In June 24, 2007, nearly all Egyptian newspapers were dominated by quite controversial news in the wake of a statement or, more precisely, a religious edict (fatwa) made by the Grand Mufti of Egypt, Sheikh Ali Gom'ah, concerning the issue of female circumcision. That fatwa which prohibited female circumcision was issued following the death of a girl, Budur Ahmad Shakir, after being circumcised by a female doctor in the province of South Elmania, Cairo. As the Egyptian physicians association confirmed that the girl's death was strongly alleged to be a result of the circumcision, her parents filed a lawsuit against the doctor who circumcised their daughter.
The fatwa has immediately ignited various reactions from a number of Muslim scholars of al-Azhar. Some criticized and others born out the Mufti. The grand sheikh (Al-Shaykh al-Akbar) of Al-Azhar University, Muhammad Sayyed Thanthawi, was among those who stood for the Mufti’s opinion and said that he himself has even long been of the opinion that female circumcision is prohibited as having no religiously justifiable grounds by any means and that there is neither in the Qur'an nor in the Hadith any text, which clearly alludes to, let alone justifies, female circumcision. Circumcision in Islam only applies to men. However, Sayed Thanthawi fully entrusted the assessment of whether or not female circumcision is good for women’s health to medical experts. One newspaper in the Egypt stated:
"Dr. Muhammad Sayed Thanthawi, the Grand Sheikh of al-Azhar, in a conference held by a Human Rights organization of Germany, says there is no religious reason for female circumcision. ‘Female circumcision’, he added, ‘is mentioned neither in the Koran nor in the Hadith of the Prophet. Islam only justifies the circumcision for men.’ However, Thanthawi said the final decision (on the issue of female circumcision) should be based, if necessary, on medical experts’ opinions ".
Definition of Circumcision
An Arabic word, Khitan literally means cutting, while in Islamic jurisprudence terminology it is often defined as "cutting off the foreskin of the penis (hasyafah) or removing woman’s clitoris hood.” Sayed Sabiq, in Fiqh al-Sunnah, defines circumcision as, "cutting of the foreskin of the penis to make it unable to hold the dirt, easy to clean when urinating, and able to enjoy sexual intercourse. This is circumcision applicable for male. As for women, circumcision is to cut off of the clitoris hood or prepuce. Circumcision is of ancient societies traditions (sunnah qadimah)."
In view of above clarification, if any question comes in mind like "Is there in the Quran a verse that talks about circumcision?" The answer is certainly not. The Qur'an gives no answer about this issue either explicitly or implicitly. There is no even any single verse in the Quran that alludes to the issue of circumcision for both male and female.
Meanwhile, some of Islamic law scholars argue that, despite mentioning nothing explicitly about circumcision, the Quran however has given an oblique clue about it in very general statement as implied in a verse saying "thumma Auhaina ilaik an ittabi 'millah ibrahim Hanifa", which means "Then, We have sent the revelation to you (Muhammad): ‘follow the religion of Ibrahim)’” (Surat al-Nahl: 123).
According to many Muslim jurists the verse above asserts a command that the Prophet and his followers adhere to the religion (creeds) of Abraham. They point out that one of the prophet Abraham’s creeds is circumcision and in order to bear out their arguments they refer to a hadith of the Prophet Muhammad reported by Abu Hurairah: "From Abu Hurairah ra, (reported) that the Prophet said, "Abraham was circumcised after he was 80-year-old. " (Narrated by Bukhari - Muslim)
Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a leading contemporary Muslim scholar, criticized this argument by saying that "to refer to this verse to be the legal basis is a form of sham, fabrication and absurdity. The verse is actually talking about a wider, more principled issue than just about circumcision. The call for adhering to the religion of Abraham is an invitation to the belief in Tawheed (the oneness of God) by means of rational, scientific argumentation as well as the abstention (keeping away) from polytheism (paganism and idolatry) or worshiping and associating others along with Allah." The goal of this verse is in line with this following verse:
"Say (O Muhammad): ‘Truly, my Lord has guided me to a straight path, a right religion, the religion of Abraham, Hanif (to believe in one God, Allah, and to worship but Him, alone) and he was not of Al-Mushrikun (polytheists and idolatrous). Say: ‘Verily, my prayer (salat), my sacrifice, my living, and my dying are for Allah, Lord of the Alamin (mankind, jinn and all that exists). (Surat al-An'am: 161-162)
So, there obviously is no theological basis of the Qur'an about circumcision both for male and even more for female.
