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Circumcision[1] of boys and girls is widely practised in the Sudan; both are mandatory among Muslims, but that of the female is rarely practised among non-Muslims. Wherever male circumcision is found—among Muslims or animists—it is performed with ritual celebration, clearly initiating boys either into manhood or as a vague tradition, as among Muslims.[2] The Nuba tribes of western Sudan practise male circumcision at an older age as a rite of initiation to manhood and its physical fulfilment in marriage.[3]

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That this rite is deeply rooted in religious concepts (ancestral spirits, fertility) among the Nyimang, of the Nuba Mountains, has been discussed by Kronenberg.[4] In 1918, Brock reported on circumcision among the Azande of the Bahr Al-Ghazal Province. He noted that girls are not circumcised, but all boys are at about the age of 13 or upwards, and that this has been the custom from the earliest times and is not Islamic in its origin. The boys are circumcised in groups by men who make a profession of it. The boys remain in the temporary house which has been built for the occasion for six months each with an attendant whose business it is to dress their wound and instruct them in the special circumcision dance. When all the boys are considered to be proficient in the dance they return to their respective villages.[5]

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Juvenile circumcision, both of the male and the female—among other cultural items—are adopted by the Nuba tribes who contacted the Arabs. Male circumcision, Nadel writes, does not appear at random and as an entirely new custom in the Nuba tribes. It appeared only in tribes in which the practice as such was known, though it had previously been limited to specific social groups or grades in the society, i.e. in Tira and Tullishi. The new incentive merely led to the extension of the custom beyond the old limits. Again, then, the more radical cultural assimilation sets in only where a certain preparedness for the new trait exists. He added that clitoridectomy is indigenous in some Nuba groups. It is also practised by Arab tribes in the west and southwest of Kordofan (Messirya and Humr), and has spread to their Nuba neighbours—the peoples of Kamdang, the Miri, and the Daju of western Kordofan.

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Female circumcision

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Female circumcision (FC) is an ancient and deeply-rooted custom. Herodotus (c. 480-425 B.C.)[6] and Strabo (64 B.C.-21 B.C.)[7] mentioned FC in the Sudan in their historical chronicles. Ibn Salim (969)[8] described the practice in the Bega tribes of eastern Sudan and stated that it had been popular among their women but it had later declined. According to Seligman[9], infibulation apparently represents a local elaboration of clitoridectomy in Neolithinic times in an undifferentiated Hamito-Semitic culture.

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Some historians believe that FC is Arabian in origin, while others consider it indigenous. Abdulla Al-Tayib writes that early Islamic verse suggest that at least, in so far as the Sudan is concerned, the custom could have been derived from Arabia. Al-Farazdak, an early Arab poet, in one of his lampoons accuses the tribe of the Azd that their women have never experienced the pains of circumcision, implying thereby that the Azd are of an inferior stock.[10]

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In 1917 Yusbashi Negib Eff. Yunis, an army medical officer in the Anglo-Egyptian army, visited the Baggara and Nuba of western Kordofan, and had the following observation to record about female circumcision among those tribes:

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“The Baggara whose original home is in the West formerly practised the ‘sunna’ form of circumcision, but the ‘Pharaonic’ method gradually came into use through the influence of traders and other inhabitants of the northern Sudan with whom they came into contact. The Messeria, being the most easterly of the tribes in question, were the first to adopt this practice, and after it had become universal amongst them, they passed it on to their neighbours, the Fellaita section of the Homr, whence it made its way to the Agaira section of the same tribe. At the time of my first visit to Muglad in 1917 I found that the Agaira were still practising the ‘sunna’ method, and made every effort to convince the Nazir Nimr Ali Gulla of the atrociousness of the ‘Pharaonic’ custom and the damage and suffering which it inflicts on the women. I earnestly advised him to use all his influence to prevent it from spreading amongst his section. He appeared to be convinced by my arguments and promised to do his best; I regret to say however that during my next visit in 1918 I found that the ‘Pharaonic’ custom had made its appearance there and was given a hearty welcome. The reasons given for the adoption of this form of circumcision are: (1) that it is supposed to be a protection against untimely pregnancy (2) that it is regarded as rendering the victim more attractive to the men.”[11]

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The Hawazma Arabs in the eastern Nuba Mountains practise the Pharaonic circumcision, which thus reached the Nuba tribe in that part—or one Nuba tribe as far as my material goes, the Tira. In this operation virginity and the consummation of marriage thus receive a new, strong emphasis, which is indeed expressed in the sex-morality of this Nuba tribe. He concludes that he believed that in the Nuba adoption of female circumcision this aspect is only incidental.

