A startling and uncomfortable discovery in Islamic shariah

August 18, 2006 at 4:37 pm (Arabic, Islam, Islamism, Religion)

There is a popular book called “Reliance of the Traveler” (عمدۃ السالک, cumdatu-s-saalik) which is a sort of portable shareecah. Going through it, I was a little shocked to find this:

ویجب (علی کل من الذکر والأنثی) الختان (وھو قطع الجلدۃ التي علی حشفة الذکر وأما ختان الأنثی فھو قطع البظر [ویسمی خفاضًا]).

Translation per Nuh Ha Mim Keller: Circumcision is obligatory (O: for both men and women. For men it consists of removing the prepuce from the penis, and for women, removing the prepuce (Ar. bazr) of the clitoris (n: not the clitoris itself, as some mistakenly assert). (A: Hanbalis hold that circumcision of women is not obligatory but sunna, while Hanafis consider it a mere courtesy to the husband.) (“e4.3” of the book.)

More literal translation: And it is obligatory (upon all men and women) the circumcision (and it is the cutting off the skin that is on the glans of the male and on the other hand the circumcision of the woman it is the cutting off of the clitoris [and it is considered decreasing]).

Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri (trans. Nuh Ha Mim Keller). Reliance of the Traveller. Delhi, India: Aamna Publishers, 1994, p. 59. If an Arabic-speaker can give a better translation for the text, I would appreciate it very much.

Another translation (from “The status position of women in Islam” on Answering-Islam.org):

Circumcision is obligatory (for every male and female) by cutting off the piece of skin on the glans of the penis of the male, but circumcision of the female is by cutting out the clitoris (this is called khufaad).

“Khufaad” can be considered to mean “shortening,” “decreasing,” “diminishing.”

This book is according to the Shaaficee school of jurisprudence. According to Wikipedia (“Importance of the Shāfi‘ī School” in “Shafi`i”):

The Shāfi‘ī school is followed throughout the Ummah, but is most prevalent by Kurds in Kurdistan (in Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran) and by other communities in Egypt, Somalia, Yemen, Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Palestine, Syria and is the official madhab followed by the government of Brunei Darussalam and Malaysia. It is followed by approximately 15 percent of Muslims world-wide.

The Shāfi‘ī tradition is accessible to English speakers from the translation of the Reliance of the Traveller.

So the good news is that female circumcision is not obligatory according to all four schools of jurisprudence: only the Shaaficee school of jurisprudence holds it as mandatory, which would explain why it is so prevalent in Africa and why al-Azhar supports it. The bad news, though, is that many Muslims (evidently, according to Wikipedia, 15% of Muslims) hold it as mandatory.

Update: Added another translation.


  1. Christopher Taylor said,

    Hm… that does go some way to explain why it’s done so often by Islamic Africans. I was lead to believe that female circumcision was strictly cultural, not religious. You’ve done the world a service again, friend.

  2. Munzareen Padela said,

    Are you sure? Reliance of the Traveller is often used by Shafis but I’ve never seen that.

    Anyways, Shaykh Faraz is someone who has studied under Shaykh Nuh (I’m not sure if you’ve heard of Sunnipath??). This is an answer from Sunnipath.

    Female circumcision
    Answered by Shaykh Faraz Rabbani

    I have a Question regarding female circumcision in Hanafi fiqh. I’ve heard from several sources that this is wajib according to Shafi’i fiqh, while according to Hanafi fiqh the decision lies in the hands of the husband. Can you shed some light on this and give the legal proofs for this ruling?!

    Walaikum assalam,

    That which is wajib in the Shafi`i texts is merely slight ‘trimming’ of the tip of the clitoris. It is neither excision nor FGM, nor anything else harmful to the woman or her ability to derive sexual pleasure. This is what the Hanafis considered an ‘token’ for the husband. It is not recommended per se.

    As for excision, FGM, or other harmful practices, which have become culturally widespread, none of these are in any way permitted. This is why the scholars generally say that the proper practice is almost a lost art.

    And Allah alone gives success.

    Faraz Rabbani

    Anyways, mas’salaam,

  3. Muslihoon said,

    It is interesting that Shaikh Faraz does not cite any legal proofs for his ruling.

