Islamic Perspectives

Islam and female circumcision

A controversy is raging these days about female circumcision in India among a section of Muslims (Bohras). A woman belonging to the community has sent a petition demanding a firman banning the practice and is also preparing a petition to be filed in the Supreme Court to get a ban order. Many newspapers and magazines are carrying articles on the issue condemning the practice and many have approached me for interviews on whether it has Islamic sanction.

Needless to say, it is a highly controversial subject and there is no unanimity among Muslim scholars on this subject. It is not a universal practice among Muslims but only among Bohras in India and among Shafi’is in Egypt, Sudan and Ethopia besides some other African countries.  Among Indonesian Muslims too, it is reported to be prevalent as they too follow the Shafi’i maslak. But among Shafi’is in India, who are found in Western Maharashtra (Kokan area), Kerala and Tamilnadu, it is not prevalent. Thus all Shafi’is also do not practice it.

Wherever it is practiced, it has an African connection. It appears this practice originated in pre-Islamic Africa and spread to some parts of the world. It is important to note that Imam Shafi’i lived and compiled his fiqh mostly in Egypt and as far as Bohras are concerned, Cairo (Egypt) was the seat of the power of the Fatimid Imams and the Isma’ili book of jurisprudence, Da’aim al-Islam, was written by Al-Qadi Al-Nu’man in Cairo during the time of the 14th Imam Mu’iz. Thus, among Bohras too, the African connection is obvious.

As to the question whether it has any Islamic sanction, the answer falls in a rather grey area. One cannot say categorically either way. Qur’an does not talk of either male or female circumcision and that is why even male circumcision is referred to as sunnah or Sunnat-e-Ibrahimi or Sunnat-e Mohammadi. But in case of men, it is considered almost obligatory and all Muslim sects are unanimous about it. Before Islam, it was practiced by Jews and that is why it is also referred to as Sunnat-e-Ibrahimi too, and according to some traditions, the Prophet (pbuh) adopted it from there.

While male circumcision is celebrated publicly and people are invited to a public dinner, female circumcision is done secretly (by those who practice it) and except family members no one comes to know about it. The hadith (prophetic tradition) cited is also considered weak by many Muslims. Thus, we find in Abu Dawood (Book 41, hadith no. 5251) that Umm ‘Atiyyah al-Ansariyyah narrated that a woman used to perform (female) circumcision in Madina. The Prophet (pbuh) told her “not to cut severely as that is better for a woman and more desirable for a husband”.

Similarly, we find in Muslim too (Book 3, hadith no.684) where Abu Musa has reported that there cropped up a difference of opinion between a group of Muhajirs… He (Abu Musa, the narrator) said I got up (and went) to A’isha and sought her permission which was granted. I said: what makes a bath obligatory for a person? She replied, “You have come across one well-informed! The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) said: ‘when anyone sits amidst four parts and the circumcised parts touch each other a bath becomes obligatory’”.

We find a similar hadith narrated by Abu Musa al-Ash’ari in Malik’s Muwatta. This hadith also refers to A’isha as the source. Similarly in Malik’s Muwatta (Book 2, hadith number 2.19,77) it is said that Yahya related to me from Malik on the authority of Naf’i that Abdullah ibn ‘Umar said that “when the circumcised part passes the circumcised part, ghusl (bath) become obligatory”.

Similarly, we find in the Shafi’i source book Reliance of the Traveller (Umdat al-Salik) written by Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri that female circumcision is obligatory. This book has been certified by Al-Azhar University. This book says that circumcision is obligatory both for men and women. For men it consists of removing the prepuce and for women removing the tip of the clitoris (bazr in Arabic). Hanbalis hold that circumcision of women is not obligatory but only Sunna.

Thus, it will be seen that there is no unanimity among Muslim scholars about female circumcision and it is prevalent as pointed out mostly among African Muslims and among many African tribes.

Whereas in case of men, circumcision does not reduce sexual pleasure but is considered necessary from the hygienic point of view, in case of female circumcision, it reduces sexual pleasure and there is no hygienic function as in case of men. While male circumcision is universal among all Muslims, female circumcision, at least in practice, is confined to a few Muslim sects, primarily those of African origin.

Since female circumcision interferes with a woman’s sexual pleasure, almost replacing old Roman chastity belt, it has become a human rights issue today. Female circumcision came into vogue to restrict women’s sexuality, and today women are demanding its abolition. It should also be noted that Islam does not, in any way, seek to restrict either male or female sexuality but only to ban illegitimate sex outside the marital bond and gives right to woman to seek divorce from an impotent husband if he had hidden this fact from her at the time of marriage.

Thus Islam fully respects woman’s right to sexual pleasure as it is essential for perpetuating human progeny. It is society which, in the name of morality, does so, but being patriarchal in structure, it does not put any restriction on male sexuality. Actually both sexes should be permitted natural sexual pleasure as it is absolutely necessary for healthy human growth but also for perpetuation of human species. Justice demands that both sexes be treated equally.