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Another aspect, applying to both types of female circumcision, is paramount: and in it the ‘preparedness’ of the Nuba culture for the new usage is again manifest. Female circumcision never appears by itself in the Nuba Mountains: it accompanies or succeeds the adoption of juvenile male circumcision. It thus comes to express the conception of a balance of the sexes, much that female life should parallel male life, and a rite of passage of the women duplicate that of the men. Indeed, where female circumcision appears, this conception of balance is deeply rooted in the social structure. We can even venture this prognosis: in the Nuba cultures, which elaborate this conception of a ‘balance’, and where male circumcision already exists (Nyima, Tullishi), female circumcision will follow.[12]

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FC is not dying out in the Sudan. Two recent reports confirm this. The first is a report of a survey conducted by Shaikh Idris Abd Al-Rahim and Marian Cederblad in Haj Yusuf, Maigoma and Magharba villages at the outskirts of Khartoum in 1980. The project was part of a longitudinal study that was started in 1965. It indicated that the incidence of FC is still 100 %. The following results were reported:

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“Both boys and girls are still circumcised in 100 % of cases. The operation is most often performed between 5 and 8 years of age. Pharaonic circumcision is still the most common form. Very little change has taken place in the past 15 years although there has been information about the health hazards connected with Pharaonic circumcision on the radio, in the newspapers and delivered by doctors and midwives ...”[13]

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The second is the Sudan Demographic and Health Survey 1989/1990 (SDHS). The SDHS collected data on the prevalence of female circumcision and the attitudes of women and men towards the practice (the southern regions of the Sudan were not surveyed due to the civil unrest). Eighty-nine percent of ever-married women in the Sudan have been circumcised, representing a slight drop from 96 percent reported by the Sudan Fertility Survey. The majority of women received Pharaonic circumcision (82 percent); 15 percent received Sunna, and the rest had an intermediate type of circumcision. In this report also, more than three-quarters of ever-married women support continuation of the practice of female circumcision. Support for circumcising their own daughters is even stronger than for circumcision in general. Among those wanting to retain the practice, Sunna circumcision (the least severe type) is preferred by 48 percent of the ever-married women; 46 percent prefer Pharaonic circumcision and 5 percent prefer the intermediate type. Those who oppose continuation of female circumcision said they believe the best way to abolish the practice is through education campaigns and the enforcement of laws against female circumcision.[14]

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The Sudan is one of 27 countries in Africa alone that practise FC. With very few exceptions, all tribes in northern Sudan perform one form or the other. The tribes that do not circumcise girls are the Fallata Fota, Fur, Kinin and most tribes of the Nuba Mountains. For example, the Arabized Tira Mandi and a few families in Kalkadda, have been reported to have started to circumcise their girls as early as 1938, to have practised the severest forms of FC, the Pharaonic, and to have discriminated positively in marriage in favour of circumcised brides, just as is the case in a typical Arab community. The Moro, it is noteworthy, perform clitoridectomy on girls with large protruding clitoris for cosmetic reasons. As a general rule, the tribes of southern Sudan do not circumcise, although early researchers have reported FC among some of the southern tribes and the Ingassana of the south-eastern Sudan.

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Girls are circumcised at the age of 6-8 years in Muslim Sudan, and as late as twelve to fifteen among the Tira Mande of the Nuba, who adopted the custom as a result of their contact with Arabs. The type of circumcision varies in severity and extent and ranges from the excision of the glans of the clitoris alone, to the drastic and more common Pharaonic type. In the Pharaonic variety, the clitoris, the labia minora and most of the labia majora are excised. The two sides of the vulva are then sewn together with any available material, including thorn and thread. Thorns transfix the raw bleeding surfaces, and the thread is wound around its protruding edges in a figure of eight fashion. They leave but a small hole posteriorly to allow urine and menstrual blood to escape. A definite, and limited orifice is created by inserting a hollow straw; the girl’s thighs are then strapped together for forty days.

