gilead with orders to kill everyone there, including women and children. 'This is what you are to do,' they said. 'Completely destroy all the males and every woman who is not a virgin.' Among the residents of Jabesh-gilead they found four-hundred young virgins who had never slept with a man, and they brought them to the camp at Shiloh in the land of Canaan.

“The Israelite assembly sent a peace delegation to the little remnant of Benjamin who were living at the rock of Rimmon. Then the men of Benjamin returned to their homes, and the four hundred women of Jabesh-gilead who were spared were given to them as wives. But there were not enough women for all of them. The people felt sorry for Benjamin because the Lord had left this gap in the tribes of Israel. So the Israelite leaders asked, 'How can we find wives for the few who remain, since all the women of the tribe of Benjamin are dead? There must be heirs for the survivors so that an entire tribe of Israel will not be lost forever. But we cannot give them our own daughters in marriage because we have sworn with a solemn oath that anyone who does this will fall under God's curse.’

“Then they thought of the annual festival of the Lord held in Shiloh, between Lebonah and Bethel, along the east side of the road that goes from Bethel to Shechem. They told the men of Benjamin who still needed wives, "Go and hide in the vineyards. When the women of Shiloh come out for their dances, rush out from the vineyards, and each of you can take one of them home to be your wife! And when their fathers and brothers come to us in protest, we will tell them, 'Please be understanding. Let them have your daughters, for we didn't find enough wives for them when we destroyed Jabesh-gilead. And you are not guilty of breaking the vow since you did not give your daughters in marriage to them.'" So the men of Benjamin did as they were told. They kidnapped the women who took part in the celebration and carried them off to the land of their own inheritance. Then they rebuilt their towns and lived in them. So the assembly of Israel departed by tribes and families, and they returned to their own homes.” (Judges 21:10-24).

Obviously these women were brutally raped. The invaders sacked an entire town and slaked their appetites to the full, or so one would have thought. But they then wanted more virgins, so they hid beside the road to kidnap and rape some more.

A similar story concerns the murder, rape, and pillage of the Midianites.

“They attacked Midian just as the Lord had commanded Moses, and they killed all the men. All five of the Midianite kings – Evi, Rekem, Zur, Hur, and Reba – died in the battle. They also killed Balaam son of Beor with the sword. Then the Israelite army captured the Midianite women and children and seized their cattle and flocks and all their wealth as plunder. They burned all the towns and villages where the Midianites had lived. After they had gathered the plunder and captives, both people and animals, they brought them all to Moses and Eleazar the priest, and to the whole community of Israel, which was camped on the plains of Moab beside the Jordan River, across from Jericho.

“Moses, Eleazar the priest, and all the leaders of the people went to meet them outside the camp. But Moses was furious with all the military commanders who had returned from the battle. "Why have you let all the women live?" he demanded. 'These are the very ones who followed Balaam's advice and caused the people of Israel to rebel against the Lord at Mount Peor. They are the ones who caused the plague to strike the Lord's people. Now kill all the boys and all the women who have slept with a man. Only the young girls who are virgins may live; you may keep them for yourselves.'” (Numbers 31:7-18)

The general principle is explained in the following passage.

“As you approach a town to attack it, first offer its people terms for peace. If they accept your terms and open the gates to you, then all the people inside will serve you in forced labor. But if they refuse to make peace and prepare to fight, you must attack the town. When the LORD your God hands it over to you, kill every man in the town. But you may keep for yourselves all the women, children, livestock, and other plunder. You may enjoy the spoils of your enemies that the LORD your God has given you.” (Deuteronomy 20:10-14)

A little further in Deuteronomy the following principle is explained.

“If a man is caught in the act of raping a young woman who is not engaged, he must pay fifty pieces of silver to her father. Then he must marry the young woman because he violated her, and he will never be allowed to divorce her.” Deuteronomy 22:28-29)

The victim is required to marry her attacker. Under other circumstance, however, one is not so lucky.

“If within the city a man comes upon a maiden who is betrothed, and has relations with her, you shall bring them both out of the gate of the city and there stone them to death: the girl because she did not cry out for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbors wife.” (Deuteronomy 22:23-24)


Many societies in the ancient world practiced polygamy, or more accurately polygyny, since it was usually men who had several wives, rather than men who had several husbands (polyandry, much less common).

The Hebrew Bible indicates that polygyny was commonly practiced by the ancient Hebrews. It was probably class-based, in that only men of a certain wealth and social status could afford to have several wives. Still, polygyny was not particularly unusual and was certainly not prohibited or discouraged by the Bible. The Bible mentions approximately forty polygynists, including such prominent figures as Abraham, Jacob, Esau, David, and King Solomon. The texts offer little or no further remark on their polygyny as such: it was taken for granted. Many have raised an eyebrow at the exaggerated claim that Solomon had 1000 wives, but the practice of having a number of wives occasioned no particular disapproval.

