We all need to do what we can to help put and end to female genital mutilation. FGM in all its forms are prohibited in Canada, and Muslims must abide by the laws here and elsewhere. We can distinguish between various levels of cutting to understand the scope, complexity, and gravity of the problem. This distinction is useful in discussing what is mentioned in a hadith (tradition) wherein it is reported that the Prophet (may Allah continue to bless him) knew of a woman who was performing circumcision on girls. He is reported to have remarked that she should not cut too deep (so it is in Abu Dawud’s collection of traditions).
Circumcision is not mentioned in the Quran. However, the Quran mentions the general principle that harms should be avoided, such that if the harms of something are greater than its benefits, then that too should be avoided (Quran 2:219). Male circumcision is a Biblical commandment, and Muslims continue to observe this, not as a commandment, but as a practice of the great prophets of God, including Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad –may God continue to bless them.
Historically, some Muslim scholars deemed female circumcision also to be a recommended practice. By comparison with male circumcision, they recommended the removal of a sort of foreskin, the prepuce that covers the clitoris. To keep this comparison valid, one would expect that the clitoris and labia would be left intact. However, the practice in some societies degenerated to resemble reprehensible ancient pre-Islamic practices of various forms. In some of these despicable forms, the clitoris is removed; yet in others even the labia, or parts of the labia are removed, and the remaining parts are then sutured together leaving only a tiny opening to allow for the passage of urine and menstrual blood. These practices entail physical and psychological harms for women. Therefore, Muslims should have no difficulty in ruling that these are impermissible.
Due to tradition, some Muslims recommend the minor cut of the prepuce only. However, the tradition on this lacks the clarity and authenticity necessary to make the practice a recommendation, rather than something that was left without comment. Moreover, allowing for a little cut can easily degenerate into extreme cuts. In any case, in the face of the harms now known from the extreme forms of FGM, it is necessary to take a clear stand against it, and allowing for even a small cut would blur the atmosphere.
As for the clarity of the traditions, what is most clear is a tradition saying that one should not harm oneself or others (Ibn Maajah). The authenticity of this tradition is not in question, though it is not found in the collections most known for their authenticity; rather, it is accepted as further confirmation of the foundational rule of non-harm, already known from the Quran. If there was a clear and authentic tradition prescribing female circumcision, someone could argue in favour of the cutting of the prepuce only. But the traditions are not clear enough to even recommend the practice. This is why it is not recommended in the Hanafi school of Muslim jurisprudence, the school with the most following worldwide.
The hadiths that are commonly cited in favour of female circumcision are either unclear, or from sources of lesser authenticity. The hadiths cited from Bukhari and Muslim on this are not clear indications. For example, the hadith saying that five things are the practices of prophets, including circumcision, probably refers only to male circumcision, especially given the majority classical view that the prophets were all men.
Likewise, the hadith from Muslim mentioning that a Muslim will need to bathe after the two circumcised parts meet (thus referring to both male and female parts) is not necessarily meant to condone the existing practice. It may only intend to describe the anatomical features as they were widely known at the time.
A recent hadith scholar, al-Albani, declared the hadith from Abu Dawud, mentioned above, to be authentic. However, this recent ruling does not have the force of classical Muslim positions which held the hadiths of Bukhari and Muslim as beyond compeer, and the hadiths of the likes of Abu Dawud therefore to be generally of lesser authenticity. But even if that particular hadith is held to be authentic, thus presuming that the prophet said and acted as described, then he was obviously trying to limit the practice rather than to condone it. In any case, people invented and attributed speeches and actions to the prophet that were never his. So, one cannot use a statement in a hadith to go against the principle of non-harm which is so clearly established in the Quran and even in a hadith as already cited above. Hadiths can be used to explain the Quran but not to oppose it.
In sum, while there is some traditional justification for thinking that female circumcision, which involves the cutting of the prepuce alone, is a recommended practice, as is held in some schools of Muslim jurisprudence, there is no Islamic justification for harsher forms of cutting, the harms of which are demonstrated to be physical and psychological. And since the allowance for a small cut blurs the clear stance we need to take against FGM; and small cuts easily degenerate into bigger and bigger cuts, it is better for Muslims to rule against every type of cut, big and small.
This stance does not involve a compromise of our religion. It is a known religious principle that harm is to be avoided, and the prescriptions of the faith can be modified to avoid harm since this itself is an overriding prescription of the faith. In this case, however, we are not even dealing with a conflict between two prescriptions. For one the one hand, we have the clear prescriptions against non-harm; but on the other hand, we have no prescription in the tradition in favour of female circumcision. The most one can say is that, based on the hadiths, there is an inference to be made that the prophet permitted the Muslims at the time to continue the practice of female circumcision provided that they do not cut too deeply. But an inference does not have the force of demonstrable proof. For, another possible inference was that there were some things left alone because there were other priorities at the time. Indeed, even in other societies, this did not become a priority until recently. FGM, though known from ancient times, was left alone for centuries; and only fairly recently did the movement to ban the practice begin. On this other possible inference, the prophet did what was reasonable at the time. Society was not ready to abandon the practice entirely. The most he could achieve was to modify the practice to a minimal cutting so as to minimize its harm.
Finally, Muslims must follow the laws where they reside, and FGM is outlawed in Canada, as it should be outlawed everywhere. Moreover, Canada outlaws all forms of cutting of the female genitalia. This could place some Muslims in a quandary. But rather than think that female circumcision is a recommended practice in our faith which we must find a way or a place to practice, we need to go back over the textual sources of our faith and prioritize them. The most authentic source is the Quran which does not mention circumcision. But it mentions the principle of non-harm. The most authentic hadiths according to classical scholarship, those of Bukhari and Muslim, do not prescribe female circumcision. Bukhari’s mention of circumcision seems to intend only male circumcision. And Muslim’s mention of circumcised parts, presumably of both male and female, is a simple description of the anatomy as it was known at the time, rather than a prescription of how it should be for all time. The hadith from the less authentic Abu Dawud, even though authenticated by a recent scholar, does not prescribe the practice, but serves to limit it. But the overriding hadith that applies to our circumstance is the one from Ibn Maajah which, though also from a source of lesser authenticity, is nonetheless unquestionable as a restatement of the Quranic principle of non-harm. To conclude, in following Canadian law on this question, Muslims are also following the Quran’s principle of non-harm, a principle restated in a hadith, and not contradicted by the other hadiths mentioned above.
July 22, 2017
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