This article came about as an extended comment on Nurulsyahirah’s article “A Tiny Cut: Female Circumcision in Southeast Asia” in Patheos Press’ Muslimah Mediawatch page (Friday, February 8, 2013)
It’s an important topic – women’s circumcision, in that it is happening at all in this day and age. I was surprised to note that this African and Arabian practice had skipped the entire Indian Subcontinent and landed on the shores of SE Asia. So, is it not a superfluous and unnecessary cultural ritual that has been mindlessly accepted along with Shahadah? Of course, others will indicate that this is simply the difference between Hanafi and Shafi’i fiqhs as practiced in the Sub-Continent and Southeast Asia.
Ordinary people cannot control the inertia of the society. So, it’s hard to blame parents, grandparents, the mak bidan (post-partum midwife), or the village chief, for example. But the wishy-washiness of the council of Ulema is difficult to excuse. One wonders whether that is a part of the mental makeup of not being confident about one’s niyyah, ‘ilm and sometimes being paranoid in thinking what if my decision is wrong. This type of caution is understandable, generally. But this would appear to be acting on a hunch, not knowledge? The issue is not about the ulema (scholar)’s personal life-choice, but the life-choice of others that an opinion (fatwa) of this type causes. In effect, is it not like insisting on everyone else to follow this religious expert’s notion of holiness? That is not being authoritative, but being an authoritarian, albeit innocent looking! Humans are required to be Muslims, but no one is required to be Mu’min (believer; even though without Iman Jannah will be unachievable), Muttaqi (just to self and others – God and His Creation) or Muhsin (spontaneously good). Achieving these maqam (stations) depends on a process involving niyyah (intention), ‘amal (practice), khushu (devotion), ikhlas (purity), ‘adl (justice), karamah (generosity), ‘afu (underplaying the faults of others), halimah (forbearance), qalbun saleem (soundness of the heart), etc. That is the Jihad-e-Akbar (the Greater Struggle)!
Besides, the male circumcision is to protect from disease, typically in hot water-short climates of the world. But it helps everywhere else by improving personal hygiene. Now, the ‘offending’ anatomical part of a woman is hidden away and does not have the same chance of being infected. That is God’s design. One can easily do research of women’s health and find out the percentage of women in countries without female circumcision get infected on that account. So, it’s a purposeless routine that is a hangover from another era, being a practice among a particular group of people.
If Islam is a purposeful religion as we proudly claim, a natural (of fitra) religion, and the religion of the middle way that can act as a witness and standard for all other people, then this practice should be labeled as it must be – a nonsense, a sham passing for religiosity, a superstition unsupported by science, and possibly a measure of a patriarchal society. Unfortunately, matriarchs drive this patriarchy.
Now, according to Islamic texts, this procedure is not a fard (compulsory) – for female or for male. It is not a condition of becoming a Muslim. I can understand and I accept the tradition of the Prophet (sm) for men as a mustahab (recommended), but for women it is mubah – neither recommended/desirable nor prohibited. But given its israf (wasteful) nature, health risk, excessiveness or unevenness of implementation from region to region or generation to generation, it is probably makruh (not recommended, even though the Prophet (sm) had reluctantly allowed it). The awareness was absent then, just like the cons of tobacco use only a few years ago. Now, that it has been proven to destroy life and diminish quality of life. So, modern Fiqh considers it to be haram.
We do know that the women around the Prophet (sm) were subjected to this. And the Prophet (sm) asked that such procedure be done carefully and with smaller incision for it is better for the girl and more liked by the husband. So, he tolerated it. Should this be portrayed as his Sunnah (tradition)? Hardly! It was not central to Muhammad (sm)’s mission at that time so as to be addressed by Allah (swt) to him through any form of communication. Also, it was not an overarching social issue generating regular disaffection and chatter requiring his attention and redress. It was not about shirk nor did it rise to the status of dhulm (oppression). So, the Prophet (sm)’s response was as it was. Do we have freedom to review and revise our take on the matter? Possibly!