The Pentateuch includes a few specific regulations on the practice of polygyny. Exodus 21:10 states that multiple marriages are not to diminish the status of the first wife, while Deuteronomy 21:15-17 says that a man must award the inheritance due to a first-born son to the son who was actually born first, even if he hates that son's mother and prefers another wife. Somewhat quixotically, Deuteronomy 17:17 states that the king shall not have too many wives. An appropriate question is: How many is too many?

Until about a thousand years ago, polygamy--that is polygyny--was freely practiced throughout the Judaic world. Then, finally, Rabbi Gershom ben Judah (based in Mainz; 960-1028) issued an express prohibition of the practice, which was soon accepted in the communities of northern France and of Germany. This decree was clearly influenced by Christian pressure. The Jews of Spain, Italy, North Africa, and the Middle East continued to practice polygamy for a long period after that time. In Algeria polygamy among Jews only disappeared towards the end of the nineteenth century; among Yemeni Jews it lasted almost a century longer.


This theme is important not only for its own sake, but because of the way in which it has shaped concepts of gender roles in the societies that have been influenced by the ancient Hebrew world. Since the late eighteenth century, one of the major tasks of the women’s movement in the West has been to repair the baleful effects of this heritage. As part of the general legacy of the Enlightenment, considerable progress has been made towards achieving gender justice. Regrettably, most of the Islamic world lags far behind.

In the Genesis story Eve's weakness has been typically blamed for causing Adam’s fall, and thus for humanity's descent into original sin. This claim was frequently reiterated during the Christian Middle Ages, where it underpins a substantial misogynistic literature. It was the subject of John Milton’s epic, Paradise Lost.

Some interpreters of the Biblical world view point out that women were objects of special concern through their perceived need for protection. In other words. they are dependent subjects in a hierarchical, patriarchal order.

This protected status appears, for example in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:2–17; and Deuteronomy 5:6–21). The tenth commandment depicts a wife among the examples of a neighbor's property not to be coveted: house, wife, male or female slave, ox or donkey, or any other property. In this perspective, wife along with other properties belongs to the husband. The relationship is blatantly asymmetrical. Some apologists have sought to balance this gender contrast with the fifth commandment which enjoins honor to both parents, father and mother. However, this passage, and some others like it, cannot override the overwhelming patriarchal character of the world of the Hebrew Bible.

A brief summary of the social conditions that prevailed in that world will make this point clear. Unmarried women were expected to remain in the home of the father. After marriage they similarly restricted to the husband’s If any woman should venture to leave her home, she should be doubly veiled. Women were restricted to roles of little authority: they could not testify in court. They were discouraged from speaking to strangers. In short the position of women in ancient Israel was closer to their status under the Taliban than in any society we would regard as decent.


Historically, the principles governing the roles and responsibilities of women in Christianity have also been patriarchal and hierarchical. Only in recent decades have some denominations advanced beyond this subordinationism.

Through most of the centuries of its institutional existence Christianity has allotted men the position of authority in marriage, society, and government. This regime has reduced women to submissive roles, and usually excludes women from church leadership, especially from formal positions requiring any form of ordination. The Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, together with some conservative Protestant denominations assert today that only men can be ordained as clergy and deacons.

To be sure, recent scholarship has ascertained in the early phase of the Christian church women participated in the movement. The New Testament often mentions Jesus speaking to women who made a significant contribution to his ministry. Mary Magdalene is recorded to be the first person to have the privilege of seeing Jesus after resurrection. The letters of Paul—dated to the middle of the first century CE—and his casual greetings to acquaintances offer information about Jewish and Gentile women who were prominent in the movement. Among the female associates he named were Priscilla, Junia, Julia, and Nereus’ sister (Romans 16:3, 7,15). In addition, Mary and Persis are commended for their hard work (Romans 16:6, 12), while Euodia and Syntyche are called his fellow-workers in the gospel (Philippians 4:2-3).

However, the contribution of women to the success of the early Christian movement must not be exaggerated--it cannot serve as a template for today’s egalitarian strivings. Despite his personal friendships, Paul’s letters generally support patriarchal concepts of male headship. For example, “[b]ut I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.” (1 Corinthians 11:3; KJV) Note also, [l]et the woman learn in silence with all subjection But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.” (1 Timothy 2;11-12; KJV) Finally, “[w]ives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, and he is the savior of the body. Therefore, as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing.” (Ephesians 5:22-24; KJV)

Some have countered with a Pauline scripture passage that seems to counter these subordinationist precepts “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28; KJV modified). However, this passage seems more rhetoric than reality. Neither Paul nor any of the apostles actually took any steps to end he institution of slavery, as far as is known. Similarly with the subordination of women.

