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Puberty Rites

Katherine C. Kolstad
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Puberty Rites

There is no specific Islamic ritual to mark the onset of puberty. Nevertheless, Muslims celebrate certain rituals to mark the initiation of sexuality, adulthood, and membership in the community. Following the work of Arnold van Gennep, these rituals are usually considered Islamic “rites of passage.” Rituals such as circumcisions and weddings are puberty rites in that the ceremonies in some way signal the end of childhood and the initiation into culturally and religiously defined roles of adulthood.

Male circumcision, or khitān, is the most widely observed “puberty rite” throughout the Muslim world. Despite its widespread observance, there is little mention or justification of khitān in the Islamic textual tradition. There is no mention of circumcision in the Qurʿān, and only scattered references are found in the ḥadīth. Male circumcision is mentioned in Bukhārī's collection of ḥadīth as a practice of pre-Islamic prophets such as Ibrāhīm (Abraham). There is little attention given to the practice in fiqh works, which usually state only its status as obligatory (wājib) or recommended (sunnah). The role of circumcision as an Islamic rite of passage lies in the popular practices of Muslims.

A boy's circumcision occurs between the ages of three and fifteen years, depending on regional custom. The Islamic circumcision should take place at an age when the boy is aware and will retain memory of the operation. The circumcision may also follow some achievement such as the boy's first Qurʿān recitation from memory. Circumcisions are commonly held during the month of the Prophet's birthday. Locations of the ceremony range from the courtyard of a house, to a shrine, to a clinic or hospital. Throughout the Muslim world, the barber is traditionally the circumcisor. Often ties are established between the barber and the son's family, with gift exchanges long after the operation.

Festive celebration traditionally surrounds the boy's circumcision. Before the operation, the boy bathes, dons special clothing, and may have his head shaved by the barber. Qurʿānic recitation often accompanies the ceremony, along with music and a procession through the neighborhood or village. Both men and women from the boy's family and friends participate in the ceremony, which is preceded or followed by a large ritual meal including the exchange of gifts. After the boy's foreskin is removed by the barber, his movements, eating patterns, and dress are usually changed or monitored for close to a week.

Arnold van Gennep interpreted similar rituals as means of addressing periods of crisis or transition for the individual and the community. These “rites of passage,” according to van Gennep, move the individual safely through a dangerous transitional stage by separating the person from the usual structures of life and reintegrating him or her with a new role into the community. The “puberty rite” does not necessarily mark the physiological changes of puberty, but rather the changes in social roles and behaviors when a child becomes an adult defined by certain cultural norms and behaviors.

In Muslim communities, circumcision may mark changes in role and status by signaling entrance into full participation in the Islamic ritual world or commencement of the study of Sufism. The circumcision might also signal the boy's entrance into the gendered world of men—his dress, social group, and behavior defined specifically by norms of men. The circumcision may also initiate the boy's sexuality, with the operation considered a crucial step before marriage.

Changes in dress most dramatically illustrate the elements of separation and reintegration in Islamic male circumcision. For example, in Egypt, Turkey, India, and Morocco the boy may be dressed in girl's clothing in the ceremony before the operation. This dress is often symbolic of the clothing worn by a bride. After the ceremony, the boy wears the typical clothing of the adult male or the dress of a learned religious leader. Among Javanese royalty, the boy's dress changes from that of a common man to that of a prince.

There is no puberty rite for girls that is so widely observed as male circumcision. Female circumcision is performed in some areas of Northeast Africa, including Egypt and Sudan, as well as in parts of North India and Southeast Asia. This operation varies in severity; often only a small portion of the clitoris is excised, but in some cases the female genitals are mutilated almost to seal the vaginal opening. Ensuring a girl's virginity before marriage is the justification most often cited for the operation. Female circumcision is a highly controversial practice and generally not sanctioned or condoned by the Islamic textual traditions or its authorities, and it is outlawed in certain countries. Female circumcision, khafḍ, is referred to in the ḥadīth, but it is considered a practice predating the rise of Islam.

