Q. Why do Muslims shave a newborn baby's head? Is the aqiqah something that should still be practiced, or is it more of a cultural tradition? If it is continued, what is the correct procedure?

A. There was a rabbi who said that tradition is what binds us to the religion in some ways. The aqiqah comes from the word "aq - to break," meaning the symbolic breaking of the child's attachment to its parent. According to Leviticus 12 in the Bible, for the boy that took 7 days, and for the girl 14. In Islam, we took this and followed it, for the earliest sunna seems to indicate that it was a norm. As far as the sheep and the two for a boy goes, despite the modern interpretation that it is valid, Ibn Umar and Malik (r.a) allowed the same one for a boy or a girl. In fact, the jurists state that it is optional. The naming, etc. on the seventh to ninth days are also based on Jewish tradition. So the tradition including the circumcision for a boy is not rejected as it falls under what is termed "urf."

As far as the process, it is clearly for the most part of Jewish provenance as I stated. Everything including the killing of the lamb is in Leviticus 12, and if one cannot do a lamb, then turtledoves or pigeons. The timing is also the same, 7 days. Now how does Islam change it? We do not add the impurity for the girl to 14 days, but the time is the same. Instead the later Muslims seem to have either reinterpreted the story or misinterpreted it. As for Malik and Ibn Umar, they followed Leviticus, one sheep. The rest of the scholars went with two for the boy and one for the girl. Apparently, they did this because of their understanding of the Qur'anic verse on the son having two shares and the girl one.

Regarding the shaving, this is problematic, for nothing in the Jewish scriptures allow for provenance. It would seem then to have to do with desert Arab conceptions of hygiene. The hair was matted at birth and I think could have traces of blood. In the knowledge of that time, it was extremely difficult by the seventh day to totally clean the hair of all of these impurities, at which time the aqiqah (the breaking of the bond) was effected. Therefore it would seem that in an effort to sever all pre-natal physical characteristics, the head was shaved, thus getting rid of all the stuff. This however is pure conjecture, and to the best of my knowledge, it seems to be a practice common among the earliest Muslims, and probably something peculiar to Arab practice. Nonetheless, its moral repercussions, the shaving on the seventh day, the giving of the equivalent weight of silver in charity, etc. are all praiseworthy deeds. The sheep, if slaughtered, should be either offered to the poor, or the people invited to a feast, since it shows happiness and joy at the addition to the Muslim community.

Now for the shaving, if it is done, I suggest the use of electric hair clippers at the lowest setting instead of straight or safety razors. As I have pointed out too, even though I have no provenance for shaving, remember that in the hajj, as pointed out in the Qur'an, there is reference to shaving. So it would seem that for reasons now lost to us, there was some ritual aspect associated with shaving, and dedication to God. In this way, the aqiqah is somewhat similar to the hajj as both have the effect of aspiring for divine grace. For more information, read Leviticus 12 in order to understand the origin of the tradition.

Posted March 6, 1999