Female circumcision is arguably a debatable topic today. However, it is very clear that the classical scholars of Islam have agreed that it is an Islamic practice. They differed only as to whether it is to be considered wâjib (obligatory) or mukarramah (recommended).
It is very disheartening to note that some modern Islamic scholars have claimed that female circumcision is “unislamic.” This claim has been made without giving due consideration to the ahadith about it or to what is actually involved in the proper procedure of female circumcision as prescribed by Islam. Rather, that modern claim has been made based on the mistaken belief that Islamic female circumcision is identical with Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) as practiced in certain backward societies where a female’s clitoris is removed —the purpose of which is to curb women’s sexual sensation. We are certainly agreed that FGM of this kind is truly “unislamic.”
However, Islamic Female Circumcision (IFC) is distinct from FGM. IFC involves the removal of only the prepuce, meaning the fold of skin covering the clitoris, so as to improve genital hygiene and to enhance sexual pleasure in women by exposing the clitoris to more direct access. This outcome, as we shall see below, has been proven in numerous studies, which is why even modern American women, Muslim or not, are increasingly choosing to undergo FC as a minor surgical procedure, going by the name of ‘hoodectomy.’
Female Circumcision is Islamic
There are a number of ahadith of Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) that speak of female circumcision. These various ahadith concerning female circumcision back up one another and suggest it is indeed a fully Islamic practice, contrary to what is being claimed these days by those who have not adequately investigated the Hadith evidence.
The Prophet ﷺ said:
خَمْسٌ مِنَ الْفِطْرَةِ: الْخِتَانُ، وَالِاسْتِحْدَادُ، وَتَقْلِيمُ الْأَظْفَارِ، وَنَتْفُ الْإِبْطِ، وَقَصُّ الشَّارِبِ
“Five things are connected to the natural disposition (fiṭrah): Circumcision, shaving the pubic hairs, clipping the nails, plucking the armpit hairs and trimming the moustache” (Saḥîḥ Al-Bukhâri Book 72 Hadith 779. Grade: Saḥίḥ)
The shariCah [‘Islamic Law’] term Fiṭrah (innate nature) refers to the inherent and natural qualities and ways of a human being. The laws of the ShariCah are equally applicable to men and women:
الرِّجَالِ شَقَائِقُ النِّسَاءُ إِنَّمَا [i]
innamâ – al-nisââ – shuqâ’iq-u – al-rijâl-i
“verily – (the) women – are the likes/counterparts – of (the) men”
(Musnad Ahmad 25663. Grade: Saḥίḥ)
This equality of application is the case except where we know that women are exempted. The normative practices associated by the Prophet ﷺ with fiṭrah, as mentioned in the hadith above are general and relate to both male and female, since there is no evidence, here, indicating that circumcision is restricted to males only. Circumcision is recognised by the Prophet ﷺ as being in accord with fiṭrah; as such it should apply equally to males and females. For instance, does shaving of pubic hair or paring of nails apply only to males? Certainly not, they apply to both sexes, and the same can go for circumcision.
In fact, female circumcision was the norm and custom of Arab women before Islam and was then endorsed by the Prophet ﷺ. Consider the following Ahadith of the Prophet ﷺ:
إِذَا جَاوَزَ الْخِتَانُ الْخِتَانَ وَجَبَ الْغُسْلُ (الترمذي)
“When the circumcised (part) meets the circumcised (part) then ghusl is required” (Jami` Al-Tirmidhi 108. Grade: Saḥίḥ)
إِذَا جَلَسَ بَيْنَ شُعَبِهَا الأَرْبَعِ وَمَسَّ الْخِتَانُ الْخِتَانَ فَقَدْ وَجَبَ الْغُسْلُ (مسلم)
“When a man sits amidst the four parts (arms and legs of his wife) and the circumcised parts touch each other, a bath (ghusl) becomes obligatory” (Saḥîḥ Muslim 349. Grade: Saḥίḥ))
These ahadith —which deal with the obligation of post-coital bath (ghusl) without which no prayer is valid— refer to the two circumcised parts (one of the male and one of the female), equating sexual intercourse with the meeting of the two circumcised parts, and clearly presupposing it as an obligation of both the partners of the act.
