Female Genital Mutilation: An Islamic Perspective

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A war is raging, with extremists on both sides, over the issue of circumcision. On one side are fanatic secularists whose antipathy to religion has induced them to engage in a crusade against all forms of circumcision, including male circumcision, as a form of child abuse. On the other side are ignorant traditionalists who have ascribed to religious belief cultural traditions involving horrific forms of female genital mutilation (FGM, which they defend as a form of "female circumcision"). In between the extremes are many well-meaning people confused about the actual nature of the scientific evidence and the religious prescriptions regarding all sorts of practices involving any form of cutting in the genital areas. 

In this article we shall concentrate on female genital mutilation. Male circumcision is clearly a Muslim tradition. Although it is not prescribed in the Qur'an, it was definitely approved of by the Prophet and he was himself circumcised. The beneficial health consequences of male circumcision are widely known, although some medical groups have begun to waver as to whether they are sufficiently great to justify the fact that infants are circumcised "against their will." We leave this debate for another time and place and mention it here only so that the lay reader may be aware that there is a broader context to the debate over female genital mutilation, which is the debate over whether any form of infant mutilation, including male circumcision constitutes child abuse. We restrict ourselves here to the subject of female genital mutilation and leave the debates over male circumcision and the piercing of infant girl's ears to another time and place. 

A concise discussion of the main subject requires a detailed prolog to clarify some issues regarding both the nature of Islamic law and the medical terms used to identify the various forms of FGM. Understanding the background of the matter will permit the reader to understand the Islamic position on this question. 

It must be understood that Islamic law has a well-defined tradition of jurisprudence. The sources of Islamic law include both revelation and reason. The efforts of scholars to attain understanding of the shariah (i.e., the Divine Law) through various tools (which we shall not detail here) is called ijtihad. 

One fundamental of the Islamic law is that what is not prohibited is allowed. This makes for a great deal of tolerance in the religious law. As a result of this tolerance many pre-Islamic practices were not immediately eradicated by Islam. When such practices came to be unpopular (or unfashionable) in future centuries, the tolerance of Islamic jurisprudence was mischaracterized by those inimical to Islam as "backward." It was as if someone from a genteel class of society were to condemn America's toleration for body piercing among its young people as proof of the "barbarism" of American law. It would be wise to remember that there is a great burden of proof that Islam puts upon those who wish to prohibit a practice, and that the requirement for such proof is a strength of the Islamic law. Toleration is a strength, not a weakness. 

In this discussion I shall refer to any form of permanent cutting the genitals as "genital mutilation." Some may feel this is prejudicing the case, since the words certainly sound pejorative. I think the term is fair, however, since the purpose of all the procedures under discussion-and the purpose of male circumcision and of the now commonly practiced forms of body piercing, including the piercing of the ears done by almost every Western female-is unquestionably to mutilate those parts of the body cut or pierced. The issue of interest, then, is not whether mutilation is involved but rather whether it is religiously (or morally) and/or medically desirable or contraindicated. 

Although there is no reference to circumcision at all in the Qur'an, there is a well-established tradition of male circumcision in Islam as a "sunnah" act. In the Abrahamic tradition this act is understood as a fulfillment of a covenant with God, but there are numerous health reasons for the practice. There is no mandate at all for female circumcision, however, neither in the Qur'an, the traditional reports (called hadith), nor medical theory. 

Although female circumcision is not mandated, one tradition of disputed authenticity permits (but does not encourage) the removal of a minuscule segment of skin from the female prepuce, provided no harm is done: 

A woman used to perform circumcision in Medina [Madina]. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said to her: 'Do not cut severely as that is better for a woman and more desirable for a husband.' - Sunan Abu Dawud, Book 41, #5251.

One does not want to make too much of this tradition, as it is classified as "weak" by Abu Dawud (the compiler) himself. Nonetheless, it clearly forbids severity in circumcision and bases such limitation on both the potential to harm the woman and the potential to make her less desirable to her husband. Yet, despite the restriction against severity, the Prophet did not here prohibit circumcision completely.