It is not entirely clear that female circumcision is a “puberty rite.” Often the operation is unmarked by celebration or attention. If the circumcision is celebrated, it is done so on a much smaller scale than is male circumcision and includes only female participants. Female circumcision often takes place at a very young age and is not generally followed by changes in roles or status.

Typically, a girl's menstruation is not mentioned or celebrated in any way. In certain South Indian areas, however, the appearance of the first menses is observed by ritual meals and special clothing and foods. The covering of a girl's hair could also be considered a puberty rite; the first wearing of the headscarf may follow the first menarche and signal the onset of a girl's sexuality.

The wedding is considered the equivalent puberty rite for the girl to the boy's circumcision. Traditionally, marriage has been arranged in a girl's early adolescence and marks her movement from girl and daughter to woman and wife. After marriage, the girl may move to the home of her husband's family, her movements may be restricted, and she may receive greater respect and authority. Processions, special clothing (in some areas the bride wears male dress until the ceremony), and feasts may also accompany the wedding.

Modernization in some areas carries significant changes in the practice of Muslim puberty rites. In urban and certain rural areas, a male nurse rather than a barber may perform the circumcision at a clinic or hospital rather than at a saint's shrine. Change in the participants and the locations may alter the relations and reciprocity formerly established between families and members of the community at the traditional circumcision ceremony. Furthermore, the role of marriage as a puberty rite for girls is unclear in certain urban areas marked by rapid economic and social change. Often marriage is delayed because of economic difficulties and the female assumes the role of a student or worker long before she is married.



  • Ammār, Ḥāmid. Growing Up in an Egyptian Village: Silwa, Province of Aswan. New York, 1966. Ethnography, with descriptions and analysis of childhood in rural Egypt.
  • Baker, William Gary. The Cultural Heritage of Arabs, Islam, and the Middle East. Brown Books, 2003.
  • Delaney, Carol. The Seed and the Soil: Gender and Cosmology in Turkish Village Society. Berkeley, Calif., 1991. Primarily an ethnographic account of women's life in rural Turkey.
  • Engineer, Asgharali. The Rights of Women in Islam. 2d ed.New Dawn Press, 2004.
  • Geertz, Clifford. The Religion of Java. Chicago and Glencoe, Ill., 1960. See Chapter 5 of this ethnography for a comparison of circumcision and wedding ceremonies.
  • Gennep, Arnold van. The Rites of Passage. Translated by Monika B. Vizedom and Gabrielle L. Caffee. Chicago, 1960.
  • Jaʿfar Sharīf. Islam in India, or, The Qānūn-i-Islām. Translated by G. A. Herklots. London and New York, 1921. Reprint edited by William Crook. New Delhi, 1972. Descriptive work primarily on South Indian Muslims; includes extensive sections on the ritual practices of Muslim women.
  • Lane, Edward W.An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians: The Definitive 1860 Edition. 5th ed.Cairo and New York, 2003. Late-nineteenth-century British ethnography, including detailed descriptions of religious practices such as weddings and circumcisions.
  • Long, David E.Culture and Customs of Saudi Arabia. Westport, Conn., 2005.
  • Renard, John. 101 Questions and Answers on Islam. New York and Mahwah, N.J., 2004.
  • Saʿdāwī, Nawāl al-. The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World. Translated and edited by Sherif Hetata. London, 1980. Autobiographical and polemical work written by an Egyptian medical doctor, with description, information, and analysis of female circumcision.
  • Westermarck, Edward A.Ritual and Belief in Morocco. Vol. 2.London, 1926. Tremendously detailed information about ritual practices in diverse regions of Morocco.
  • Woodward, Mark R.Islam in Java: Normative Piety and Mysticism in the Sultanate of Yogyakarta. Tucson, Ariz., 1989. Anthropological work on Islam in Javanese royal courts, including a brief but interesting account of male circumcision.
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