The question then is where the basis of legitimacy for both male and female circumcision is coming from? The answer to it is a hadith of the Prophet Muhammad PBUH as follows:
" Umi Athiyyah ra narrated (that) a woman circumcised women in Medina. Prophet said, "Do not exaggerate, because it (a part of women’s genital that is cut off) is pleasing to women (wives) and is the most desirable to husbands. In another narrative the Prophet said, "Cut off only its tip and do not overdo it, because it is very pleasing and is a part that husbands like the most." (Narrated by Abu Daud)
This Hadith is quite interesting to analyze from different points of view.
Firstly, the phrase "la tanhaki", (do not exaggerate) implies the order not to cut away any part of women’s genital in very exceeding measurement. This statement actually shows the Prophet’s criticism over the practice of female circumcision, a practice that was commonly practiced in Arab society and many other places in the world, since long ages before and until the time of the Prophet.
In several ancient cultures, the practice of female circumcision involved such various ways as partial or total removal of women’s clitoris and genitals, and/or removal of clitoral hood or prepuce only, and so forth. What was even worse was female circumcision at the time of Pharaoh, which is called "Pharaonic Circumcision" or also known as “infibulation”. In this tradition, female circumcision is performed by excising some of women’s genital tissues and removing all of their labia minora and labia majora.
Through the hadits above, the Prophet Muhammad visibly shows strong intention to make a culturally transformation process by using measured approaches in depleting the practice of female circumcision gradually. As can be captured in that statement there is strong impression that the Prophet Muhammad aimed to end the prevailing practice of female circumcision by allowing only slightest risk-causing circumcision (for example, by simply removing a small part of the clitoris hood or prepuce). On the other hand, the Prophet seemed to be fully aware that the practice of female circumcision cannot be easily eradicated in a very short time, because the practice has become an age-old tradition rooted deeply in the community. To get rid of it instantly might raise public resistance and outcry, and perhaps even opposition to the prophet’s primary mission namely Tawheed (the principle of the oneness of God).
The process of gradual transformation is often indicated by the Quran when depicting and dealing with cases highlighted with a nuance of violence against humans, especially women, take for example, the practice of beating of wife and polygamy. The beating of wives, who committed nushuz (refusing husband’s request for sex) as an old tradition prevalent among pre-Islam Arab societies, was among the foremost and most common ways in their traditions in treating women. Women were seen as a low, second class being and Islam was coming timely to criticize this way. Although Islam still tolerates a possible room for the act of "beating", but it is to be as only a last resort with essential restriction in which “the act of beating” is acceptable only if it is done without violence. In view of that, on many occasions as affirmed in many of his hadists, the Prophet Muhammad forbade every act of cruel beating and condemned it as a bad deed. He said "A husband who beats his wife is not a good husband." Another example of this process of gradual transformation can be understood from the case of polygamy. Polygamy is not of Islamic tradition and in reality it has been rooted in Arab culture and other cultures before the advent of Islam. While they permit polygamous marriage without restricting the number of wives, Islam began to diminish the practice of polygamy by confining it only to four wives along with insisting on doing justice and fairness to them. Since the husband in monogamous marriage is more likely to be able to avoid injustice to the wife than that in polygamous one, Islam is more encouraging the former than the latter.