Permitting such a ritual constitutes an act of tolerance by Islamic law for pre-Islamic practices, and may be overruled by the Islamic prohibition against harmful acts. Consider, for example, that Islamic law protects a woman's right to sexual enjoyment, as demonstrated by the fact that a woman has the right to divorce on the grounds that her husband does not provide sexual satisfaction. It follows that Islamic law prohibits clitorodectomy (partial or complete removal of the clitoris) or infibulations (excision of part or all of the external genitalia and stitching/narrowing of the vaginal opening), or any genital mutilation which impairs the woman's ability to enjoy sexual relations. Such prohibitions are consistent with the hadithic warning against severity in female circumcision. 

If the Islamic law does not mandate female genital mutilation and tolerates only the most mild form of circumcision (and that only if it produces no adverse effects in the child), then how does it come about that so many people from certain countries with large Muslim populations insist that savage acts which exceed these limits are not only permitted, but required by Islamic law? The answer becomes obvious when one realizes that Christians from many of these countries also insist that the tradition is mandated by their religion as well. People often confuse traditions rooted in local culture with religious requirements. 

Immigrants from such countries now residing in the United States stand between the culture of their heritage and the American culture of their environment. They cannot and should not be expected to abandon their religion. There should be no doubt, however, that the young amongst them, at least, will be willing to abandon old-world cultural practices at odds with their adopted culture when such practices are unsupported by religion. (This is because they carry no cultural bias towards such practices. On the contrary, they may absorb biases against them from their adopted culture.) 

For Muslims, cliterodectomy and infibulations should be considered haram (prohibited) practices and opposition to it should be part of our ongoing mandate to fight against superstition and oppression. As to the mildest form of female circumcision, the risks to the girl's future ability to enjoy sexual relations with her husband must place it at best in the category of makruh (disliked) practices. Since it has neither hygienic nor religious value, there is no justification for Muslims to engage in this painful and potentially harmful practice and it would be best to avoid it completely. 

Wa Allahu a`lam. (And God knows best.)


THE MFI PAMPHLET SERIES, initiated by the Minaret of Freedom Institute aims to make widely available, at a minimal cost, a summary of authentic Islamic positions on important issues of the day. These pamphlets are directed to a general audience, yet present positions backed by scholarly research presented elsewhere either in academic papers or conferences or based on opinions issued by qualified scholars. 

MFI Pamphlet #1: Female Genital Mutilation: An Islamic Perspective 

2000 Minaret of Freedom Institute, 4323 Rosedale Avenue, Bethesda, MD 20814 (www.minaret.org) phone: 301-907-0947; e-mail: [email protected] Printed by International Graphics, Beltsville, MD. To order this pamphlet in bulk send $30 for 50 copies postpaid to: Minaret of Freedom Institute, 4323 Rosedale Avenue, Bethesda, MD 20814-4750.

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  9 Comments   Comment

  1. hamza from Nigeria

    From my opinion,this article is well structured but I wouldn't want to go with the submission of the writer.Looking at the hadith which was proclaimed weak,which is the only source found for the topic,once there is neither a quranic verse nor alternative hadith in contrary to the hadith,that hadith to me should be recognised.We also need to quantify the advantages and the effect on the islamic society on reducing the evil act of al zina.This is a very sensitive topic and therefore need to be subjected to further research and elitist round table.Wa'lahu ahlam


    asalam alaykum,the article is a big pointer to muslims and a good reference to some legislators expecially muslims amoung them to know how not to redicle our religion

  3. asma from united states

    Asalamo alaikum... this article is well written. However, I do have a comment. Just like you mentioned that women reserve the right to their sexuality under Islamic law and this practice is not prohibitted but tolerated. It is said in the Quran : "Those who persecute men and women of the believers, and then do not repent, will have the punishment of Hell, will have the punishment of the Burning." (85:10). This practice is performed on such a large scale in underdeveloped muslim countries and is extremely hazardous to female health. I believe that based on the verse above, this is persecution of women. Just because they will be deprived on their sexual desire, this practice in still present. What about their sexual desire after marriage, which is also ruined due to this permanent procedure? I do agree that the disputed hadith is weak because Rasul'Allah's (Pbuh)teachings saved women from persecution at that time. Islam is the only religion in the world that gives women the right of their sexual desire. This practice not only shows degrading of women but also by taking the right away from her own sexual desire. Allah knows best!

