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The Islamic basis for female circumcision

Published 3 July 2017 Associated Categories The facts
Basis female circumcision

Millions of women around the world are circumcised. Families willingly arrange for their daughters to undergo it, often as part of  religious ceremonies, despite that it is considered illegal by many Governments and by the World Health Organisation.

The legality of the practice in the US is soon to be tested when six members of the Dawoodi Bohra Muslim sect will be tried there for conspiring to commit, practising or aiding and abetting ‘FGM’, a catch-all term for a wide variety of female genital alterations or surgeries, ranging from a symbolic clitoral hood nick to the more severe and radical infibulation. In the popular imagination, all girls/women are incorrectly thought to undergo infibulation.

The Dawoodi Bohras’ say the form practised by them is mild, is not harmful, is carried out by a Doctor and is far less severe than routine but legal, male circumcision.

Views differ as to whether there is a religious basis for the practice. This piece by guest author, Asiff Hussein, outlines the Islamic basis for female circumcision.

Gender equality is fundamental to Islam. Religious duties are therefore equally binding on men and women, be they prayer, fasting, alms tax, or pilgrimage.  The same holds true of circumcision which is required of both.

The  religious basis for male and female circumcision comes from the hadith, a collection of traditions containing sayings of the prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him).

He says:

Circumcision is my way for men and ennobling in women 
(Baihaqi, a collection of Prophet Muhammad sayings)

This hadith does not affect the obligatory character of circumcision for females because it would have been inappropriate to apply the masculine term sunnat ‘(Prophet’s) way’ to women. Instead, he used the word makrumah (ennobling).

2) Five are the acts of fitra: circumcision, shaving the pubic hair, clipping the moustache, cutting the nails, plucking the hair under the armpits
(Sahih Bukhari, a collection of sayings of Prophet Muhammad)

Fitra are divinely-inspired obligations on humans and are wajib (obligatory). Here circumcision applies to both genders. Both have prepuces and should be treated equally. The act helps take the human body to the enhanced state desired by God.

3) When the (male) circumcised part meets the (female) circumcised part, a bath becomes obligatory
(Tirmidhi, a collection of sayings of Prophet Muhammad)

Here, the Prophet declares that ghusl (the bath following sexual intercourse without which no prayer is valid) becomes wajib (obligatory) when circumcised parts meet. The fact that he defines sexual intercourse as the meeting of both circumcised parts when stressing the need for the post-coital bath, suggests the obligatory nature of circumcision in both.

Other evidence includes:

4) Abdullah Ibn Umar (a companion of the Prophet) states that the Prophet instructed some Ansar (Medinan) women visiting him to ‘be circumcised
(Zawaid Musnad)

5) The Prophet told Umm Atiyyah Al Ansariyyah, a woman who circumcised girls in Medina: “When you circumcise, cut plainly and do not cut severely, for it is beauty for the face and desirable for the husband
(Abu Dawud)

6) Umm Al Muhajir says: “I was captured with some girls from Byzantium. Uthman (the son-in-law and third Caliph of Islam) offered us Islam, but only myself and one other girl accepted Islam. Uthman said: ‘Go and circumcise them and purify them.”
(Adab al Mufrad)

7) When the nieces of Ayisha’s brother were circumcised, Ayisha (The Prophet’s wife) was asked: “Shall we call someone to amuse them?” She replied “Yes“.
(Adab Al Mufrad)

Islamic scholars generally agree that what is needed in female circumcision is the removal of part of the clitoral prepuce. Nawawi, a famous Muslim Jurist states in his work, Sharhul Muhazzab, that the part to be removed is “the skin of the structure which is like the cock’s comb above the urethral opening”. He adds in his commentary known as Sharh Muslim that it constitutes the removal of “a little bit of skin in the upper private parts”.

Ibn Hajar Asqalani, another well known Jurist states in Fathul Bari, that it constitutes the removal of “the skin covering the cock’s comb-like structure, and not the flesh”.

Another Jurist, Abu al-Hasan Al Mawardi, says of female circumcision: “It is to be limited to cutting off the skin in the shape of a kernel located above the genitalia. One must cut the protruding skin without removing the whole fold

These scholars base their conclusions on the statement of the Prophet:

“When you circumcise, cut plainly (in a shallow manner) and do not cut deeply, for it is beauty for the face and desirable for the husband
(Sunan Al Kubra of Baihaqi)

This hadith clearly outlines the procedure to be followed in circumcising girls. The words “cut plainly and do not cut deeply” (ashimmi wa-la-tanhaki) is understood as the removal of a bit of skin covering the clitoral glans, part of the clitoral hood. The expression “It is beauty (more properly brightness or radiance) for the face” (ashraq li-l-wajh) is understood to mean a face suffused with pleasure, the joyous countenance of a woman sexually satisfied by her husband.

Another version of the hadith puts it even more directly; instead of ashraq li’l wajh (radiance for the face), it gives ahwa li’l mar’a (more pleasure to the woman). This suggests that a woman can only achieve sexual satisfaction with the removal of some of the prepuce.

That these words were pronounced 1400 years ago is remarkable. This was long before the benefits of female circumcision began to be realised in the US, from the 1950s onwards.

Asiff Hussein is a Sri Lankan based writer. He is an Islamic scholar and Vice President – Outreach at the Centre for Islamic Studies, Sri Lanka.


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