Gender Equity: The Issue of Female Circumcision (Appendix) |

Gender Equity: The Issue of Female Circumcision (Appendix)

The Issue of Female Circumcision

One of the common misconceptions is to connect female circumcision with the teachings of Islam. This appendix addresses the following three questions:


While the exact origin of female circumcision is not known, "it preceded Christianity and Islam."1 The most radical form of female circumcision (infibulation) is known as the Pharaonic Procedure. This may signify that it may have been practiced long before the rise of Islam, Christianity and possibly Judaism. It is not clear, however, whether this practice originated in Egypt or in some other African countries then spread to Egypt.2

It is common knowledge that in some countries like Egypt, female circumcision has been practiced by both Muslims and Christians.3 In the meantime, this practice is not known in most Muslim countries including Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.4 This leads to the conclusion that female circumcision is connected with cultural practices rather than Islam itself as a world religion. It was made clear in the introduction of this book that some cultural practices, whether by Muslims alone or Muslims and others (such as the case with female circumcision), are not part of Islam, and in some cases, may violate its teachings as embodied in its primary sources, Quran and Hadeeth. These sources are examined next.


No mention of female circumcision is to be found in the Quran either directly or indirectly. There is no known Hadeeth which requires female circumcision. Some argued, however, that one Hadeeth, while not requiring female circumcision, appears to accept it:" Circumcision is a commendable act for men (Sunnah) and an honorable thing for women (Makromah)."5

There are two observations on this Hadeeth:

a) A distinction is made between male circumcision which is described in a stronger religious term (Sunnah)6 or commendable while another weaker description is given to female circumcision (Makromah) which implies no religious obligation.

b) This Hadeeth is of weak authenticity (dha'eef) according to Hadeeth scholars.7

There is, however, a more authentic Hadeeth in which Prophet Muhammad (P) is reported to have passed by a woman performing circumcision on a young girl. He instructed the woman by saying:

"Cut off only the foreskin (outer fold of skin over the clitoris; the prepuce) but do not cut off deeply (i.e. the clitoris itself), for this is brighter for the face (of the girl) and more favorable with the husband."8

While the Prophet (P) did not explicitly ban this practice, his words project a great deal of sensitivity to the instinctive needs of females and their matrimonial happiness and legitimate enjoyment. Reference to the brightness of the face and to better relationship with the husband is clear indications of his sensitivity and compassion. They also stand in contrast to the arguments that female circumcision "controls" the woman's sexual appetite and hence contributes to sexual morality and virtue in society. It is true that Islam requires adherents of both genders to be chaste. Yet, there is no text in the Quran or Sunnah which requires selective curtailment or control of the sexual desire of one specific gender. Furthermore, chastity and virtue are not contingent on "cutting off" part of any sensitive and crucial human organ. Rather, they are contingent on spiritual and moral values of the person and the supporting virtuous environments.


Shariah (Islamic law) divides actions into five categories; mandatory, commendable, permissible, detestable and strictly forbidden. Female circumcision falls within the category of the permissible. It was probably on this basis that some scholars opposed a sweeping ban of this practice. Before discussing this view, it is important to distinguish between different types of procedures that were and still are called circumcision.


a) Removal of the hood (or prepuce) of the clitoris. This procedure is, to some degree, analogous to male circumcision since in both cases, no part of the sexual organ is cut off. In both cases also, it is only the foreskin, or outer fold of the skin, which is cut off. Properly done, it is not likely to cause any "matrimonial" problem. While some may call it "sunnah circumcision," this is their own appellation and not that of the Prophet (P) who used the term Sunnah only in the context of male circumcision.

b) Removal of the entire clitoris (clitorectomy) along with part of the labia minora, which is sutured together leaving an opening. This is a form of mutilation.

c) Removal of the entire clitoris, labia minora and medial part of the labia majora, with both sides of the female organ stitched together leaving a small opening. This procedure requires tying together the child's legs for nearly three weeks.9 It is called the Pharaonic procedure but may as well be called "mutilation."

It is obvious that the second and third procedures were never mandated, encouraged or even consented to by the Prophet (P). They even violate a known rule in Shari'ah prohibiting the cutting off of any part of the human body except for unavoidable reasons (e.g. medical treatment, trimming nails or hair, or for an explicitly specified reason such as male circumcision). Such necessity or need does not exist in female circumcision. Nothing justifies genital mutilation. In fact, no mutilation is allowed by Islam even in the battlefield. Not only are these two procedures unjustifiable, they are brutal, inhumane and in violation of Islam.