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The girl is prepared for circumcision with rituals that mark transition into womanhood and protect against excessive bleeding. Incantations were chanted during the procedure for encouragement and support. The operation is usually performed under unhygienic conditions by untrained elderly women who are, understandably, ignorant of anatomy and asepsis. The instruments used include sharp objects including knives, razor blades, scissors or sharpened stones,

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A variety of substances are applied locally to aid quicker healing of the wound. These include sugar, eggs, ash, oil and tar. Trained midwives, though neither taught nor encouraged to circumcise, are increasingly involved in the practice to supplement their income to face the escalating cost of living. Nurses and a few doctors also circumcise girls though on a limited scale; they all claim that they perform the mild sunna type, and that if they do not do it, women would seek the help of untrained midwives.

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FC is a hazardous operation with several physical, social and psychological effects. It may interfere with all aspects of the woman’s life, impose socio-economic losses on the family, and put undue strain on the individual, the health institution and the state at large. Immediate physical complications of FC include bleeding and sometimes shock, resulting in immediate death, or infections (tetanus and septicaemia), urine retention and injury to pelvic tissues. Late complications include formation of keloid, dermoid or inclusion cysts and vulval abscesses. They also include menstrual problems (specially dysmenorrhoea), hematocolpos, difficult micturition, urinary tract infection, formation of calculi and fistulae, incontinence, chronic pelvic infection, endometriosis, infertility, decircumcision and recircumcision problems at pregnancy and delivery. Sexual problems include difficult penetration, injury to the sex organs, urethral and anal coitus, formation of false vaginae and dyspareunia.

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The psychological complications reported include anxiety, depression neuroses, psychoses and interference with normal social life due to physical incapacity or incontinent urine. Difficult penetration and infertility may lead to divorce. It is also maintained that the traumatic experience of FC, which associates sexuality with such intense pain at an early age, results in a rejection or repression of the normal sexual impulses of women. Some researchers believe that frigidity, which is often a consequence of FC, leads to other forms of libidinous satisfaction that are important in the life of Muslim women. It is suggested, for example, that this is why many women eat so copiously. Also prolonged breast feeding gives sexual satisfaction to women.

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Control of FC and its rituals lies in the hands of women: they decide whether to circumcise or not, what type and when. It is a disgrace for a man to indulge in deliberation of any nature concerning this subject. Pamela Constantinidis has noted that it is the older women who insist on infibulation for young girls and who constantly police their moral behaviour. It is also older women who keep firmly within their hands all the ritual surrounding the vital stages of a woman’s life cycle. Her conclusions are in general agreement with those of other researchers maintaining that the Sudanese Muslim women, by so doing, emphasize that the whole basis of society rests upon their reproductive role. In FC rituals and practices, they are symbolizing this, their ‘inarticulate power’, deliberately counterbalancing it against the actual political and economic power of men.[15]

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People give the following reasons to justify the practice: that it is a religious demand, a good tradition and hygienic; that it promotes cleanliness and purity (hence the name tahara ‘purity’), increases the sexual pleasure of husbands, improves fertility, protects virginity, prevents immorality, gives better marriage prospects, is cosmetic, and that it is performed in conformity with the social norms. Most women say that circumcision is a good tradition, while men erroneously invoke religious sanction. Women in northern Sudan frequently get recircumcised for different reasons; this is done after each delivery, for example; the married ask for it if they consider that the introitus is becoming roomy; divorcees do so to restore virginity. The Sudanese Islamic leaders have assumed an unequivocal position since 1939 through the successive declarations of Muftis. They then agreed that there is no injunction to perform FC any where in the Quran, and there is no indisputable command in the hadith (the Prophet Muhammad’s sayings) either.

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Some writers regard FC as a primitive form of birth control and cite it as a factor explaining the low figures of the 1955-56 census in the Sudan. Researchers and abolition campaigners have labelled FC as genital mutilation, castration, sexual oppression, social injustice, part of a complex socio-cultural arrangement of female subjugation in a strongly patrilineal, patriarchal society, a means for controlling female sexuality and conserving the monogamic status of women, a political problem the solution of which requires a new international order, a form of child abuse in the name of tradition, and violation of human rights.

