Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Female Genital Mutilation: An Islamic Or "Cultural" Practice? (Part 3)

Extent and Persistence

According to the previously cited UNICEF report on the prevalence of FGM in Africa, there are four countries in which over 90% of girls are circumcised, all of which have a Muslim majority: Somalia (98%), Guinea (96%), Djibouti (93%) and Egypt (91%). In terms of raw numbers, Egypt is the worst offender, with over 27 million girls having undergone the procedure. Worldwide, it is estimated that female genital cutting affects up to 200 million girls in varying degrees of severity, with as many as 60 million of these victims found in Indonesia alone.

As disturbing as these figures are, they are unfortunately beginning to manifest themselves in the West as well, due to rising immigration from Muslim countries. In the UK, there were over one thousand cases of hospital attendances due to FGM recorded by the National Health Service in just three months between April and June 2015 – roughly eleven instances per day. The same amount were recorded in the first three months of this year, also. It had previously been estimated that up to 100,000 girls in the UK had been victims of genital cutting.

This problem is clearly exacerbated by mainstream clerical support for the practice among Muslim authorities in the West. For example, the imam Sheikh Haitham al-Haddad, a board member of the UK’s Islamic Sharia Council, has argued that there is a “proper” way of performing female cutting, stating that “it is consensus of all scholars that female circumcision is sunnah [i.e. in accord with the teachings of Muhammad]”.

Returning to FGM in the Muslim world, there may be a correlation between its prevalence in certain Islamic countries and adherence to the Shafi’i school of Sunni Islamic law. As we have already seen, Reliance of the Traveller – a sharia manual dealing primarily with the Shafi’i doctrine – says that “circumcision is obligatory for both men and women”, and the school’s eighth-century founder also declared it to be a religious necessity, in contrast to other jurists who saw it as merely recommended. The Shafi’i school is one of the largest schools of Islamic jurisprudence in terms of global adherents, and is predominant today in many of the world’s major hotspots for FGM, including Egypt, Indonesia, Somalia, and Kurdish regions of Iraq. It is also prevalent among the FGM-practising Muslim minorities in Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Thailand, among others. In Africa, four of the five countries with the highest rates of FGM follow Shafi’ite Islam (Somalia, Djibouti, Egypt, and Eritrea - the latter being a significant Muslim minority, maybe as high as 48%, within a non-Muslim country).


We can no longer continue to deny the Islamic dimension of FGM, and its prevalence among Muslim communities worldwide. We must begin to have a more open, honest discussion about the nature and scope of the problem, just as we must also pressure Muslim organisations and leadership to forcefully condemn it and work transparently to bring this misogynistic barbarity to an end.

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Female Genital Mutilation: An Islamic or "Cultural" Practice? (Part 2)

Theological Justification

Why is FGM so prevalent in Islamic societies? In this case, the answer cannot be found in the Qur’an, as circumcision is not mentioned in the Islamic holy book at all. Even in the hadith, there is very little mention of it, with only two major references that suggest that it was known in seventh-century Arabia, and that it was never condemned by Muhammad:

The Messenger of Allah said: When anyone sits amidst four parts (of the woman) and the circumcised parts touch each other a bath becomes obligatory. (Sahih Muslim b.3, no.684)
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 b.41, no.5251)

In the first hadith, it appears to be taken for granted by Muhammad that both Muslim men and women will have circumcised parts. In the second, Muhammad is aware of a woman performing circumcision on girls and does not condemn it, only warning her not to cut “severely” – an entirely subjective judgement. Islamic law permits Muslims to engage in any behaviour which Muhammad saw but did not forbid, and thereby gave “unspoken approval” to (for example, explained in this book, p.53), and so most Muslim scholars have traditionally either allowed or encouraged FGM. Referring to the second hadith, a note in the English translation of the Sunan Abu Dawud hadith collection summarises the views of the four main Sunni legal schools as follows:

The reference is to the circumcision of girls. It was practiced in Arabia when Islam came. It is disputed amongst the jurists. Some Shafi'i scholars hold that circumcision of girls is obligatory, but others think that it is recommended. Ata, Ahmad b. Hanbal, and some Maliki jurists also hold that it is obligatory. Abu Hanifah maintains that it is recommended and not obligatory. Malik also holds that it is recommended. 