The remaining question then relates to the first procedure. Some (e.g. the late Rector of Al-Azhar University, Sheikh Gad Al-Haque) argued that since the Prophet (P) did not ban female circumcision, it falls within the category of the permissible. As such, there is no ground for a total ban on it. However, it is within the spirit of Shari'ah to restrict something that is permissible if discovered to be harmful. For example, all fish are permissible to eat. Should a particular type of fish be proven to be poisonous or harmful, it could be banned based on a known Shari'ah rule (Aldharar Yozaal), or harm must be removed. The real issue then boils down to whether the first procedure is harmful or not. Granted that such a procedure may not be seriously damaging like the other two, it may be argued that it is painful, traumatic and often performed in an unhygienic setting leading to infection and other problems.10

Even if the procedure is performed by a physician, it is so delicate that not all physicians master it.11

It should be noted that some people oppose female circumcision as part of their opposition to any "tradition" as old and invalid. This is as inappropriate as practicing female circumcision because it is a "tradition," regardless of its consistency with Islam or not. The practice should be evaluated objectively, on the basis of

a) whether it is required religiously or not

b) whether there are medical and other relevant issues to be considered in evaluating this practice.

While any form of female circumcision is already legally banned in some countriesl12 and may be banned in others in the future, it is not suggested here that this is the only option. In societies and cultures where the practice is well-entrenched and socio-cultural pressures for it are great 13 abrupt legal banning may not end the practice. It may cause it to be practiced "underground" and under more problematic circumstances. However, the problem is serious enough that some action is needed. A starting point, perhaps, is to begin by educating the masses in countries where female circumcision is commonly practiced. All possible media should be used in the process. The contents of this appendix may serve as an outline of such an educational program, or it is so hoped. In any case, the conclusion which appears to be certain is that there is no single text of the Qur'an and Hadeeth which requires 14 female circumcision.



  1. Stewart, Rosemary, "Female Circumcision: Implications for North American Nurses," in Journal of Psychosocial Nursing, vol. 35, no. 4, 1997, p. 35.
  2. Haqa'iq llmiyya Hawla Khitan Al-Inuath (in Arabic), Jam'iyyat Tanzeem Al-Usrah, Cairo, 1983, p. 7.
  3. Ibid, p.8.
  4. Ibid, p.8.
  5. Al-Shawkani, Nayl Al-Awtar, Dar Al-Jeel, Beirut, 1973, vol.1, p. 139
  6. A broader definition of Sunnah is "the words, actions and approval (or consent) of Prophet Muhammad (P)." In the context of religious obligations, however, Sunnah refers to act that are commendable but not obligatory. It is in that context that the Prophet Muhammad (P) used the term Sunnah to refer to male circumcision but not female circumcision.
  7. Al-Shawkani, op. cit, p. 139.
  8. Al-Tabarani, quoted in Al-Albani, Muhammad N., Silsilat Al-Ahadeeth Al-Sahihah, A1 Maktab Al-Islami, Beirut, Lebanon, 1983, vol. 2, Hadeeth no. 722, pp. 353-358 especially pp. 356-357. See also N. Keller (translator/editor), The Reliance of the Traveller by Ahmad Al-Masri, Modern
  9. Stewart, op. cit, p. 35.
  10. Including bleeding, scars, painful intercourse, difficulty to achieve sexual fulfillment which may lead to pain, reducing chances of pregnancy, causing infertility in some instances, chronic pelvic infection, urinary tract infection, psychological problems and unhappy husbands. See Stewart, op. cit, pp. 36-37.
  11. The author was informed by some physicians that since the clitoris itself is quite tiny, even tinier in younger girls it is very difficult to do the first procedure properly even by a non-specialist physician. The much easier procedure of male circumcision is usually referred to a physician with experience in that particular procedure.
  12. Presently female circumcision is illegal in Britain and other European countries through the passage of the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act of 1985. Due to the publicity given to this topic recently, other countries are expected to follow suit, especially those with a large number of immigrants from countries which practice this procedure. Stewart, op. cit, p. 36.
  13. Some such pressure is the non-Islamically based cultural norms that only a circumcised woman is fit for marriage, other superstitious ideas that a child born to an uncircumcised woman is likely to die. See for example Stewart, op. cit, p. 36.
  14. Reference is sometimes made to a saying of the Prophet Muhammad (P) narrated in Ahmad, also in Malik with similar wordings to the effect that if the two areas of circumcision (for a male and female) touch one another, then Ghusl (bathing) is required. This expression simply signifies that after the intimate matrimonial relationship, both husband and wife must take a complete bath before they perform their daily prayers. The relevant part of this Hadeeth, however, is its reference to the two circumcised parts. Imam Ahmad uses this Hadeeth as an evidence that women (in Madinah) used to be circumcised. This is no evidence, however, that it was religiously required. It could have been a cultural practice which was not prohibited.
  • Even the few Ahadeeth which Al-Albani considered to be authentic do not require female circumcision as discussed earlier. In fact, some of them speak against radical forms of circumcision.

    See Sabiq, Al-Sayyid, Figh Al-Sunnah, Dar Al-Kitab AlArabi, Beirut, 1969, vol. 1, pp. 37 and 66. Also Al-Albani, Muhammad N., Tamam Al-Minnah Fi Al-Ta'leeq Ala Fiq AlSunnah, Al-Maktabah Al-Islamiyyah, Amman, 3rd printing, 1409 A.H., p. 67, and Muwatta'AI-lmam Malik, Dar AlQalam, Beirut, n.d., pp. 50-51.

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