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Male and Female Circumcision in the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Communities: Religious Debate

by Doctor Sami Aldeeb Abu-Sahlieh

Introduction by

Dr. Nawal El-Saadawi

Translated by Marianne Sarkis
Edited by Elizabeth Tennis

This book gave me the pleasure of knowledge. I wondered when I read this book, if it had fallen into my hands forty years ago, would it have saved me from the long years I spent seeking and digging for the truth?

I knew since childhood that the pleasure of knowledge was more important than holiday sweets or getting a new dress. Unlike others, I wasn't dazzled by paradise with its milk, honey, wines, mermaids, and youths. It seemed to me that the pleasure of know ledge was more important than all of that. I always wondered why it was not included in the Garden of Eden. Why was it not referred to as a pleasure of this world or of the afterlife in the three books the Bible, the Gospel, and the Koran? When I learne d how to read, the world of words opened a bright path in front of me. When I was ten I used to devour any book that fell into my hands. I read the paper in which the groceries were wrapped. The merchant used pages from old books that poor intellectual s sold by the bushel to the storeowners. But the pleasure was always accompanied by guilt. The teachers explained that maybe it was because of Eve's sin of eating the forbidden fruit. God did not mention the tree in the Koran, but He referred to it as the Tree of Knowledge in the book of the Torah. I knew since primary school that God revealed the Bible, the Torah, and the Koran to illuminate and guide people. Yet, faith and guilt were inseparable. I was distressed because I was a Muslim who had inhe rited Islam from my father. He told me that I should have faith in God's three books. The more I read the Holy books, the more I learned. I suffered alone as I read these books; stopping at passages that my mind could not accept. I asked my father, my mother, and my teachers about those passages, but they were unable to answer my questions. My guilt increased as well until, as a teenager, I decided to stop reading.

I attended an all-girls school that included students from Islam, Copt, and Judaism. We had many arguments about which religion was the true one. We argued about illogical miracles and passages in books we didn't believe in. For that reason, I would li ke to see this book published in the Arab countries where it would become accessible to the male and female students in the schools and universities. Even though I am past sixty, I am still trying to answer the many childhood questions that circled unans wered around in my head since I was ten years old.

The increase of the brain cells activity in early puberty affects the increase in hormonal changes creating an intellectual curiosity that is accompanied by sexual curiosity. During this age, familial and societal pressures increase upon teenagers under the pretense of protection and chastity. In that sense, forbidding exposure to other ideas becomes similar to being in mixed company. In the Arab world, we have yet to rid ourselves of the censorship of those books that open the minds of our youth to id eas that differ from those of their forefathers and the prophets. In April of 1999, the American University at Cairo banned a number of books, including an English translation of my biography, despite the fact that it had been published in Arabic two yea rs earlier. This illustrates that there is still stringent monitoring of books and knowledge taking place in our country. It indicates that monitoring is gaining strength under the pretense that there is a need to protect our youth from those thoughts t hat would shake their religious faith! Is religious faith a straw that can be dispersed by a breeze? Do we have to close the windows so that this straw remains on the scalp? And if the window is opened, would the straw fly away with the scalp?

As one of the weapons in the field of general education, this book is especially important for the Arab library. The crushing majority forbids real education. The educational system fails to train young girls and boys on how to use their brains. Intell ectual defeat leads to political, military, and economic defeat. Education is not separate from politics, religion, or war. The mind directs the hand that holds the sword or gun. I don't think that our Arab world can rise out of its old-fashioned ways. It cannot overcome its repeated defeats in the face of foreign invasion or internal assault without an intellectual uprising. Without intellectual freedom, doubt is the servant of knowledge, according to the author of this book. Ultimately, truth will withstand all tests. Doubt is the first step towards knowledge, not faith. Faith that is inherited effaces the mind and forbids it from thinking freely. Even in medical school, knowledge is not achieved, since the training of how to perform operations is inherited from our forefathers. Doctors in our country should study Dr. Sahlieh's book so that they will halt the circumcisions of males and females alike.

Dr. Sami Abu-Sahlieh opens his book by speaking of his distress upon hearing a baby scream from the intensity of pain during his circumcision. The sound of the baby's screams stayed with him, although it had not been he that had undergone the circumcisio n. Why don't doctors hear those screams when they are performing the operations? Don't they have ears and hearts to experience pain as human beings? Don't fathers and mothers who hear the screams of their children have ears and hearts? Ignorance silen ces the hearts and ears so that they do not hear or feel. Ignorance changes things so that pain becomes joy: the spilling of blood brings rejoicing. Did not Moses' God in the Torah rejoice when He saw blood spill as Moses' wife took a flint and cut off her son's foreskin (Exod. 5:25)? If God, who is the supreme example of an elevated being, is joyous at the site of blood, what are humans to do? My grandmother, a poor farmer, used to say, "God is justice, we know by the intellect." This expression of hers stuck in my mind since I was six and felt the pain during my own circumcision. The screams of my sister still ring in my ears despite the sixty years that have passed. My small brother's screams pained me, as did my sister's screams. After each sc ream, my doubt in God's justice increased, and with it, the feeling of guilt. I was happy with this book. It will free people from feelings of guilt buried since childhood. It will play a large role in convincing many people not to circumcise their mal e or female children.

