Circumcision is the cutting away of the male foreskin. The term is sometimes also applied to clitoridectomy, the cutting away of corresponding female organs.

Circumcision is widely practiced among indigenous peoples, especially in Australia and East Africa. It is obligatory among Jews, Muslims, and Coptic Christians. Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians do not require circumcision. Starting in the last half of the 19th century, however, circumcision also became common among Christians in Europe and especially in North America. It did so allegedly for reasons of hygiene. The actual medical benefi ts seem minimal.

Indigenous peoples have often practiced circumcision as part of the RITUALS that mark the male reaching adulthood. Practices vary widely, and so do the reasons given for the practice. For some, circumcision is a way to remove residual feminine characteristics from the maturing boy. In any case, it prepares the boy for future adult life, including sexual relations with women.

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For Jews, Coptic Christians, and Muslims, circumcision is a sign of membership in the group. It is an old rite. It was practiced in ancient Egypt even before the time of ABRAHAM. In Hebrew, circumcision is known as brit milah, “covenant of circumcision.” Colloquially, Jews refer to it simply as bris. In Arabic, circumcision is called tahur, “purifi cation.”

Jews circumcise men as a sign of God’s COVENANT with them. The command to circumcise was given to Abraham (Genesis 17.9–27). Under MOSES it was extended to non-Jews who wanted to eat the PASSOVER meal (Exodus (12.43–49). Jewish boys are to be circumcised on the eighth day after birth. Jews have traditionally required adult male converts to be circumcised, too. The Reform movement has not always insisted on this.

In JUDAISM a special religious functionary called a mohel performs the circumcision. Circumcision is also an occasion for a party.
Circumcision is not mentioned in the Q UR’AN. It was, however, an Arabic practice before the rise of ISLAM, and the prophet MUHAMMAD was himself circumcised. Circumcision is thus considered mandatory. In some Islamic traditions, circumcision is required for males and recommended for females. Other traditions say it is required for both. The age at which Muslims circumcise varies. Some Muslims circumcise on the seventh day after birth (the eighth day counting birth). Others circumcise later. As in Judaism, circumcision is often a time for a party.

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In the Mediterranean region and the Islamic world, the circumcision of girls has been seen as a way of keeping their later sexual desires in check. The amount of tissue removed, pain involved, and physiological change varies widely. In some but not all cases female circumcision results in signifi cant disfi guration. At the end of the 20th century and today, feminists have severely criticized these practices.