The Arabic word "makrumah" in the abovementioned hadith gives an impression about how the Prophet Muhammad had made flexible effort and stride in adapting with the prevailing traditions and cultures, for instance, by still keeping symbolic dimensions of female circumcision, on the one hand, but at once eliminating its destructive elements, on the other. In the hands of the Prophet Muhammad, female circumcision became no longer hurtful and oppressing both physically and psychologically to women but otherwise humane and friendly. The permission for beating wife as far as it is only the last resort and option, the restriction on polygamous marriage, and the using of the word "makrumah" (homage and respect) all that is called, to borrow Jamal Al Bana’s phrase, manthiqah al iltiqa (the meeting point), which brings old and new cultures together, or it can be also called manthiqah al-Jisr (the crossing point). In other words, the step to accommodate and tolerate ancient traditions and cultures is only as a transition through which the final goal is, in turn, to abandon those old traditions and cultures. It is obviously true to say that any kind of violence is opposed to the true values of Islam. Maintaining or supporting violence against humanity, whatever the reason, is tantamount to justify violence by or in the name of religion.
Secondly, the word "al ba'l" is similar to other Arabic word “al-zawj”, which both are often translated as the husband. Despite that, both actually have quite different meaning. If the word al-zawj literally means the husband, the word "al-ba’l" is in reality much closer in meaning to “the owner”, like Sayyid to the master and rabb to the educator.
According to Khalil Abdul Karim, the word "ba'l", which is more translated as "the husband" than as “the owner”, has psychological functions in its relation to women. Women’s position alongside “ba’l” is just like “the owner” alongside its property. Women are assumed to have very vulnerable position for their reproductive organs as well as their obligations to give sexual service and pleasure. He described women’s subordinate position, as wives and servants of their husbands at once, within the context of Arab society. In some places, the Qur'an still uses this word, but in many other places, the Qur'an frequently introduces the word “zawj”, which means the couple or the pair, a word that is a more friendly to and respectful of equality,.
In Quranic verses of human creation is mentioned "And from it, He created spouses from both God and propagate men and women that much." (Surah al Nisa: 1). Or similarly it can be found in other verse of marriage purpose "And among the signs of His omnipotence is that He created for you mate from jenismu itself, so that you are interested in and feel at ease, and made him a sense of mutual love and affection". (Surah al-Rum: 21). The word "zawj" or "azwaj" has connotation of the equal relationship and position. The using of the word "zawj" along with the word "ba'l" has been a beautiful way the Quran uses to maintain its moral message of cultural transformation.
Thirdly, the phrase "fa innahu ahzha ahabb li wa li al mar'ah al ba'l" implies that the clitoris is an organ, which benefits women and gives men sexual pleasure. Likewise, the following phrase, "fa innahu anwar wa li al wajh ahzha 'ind al-Rajul”, means that the clitoris is something, which gives women sexual pleasure and benefits men as well. In this way, the Prophet seemed to remind us that the clitoris is a valuable part of women’s body, because it gives sexual pleasure to both sides, men (husbands) and women (wives). These euphemistic allusions the Prophet revealed in the hadists should be understood appropriately that any part of women’s body through which both women and men can enjoy sexual pleasure should not be cut off, taken away, or scratched in any way.
Furthemore, the Prophet Muhammad plainly explains the legal basis of female circumcision in other hadith narrated by Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal: "From Abu Hurairah ra, the Prophet said:"the circumcision is commendable (sunna) for men and honor for women." (Narrated by Ahmad and alBayhaqi).
This hadith asserts explicitly that circumcision for male is sunnah (commendable), while for female is "honor". It is interesting why the Prophet did not expressly the legal category for female circumcision, or in other words, why the Prophet did not mention such kind of circumcision is compulsory (wajib), optional (sunna), recommended (mandub), or at least permissible (mubah).
