Senior Committee Member of Mainstream American Muslim Group: In Islam Female Genital Mutilation Is an Honor
A previous translation was of a paper by the Association of Muslim Jurists of America (AMJA) senior committee member Dr. Hatem al-Haj, PhD, MD, in which he warned Muslims against working in law enforcement in America, an 'infidel' nation. In the following translation, Dr. al-Haj explains why female circumcision is recommended and even 'an honor' for women. This is the same practice which is popularly known as female genital mutilation (FGM) due to the pain it causes women. The World Health Organization (WHO) asserts that "the procedure has no health benefits for women," and causes a range of health problems including "severe bleeding and problems urinating, and later cysts, infections, infertility as well as complications in childbirth."
Yet Dr. al-Haj, a medical doctor and fellow at the American Academy of Pediatrics, ignores FGM's detrimental effects on women's health, and instead argues that it is 'an honor' for women. He justifies this position by referring repeatedly to the words of classical Islamic scholars from the four schools of mainstream Sunni Islamic thought, all of which attest to FGM's legitimacy under Islam. He also refers to the words of the Prophet Muhammad himself, who reportedly counseled people in his day on how to perform FGM in a way that would be "more beautiful to behold and better for [the woman's] husband."
There are many hadiths on circumcision, some of which will be presented here along with the commentary of some scholars:
From Abi-Hurayra, who attributed it to the Prophet: “Five (acts of) al-fitrah [Islamic law or way of nature] are circumcision, shaving pubic hair, plucking armpit hair, trimming fingernails, and clipping the mustache.” Also from Abi-Hurayra: “The Messenger of Allah said, ‘Abraham was circumcised when he was 80 years old’.”’ Allah said: “So We have taught thee the inspired (Message), Follow the ways of Abraham the True in Faith” [Qur’an 16:123]. Also recorded in a hadith is the saying of (Muhammad) to a man who converted to Islam: “Remove your infidel hair and be circumcised.”
Muhammad also said regarding circumcision: “If you touch the two circumcisions, you must wash.” Here is evidence that women were circumcised, and therefore any of the hadiths on circumcision which do not specify men or women, can be assumed to apply to both.
From Sa’id bin Jabir: “Ibn ‘Abbas was asked, “How old were you when the Prophet (PBUH) died?" He replied, "At that time I had been circumcised. People (in those days) did not circumcise men until they reached puberty.” From the hadith of Umm ‘Atiyah--who used to circumcise girls--the Messenger of Allah said to her, “Reduce it, but do not remove too much, because it is more beautiful to behold and better for her husband.” This is the most explicit evidence in the hadiths of Muhammad for female circumcision being legitimate and even recommended. From Ibn ‘Abbas, attributing it to the Prophet: “Circumcision is sunnah for men and an honor for women.” This was narrated by al-Bayhaqi, and its attribution is weak.
Ibn al-Mundhir narrated from Abi-Barza: “We asked the Messenger of Allah (PBUH) about an uncircumcised man making pilgrimage to the Ka’aba. He replied, ‘No, not until he’s circumcised’.” This was considered a weak hadith by Ibn al-Mundhir and others.
There’s no doubt that among these hadiths there are those which are sound but do not explicitly command or urge women to become circumcised. There are also those which are met with disagreement by scholars, and these hadiths are more explicit in confirming the legitimacy of female circumcision. But the hadiths on the laws of al-fitrah which mention circumcision--and these are sound--do not mean that it is done on men only and not women. It is certain that circumcision includes both men and women, as is clearly stated in the hadith about touching the two circumcisions.
Below are words from scholars on the ruling on circumcision:
The Hanafis: Al-Zayla’i said: “The general ruling is that circumcision is sunnah, and is one of the trademarks of Islam. In fact, if the people of Egypt or some land decided to abandon its practice, the Imam would make war against them, for it cannot be abandoned except by necessity... Female circumcision is not sunnah, but it is an honor for men because it is more pleasing during sex” [ellipses in original].
The Malikites: From al-Kharshi’s brief summary of Khalil: “Its ruling (i.e. circumcision) is that it is sunnah for men, and it cuts off the foreskin. It is recommended for women, and is called khifad [reduction].”