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The practice has been described as a custom, a ritual, a tradition and a social taboo. However described, it remains as an important rite of passage in the Sudanese society. It exhibits all the elements of initiation rites, though the negative aspects, in this particular case, outweigh any positive elements. Also, like many initiation rites, FC is accompanied by rich festivities, rituals, and, in the Pharaonic type, by tin drumming and incantations.

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There is a Nuba custom that when a woman is pregnant for the first time, at about the fifth month, she is scarred in a rough pattern all over the arms, body and thighs. This they call tahur, circumcision. If a woman remains infertile, no ‘circumcision’ is performed until she reaches the menopause.

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Some tribes in the southern Sudan practise some types of circumcision. Researchers early this century have found that the Banda tribes of western Equatoria practise a minor form, and that their neighbouring tribes, the Woro, Gbaya and Azande, are starting to copy their variety of FC[16], but that prolific tribes such as the Mangayat, Bviri and Shatt do not practise it.[17]

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Male circumcision

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Male circumcision occurs independently in a great number of widely separated cultures—it is practised by approximately one-seventh of the earth’s population.[18] Different reasons are given in different cultures to justify the practice. These include religious, social (handing-on of procreative power by the elder generation), psychological (need for separation from the mother), sacrificial (painful shedding of the foreskin), utilitarian (sex promoting, hygienic, health protective), purification (ritual cleanliness, hence the name tahara, tahur), etc. It is practised at puberty, pre-puberty, at juvenile or old age.

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Abraham, according to scriptural accounts, was commanded to circumcise his folk, with a great possibility that Abraham himself was not the first to be circumcised.[19] Indeed, male circumcision was practised by the pre-Islamic Arabs. Of this Abdulla Al-Tayib writes:

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“Boys’ circumcision is definitely of Semitic origin. It is closely associated with Islamic practice, as it is regarded as Sunna, that is a tradition that can be traced back to the Prophet. However, male circumcision was believed by the pre-Islamic Arabs to have something to do with the moon. They believed that the moon would partly circumcise an uncircumcised male by causing the fore-skin to contract—hence the abusive remarks: ‘He is uncircumcised but for the portion taken by the moon.” According to the evidence of the Quran, the moon was one of the pre-Islamic Gods.”[20]

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According to Herodotus, the Egyptians were the first people to practise circumcision, well before Syrians or Phoenicians, and the Hebrews acquired the custom from them.[21] Circumcision was practised in Egypt. Earlier still, in Pharaonic Egypt, rather, by so doing, a new shift of emphasis of an old practice has been forged. A link is now established with God rather than with the ancestral lineage. According to the Old Testament (Gen. xvii) God commanded Abraham that every male be circumcised on the eighth day after his birth as token of the covenant which God has made with him and his descendants.[22]

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Though male circumcision is a universal rite whose significance is controversial, its importance as an initiation rite can hardly be questioned. The unveiling of the penis at a time when it is becoming of sexual importance may suggest a phallic significance. Different examples can be drawn from northern Muslim Sudan and from animist tribes throughout the country. In some southern tribes, for example, Nyam and Gour, only male circumcision is known, and the male is attended thereafter with all the privileges and prestige of manhood. Muslim groups throughout the country share the same concepts and perform the excision the same way—more or less. Immediately after the operation, Al Tayib writes:

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“The jirtiq or ritual decoration took place. The boy was dressed to appear like a girl. His eyes were edged with kohl. Gold and silver ornaments were placed round his neck and wrists. He was also made to wear the long coral wedding necklace and other necklaces containing beads of bloodstone which was believed to stop the bleeding and to speed up the healing process. A band of red silk was tied round his right wrist—this contained beads of magical value and a fish bone. The scarab might be attached to the band or to the gold necklace. The boy’s palms were decorated with henna and so were his feet. His hair which had been shaved clean with a razor or knife was covered with grease and then with the powder of sandal wood. A silk band was then tied round his head. Beads might sometimes be attached to his hand. Then to mark the boy’s manliness, having decorated him thus like a girl, he was symbolically presented with a whip and a sword.”[23]

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Nadel described male circumcision among the different tribes of the Nuba, while Stevenson and Andreas Kronenberg described that among the Nyimang. In this tribe entry into manhood is by circumcision, and seclusion in the hills for a period of over a month. Circumcision is performed annually during the four-year period of the fourth grade of the age-grade system. The age for the circumcised, kwai kanyer (new man), can vary between twenty and twenty-seven years and this wide range is due to the rule that brothers must belong to different age-grade classes. Circumcision is usually performed one year before marriage. The customs that people circumcised together should never wrestle together, that they must help each other, and greet each other by embracing the knees, and that they use, after circumcision, new names, are expressions of a special social relation or identity among them.

