Al-Khoee, The Grand Fatimid Circumcision Ceremonies

The Grand Fatimid Circumcision Ceremonies of the Southern Mediterranean: Ritual and the Fostering of Communal Oath

Hasan Al-Khoee (Institute of Ismaili Studies/School of Oriental and African Studies)

In 962AD 351H the Fatimid Caliph al-Mu’izz li-Dīn Allāh ordered the start of a month-long series of circumcision ceremonies. The order required the participation of all non-circumcised boys of the Muslim population in all Fatimid regions, whether urban or rural, settled or nomadic, from Sijilmāsa to Sicily to Cyrenaica. Non-compliance was regarded as disobedience. The central ceremony in the Caliphal palace at al-Manṣūriyya [in modern-day Tunisia] saw al-Mu‘izz, after beginning with his own sons, personally presiding over a vast array of tents setup to circumcise boys of the immediate environs. Each participant was given a set payment according to social standing, gifts offered to parents and families alike. Medicines and medics were provided, as were clowns and toys, with all costs borne by the treasury. Over the next thirty days, according to  approximations from eyewitness accounts, at least 120,000 participated, with numbers in Sicily alone numbering 15,000. Discussions of the nature of Fatimid authority are recurring themes in the study of the history of the dynasty. Studies have examined the distinct Ismā‘īlī Shī‘ī doctrines that underpinned their claim to the Imamate/Caliphate, or have analysed their propagation of authority and hierarchy through patronage of art, architecture and processions. Yet a lacuna still exists as to the Fatimid method in fostering a ‘new’ communal identity through ritual participation. An investigation into Fatimid legal and esoteric texts and into historical accounts providing the backdrop to the ceremonies, emphasises that the Fatimid consciously regarded circumcision as a continuation of the ‘Abrahamic creed’ [millata Ibrāhīm]. This paper will ask therefore whether, through these grand ceremonies and through patronage of and participation in ‘universal’ rituals, the Fatimid sought to re-emphasise the notion of the ‘Divine Covenant’ [‘ahd], with participants as oath-givers who had signified their entry into the new divinely-guided community.