At all events, from the early patristic age the offices of teacher and sacramental minister were reserved for men. Tertullian, the second-century Latin father, wrote that "It is not permitted to a woman to speak in church. Neither may she teach, baptize, offer, nor claim for herself any function proper to a man, least of all the sacerdotal office" (“On the Veiling of Virgins). This view was endorsed by Origen and other early church fathers.

In the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox church, the priesthood and the ministries dependent upon it such as bishop, patriarch, and pope were restricted to men. The first Council of Orange (441) forbade the ordination of women to the diaconate.

To be sure, with the growth of monasticism, some influential roles became available to women. From the fifth century onward, Christian convents permitted some women to escape the path of marriage and child-rearing, to acquire literacy and learning, and play a more active religious role. In the later Middle Ages women such as Saint Catherine of Siena and Saint Teresa of Avila, played significant roles in the development of theological ideas and discussion within the church, and were later declared Doctors of the Catholic church.

The Protestant Reformation ended female convents (nunneries)in the areas under their jurisdiction; the Reformers regarded them as bondage. By closing female convents Protestantism effectively ended the option of a full-time religious role for Protestant women, as well as one which had provided some women a life in academic study.

For centuries most Protestant churches upheld the traditional position of male headship, restricting ruling and preaching roles within the Church to men. Early exceptions occurred among some groups such as the Quakers and within some Pentecostal holiness movements. Only in the twentieth century, however, did Christian feminism begin to take a leading role, though more conservative forces in the churches continue to oppose it.


Sharia (Islamic law) sets forth basic differences between women’s and men’s roles, rights, and obligations. Sharia interpretations and their application were shaped by the historical context of the Muslim world at the time they were written. Many of the foundational writings stem when tribal warfare and extreme patriarchal values were rife. Much of the ensuing body of law seems inappropriate for the highly urbanized, cosmopolitan world of he twenty-first century. And yet Sharia law is spreading in Muslim-majority countries.

Ostensibly, relations between the sexes in Islam are governed by the principle of complementarity, which defines different rights and obligations for men and women. According to Islamic tradition, a woman's primary role is to act as a wife and mother, whereas a man’s role is to financially support his family. As with historic Judaism and Christianity, complementarity does not mean equality.

Sharia law, which permits polygamy, limits a man to four wives. Yet the Prophet Muhammad had at least eleven wives.

In contrast to the Western world, where divorce was relatively rare until modern times, divorce was a fairly common occurrence in some countries of the late medieval Muslim world. In fifteenth-century Egypt, a writer named Al-Sakhawi compiled the marital histories of some 500 women. He found that at least a third of all women in Egypt and Syria married more than once, with many marrying three or more times. According to Al-Sakhawi, as many as three out of ten marriages in fifteenth-century Cairo ended in divorce. Today, divorce rates in the Middle East are much lower. However, the historically high rates of incidence reflect the relative ease of obtaining a divorce--at the initiative of the husband--under Islamic law.

Such rights as women do enjoy are based on the marriage contract. A woman, according to Islamic tradition, does not have to give her pre-marriage possessions to her husband and receives a dowery (mahr), which she is allowed to keep. However, once married the man has the dominant position as regards financial decisions, morally and legally. The position of single women is even more precarious when Islamic laws are applied fully. This is especially true when Islamic custom melds with local tribal customs, as in Afghanistan.

In Islam, women are entitled to the right of inheritance (Qur’an 4:7), but a woman's share of inheritance is typically less than that of a man. In general, Islam allows females half the inheritance share available to males who have the same degree of relation to the deceased (Qur’an 4:11).

Under certain conditions, such as financial need, women are allowed to work in Islam. However, the workplace conditions must be in accordance with Islamic law (e.g. no alcohol may be served), and the woman’s safety must be preserved. She must maintain her “modesty.” Even when women have the right to work and are educated, women's job opportunities may in practice be unequal to those of men. Women are still expected to put their family responsibilities first, an obligation which causes men to be seen as more reliable workers in the long term.

In Islamic law, the permissibility of female employment varies according to field. While women may seek medical treatment from male doctors, it is preferred that they do so from female physicians. It is held that female schools, colleges, sports centers and ministries should be staffed by women rather than by men. Islamic legal schools disagree about whether women should be permitted to hold the position of judge in a court. Shafi’ites claim that women may hold no judicial office, while Hanafites allow women to act as judges in civil cases only, not criminal ones.

