The question of female circumcision in Muslim lands attracts considerable media attention. This is probably due to the negative reactions and condemnation that the practice provokes – especially in European countries that have large Muslim communities. This attention grew considerably after one African Muslim discussed on television the way that this circumcision is carried out and declared that the practice was recommended by Islamic Law. This led certain countries to pass legislation prohibiting female circumcision on the grounds that it is harmful to women and a violation of their rights.
Before discussing this practice in light of Islamic teachings, it behooves us to consider that the circumcision of girls is a custom that has been practiced since ancient times in parts of Africa, particularly in Egypt, Nubia, Sudan, and their surroundings. The prevalent type of female circumcision practiced in that region is known as Pharaonic circumcision, and it seems that the reason for it was the desire of the men in those societies to weaken the sexual desire of women in order to ensure their chastity.
It is quite possible that this practice spread to neighboring Arab countries from Egypt and practiced on occasion or that Arabs were at least aware of this custom before the advent of Islam, since customs can spread from one society to another. However, I have not come across any verifiable evidence that the Arabs of pre-Islamic times were in the practice of circumcising their daughters. Among them were those who killed their daughters fearing the shame that they brought and had no need for circumcision.
What is reported in the Sunnah
There are some narrations attributed to the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) concerning female circumcision. The most important of which are the following:
1. “Circumcision is Sunnah for men and an honorable thing for women.”
Ibn Hajar al-`Asqalâni discusses this hadîth in al-Talkhîs al-Habîr
Ahmad and al-Bayhaqî narrate this hadîth from al-Hajjâj b. Arta’ah who narrates it from Abû al-Mulayh from Usâmah from his father.
This al-Hajjâj is one who is known to use ambiguous terms in conveying his chain of transmission, and moreover he is inconsistent in this narration. Sometimes he cites his chain of transmission as given above and at other times he mentions an additional narrator named Shidâd b. `Aws after Abû Mulayh’s father. This is how we find the hadîth being narrated in Musannaf Ibn Abî Shaybah, Ibn Abî Hâtim’s `Ilal, and Mu`jam al-Tabarânî al-Kabîr.
At other times, he narrates the hadîth from Makhûl from Abû Ayyûb. This narration can be found in Musnad Ahmad. Ibn Abî Hâtim mentions this in al-`Ilal and quotes his father as laying the blame for the mistake on either al-Hajjâj or the narrator who relates it from him `Abd al-Wâhid b. Ziyâd. Al-Bayhaqî says about `Abd al-Wâhid b. Ziyâd: “He is a weak narrator and his narrations are incomplete.”
In al-Tamhîd, Ibn `Abd al-Barr says: “This hadîth depends upon the narration of al-Hajjâj b. Arta’ah whose narrations cannot be used as evidence for anything.”
The hadîth is in fact related by a narrator other than al-Hajjâj b. Arta’ah. This statement is related in Mu`jam al-Tabarânî al-Kabîr and in Sunan al-Bayhaqî on the authority of Ibn `Abbâs back to the Prophet (peace be upon him). However, al-Bayhaqî himself declares it to be a weak hadîth when he mentions it in Sunan al-Bayhaqî. He says in his work al-Ma`rifah: “It is not authentic as a statement of the Prophet (peace be upon him).”
Therefore, this is a weak hadîth.
2. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is reported to have passed by a woman performing circumcision on a young girl. He instructed the woman by saying: “Trim, but do not cut into it, for this is brighter for the face (of the girl) and more favorable with the husband.”
[Mu`jam al-Tabarânî al-Awsat
Ibn Hajar al-`Asqalâni discusses this hadîth as well in al-Talkhîs al-Habîr
Al-Hâkim relates it in al-Mustadrak from `Ubayd Allah b. `Amr who narrates it from Zayd b. Abî Usayd from `Abd al-Malik b. `Umayr from al-Dahhâk b. Qays that in Madînah there was a woman called Umm `Atiyyah who used to circumcise the slave girls, so Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him) said to her: “O Umm `Atiyyah! Trim, but do not cut into it, for this is brighter for the face (of the girl) and more favorable with the husband.”
It likewise related by al-Tabarânî, by Abû Nu`aym in al-Ma`rifah, and by al-Bayhaqî with essentially the same chain of transmission except that narrator `Ubayd Allah b. `Amr narrates it from “a man from the city of Kufah” from `Abd al-Malik b. `Umayr.
Al-Mufdil al-`Ulâ’î says : “I asked Ibn Ma`în about this hadîth and he told me that its narrator al-Dahhâk b. Qays is not al-Fahrî.”
However, al-Hâkim and Abû Nu`âym discuss him under the biographical entry of “al-Fahrî”.
`Abd al-Malik b. `Umayr is inconsistent in how he narrates this hadîth. Sometimes it is narrated from him as mentioned above. At other times, he is allegedly relating it from `Atiyyah al-Qurazî as beginning with the words: “In Madînah, there used to be a practitioner of circumcision called Umm `Atiyyah…” It is related in this way by Abû Nu`aym in al-Ma`rifah. At other times he allegedly relates it with Umm `Atiyyah being the narrator [and not the practitioner]. This is how it is related in Sunan Abî Dâwûd.
Abû Dâwûd [in Sûnan Abî Dâwûd (5271)] declares the hadîth to be defective on account of the narrator Muhammad b. Hassân, saying: “Muhammad b. Hassân is an unknown narrator and this hadîth is weak.”