    The only basis he has is a hadith from Sunan Abu Dawud:

    Book 41, Number 5251:

    Narrated Umm Atiyyah al-Ansariyyah:

    A woman used to perform circumcision in Medina. 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.

    Nothing in this hadith says how exactly one ought to perform female circumcision. I would be interested in knowing on what grounds he bases his comments.

    Furthermore, Shaikh Faraz says, “none of these are in any way permitted.” Is he, then, saying that the rulings of al-Azhar ash-Sharif (by Shaikh Gad al-Haq Ali Gad al-Haq and then by Shaikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi) supporting and encouraging female circumcision are wrong?

    Additionally, what Shaikh Faraz says does not agree with what others say. Mufti Ebrahim Desai of Ask-Imam.com says in this fatwa:

    It is Mustahabb (commendable) for females to circumcise. It is narrated in
    an authentic Hadith quoted from Abu Dawood Shareef that during the Prophet
    (Sallallaahu Álayhi Wasallam)’s time there was a woman in Madinah who used
    to perform circumcision for women (Fathul Bari vol. 16 p. 353)

    and Allah Ta’ala Knows Best

  4. Munzareen Padela said,

    I’m not a faqih so really I’m not qualified to give you anything. All I can say is that there are times when Shaykh Faraz doesn’t provide all of his proofs but when you ask him to expound upon it he does.

    Anyways, in a lot of my readings I haven’t come across the conclusion that female circumcision is mandaotry. Obviously it’s not. I’m not overly familiar with Shafii fiqh so I can’t say much for that.

    I’m sure you know that Wikipedia isn’t too reliable. It’s come a long way from its inception, but I am not sure how many people really hold this belief. Anyhow, I’m gonna go borrow a copy of the Reliance of the Traveller. Just wanted to check out the context for myself.

  5. Muslihoon said,

    In any case, setting Umdat as-Saalik aside, we have so far three shuyukh (Shaikh Gad al-Haq Ali Gad al-Haq, Shaikh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, and Mufti Ebrahim Desai) against one (Shaikh Faraz). Most Muslims would trust al-Azhar over any other mufti or faqih.

    And, for the record, the only information I got from Wikipedia was what percentage of Muslims are Shaaficee.

  6. Muslihoon said,

    The portion quoted above is in Kitaab at-Tahaarah (the fifth book), “The Body” (the fourth section of it, entited “Ba’dh as-sunan allatee tata’aluq bi-lbadan”), the third point (which concerns with circumcision; I quoted the entire point above).

    And as I mentioned before, this isn’t only a matter of Umdat as-Saalik: it’s an institutional matter. If it truly as cultural as people say, why is al-Azhar promoting it?

  7. Alaa said,

    it’s not mandatory for women but reducing it for women is just something they should do but not that they have to.

  8. anonomus said,

    why cant you just leave all muslim and non muslimg irls alone, what is the matter with you? they dont have to have it, so just forget about it and let them enjoy their sex with their husbands

  9. svend said,

    You’re misinformed on this matter, Muslihoon. FGM is indeed against Islam.

    The information pasted in was a fatwah (located here http://qa.sunnipath.com/issue_view.asp?ID=4932) from one of the best known traditional Islamic websites that was written for fellow Muslims, not disingenuous apologetics or wishful thinking.

    What is permitted (by some scholars) is called “clitoral hood reduction” in English. Like male circumcision–which is still common in America, unlike Europe- it (unlike FGM) is a minor cosmetic procedure. Women elect to do it for reasons of from aesthetics or to increase their sexual stimulation. Incidentally, it’s pretty common in the USA, and since it is not allowed in some countries for fear of FGM being carried out in its stead, women even *travel to the USA to get it done*.

    > If it truly as cultural as people say, why is al-Azhar promoting it?

    Please re-read the fatwa. Neither Sheikh Faraz nor Al-Azhar are condoning FGM. Also, Faraz made it clear that he discourages it in practice today out of concern for it being done improperly.

    If you are interested in gaining a better understanding of the facts matter (as opposed to merely digging for dirt), take a look at these links:

    Here’s a quote from the 2nd link that sums it up:
    “If the circumcision of women is to be done, it involves cutting only the outer portion of the clitoris and not as is done in some Muslim countries as cutting off all the entire clitoris. ‘Female circumcision’ of the type practised by some people in Somalia, Egypt and some other African countries is a mutilation forbidden in Islam.”