Some uncertainty exists regarding the status of women’s testimony. However it is generally accepted that if Islamic strictures are followed exactly, a woman's status is inferior to that of a man. Some Islamic jurists have held that certain types of testimony by women may not be accepted. In other cases, the testimony of two women equals that of one man. Several rationales have been advanced for this discrimination, including “women's temperament,” women's purported lack of interest in legal matters, and the need to spare women from the "burden of testifying."

Marriage customs vary in Muslim-majority countries, where cultural traditions are sometimes implemented under the cover of Islam. Historically, Islamic law has allowed polygamy. Even more controversial is the marriage of an adult male to a female child. Islamic scholars hold that no age limits have been fixed by Islam for marriage. Children of the youngest age may be married or promised for marriage, although it is said that a girl should not be allowed to get married until "she is fit for marital sexual relations." This barbarous attitude radically conflicts with modern concepts of human rights.

Islamic jurists have traditionally held that Muslim women may only enter into marriage with Muslim men. The rationale is that Muslims must not place themselves in a position inferior to that of the followers of other religions. Muslim men are also discouraged from marrying non-Muslim women.

Hijab is the Quranic requirement that Muslim women dress and behave modestly. "And tell the believing women to lower their gaze and guard their private parts and not to display their adornment except that which ordinarily appears thereof and to draw their head covers over their chests and not to display their adornment except to their [close kin]." (Qur’an 24:31).

Westerners have viewed sartorial hijab, and the veil in particular, as a sign of oppression of Muslim women. In recent years the custom has engendered much debate, especially in Western Europe, where Muslim populations are growing. Notable examples are the 2006 United Kingdom debate over veils and the 2004 French law on secularity and conspicuous religious symbols in schools.


As is well known, mainstream Christianity long since parted company with its Jewish progenitor by discarding the dietary taboos of kashrut and the rite of male circumcision. Islam, however, has seen substantial continuity.

This continuity may be explored through the concept of haram (or haraam), the forbidden. The opposite is halal, a term that may be used in a way that is analogous to kosher in Judaism (e.g. halal meat).

The religious term haram applies to a wide range of behaviors, including adultery, gambling, and abusive or profane language. It also attaches to certain things that are not to be ingested, such a pork and alcohol. It may also designate foods, objects, and people that would normally be halal, but which have been tainted in some way (e.g. meat that has been slaughtered in a way that is not permitted).

Haram also applies to ill-gotten wealth acquired through illicit activities that are regarded as sinful. Examples include money earned through cheating, stealing, corruption, murder, or any means that involves harm to another human being.

Over the centuries the term haram has accumulated certain casual usages in everyday speech. In Arabic-speaking countries, saying "haram" can mean simply "what a shame" or "what a pity." Children are commonly instructed not to mistreat other children or animals because it is haram. Non-Arabs are acquainted with the term through its offshoot, the “harem”
--the women’s quarters in a ruler’s palace. The Hebrew cognate herem refers to the highest level of ecclesiastical censure in the Jewish community.


Worldwide, Muslims are the largest single religious group to circumcise boys. In Islam circumcision is commonly known as tahara, meaning purification.

Not mentioned in the Qur’an, circumcision is commended in words ascribed to the Prophet Muhammad. Muhammad stated that circumcision was a "law for men and a preservation of honor for women." Hence the practice of female genital mutilation, which is not truly circumcision.

Male circumcision is an ancient Arabian custom, so that it is not surprising that it would continue under Islam. The reason that is commonly given is cleanliness. Muslims believe that the removal of the foreskin makes it easier to keep the penis clean because urine can't get trapped there.

In addition most Muslims regard circumcision as an introduction to the Islamic faith and a sign of belonging. In principle there is no fixed age for circumcision. The preferred age is often seven although some Muslims are circumcised as early as the seventh day after birth and as late as puberty. In some Islamic countries circumcision is preferably performed after boys have learned to recite the whole of the Qur'an from start to finish.

There is no equivalent of a Jewish mohel (a religiously authorized circumciser) in Islam. Circumcisions are often carried out in a clinic or hospital. The circumciser is not required to be a Muslim but he must be medically trained.


Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

Brenner, Athalya, ed. A Feminist Companion to Reading the Bible: Approaches, Methods and Strategies. London: Routledge, 2001.

Douglas, Mary. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge, 1966.

Martin, Dale B. Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation. Louisville: Westmister John Knox, 2006.

Newsom, Carol A., and Sharon H. Ringe, eds. The Women's Bible Commentary. Second ed. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998.

Patai, Raphael. Family, Love and the Bible. London: McGibbon and Kee, 1960.

Stowasser, Barbara Freyer. Women in the Qur'an, Traditions, and Interpretation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.