Ibn `Adiyy and al-Bayhaqî confirm Abû Dâwûd’s judgment that Muhammad b. Hassân is an unknown narrator. `Abd al-Ghanî b. Sa`îd, the author of Idâh al-Shakk, disagrees, saying: “He is Muhammad b. Sa`îd al-Maslûb.” He goes on to narrate this hadîth from Muhammad b. Sa`îd al-Maslûb in his biographical entry for that narrator.
There are two other lines of transmission for this hadîth:
1. Ibn `Adiyy narrates it from Sâlim b. `Abd Allah b. `Umar – and al-Bazzar relaes it from Nâfi` - from `Abd Allah b. `Umar that the Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “O women of Madînah! Do it lightly, trim and do not cut into it, for it is more favorable with your husbands. And do not deny Allah’s grace.” This wording is from al-Bazzar. In al-Bazzâr’s chain of transmission, there is the narrator Mandal b. `Alî who is a weak narrator. In Ibn `Adiyy’s chain of transmission, there is the narrator Khâlid b. `Amr al-Qurashî who is even weaker.
2. Al-Tabarânî relates it in al-Mu`jam al-Saghîr – and Ibn `Adiyy relates it as well – from Abî Khalîfah who narrates it from Muhammad b. Salâm al-Jamhî from Zâ’idah b. Abî Ruqqâd from Thâbit from Anas with a text like the one found in Sunan Abî Dâwûd.
Ibn `Adiyy comments on this line of transmission, saying: “Zâ’idah is the only narrator to relate his hadîth from Thâbit.”
Al-Tabarânî says: “Muhammad b. Salâm is the only one to relate it like this.”
Tha`lab says: “I saw Yahyâ b. Ma`în among some people with Muhammad b. Salâm right in front of me and he asked him about this hadîth.”
Al-Bukhârî says about Zâ’idah: “His hadîth are false.”
Ibn al-Mundhir says: “There is no report about circumcision that can be relied upon and no chain of transmission that can be followed.”
In Nayl al-Awtâr
(1/137-139), al-Shawkâni discusses the hadîth of Umm `Atiyyah and says basically the same things about its weakness that Ibn Hajar says above.
Female circumcision according to the scholars of Islamic Law
Due to the weakness of the hadîth that refer to female circumcision – with some of their narrators being known for deceptiveness and others whose narrations carry no weight – scholars of Islamic Law have differed widely regarding its legal ruling.
In the Hanafî school of law there are two different opinions. Some Hanafî scholars consider it to be a Sunnah for women. Others consider it to be merely an honorable thing. [refer to: al-Fatâwâ al-Hindiyyah
and al-Ikhtiyâr li-Tahlîl al-Mukhtâr
It is considered a preferred act (mandûb
) for women in the Mâlikî school of law. They rely upon the hadîth of Umm `Atiyyah for this ruling. [refer to: Bulghah al-Sâlik li-Aqrab al-Masâlik
and Ashal al-Madârik Sharh Irshâd al-Sâlik
In the Shâfi`î school of law, circumcision is considered an obligation for both men and women. This is the official ruling of that school of thought. Some Shâfi`î scholars express the view that circumcision is obligatory for men and merely Sunnah for women. [refer to: al-Majmû`
In the Hanbalî school of law, circumcision is obligatory for men and merely an honorable thing for women. It is not obligatory for them. The Hanbalî jurist Ibn Qudâmah observes: “This is the view of many people of knowledge. Imam Ahmad said that it is more emphatic for men.” [al-Mughnî
Among contemporary legal scholars, al-Sayyid Sâbiq writes: “The hadîth that call for female circumcision are all weak. Nothing among them is authentic” [Fiqh al-Sunnah
It appears that female circumcision is more a cultural practice than a matter of Islamic teachings. We have seen that the hadîth which refer to the practice are all weak. The presence of that practice in Egypt an Nubia up to this day is just a continuation of a practice that has been around since the time of the Pharaohs. It is often hard for people to give up deeply ingrained customs and cultural practiced. They continue to be passed down from generation to generation.
Another example of the tenacity of custom is the practice among Indian Muslims where the woman pays a dowry to the husband. This is a pre-Islamic Indian custom that Islam declares false. Islam requires the husband to pay a dowry to the wife. Nevertheless, this custom persists among Muslims in both India and Pakistan, even though the history of Islam in India goes back for many long centuries.
Likewise, Islam put an end to many pre-Islamic customs that marginalized women and denied them their rights. It put an end to people condemning each other’s lineages. It put an end to the practice of wailing at a person’s burial. Nonetheless, these practices can still be seen in some Muslim societies and are often regarded by the people of those societies to be part and parcel of Islamic Law.
The Shâfi`î school of law has been the prevalent legal school in Egypt since its formative years. It may be that the scholars of the Shâfi`î school who promoted the view that female circumcision is obligatory had been influenced by the prevailing culture of the region.
There is no evidence that this practice was widespread among the Pious Predecessors. Moreover, the practice has never been prevalent in the regions where Islam originated – Mecca and Madinah and the surrounding areas of Arabia. It is extremely rare. If female circumcision had truly been endorsed by Islamic Law, it would certainly have been practiced and perpetuated in those regions. Only male circumcision is practiced, due to the authentic evidence in the Sunnah that it is part of the natural way (fitrah
We conclude that female circumcision is merely a cultural practice that has no prescribed Islamic ruling for it and that is supported by no decisive textual evidence. It is simply a regional custom in the places where it is practiced. We must then take into consideration that many medical professionals consider it to have detrimental affects for the girls who undergo the operation. On that basis, it would be impermissible to allow this custom to continue. In Islamic Law, preservation of the person – the life and bodily soundness of the person – is a legal necessity. Anything that compromises this legal necessity by bringing harm to the person is unlawful.
And Allah knows best.