The Shafi’ites: From [Asna al-Mutalib]: “Circumcision is obligatory (at puberty). The reasoning for this is the saying of the Almighty: “So We have taught thee the inspired (Message), Follow the ways of Abraham the True in Faith” [Qur’an 16:123]. In Abraham’s religion, circumcision was present. Also in the two Sahihs: “He was circumcised when he was eighty years old.” In Sahih Ibn Hibban, and in al-Hakim it was said 120 years, and it was also said 70 years. Also it was narrated by Abu-Dawud: “(The Prophet) (PBUH) ordered a man who converted to Islam to be circumcised.” They said that since he cut off a member which could not be replaced, it had to be obligatory like cutting off the hand. Since the man was injured during the process, he feared it. If it were not obligatory for him, then it would not have been permissible. This is unlike the circumcision of little boys, crazy people, and those who cannot endure it, because the first are too young to be required to do anything, and the last are harmed by it.” Al-Nawawi said in al-Majmu’: “Circumcision is obligatory for our men and women. This was stated by many of the salaf, as al-Khatabi relates. Ahmad was one of those who said it was obligatory. Malik and Abu-Hanifa said that it was sunnah for everyone. This was related by al-Rafi’i. He also related that (circumcision) is obligatory for men and sunnah for women. These were the two approaches of Shadhan, and of the sound and famous school of thought which was penned by al-Shafi’i, in which the multitude of scholars declared that circumcision is obligatory for men and women.”
The Hanbalis: From Ibn Muflih’s Furu’ [body of rules and regulations for man’s behavior]: “(According to Ahmad), circumcision is obligatory on all but women, for whom it is recommended. Our Shaykh said, ‘It is obligatory because cleanliness and prayer are obligatory’.” Ibn Qudama said: “Circumcision is a duty for men, and for women it is an honor, but it is not obligatory. This has been stated by many scholars.” Ahmad said: “The man is more difficult, because if the man is not circumcised, then the skin dangles over the [penis] and cannot be cleaned. But the woman is easier.”
The al-Mawsu’a al-Fiqhia (“The Encyclopedia of Jurisprudence”) summarizes scholars’ opinions on circumcision as follows:
“The ruling on circumcision: Scholars differ on circumcision as follows: First, the Hanafis and Malikites--and very rarely the Shafi’ites--hold to the opinion of what Ahmad said, that circumcision is sunnah for men but not a duty. It is one of the acts of al-fitrah, and one of the rituals of Islam. If the people of a particular land decided together to abandon its practice, the Imam would make war against them, just like if they abandoned the call to prayer. This also represents what the Malikites think about circumcision of women. Hanafis and Hanbalis consider female circumcision to be an honor and not sunnah. It is said by some Hanafis that it is also sunnah for [women], and some say that it is recommended. … Second, the Shafi’ites and Hanbalis, as is also stated by Sahnoun from the Malikites, believe that circumcision is a duty for both men and women. … Third, this is written by Ibn Qudama in al-Mughni, that circumcision is a duty for men, and for women it is an honor but not a duty” [ellipses in original].
It appears that for male circumcision the most correct view is that it is obligatory, owing to the saying of Muhammad to the man who converted to Islam: “Remove your infidel hair and be circumcised.” This was obligatory--there was no alternative.
Regarding women, perhaps the most correct view is that it is recommended, however there is consensus that it is (at least) legitimate. Muhammad also endorsed it, as was narrated in the hadith of Umm ‘Atiyah, who used to circumcise girls. He said to her: “Reduce it, but do not remove too much, because it is more beautiful to behold and better for her husband.” He also said, “If you touch the two circumcisions, you must wash.” This shows that female circumcision was prevalent during his day, and he did not repudiate it. Nor did he stipulate anything else regarding female circumcision.
Perhaps the saying that it is (only) recommended is due to the pain women must go through to carry out the acts of al-fitrah, such as circumcision, as stated in the sound hadith. But as we mentioned, this is not evidence of it being confined only to men. The term circumcision was used for both men and women during Muhammad’s time. But it is clear that performing circumcision must be preferable to not performing it, especially when one considers that circumcision includes both pain and revealing one’s nakedness. Thus if there was no benefit to it, the Messenger of Allah would not have agreed to it. However there is still no evidence for making it obligatory. The fact that the Messenger of Allah agreed to it despite the pain and discovering one’s nakedness is not evidence for making it obligatory. Instead, this is evidence for preferring the action over not doing it, as we stated. (Muhammad’s) command to Umm ‘Atiyah is not a command to all women to (be circumcised), but rather he was regulating its practice. He was not telling her not to do it, he was telling her not to go too far and injure the women.
His command to the man who converted to Islam does not apply to women. Even though the principle is that “women are men’s sisters”, and women are often included when addressing men and vice versa, that only applies when there is no reason to differentiate between them. Here the issue is different for men and women. The man’s foreskin could trap urine at the end of it and affect his cleanliness. The issue is not the same for women. Therefore it is appropriate for this to be stressed more for men, and this is apparent in the words of scholars and the works of the ummah.I have summed up the words of Muhammad and of scholars to show that circumcision is legitimate, and that the principal issue in the study is the limits of circumcision.