Female Genital Mutilation
About 140 million women and girls have undergone female genital mutilation (FGM), including some three million girls in Africa alone who are at risk of undergoing the procedure every year.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), FGM is practiced in more than 27 countries in the African subcontinent, and in communities in Malaysia and Indonesia in Asia. FGM is also common among migrant communities in North America, Europe, and Australia.
Although it is often assumed that FGM is specifically associated with Islam, as HRW points out:
"FGM is practiced among some adherents of the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish faiths. FGM is also practiced among some animists, who believe in the existence of individual spirits and supernatural forces. It is erroneously linked to religion, is not particular to any religious faith, and predates Christianity and Islam...
For example, while FGM is practiced in Egypt, which is predominantly Muslim, it is not practiced in many other countries with predominantly Muslim populations, such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan."
So what is FGM's relationship with Islam?
As HRW note, the practice of FGM predates both Christianity and Islam. Muslim polities often sought to appropriate existing cultural practices that predated Islam into an ostensibly 'Islamic' theological framework, generating new laws and norms to codify such practices. Being a common cultural practice in many parts of the world that were absorbed into expanding Muslim empires, FGM became seen as acceptable among some classical schools of thought.
Yet close analysis of Islam's scriptural sources - both the Qur'an and hadith - demonstrates unequivocally that there is no Islamic scriptural justification for FGM at all, and further that the belief that FGM is an Islamic practice is a form of bidah: a foreign innovation into the religion which is not, in fact, sanctioned by the religion itself.
Firstly, there is no mention whatsoever in the Qur'an of 'female circumcision.' Secondly, all the hadith that have been used to support the idea that 'female circumcision' is advocated or accepted within Islam are weak (da'if) at best. This means that they cannot form the basis of jurisprudential rulings.
Among the most commonly-cited hadith is as follows, narrated by Um ‘Atiyyah:
"A woman used to perform circumcision in Medina. The Prophet said to her: Do not cut severely as that is better for a woman and more desirable for a husband." (Sunan Abu Dawud 41:5251)
Imam Abu Dawud himself rejected the authenticity of this narration:
"Its chain of transmitters is not strong. Besides, it is reported not as a direct quote attributed to the Prophet... This hadith is poor in authenticity."
Following Abu Dawud, many classical authorities noted the lack of authenticity of the hadith, and its inadmissibility as evidence for the derivation of Islamic laws. Renowned hadith expert Ibn Hajar, for instance, dismissed this narration outright (Talkhis al-habir fi takhrij Ahadith ar-Rafi'i al-Kabir).
Yusuf ibn Abd al-Barr similarly concluded:
"It is based on the authority of a transmitter whose report cannot be admitted as evidence... Those who consider (female) circumcision as a sunna, use as evidence this hadith of Abu al-Malih, which is based solely on the evidence of Hajjaj ibn-e-Arta'a, who cannot be admitted as an authority when he is the sole transmitter. The consensus of Muslim scholars shows that circumcision is for men." ('Al-Tamhid lima fil-Muwatta min al-M'ani wal-Asanid', in Shams al-Haq al-Azhim Abadi's Awn al- ma'bood fi sharh Sunan Abu Dawud)
Muhammad ash-Shawkani also noted in his Nayl al-Awtar (Vol. 1, p. 139) that, "In addition to the fact that the hadith is not valid as reference, it does not give any evidence to prove the case in question."
There is one further narration which has been used to justify FGM as an Islamic practice:
"Circumcision is a tradition for men and honorable for women." (Musnad Ahmad, 20195)
However, the narrators of this hadith, Usama ibn Umar, Shidad ibn Was and Abdullah ibn Abbas, are all weak (al-Dhahabi, Tanqeeh At-Tahqeeq 2:264; Ibn Kathir, Jami’ Al-Musaneed, 5100; al-Bayhaqi in Sunan Al-Kubra, 8:325). As with the previous hadith, this narration is simply inadmissible from a jurisprudential perspective.
In summary, there is no basis within Islam for FGM.
Additionally, the scientific literature demonstrates an unimpeachable consensus on the severely detrimental impacts of FGM on women, physically, psychologically and socially. Far from Muslims being required to ignore this wealth of empirical evidence, the Qur'an exhorts Muslims to seek knowledge from the scientific study of natural phenomena, human biology, society, and the natural environment.
A meta-analysis published in the British Medical Journal (2014) found:
"The most common immediate complications were excessive bleeding, urine retention and genital tissue swelling. The most valid and statistically significant associations for the physical health sequelae of FGM/C were seen on urinary tract infections (unadjusted RR=3.01), bacterial vaginosis (adjusted OR (AOR)=1.68), dyspareunia (RR=1.53), prolonged labour (AOR=1.49), caesarean section (AOR=1.60), and difficult delivery (AOR=1.88)."
A study in the African Journal of Urology further noted:
"This procedure can lead to psychological trauma to the child; with anxiety, panic attacks and sense of humiliation... Female circumcision can reduce female sexual response, and may lead to anorgasmia and even frigidity... Circumcision of females or female genital mutation (FGM) is a cruel procedure, a cultural tradition, which deprives women of sexual satisfaction, exposes them to psychological and physical complications."
Do No Harm
Based on this scientific evidence, FGM falls into the same category as any other form of physical harm that a human being might inflict on another, a form of assault that is prohibited (haram), and liable for an appropriate legal penalty as adopted conscientiously within the judicial system.
Under the simple Prophetic principle of "Do not cause harm or return harm" (reliable [graded hasan] hadith of the Prophet reported in Sunan ibn Majah, 2340), any form of 'female circumcision' must be recognised as a form of genital mutilation - an act of oppressive violence against girls and women - that is utterly unacceptable within an authentic Islamic framework.