This reminds one of the year in Medinah that Muhammad (sm) noticed some date farmers cross-pollinating the flowers. He suggested to them to let them be. Next year, the harvest fell short. Upon learning about this, he suggested to the date-farmers to do what they thought best because they knew better. Also, in the Khandaq Campaign, the Persian Salman Farsi (r) suggested digging trenches. In Hudaibiya, when the Sahaba (r) were dissatisfied with the treaty he had signed on with the Quraysh, Prophet (sm) was advised on what course to take by Ummul Mu’mineen, Umme Salma (r). In another case, upon anticipating a Quraysh attack, the Prophet (sm) wanted to fight from around Medinah, but the shura (consultation group) suggested otherwise. In Suratul Kahf (18:60-82), we find out about the limitation of knowledge of Musa (asm) as demonstrated by his interaction with Khidr (asm). The point is, when we take a holistic view, we see that it is not disrespectful to Muhammad (sm) to decide differently on this matter. Prophets do not have to know everything. The Prophet (sm) knew that he did not know everything, but that did not take away his nabuwwat (prophethood). Only Allah is Latifun Khabeer (Fully Aware of the Minutest Detail). That is why we say, Allahu ‘Alam! Deciding on a different course on this matter is not like ignoring Allah’s command: “wa ‘atiur Rasul” (and obey the Prophet).
We know the purpose of circumcision – hygiene and disease prevention for men, but does it reduce men’s sexuality? Can any ulema say that about his circumcision? So, how can that argument be used to perform this procedure on girls, new born or not? Besides, sexual behavior is impacted by hormones, not by a normal, healthy anatomical part. The situation is akin to the Quranic requirement of iddat (3 month waiting cycle) for newly divorced and widowed women for possible pregnancy before remarriage. However, now-a-days, within days if not hours this state may be determined. Does this make Quran less? No! It allows us to understand it more broadly than we have done heretofore. Perhaps a woman should wait before remarriage a decent amount of time to heal psychologically, too. Further, Sakinah (marital bliss) is a promise by the Creator as a natural, positive outcome of all properly instituted marriages (30:21). Nobody can have a mandate to take actions that limits that right or abrogates that verse.
Further, often the family size impacts parents’ ability to nurture their children in a gentle, logical manner. So, an easy route to manage girls has been figured out by some families and societies – marry them off early, have them circumcised, limit their education, prevent them from driving, etc. One wonders why banning cell phones being owned by girls has not been legislated by some of these communities yet? Really, this is the parent’s problem, not their daughter’s! How much female-related fitnah (trial or test) should we reduce for men’s welfare? Make women invisible!
Already our women are covering their awrah (private parts) – sometimes more, still do we not trust them? Are they to be punished to prevent something they have not even begun to feel and think about? So, it is punishment for a sin well before its conception. Then never again should such Muslims proudly trumpet that Islam has no original sin as in Christianity. Thus, in that sister Deen the idea of Immaculate Conception of Mary was introduced in order that Esa (asm) be protected from the original sin flowing into him. However, Muslims argue that since both Adam and Hawa (asm) were forgiven for their violation of Allah (swt)’s bidding in Jannah, this matter is over; closed. None of their progeny bears their shame of failure for two reasons: they did not cause it and there was forgiveness from the Tawwabur Raheem! This is the Qist (Justice) of Allah. So, what about the command: ”’ati ullaha” – follow Allah, the Ultimate Sunnah?
Remember, too, not everything our forefathers did is sanctioned by the Quran. This was not an important human rights issue at the time of the Nabi Kareem (sm), but it is now. Our ‘adat (customs, practices and expectations) has matured enough in 1400 years that it can sustain a sensible position of prohibiting this type of meaningless procedure. This is not a violation of Aquidah. Violating the rights of our girls is violating at least one of the protected items under the Shari’ah – Life, Maal (Property), ‘Aql (Mind or Intellect), Deen (Faith), Family and ‘Izzah (Dignity).
So, let’s stop making the spurious arguments supporting this ancient, pre-Islamic, Creator unratified, unscientific, superstitious custom unnecessarily disfiguring as well as risking a life-long female condition preventing the attainment of a critical element of Creator-promised marital bliss. We have enough real problems on our plate. We have been sitting on our hands for over 300 years arguing on useless, peripheral matters. In the meantime, we have eaten/used up our inherited endowments gathered over centuries like unmeritorious, wasteful children of rich parents. If we are to recover, we have to get organized, get a proper perspective and have a priority list. As to the mark of civilization being organization, discipline and unity, consider Suratul Mulk (67:3-4). Therein, Allah (swt) asks us to look at Heavens to find any anomaly, discord or dissonance. He points out that we will find none. Our eyes will be tired trying to find an error or a fault. There is order and rules. The societies that value these standards have or will progress. The examples are staring in our faces for more than a century in the form of Europe, America and Japan in the past and now in Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore and China. Let’s get real, in-shaa‘ Allah!
Dr. Shafi A. Khaled is a freelance writer. He teaches and does research in Business & Economics.