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Rites and Rituals

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The Islamic World: Past and Present What is This? Accessible coverage of Islam from the seventh century to the twenty-first century

    Rites and Rituals

    Every culture develops rites and rituals to mark significant events in the lives of its members. Birth, death, marriage, and the transition from childhood to adulthood are among the events observed with special celebrations. Rites of passage often reinforce religious principles for the individuals taking part in them and for the community members witnessing them.

    Islamic rites and rituals originated in the interactions of Muslim and non-Muslim cultures in various times and places. Many Islamic practices derive from the customs of the tribes of pre-Islamic Arabia. The Prophet adapted certain Arab rites, such as pilgrimage, and connected them to Islamic teachings. As Islam spread throughout Asia and Africa, many different cultures altered certain rituals to include aspects of their own traditional ceremonies. Islamic rites among these communities often display a mixture of local and Arab influences.

    Rites of passage provide members of a community with an opportunity to reflect on the meaning and purpose of life. The Qur'an defines this purpose as ibadah—serving God by submitting to his will and giving thanks for his blessings. Islamic rituals thus serve as symbols of submission and thanksgiving, uniquely suited to each stage of life. They aim to increase spirituality and purify thoughts and intentions. The most significant Islamic rites of passage include birth rituals, circumcision, marriage, and funeral rites.

    Conception and Birth.

    Islam views sexuality as a natural part of life subject to the same ethical rules as any other behavior. Only married couples should engage in intercourse, during which they aim for a balance between bodily pleasure and spirituality. The Qur'an advises partners to recite the following prayer during lovemaking: “In the name of Allah, O Allah, protect me and what you will bestow upon us (our offspring) from Satan.” After intercourse, the partners engage in a ghusl (ritual bath), washing their entire body to cleanse themselves for other activities such as prayer.

    After the birth of a child, adults perform a rite in which they whisper into each of the child's ears. In the right ear, an adult whispers the adhan (call to prayer), and in the left ear, he or she recites the iqamah (call to establish prayer). The child then receives a name typically taken from the prophets, their wives, or their companions. A parent may also attach the prefix Abd (servant) and a title of God to a name, as in the case of the name Abd al-Aziz, which means “servant of the Almighty.” Seven days after birth, an adult shaves the child's head and sacrifices a goat or sheep to show happiness and gratitude to God. This sacrifice dates back to pre-Islamic Arab culture and is seen by Muslims as part of monotheistic (Judeo-Christian) tradition, associated with the story of Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Ismail at God's command. The family distributes the meat of the goat or sheep among the poor, as well as among neighbors and relatives.

    The Qur'an does not specifically mention circumcision (the removal of the foreskin of the penis), but most Muslims practice it. The procedure has no religious meaning in Islam, and adult converts are not required to undergo circumcision. In the early days of Islam, circumcision typically occurred between the ages of three and seven. Today, most Muslim male babies have it on the second day after birth. In rural areas, barbers perform circumcision, but parents increasingly take their children to hospitals for the procedure. Muslims participate in elaborate ceremonies in some parts of the world, including the rural areas of southern and western Asia, and parts of northern and western Africa.

    Female circumcision occasionally occurs in the Muslim world. The ancient Arabs performed a ritual removing part of the clitoris, but according to hadith Muhammad expressed reservations about the practice, and it fell out of use. Clitoridectomy, or complete removal of the external female organs, occurs in a few Muslim societies in parts of North and northeast Africa as a pre-Islamic rite. Many human rights groups and women's organizations denounce the practice and call for its abolition.

    From Child to Adult.

    In the Islamic world, puberty represents more than just the passage from childhood to adulthood. It also enables a Muslim to take on the religious and social responsibilities of an adult. Muslims do not expect children to perform religious duties, such as daily prayer or fasting during Ramadan. These rituals, however, become obligatory once a child reaches puberty. Because all such customs require purity, children learn how to perform wudu (cleansing completed before daily prayers), and ghusl (ritual bath taken after a nocturnal ejaculation, menstruation, or sexual intercourse). Muhammad emphasized the importance of cleanliness when he stated, according to hadith, “Purification is half of faith.”

    Marriage also symbolizes the taking on of adult responsibilities. Through marriage, Muslims find an acceptable outlet for sexual urges and begin the process of raising a family. Muslims believe that marriage preserves social morality by helping to prevent irresponsible sexual activity. Muhammad advised those who could not afford to marry to fast, noting that abstinence from food helps to ease passion. Unlike some Christians, Muslims do not consider marriage a sacrament (sacred duty), but rather a contract between two partners. As with other rituals, a great variety of marriage ceremonies and traditions exist within the Muslim world.

    Death and Burial.

    To Muslims, death serves as a transitional stage between life on earth and life in the next world. The Arabic word for death—mawt—means “cessation of breathing.” Muslims traditionally bury the deceased on the day of death or as soon after death as possible. As with other rituals, the body must be given a ritual cleansing before the funeral. Persons of the same sex as the deceased wash the body and wrap it in a white shroud that covers it completely. A special funeral prayer for the dead is recited in the mosque, with the funeral bier placed in front of the congregation. A procession of relatives, friends, and community members escorts the corpse to the grave. The body is laid in the grave with its face turned toward Mecca. Each member of the funeral procession throws three handfuls of dirt into the grave to remind them of their own mortality and of the meaning of death.

    Funeral practices in several Muslim lands provide insight into how indigenous cultures have influenced Islamic rituals. For example, in Southeast Asia, members of the dead person's family distribute money to those who attend the funeral. This practice may have originated in the Buddhist concept of “merit-making” and grants the family a way to seek forgiveness for the sins of the deceased. In India, the relatives serve a communal meal on behalf of the dead person to seek God's mercy and forgiveness. They offer a similar meal every Thursday for 40 days following the death. After the meal, they recite the first chapter of the Qur'an. Some Indian Muslims read the entire Qur'an every Thursday night for the 40 days following a death. See also Ablution; Death and Funerals; Fasting; Marriage; Names and Naming.

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