Sheikh Yusuf al Qaradawi expressed interesting views on the interpretation of the word "makrumah li al-Nisa '. According to him:
"The meaning of honor for women is that it is something (practice), which is traditionally considered good for women. There is neither religious text that oblige nor encourage (commend). This matter is subject to change. A tradition that is considered honorable in one time or place is not always considered the same in other time or place. Therefore, we don’t see in such Muslim areas or countries as in Arab gulf or northern Africa, Muslims circumcise their women of Africa."
Sheikh al-Qaradawi's view seems to more clearly shows us that female circumcision is merely a tradition rather than a religious teaching and, thus, conditional and contextual. Thus, the practice of female circumcision is not a static and universal.
Views of Muslim Jurists
Wahbah al Zuhaili, a contemporary Muslim jurist, summarizes many of Muslim jurists’ views on the issue of female circumcision. According to him, circumcision for men in the the Hanafite and the Malikite schools is highly recommended (Sunnah Muakkadah) while for women is an honor as long as it is not exaggerating, nor cutting off the labia mayora/minora of the vagina, so that they can still enjoy the pleasure of sexual intercourse. On the other side, the Shafi'ite school argues that circumcision is mandatory (wajib) both for men and women, while the Hanbalite school is of the opinion that circumcision is an obligatory for men and an honor for women. This school of thought is much adhered to especially by people living in hot lands.
Although we can easily trace the legitimate sources of the hadith of the Prophet Muhammad PBUH on female circumcision, as mentioned above, yet all that contains a point of controversy in terms of the aspect of the hadits validity as Muslim scholars differ in their conclusions regarding the validity and qualification of these hadiths.
The first Hadith, narrated by Abu Daud, is regarded by Adu Daud himself as a weak hadith (dla’if), because one of the narrators (the rawi) was unknown (majhul). As well in Imam al Syaukani’s and Imam Bayhaqi’s assessment this hadith is also weak and its transmission (isnaad) is disconnected (munqathi). Even more Ibn Mundhir said, "There is no a single tradition (hadith) that can be used as a reference to justify the circumcision and there is none of the transmission chains of the Hadith that can be traced"
A similar assessment is also put forward by Sayid Sabiq, "All of the hadiths concerning female circumcision are weak, and no one of them is valid".
However, Ibn Hajar said that even if this hadith is to be used as the basis of law, it could only apply to male, not to female, as it has been supported by other hadith that essentially recommend circumcision for men, as already mentioned above.
For that reason, we find no matter in terms of male circumcision because almost all Muslim scholars agree that male circumcision is necessary as whether it is mandatory (wajib) or strongly recommended (sunnah muakkadah). Male circumcision is of great importance for male reproductive health as medical experts have acknowledged this. On the contrary, however, in terms of the issue of female circumcision not all Muslim scholars are in one voice about one law conclusion. The majority of Muslim scholars (except the Shafi’ite school) state that female circumcision is only "an honor" for women, which means permissibility, instead of obligation or recommendation, to perform female circumcision. Within the Shafi'ite school of Islamic jurisprudence itself, there is no single opinion on this issue and so not few of ulema within this school argue that female circumcision is not obligatory.
What may remain to be a matter is what benefits will women get from the circumcision? Does female circumcision, which is actually a wounding of women’s body part, bring benefit for their reproductive health as male circumcision does? Without doubt, we should have these questions answered by medical experts. In response to these questions, Yusuf al Qaradawi Seyikh answered as follows:
"If the excision of parts of women’s body causes pain both physically and psychologically and, hence, women become prevented from acquiring their natural rights (their human rights) like sexual pleasure, so it is (female circumcision) prohibited (haram) since it hurts women" A maxim in Islamic jurisprudence says that "no harm to oneself and to others ". If so, then the removal of the most valuable part of women’s body is clearly equal to the deprivation of women's sexual rights, the violation of women's human rights as well as to the act of violence." Allah knows best. Wa ma Taufiqi billah illa 'alaihi wa tawakkaltu ilaihi unib.