    For my part, I don’t think it is appropriate today, especially in developing countries where medical standards and expertise are likely to be wanting, but assuming a woman’s health is not at risk I’m not sure it’s my place to interfere. (Are we going stop non-Muslim women from getting their labias pierced? Those can have complications, as well.)

  10. svend said,

    An additional tidbit that you might want to consider from http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/45562/female_circumcision_in_the_united_states_pg2.html?cat=17 :
    “Female circumcision in the United States began to be advocated in the early 19th century as a way to control masturbation and to relieve women of those pesky sexual urges. Both clitoridotomy and clitoridectomy were practiced.
    There were several groups advocating clitoridectomy and they lasted until 1925. It is not know precisely when the practice ended in the United States but this form of female circumcision was covered by Blue Cross/Blue Shield until 1977. The last clitoridotomy performed to reduce sexually activity was probably the surgery performed in 1958 to stop a 5 year old girl from masturbating. All through the fifties some United States doctors recommend the clitoridotomy form of female circumcision for hygienic reasons and to reduce masturbation.

    United States doctors performed an extreme form of female circumcision, the neurectomy, at the turn of the 20th century on institutionalized girls and women. As late as 1950 a very extreme form of female circumcision, electrical cauterization, was performed in the United States on mental patients to stop masturbation. ”

    How soon we forget.

  11. Ahmed said,

    Female Circumcision is one of the most misunderstood practices of Islam. Here’s an excellent article showing that it is not the kind of mutilation it is commonly believed to be and that is the same as hoodectomy which western women are increasingly choosing to undergo for better genital hygiene and an enhanced sex life :

    There exist many ahadith or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) to show the important place, circumcision, whether of males or females, occupies in Islam.

    Among these traditions is the one where the Prophet is reported to have declared circumcision (khitan) to be sunnat for men and ennobling for women (Baihaqi).

    He is also known to have declared that the bath (following sexual intercourse without which no prayer is valid) becomes obligatory when both the circumcised parts meet (Tirmidhi). The fact that the Prophet defined sexual intercourse as the meeting of the male and female circumcised parts (khitanul khitan or khitanain) when stressing on the need for the obligatory post-coital bath could be taken as pre-supposing or indicative of the obligatory nature of circumcision in the case of both
    males and females.

    Stronger still is his statement classing circumcision (khitan) as one of the acts characteristic of the fitra or God-given nature (Or in other words, Divinely-inspired natural inclinations of humans) such as the shaving of pubic hair, removing the hair of the armpits and the paring of nails (Bukhari) which again shows its strongly emphasized if not obligatory character in the case of both males and females. Muslim scholars are of the view that acts constituting fitra which the Prophet expected Muslims to follow are to be included in the category of wajib or obligatory.

    That the early Muslims regarded female circumcision as obligatory even for those Muslims who embraced Islam later in life is suggested by a tradition occurring in the Adab al Mufrad of Bukhari where Umm Al Muhajir is reported to have said: “I was captured with some girls from Byzantium. (Caliph) Uthman offered us Islam, but only myself and one other girl accepted Islam. Uthman said: ‘Go and circumcise them and purify them.’”

    More recently, we had Sheikh Jadul Haqq, the distinguished head of Al Azhar declaring both male and female circumcision to be obligatory religious duties (Khitan Al Banat in Fatawa Al-Islamiyyah. 1983). The fatwa by his successor Tantawi who opposed the practice cannot be taken seriously as we all know that he has pronounced a number of unislamic fatwas such as declaring bank interest halal and questioning the obligation of women wearing headscarves.

    At the same time, however, what is required in Islam, is the removal of only the prepuce of the clitoris, and not the clitoris itself as is widely believed. The Prophet is reported to have told Umm Atiyyah, a lady who circumcised girls in Medina: “When you circumcise, cut plainly and do not cut severely, for it is beauty for the face and desirable for the husband” (idha khafadti fa ashimmi wa la tanhaki fa innahu ashraq li’l wajh wa ahza ind al zawj) (Abu Dawud, Al Awsat of Tabarani and Tarikh
    Baghdad of Al Baghdadi).