FGM is also given explicit religious sanction in the important Islamic legal manual Reliance of the Traveller, which has been endorsed by Cairo's Al-Azhar University - Islam's highest centre of religious learning - as conforming “to the practice and faith of the orthodox Sunni community.”  The manual states: “Circumcision is obligatory for both men and women [emphasis mine]. For men it consists of removing the prepuce [foreskin] from the penis, and for women, removing the prepuce (bazr) of the clitoris (not the clitoris itself, as some mistakenly assert).” It is important to note that this English translation of the manual renders this passage in a dishonest way that does not accurately reflect the original Arabic text. In actual fact, the Arabic word Bazr means the entire clitoris, and not just the foreskin as the translation claims. (For example, see Hans Wehr, A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, p.64)

Coming soon: How widespread is Islamic FGM?

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Female Genital Mutilation: An Islamic Or "Cultural" Practice? (Part 1)

An African Problem?

It is frequently claimed by Islamic apologists that FGM is merely an “African problem” that has its roots in tribal customs that long predate Islam, and is practised by people of all faiths across the continent.

It is certainly true that Muslims are not the only community to practise FGM, and that it is prevalent among peoples across Africa that are not Muslim. But this does not mean that Islam should not be held at least partially responsible for its continued popularity in many countries. In 2013, UNICEF published a statistical analysis of genital cutting focusing predominantly on Africa. Of the thirteen countries in the study in which over 50% of the female population are subjected to FGM (see opening pages at the link above), ten of them have a Muslim majority. Additionally, in the remaining three countries that do not have a Muslim majority – Eritrea, Ethiopia and Liberia – a higher percentage of Muslim women and girls undergo cutting compared to the Christian population. Overall, there is a higher percentage of Muslims than Christians practising FGM in 20 out of 24 countries examined in the survey (see page 73).

There are other important points to consider, as well. For example, although FGM is practised by many Coptic Christians in Egypt today, the custom was entirely borrowed from Islam, and was not an accepted tradition in the country or among any sect of Christianity prior to the Islamic conquests of the seventh century. Female cutting is also increasingly widespread in Islamic countries outside of Africa, for example in Iraq, where a 2012 study found that in one region alone, 40.9% of Sunni Muslim women and 23.4% of Shi’ites suffer it, with no Christian women affected at all. Meanwhile, in Thailand, FGM is commonplace only in the provinces of Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani, where Muslims make up a majority.

But perhaps the most compelling evidence that FGM is not merely an “African problem” comes from the world’s most populous Muslim country, Indonesia. Research conducted by anthropologists throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century concluded that female circumcision was not a native custom in the Indonesian archipelago, but was introduced to the region by Islam, and was generally not practised by any non-Islamic peoples there. More recently, a wide-ranging 2003 survey by the United States Agency for International Development found an average rate of female circumcision of 97.5% across eight study regions, all of which have Muslim majorities. Furthermore, Indonesia’s largest Muslim advisory organisation, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), has issued a religious ruling supporting FGM on Islamic grounds.

All of this demonstrates that although FGM is undeniably a problem among certain non-Muslim communities and is not exclusive to Muslims, it nevertheless remains primarily and overwhelmingly an Islamic problem.

Coming soon: The Islamic theological basis for FGM.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Female Genital Mutilation: An Islamic Or "Cultural" Practice? (Introduction)

It has been revealed today that new cases of female genital mutilation (FGM) in Birmingham have increased by nearly a third, according to new figures.

The number of incidents increased from 52 between October and December 2015 to 67 from January to March this year – a 28 per cent rise. The statistics were released by the Health and Social Care Information Centre.

In total 1,242 newly recorded cases of FGM were reported across the country in the same time period. Back in February, it was revealed that more than two cases of female genital mutilation were being reported in Birmingham and the West Midlands every day.

According to the 2011 census, Birmingham is over 20% Muslim. Does this have any bearing on the alarming figures reported today? Aside from a handful of blinkered cultural relativists, most people appear to agree that FGM is medically unnecessary, misogynistic, and barbaric. Reacting to today's news, an NSPCC spokesman said:

There are no medical reasons to carry out FGM. It doesn’t enhance fertility and it doesn’t make childbirth safer. It is used to control female sexuality and can cause severe and long-lasting damage to physical and emotional health. FGM or female circumcision is usually carried out for religious, cultural or social reasons. But let’s be clear – it is child abuse and it causes long-lasting physical and emotional damage. The practice must stop.

And yet despite the prevalence of this practice throughout the Islamic world, there have been persistent attempts to claim that it has nothing to do with Islam at all, and is merely a “cultural” practice that carries no sanction in the Qur’an and hadith.

A forthcoming series of posts here at Eye On Islam will explore this issue in depth, establishing whether or not Islam encourages FGM, and the extent to which it is practised in Muslim communities around the world. The first part will be published tomorrow, and will examine whether FGM is really just an "African problem", as characterised by the likes of Islamic apologist Reza Aslan.