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Though among the Rubatab, boys were circumcised between the ages of fourteen and sixteen, and among some nomad tribes in infancy, in most other parts of northern Sudan individually at about 5-6 years of age, amid family rejoicing and festivities.[24] The operator is a hallaq (barber), basir (handyman) or a village nurse.

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The operation consists of exposing the glans permanently by cutting off the ghalafa (prepuce). To do this, the glans is first pushed away using a blunt probe of wood, a murwad (kohl pin) or fuss (dura stalk). The fore-skin is stretched free through a perforated disc of gourd, ivory or metal, and a clamp of wood. A specially-made instrument called al-lazim or alternatively a string is applied around the fuss to clamp it. In all cases, the dura stalk is used to push the glans away. The stretched skin is then severed with a razor blade or a knife. When suturing of the raw ends is needed, a giraffe’s hair or thorns are used. Bleeding is usually minimal and the wound dressed with warm fat or dusted with qarad, ground charcoal, wood ash, ground dura, a bark of nahud tree (among the Nyimang), powder of burnt palm-leaves, charred cow or sheep dung. When it is healed, Crowfoot reports, the Rubatab make a very black compound out of grease and soot and smear it over the healed scar for fear lest any part should heal and not turn black, in which case he would be mocked as one who had gone white, of which they are exceedingly ashamed.[25] The severed skin is usually given to the grandmother to wear as a ring.

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Among the Nyimang of the Nuba Mountains, on the day before circumcision (shelakero), the circumcised-to-be is shaved. Then he is given marisa to drink, and a defang (axe-shaped stick) to carry throughout the ritual. The operation is performed by an expert bringing down the blade (kadang) of an axe (temedi) on the outstretched foreskin, on the difang.[26]

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Among the Tira tribe of the Nuba Mountains, juvenile circumcision is unknown. Only those who came in contact with the Arabs acquired the custom. However, among this group a unique type of circumcision is practised—the circumcision of old men (auridhin). This is performed to attain the highest tribal rank called tirdhini. Nadel noted that the man who has become an urdhini is regarded as nearing his second childhood. The religious ceremonies of clan and tribe, the various consultations on the affairs of the community, are tasks entrusted to the romaco of the group, never to the urdihini. The attainment of this highest status is at once the termination of social usefulness. Here we discover, I believe, the meaning of this practice of circumcising old men.

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It is perhaps inevitable in a society which lays so much stress on virility that the loss of physical vigour in old age should be identified with the loss of social usefulness. The circumcision itself marks this transition by the most striking symbolism possible. The mutilation of the sex organs seems nothing else but a demonstration of the loss (or impending loss) of virility.[27]

 

References


[1] Circumcision of females is known as khifad and that of males khitan, and both are known interchangeably as tahara (literally purification), or ta'rib (literally arabization).

[2] Indeed, among the northern Sudanese neither boys' nor girls' circumcision seem to be associated with entrance into any new group.

[3] In an elaborate study, Nadel described male circumcision among the Nuba, and stressed its pivotal role in the age-grade ceremonies. He also remarked that the meaning of these various age-grade ceremonies--which he described at length--goes beyond that of marking off phases of adolescence. The sacrifices, as is expressed in the invocations and prayer formulae which accompany them, are meant to secure health, prosperity, and fertility. The ritual procedure and the grouping of the congregation, besides, underline, with the weight of supernatural associations, the social structure of the group; they throw into relief the existing group units--the local group, the hill community, the tribe; and they affirm the hierarchy of accepted allegiances--to the local spirit priest, to the hill priest, and to the rain-maker of the tribe. (Nadel, S.F. The Nuba: An anthropological study of the Hill Tribes of Kordofan. London: Oxford University Press; 1947: 412).