    This hadith clearly explains the procedure to be followed in the circumcision of girls. The words: “Cut plainly and do not cut severely” (ashimmi wa la tanhaki) is to be understood in the sense of removing the skin covering the clitoris, and not the clitoris. The expression “It is beauty (more properly brightness or radiance) for the face” (ashraq li’l wajh) is further proof of this as it simply means the joyous countenance of a woman, arising out of her being sexually satisfied by her husband. The idea here is that it is only with the removal of the clitoral prepuce that real sexual satisfaction could be realized. The procedure enhances sexual feeling in women during the sex act since a circumcised clitoris is much more likely to be stimulated as a result of direct oral, penile or tactile contact than the uncircumcised organ whose prepuce serves as an obstacle to direct stimulation.

    A number of religious works by the classical scholars such as Fath Al Bari by Ibn Hajar Asqalani and Sharhul Muhadhdhab of Imam Nawawi have stressed on the necessity of removing only the prepuce of the clitoris and not any part of the organ itself. It is recorded in the Majmu Al Fatawa that when Ibn Taymiyyah was asked whether the woman is circumcised, he replied: “Yes we circumcise. Her circumcision is to cut the uppermost skin (jilda) like the cock’s comb.” More recently Sheikh Jadul Haqq declared that the circumcision of females consists of the removal of the clitoral prepuce (Khitan Al Banat in Fatawa Al Islamiyya.1983).

    Besides being a religious duty, the procedure is believed to facilitate good hygiene since the removal of the prepuce of the clitoris serves to prevent the accumulation of smegma, a foul-smelling, germ-containing cheese- like substance that collects underneath the prepuces of uncircumcised women (See Al Hidaayah. August 1997).

    A recent study by Sitt Al Banat Khalid ‘Khitan Al-Banat Ru’ yah Sihhiyyah’ (2003) has shown that female circumcision, like male circumcision, offers considerable health benefits, such as prevention of urinary tract infections and other diseases such as cystitis affecting the female reproductive organs.

    The latest is the study Orgasmic Dysfunction Among Women at a Primary Care Setting in Malaysia. Hatta Sidi, and Marhani Midin, and Sharifah Ezat Wan Puteh, and Norni Abdullah, (2008) Asia Pacific Journal of Public Health, 20 (4) accessible http://myais.fsktm.um.edu.my/4480/ which shows that being Non-Malay is a higher risk factor for Orgasmic Sexual Dysfunction in women, implying that Malay women experience less problems in achieving orgasm than non-Malay women. As you know almost all Malay women in Malaysia are circumcised (undergo hoodectomy) in contrast to non-Malay women who are not. This would suggest that hoodectomy does in fact contribute to an improved sex life in women rather than diminishing it as some argue.

    For more benefits of Islamic female circumcision also known as hoodectomy see http://www.hoodectomyinformation.com

  12. Ahmed said,

    Here’s another interesting news item that supports the need for a hoodectomy (Islamic female circumcision):

    Oral sex linked to cancer risk

    US scientists said Sunday there is strong evidence linking oral sex to cancer, and urged more study of how human papillomaviruses may be to blame for a rise in oral cancer among white men.

    In the United States, oral cancer due to HPV infection is now more common than oral cancer from tobacco use, which remains the leading cause of such cancers in the rest of the world.

    Researchers have found a 225-percent increase in oral cancer cases in the United States from 1974 to 2007, mainly among white men, said Maura Gillison of Ohio State University. “The rise in oral cancer in the US is predominantly among young white males and we do not know the answer as to why.”

    It is obvious that the only way men can acquire the HPV virus is through the oral stimulation of one’s partner’s clitoris which allows the virus to enter the mouth. The virus no doubt is harboured in the prepuce of the clitoris just as it has been found that HPV also resides in the foreskins of males, through the transmission of which cervical cancer occurs in females. Thus a hoodectomy could, by removing the area which habours the virus, significantly reduce or eliminate the risk of women transmitting the virus to their male partners.

  13. Ahmed said,

    An excellent work on hoodectomy (Islamic female circumcision) is available at http://www.umatia.org/2011/Safe%20Female%20circumcision.doc

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