Dr. Abu-Sahlieh attempted to make a comparison between the three heavenly religions' stances regarding circumcision. Following opposing and supporting arguments in the spirit of scientific and humanistic traditions, there is a large gap in the comparativ e studies between religions in the various universities of the world. I discovered that the departments that teach religions in American and European universities do not deal with comparisons between Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Instead, they teach only Islam to those who specialize in Islam. One does not become a professor in the Islamic religion without knowing the similarities and differences between the three religions. I have met many American and European professors who specialize in Islam, who believe that a woman's veil and circumcision are only tied to Islam, and who believe that this does not exist in Christianity and Judaism.

The popular, and mistaken, beliefs of the west are exposed in this book. Male circumcision was practiced before the appearance in history of the three major religions and also practiced in their shadows. The Koran differs from the Torah in its complete silence regarding male circumcision and the omission of any mention of female circumcision. So why do Western political rumors continue to exist about Islam alone without mention of the other religions? During a conference in Montreal, Canada in the ear ly eighties, I gave a lecture examining the three major religions' positions on veiling and the circumcision of males and females. The attendees accepted and understood my talk very well because I read passages from the Torah, the Gospel, and the Koran. The anger that overcame some of the Jewish-American and Israeli woman was intense. They were hysterically angry and proceeded to scream, to insult, and to accuse me of being an anti-Semite, at the very least. I faced their anger with the strength of in tellect, because anger is often a cover for irrationality. I replied that we Arabs are Semites like the Jews. Anti-Semitism is also the enemy of the Arabs, which is why we are not intimidated by the imagined accusation of anti-Semitism. I proved, from historys' truths, that the Jews and the Christians imposed the veil on women. There is no difference between the habits and wimples worn by the nuns in the church and the dressings and veils of Islamic women. In the present day, a Christian woman (inclu ding the American president's wife) cannot stand in front of the Pope at the Vatican without putting a veil on her head. I then proceeded to read what the original Jewish tradition in Israel said regarding secluding women from general life. This is wors e for women than what is written in the original Islamic tradition in Egypt or Pakistan.

The importance of this book comes from its comparison between the three major religions. It uncovers the political and economic struggles between the various religions in the name of God. It is true, as the author says, that the ancient covenant between God and Abraham was "based on a surgical operation." Otherwise, why would God promise his chosen people the land of Canaan? What is the relation between overtaking someone else's land and the circumcision of boys? I wrote an article in the magazine Ro se Al-yousssef last year (12/21/98) entitled "Stop the Circumcision of Boys." I asked myself about the secret relationship between forcefully overtaking the land of Palestine and the cutting of boys' foreskins. The strange thing was that some Muslim men were angry with me almost as much as the Jewish women had been at the Montreal conference 15 years ago. This indicates that Israelism has crept into Islam with regards to the circumcision of boys. Dr. Sahlieh also indicated this point in his book.

The necessity of using force to conceal the truth started in the beginning with slavery or patriarchy. This accompanied the concealment of political power under the veil of religious dominion. The ruling deity sat on his earth and sky thrones and slaves would offer him chickens, doves, and roasted meat. He would eat and drink and wash his feet and then ask his slaves to build him a house. He would inhabit the house, which was then called the sacred altar. The author notes that circumcision is a pract ice derived from slavery. It was the mark or brand of a slave. There is a passage in Judaism proving this: "Your newborn should be circumcised in your house and the slave you buy with your silver." This passage clarifies the confusion between those who hold on to every word of the Book of God for monetary or material reasons and those who profess that the jewels of the true and correct religion are justice and respect of integrity of the human being and his body. This confusion has plagued the ages en dlessly up through the present day. The book also clarifies the similarities between the circumcision of boys and the operations of castrating slaves in order to free them to serve in households or to sing in theater like women. Despite the fact that th ousands of years have passed since the establishment of a patriarchal hierarchy in the East, West, North, and South, political power still has not separated from religious power. The world's stock or the national patriarchal order cannot continue to exis t without reliance on a mysterious, unseen power. It can fool people, cause them misery, occupy their lands, and cut their bodies and minds as it pleases under the guise of its holy name.

This book uncovers the role that politics plays in the issue of circumcision. In 1871, due to the number of deaths and bleeding cases, circumcision rose to the forefront. The Jewish council decided that the circumcision of males was not a duty that was imposed on the Jews. As a result of the political and intellectual conversions that occurred with the increase of colonialist powers after the creation of the nation of Israel, conservative religious and political forces became stronger to such an extent that the Jewish American general committee decreed the imposition of male circumcision in 1979. One of the most important sections of this book is the one that exposes the silence of the United Nations with regards to male circumcision: they did not dee m male circumcision illegal as they did with female circumcision. This is from fear of the Jewish political, social, and psychological lobbying regarding circumcision. Male circumcision is not any different from old or new mass murders in the colonialis t wars. To this day, the military, capitalistic, colonialist machines have not stopped killing thousands, even millions, of innocent citizens. There is no show of mercy or compassion as regards cutting parts of bodies in the name of God and justice, fre edom or democracy. Even though some countries have proclaimed that they have learned to separate religion and state, they will never let go of religion. They cannot take responsibility for killing or circumcision; it becomes necessary for them to put th e responsibility on God.