  4. Yahya Bergum from USA

    Salaam Hudd. Masha'Allah on your family's and your achievements.

    "Negligence," in remaining clean, would be central to the point of what I am attempting to explain. I apologize for not making that clear. Now as far as "negligence" making any difference would be concerned, have you ever located misplaced items primarily using your sense of smell? I have. I most often seem to do this in locating misplaced leather workgloves.

    If you are unwilling to accept my testimony, for whatever reason, I am content to let it go at that. It is you who would seem to think I have a problem with your stated position, unless perhaps you think that I am at fault for having become tolerant on the matter of male circumcision.

    And "best of luck" on your "holy war" against FGM. Insha'Allah I would answer the call. Insha'Allah.

  5. Hudd D'Alhamd from Canada

    I am sorry brother but still I don't know what you are talking about. There is no difference of smell between an uncircumcized and a circumcized person, the difference stands only in the level of cleanliness. A dirty circumcized person will smell, the same a clean uncircumsized person won't. My father was a medical doctor and so was his father, I broke the line, I am a pharmaceutical scientist, I engineer drugs for the benifit of mankind. This because I dread blood, desease, infections and so on. When a person is circumcized a bit of his foreskin is removed. No gland removal would be legal, that would render you impotent too early. There is no scientific proof of what you say, unless negligence and dirt is involved. After intercourse you are supposed to take immediately ghusil(complete bath), starting by washing thoroughly your genitals. You cannot delay, you need to always in a state of purity, spiritually and physically as well. To reiterate, there is no Quran on it nor Shariah. I said Shariah, because no Islamic court in the whole Muslim world community would declair you as non-Muslim or even lesser Muslim. That's the reason that I did not understand why you commented to start with. Moreover your latter answer is again not to the point. I'll make it easier. If you think that being circumcized makes you a better Muslim in any way than a non-circumcized Muslim, answer me with sound evidence. If you cannot procure the evidence, then let it die, don't retort. My name is Hudd, if you knew Arabic you would know it means "Limit". Believe me it is not for nothing that I was named, "Limit"(Hudd). I go with anybody to the limit, I am a scientist remember, it is my job to doubt, research and confirm the data. May Allah guide us all to the light of knowledge and understanding. One thing Islam brought to the Umah was "the need for evidence". We have a saying in Arabic when a party cannot resolve a dispute:"Eind Allah", Leave it to God! Salaam!

  6. Yahya Bergum from USA

    In the interest of discretion, Hudd D'Alhamd, I will merely reply that alhamdulillah I have been guided to rely more heavily on my sense of smell than I suspect have most of the other people with whom I am personally aquatinted. The particular incidents that spring to mind related in my opinion in no way to morality but merely to hygiene. When I have encountered the odor outside my own home or away from my wife, I remember having found it merely "questionable" or at worst distasteful and no more offensive than that. My "issue" would simply be that Allah subhanahu wa ta'ala has evidently decided that I should be an animal, so guess what? Brother Yahya Bergum is evidently an animal -- astaghfirullah alhamdulillah -- with all of the normal characteristics.

