Female Circumcision: A Religious Practice in Islam?

Yes, it is. Or at least in three of the four branches of Sunni Islam. In the Shafi’i school it’s obligatory, and in the Maliki and Hanbali schools it’s recommended. Only in the Hanafi school is there considerable ambiguity, where some jurists hold that female circumcision is preferred, and others resist a religious prescription and even say that it’s undesirable.

The Reliance of the Traveler is the Shafi’i manual of Islamic law, from al-Azhar University in Cairo. Al-Azhar is a prestigious institution of Sunni Islam, and basically Islam’s closest equivalent to the Vatican. The Reliance says:

“Circumcision is obligatory (for every male and female) by cutting off the piece of skin on the glans of the penis of the male, but circumcision of the female is by cutting out the bazr ‘clitoris’ (this is called khufaaddh, ‘female circumcision’).” (e4.3)

It’s worth noting that Nuh Hah Mim Keller’s popular translation of The Reliance “corrects” the above understanding, implying that female circumcision is simply removing the skin around the clitoris (the prepuce) instead of the clitoris itself. Keller’s translation is an apologetic for Western consumption. He treats the Arabic word “bazr” as referring to the clitoral hood or prepuce, and doesn’t indicate what other term might refer to the clitoris if “bazr” does not. In contrast, the vast majority of scholars believe that “bazr” means clitoris, not the skin around it (see Kecia Ali’s Sexual Ethics in Islam, p 138). In Shafi’i Islam, circumcision of girls as traditionally understood — by removing the clitoris — is mandatory. Regions where the Shafi’i school dominates (dark blue, below) also happen to be the places where clit-cutting is heavily frequent: Egypt, southern Arabia, Bahrain, Kurdistan, Somalia, Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia.

The practice, moreover, was introduced into Southeast Asia at the same time Shafi’i Islam was introduced; this was a part of the world where female circumcision hadn’t been practiced. Obviously the Shafi’is haven’t been interpreting Islamic law in Keller’s “corrective” manner.

Similar apologetics have been tried by other Muslim leaders. For example, Imam Afroz Ali, president of the Al-Ghazzali Centre for Islamic Sciences and Human Development in Australia, has claimed that female circumcision is not the same thing as female genital mutilation. Circumcision, he says, is simply removing the uppermost extra skin (the prepuce) at the top of the clitoral glans. But as with Keller’s misleading translation, this is a distinction without a difference, since most who perform the procedure go well beyond removing some “extra skin”. The World Health Organization reports that this “benign” version of female circumcision happens only in rare cases. Far more frequent is the removal of the clitoris itself, whether partial or total.

Female circumcision — that is, female genital mutilation — is indeed sanctioned in Islamic Law. It’s a religious practice as much as a cultural one in regions dominated by Shafi’i Islam which requires it, and Maliki and Hanbali Islam which both encourage it. (In a similar way, honor killings are sanctioned in Islamic Law, according to which “retaliation is obligatory against anyone who kills a human being purely intentionally and without right,” however, “not subject to retaliation” is “a father or mother (or their fathers or mothers) for killing their offspring, or offspring’s offspring”. Reliance of the Traveler o1.1-2.)

We often hear that female circumcision isn’t a religious requirement in Islam because it’s not mentioned in the Qur’an. But that’s like saying anti-abortion isn’t religiously grounded in Christianity because the Bible has nothing to say about abortion. The Qur’an is one of Islam’s many authoritative religious writings, along with the Hadith, the Sira, the Fiqh, and the texts of Sharia law. All of these are understood to convey the will of Allah — regardless of what the “historical Muhammad” would say on the matter if we could somehow ask him.

This is well put by Dario Fernandez-Morera, whose specialty is the Maliki school of Islam. In his landmark book on medieval Spain (where the Maliki school dominated throughout the 8th-12th centuries), he refutes myths of Islamic tolerance, and in the section on female circumcision, he writes:

“Today’s discussions on whether or not the practice of female circumcision is actually prescribed ‘by Islam’, or whether it was a pre-Islamic practice that Islam kept, or whether it was a practice that Muhammad did not condone but that later clerics implemented, are irrelevant to the fact of its approval in Maliki law and therefore to the logic of its practice in lands ruled by Maliki law right down to the twenty-first century.” (The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise, p 143)

It may be “Islamophobic” to point this out, but it’s factual, however much facts are out of fashion. Few liberals and media outlets like to admit that female circumcision has anything to do with Islam.

Which makes last year’s events in Detroit a very interesting post-script. Two Muslim doctors were charged in April 2017 for mutilating the genitals of two seven-year old girls. Attorney Mary Chartier said of the defendants: “They have a religious belief to practice their religion. And they are Muslims and they’re being under attack for it. I believe that they are being persecuted because of their religious beliefs.” Now, obviously the doctors were under attack for mutilating girl’s genitals, not for “being Muslims”. But Chartier did get one thing right — the thing no one cares to admit: female genital mutilation is prescribed in Islam, as I explained in this post. Chartier has to concede the truth in order to make a case for religious freedom for her clients. They will doubtfully win, but you gotta love the irony: the only liberal multi-culturalist who will speak truth on this matter is a lawyer, who will say anything to defend the indefensible.

One thought on “Female Circumcision: A Religious Practice in Islam?

  1. Thank you for this excellent article. Everyone who cares about the rights and condition of children should realise that FGM has everything to do with Islam.

    If instead of praising FGM (in the hadith), mohammed had condemned or forbidden it, is there any doubt that the practice would have long ago disappeared from the Islamic world (and those parts of the non-islamic world that have come under its baleful influence)?

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