Dr. Abu-Sahlieh's book exposes the circumcision of boys and the fact that it is the last of the ancient Jewish blood sacrifices. The sacrifice requires the spilling of a drop of blood, making circumcision symbolic without actually cutting off the foreski n. Prayers of the religious men draw God down symbolically into the operation, thereby accomplishing the blood of the covenant and the symbolic circumcision. If the circumcision takes place without the religious men, it is not acknowledged; their presen ce is necessary to legitimize the circumcision. Is this not similar to the marriage contract in that the marriage contract is not legitimate without the presence of the Ma'zun (Muslim religious notary) or the clergy? This proves the social power of the religious men despite the weakness of their power in political, economical, and military environments. The many laws in our country have become civil. The exceptions to this are the laws relating to marriage and divorce; those laws are religious. They are controlled by the religious men who hold onto the laws by their claws and teeth as it they were the last of their roots and intelligence. Marriage laws are similar to circumcision because they touch the lives of the socially weak: the women and the c hildren.

The book goes on to discuss how, today, many Jews try to avoid responsibility for the circumcision of males by placing the blame on the ancient Egyptians. In the past, they placed the blame for the circumcision of females on the Arabs and Islam. This wa s done for political reasons: to prove that the Arabs were barbaric for cutting off womens' clitorises. I was surprised to hear the health minister of Egypt repeat the rumor that the circumcision of girls is an African practice. I also heard some doctor s repeat this same belief in an attempt to remove the blame from the Egyptians and place in on the black Africans. However, this book proves the falsehood of this notion by explaining how the circumcisions of girls and boys gathered momentum in societies such as Jewish, Christians, Muslims, blacks and whites in the East and West. The advance of humanity is ridding itself of such slave practices that are tied to political and economic orders. The religious systems are in servitude to these orders. Howe ver, it is possible for religion to evolve and advance with the political, economic, social, and intellectual advance of women, men, and children. The present government hides in the name of God just as the priesthood used to hide in ancient times. When I read this book, I recalled the story of Peter and how he justified his acceptance of Cornelius' invitation using a vision he saw before the messe nger arrived. The arrival of Peter before Cornelius--the uncircumcised, the impure, the enemy--became not a betrayal of God's covenant, but an obeisance to the Holy Spirit that came to him in the vision. I recall the Egyptian president, Anwar Al Sadat, justifying his departure to Israel in 1979 by stating that he saw a vision of God in his dream. God told him to go to Israel, thereby legitimizing the trip Sadat made. I found many such resemblances between the sayings of Aetius, the doctor, during the Byzantine era of the 6th century and Sheik Mitawali Al-Shaarawi in Egypt in 1977. Both of them aided in the circumcision of girls because, "A woman's clitoris rubs against her clothes and makes her excited [sexually]." The most amusing story in this boo k is the story of the delegation of Catholic doctors sent to Egypt in the 17th century. The doctors returned to Rome with a report on the Egyptian woman's clitoris, saying that it was larger than those of the rest of the world's women. Therefore, it nee ded to be cut off because its size stops a woman from getting married!

Perhaps the most important aspect of this book is its scientific outlook that avoids discussing one religion without discussing the others while discussing the differing opinions in a just manner. This leaves the readers to judge for themselves on the is sues contained therein. We saw how the religions are similar, especially when it comes to the sexual organs and the imposition of submission on the slaves and neighbors. We saw how womens' impurities show up in the Torah more than in any other book. We saw how the Christian woman was forbidden from singing in the church just as she was forbidden in Islam from reciting the prayers aloud. There are a lot of Sheiks in Islam today who repeat the famous Pauline expression, "A woman should be silent in the gathering of believers before God" (1 Cor. 14:34-35). Womens' voices became shameful for many Christians and Muslims, similar to their hair becoming shameful as well; hence, this famous Talmudic expression, "Thank You, O Lord, for not making me born a wo man."

I am looking forward to reading the second part of this books. I hope it comes out right after the publication of the first part. The fight against male circumcision began last year after we have achieved great success against female circumcision. The Sheik of Al Azhar in Egypt stated that female circumcision was a medical issue, not a legal or intellectual one. Many doctors and religious men were encouraged to start talking about female circumcision; however, the circumcision of males is still an obj ectionable topic. I agree wholeheartedly with Dr. Sami Abu Sahlieh, the author of this book, that the campaign against circumcision should include both sexes, not just females. The crime is one, even if they vary in degree or form.

Dr. Nawal Al Saadawi

Cairo, May 6, 1999