    Now then if you yourself happen to suspect that I am making some sort of a statement in support of MGM (Male Genital Mutilation!) then who am I to say that I am not? Admittedly there have been many times between the age of 4 and 42 when I seriously contemplated murdering the physician who preformed this barbaric, "Jewish" ritual on me and additionally I refused to allow it to be performed on my children. During the consultation with the Jewish urologist it was "my struggle" to remain polite. However it might be worth noting that after having embraced Islam my opinions on this topic changed and as a result I no longer spend any time thinking about hunting down and murdering the physician who circumcised me -- for which I direct my praise to Allah (i.e., God). As far as I am aware I had merely been attempting in my previous comment to offer my personal perspective for the benefit of any parents and children who might be pondering the matter regardless of what decision they may have perhaps arrived at. I am grateful for you having asked.

    Assalamu alaikum.

  7. Hudd D'Alhamd from Land of the Great North

    No offence br. Yahya Bergum, how close you could get to a man to smell his smega? Besides, circumscision was preacticed in the time of Rasulullah by women as well. If you read the hadiths concerning this subject you will find out. To still save my argument and the decission of my father, a woman might smell more horridly than a man ever, if she didn't wash. The key to a clean, good smelling Muslim person, is a shower at the start of the day and another one at the end of it, if the smega is to be smelled on him/her. I met many of my circumcised Muslim brothers that had such strong body oders that the kaffers were spiriting away from their presence at high speed holding their breath by covering their noses. To my shame, my Christian collegues asked me what was the difference between me and the other Muslim employees. I told them there was none. Nobody had the same reaction with me. If what you say would be true, why then the Nazi Germans needed to undress the Jewish suspects in order to see whether they were circumcized and thus determining their Jewishness. The Christians of UK and USA were automatically circumcizing every Christian or otherwise male child in the hospitals(not anymore) under the Judaic influence in these places. Now you want to say brother that you will suffer a circumcized kaffer in your house, near to your wife and daughter maybe, rather than an uncircumcized Muslim like me and many others? God bless you for your comment, brother, maybe I wouldn't appreciate being your guest, not as long as you would allow a kaffer to be closer to you...I'm audi, peace out!

  8. Yahya Bergum from USA

    Assalamo alaikum. Regarding FGM: insha'Allah I side with Hudd D'Alhamd (regarding "holy" war). Regarding MGM: the odor of another man's smega within my home or anywhere near my wife stirs within me such feelings of hatred and such urges to act violently that I am simply at a loss to explain why it might be so (astaghfirullah!). Perhaps this might in some way be a part of the reason why MGM came to be practiced -- I simply do not know.

  9. Hudd D'Alhamd from Land of the Great North

    Circumcision is one of the cruelest body violations practised by men ever! Circumcision is not a Muslim tradition. It is an Abrahamic tradition and it is an arresting condition to be Jewish. No person that decided to embrace Islam as his/her way of life would be asked to circumcise himself/herself. The person is asked to declare the Shahadah and stick to the five pillars of Islam and practise the seven items of faith. Circumcision is a redundancy in Islam inherited from the Judeo-Abrahamic culture and religion. When the profet, pbuh, was asked about it, all what he answer was that Ibrahim did it when he was over 80 years. In Judeo-Christian tradition it is said that the life of a man is 3 scores and a half, 70 years, anything above it is a gift from God. According to this, Abraham did it in his gift years, maybe as an act of submission to God's grace, as a profet. I accept that in those times living in the desert wasn't too much fun. Water was scarce and all sorts of skin deseases might have errupted with devastating effects. Not so today. We have soap, we have water, we can travel fast from one place to the other. Circumcision is not an Islamic issue, period. It should stop. A circumcised male denotes his belonging to the Abrahamic tradition, the person is either a Jew or an Arab. Islam came through the Arabs and because they practised circumcision, everybody else mocked them considering it a virtue. It is Sunnah because the profet, pbuh, was an Arab. Would he have been an Indian or a Roman this wouldn't be a concern of the Muslims today. However, by Allah's grace the message would still be spread. Is not this what really matters? Why do people try to stress always the unimportant in the religion, the trifle, the thing that has nothing to do with your iman or moral character. Is a circumcised person more pious than a non-circumcised one? That is the idea. Then wonder that Jews and Israelis are considered the chosen ones of God?