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?