[4] Kronenberg, Andreas. Nyimang Circumcision. Sudan Notes and Records; 1958; 39: 79-82.

[5] Brock, Major R. G. C. Some Notes on the Azande Tribe as Found in the Meridi District (Bahr El Ghazal Province). Sudan Notes and Records. 1918; 1: 249-262.

[6] Herodutus. The History of Herodutus: Rawlinson.

[7] Strabo. Geographia (17 books).

[8] Ibn Salim, Abd Allah Ibn Ahmad Ibn Salim Al-Aswani (969). Account of Nubia (975-996).

[9] Seligman, Charles G. Aspects of the Hamitic problems in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. J. R. Anthrop. Inst.; 1913; 40(3): 593.

[10] Abd Allah Al-Tayib. The Changing Customs of the Riverain People of the Sudan--III. Sudan Notes and Records; 1964; 45(3): 12-28.

[11] Negib Yunis, Yuzbashi. Notes on the Baggara and Nuba of Western Kordofan. Sudan Notes and Records. 1922; 5: 201-207.

[12] Nadel, S.F (1947). Op. Cit. Pages 486-487.

[13] Rahim S.I.A. Cederblad M. Effects of Rapid Urbanization on Child health and Behaviour in a Part of Khartoum, Sudan, Xerox report undated, p 17.

[14] Department of Statistics, Ministry of Economic and National Planning. Sudan Demographic and Health Survey 1989/1990. Department of Statistics, Ministry of Economic and National Planning, Khartoum, Sudan, and Institute for Resource Development/Macro International, Inc. Columbia, Maryland USA; 1991 May: page xx.

[15] Constantinidis, Pamela. M. Op. Cit.

[16] Zugnoni, Father J. Yilede, a secret society: Among the Gbay "Kreish", Aja, and Banda tribes of the Western District of Equatoria. Sudan Notes and Records: 106-111.

[17] Anderson, R.G. Medical Practices and Superstitions Among the People of Kordofan. In Third Report of the Wellcome Research Laboratories at the Gordon Memorial College, Khartoum 1908: 281-322.

[18] Quoted in: Seligman, Paul, Some notes on the collective significance of circumcision and allied practices. J. Anal. Psychol.; 1965; 10: 5-21.

[19] Prophet Muhammad's was quoted to say in an authentic hadith the following: Narrated Abu Huraira: I heard the Prophet (PBUH) saying, "Five practices are characteristic of the Fitra: "Circumcision, shaving the pubic hair, cutting the moustaches short, clipping the nails, and depleting the hair of the armpits." (Al-Bukhari, Abu Abd Alla Muhammad Ibn Isma’il, Compiler. Sahih Al-Bukhari [Arabic-English]. Muhammad Muhsin Khan, Translator. Beirut, Lebanon: Dar Al Arabia; 1985; Volume VII, page 516. Also Prophet Muhammad was quoted as saying, in a weak hadith, that Prophet Abraham was circumcised (or circumcised himself) at the age of 80 using a quddum, a brick hammer (or at the place called Qudum if the word is pronounced differently). According to this hadith, and others, the learned men of Islam are unanimous that it is a definite act of fitra (literally, human nature), and in this context, Islamic pattern and tradition of the Prophet), an ordinance and an attribute of faith.

[20] Abd Allah Al-Tayib. Op. Cit.

[21] Quoted from: Ghalioungui, Paul. Magic and Medical Science in Ancient Egypt. London: Hodder and Stoughton; 1963: page 95.

[22] Seligman, Paul. Some notes on the collective significance of circumcision and allied practices. J. Anal, Psychol.; 1965; 10: 5-21.

[23] Abd Allah Al-Tayib Op. Cit.

[24] Due to several factors including medical opinion, the trend throughout northern Sudan to perform the operation as early as possible with markedly less ritual and celebration.

[25] Crowfoot, J.W. Customs of the Rubatab. Sudan Notes and Records; 1918; 1: 119-134.

[26] For more details of this ritual and the accompanying songs see Kronenberg, Andreas, Nyimang Circumcision. Sudan Notes and Records; 1958; 39: 79-82.

[27] Nadel, S.F (1947). Op. Cit. Pages 237-8.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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