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Life Cycle Observances in Islam

Birth

Two rituals accompany the birth of a child. First, the Call to Prayer is whispered into the newborn's right ear as the first sound it hears. This act symbolically brings the baby into an awareness of Allah from the first moment of life. This is accompanied by reading from the Quran and other small rites.

Second, after a few days—customs in some countries specify seven days—a naming ceremony is held. At a gathering of family and friends, the child is formally given a name, and often a lock of hair is cut from its head. This is often accompanied by other rites, such as a meal, sacrifices, readings from the Quran, and so on. On rite often practiced is that of almsgiving. The baby is weighed and an equivalent amount in silver is given to charity.

The naming ceremony also serves as an entrance rite for those who convert to Islam later in life. During it, they receive an Islamic name, usually in Arabic, and seen to be newly born into the faith.

Islamic belief holds that all males should be circumcized, although at what point in a child’s life this happens is not specified. It is often performed when the boy is still a toddler. Traditionally, the circumcision was accompanied by a celebration, while today is frequently takes place in a hospital clinic.

Puberty

Islam sets out no rites for puberty per se. But there is a series of actions beginning around age seven that lead children towards their gender-based, adult roles in Moslem society. Boys, for example, will begin to attend public prayers with the men and girls will start to focus their activities more on the home and the family. This division of roles is traditional, and in the modern era is undergoing transformation in different countries around the world.

During the month of Ramadan, both boys and girls will begin to undertake some days of fasting. As they get older, the number of days will gradually increase. When they arrive at full adulthood, they will be expected to participate in the entire month of the fast.

Marriage

Marriage is the expected state for all adult Moslems, and hence the selection of a partner (traditionally chosen by the parents) and the wedding are approached with great seriousness. While wedding customs vary widely from country to country, Islamic law views the terms of the union are viewed as a bilateral contract. It establishes rights and responsibilities not only between the husband and the wife, but also between their respective families. Although divorce is permitted, there are strong moral sentiments against it. In addition, the marriage contract often guarantees the divorced wife a significant monetary payment.

Islamic law permits men to marry up to four wives, but only if they can all be properly and equally maintained. Over the centuries many strictures and regulations have been built up around polygynous marriages, with the result that they are quite rare among Moslems today.

Death

If possible, a dying person prepares for death by speaking the Shahada and other affirmations of faith. When dead, the body is washed and covered, and buried as soon as possible. The corpse is buried facing Mecca, in imitation of the direction of prayer. After the burial, memorials for the dead may be observed at various intervals. Counting from the day of death, these may occurs at seven days, forty days or a year later.

The Hajj

Although not linked to any particular stage of life, the expectation that all Moslems will participate in a Hajj once in their life makes it in some ways a rite of passage. It is an experience in which the Moslem experiences a both a more intimate experience of submission to Allah and the unity and fellowship of the world-wide umma.