It is narrated in numerous books of Ahadith that a Saḥabiyyah by the name of Umm CAtiyyah (رضي الله عنها) used to circumcise females at the time of the Prophet ﷺ. The Prophet ﷺ told Umm CAtiyyah (رضي الله عنها):
فقال لها رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم: “يا أم عطية: اخفضي ولا تُنهِكيِ، فإنه أنضر للوجه، وأحظى عند الزوج
“Oh Umm CAtiyyah! Circumcise [remove the prepuce of the clitoris], but don’t cut too much [don’t harm the clitoris], for that will be brighter for [her] face [i.e. satisfying] and more pleasing to the husband” (Sunan al-Kubra, Baihaqi 18053. Grade unknown)
In another Hadith the Prophet ﷺ advises the women of the Ansâr in general regarding circumcision:
يا نســاء الأنصــار اختضـبن عمســاً ، واختفـضن ولا تنـهـكن ؛ فإنه أحظـى لإناثكن عند أزواجهن
“Oh women of the Ansâr! Apply henna and circumcise! But do not exaggerate [i.e.remove the prepuce around the clitoris, but don’t harm the clitoris] for it is more pleasing for your women folks when they are with their husbands.” (Mukhtassar Zawa’id Musnad Al -Bazzar of Ibn Hajar Item 1227, I, 669. Grade unknown)
The aforementioned ahâdith, and others, indicate that not only was circumcision prominent amongst Muslim women but that its action was also affirmed and endorsed by the Messenger of Allah ﷺ, to be carried out in the way that he specified.
There is still more evidence for this practice. Imam Bukhari is best known for the compilation of the book Saḥîḥ Al-Bukhâri. But he also compiled another detailed book of ahadith on Good Manners. It was called Adab Al-Mufrad. In this work, Imam Bukhâri records two very important incidents in the days of the Saḥabah which demonstrates that the blessed Companions of our beloved Prophet ﷺ regarded circumcision as normative practice for women.
Umm Al-Muhajir says: “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.” (Adab Al-Mufrad of Al-Bukhari, Book 1, Hadith 1245, Graded: Saḥίḥ)
Umm Al-Qamah says that when the nieces of CAisha’s brother were circumcised, CAisha was asked: “Shall we call someone to amuse them [during their recovery period]?” “Yes” she replied. (Adab Al-Mufrad of Al-Bukhari Book 1, Hadith 1247 Graded: Saḥίḥ)
Now, it may be asked why Hazrat CAisha approved when her brother had his nieces circumcised and why Caliph Uthman ordered women who had embraced Islam to be purified in connection with circumcision. The fact that they did, suggests that the blessed Companions of our Prophet ﷺ regarded female circumcision as an Islamically acceptable norm.
In later times, some madhhab‘s came to regard FC as wâjib (obligatory), like the ShafiCis and a good part of the Hanbalis, like Shaikh Ibn Taymiyyah. Others, like the Malikis, regarded it as recommended and the Hanafis viewed it as merely a good thing for a Muslim wife to do as a courtesy to her husband. Thus disagreements surfaced as to whether female circumcision was obligatory or not; furthermore, the reluctance of male scholars to deal with a women’s issue, and the general lack of awareness among women of later generations— these further factors added to the first, leading to its decline in certain parts of the world, as in Turkey, Central Asia and India, where the Hanafi Madhhab dominated. Since it was thought of as only recommended, the women in these areas conveniently neglected it.
However, let it be stressed that some of the greatest jurists of Islam, including Imam ShafiCi, Ibn Hajar Asqalani, Shaikh Ibn Taymiyyah, and Shaikh Al Azhar Jaddul Haqq, were agreed on the obligation of female circumcision.
How Female Circumcision Must be Done Islamically
So now to the all-important question: What must be done in circumcising the female according to Islamic protocol? Very simple really. All that is required is to remove the bit of wrinkled protective skin covering over her clitoris, which is prone to harboring the lubricating secretion, ‘smegma.’ When smegma is not regularly removed from under the covering, it breeds germs and gives out bad smells. This skin of the female is very similar to the foreskin of boys that is taken off at male circumcision. This is why the clitoral prepuce has been described as the ‘female foreskin.’ All the early jurists of Islam were agreed in one voice with regard to how the circumcision of the female was to be done: all that was needed to be removed was the prepuce of the clitoris, the fold of skin covering the clitoris. No more, no less.
1) Imam Ibn Hajar Asqalani says in his renowned work Fath Al-Bari that it involves the removal of “the skin covering the cock’s-comb-like structure, and not the flesh.”
2) Imam Ibn Taymiyya says in his scholarly work MajmûC Al-Fatawa: “Her circumcision consists of cutting the prepuce which is like the cock’s-comb.” He also says that it is the prepuce (qalfa) of the clitoris that is removed in the procedure.
3) Imam Nawawi in his book Sharh Al-Muhazzab says that that the part that has to be removed in female circumcision is “the skin of the structure which is like the cock’s-comb above the urethral opening.” He also says in his commentary Sharh Muslim that it involves the removal of “a little bit of skin in the upper private parts.”
4) Sheikh Abu Nasr Ibn al-Sabbaagh says in Kitab Ash-Shaamil: “In the case of a woman, it means cutting the skin that looks like the ‘comb’ of a rooster at the top of the vagina, between the two labia.”
(The above are taken directly from https://sailanmuslim.com/sailan-muslimah/female-circumcision-an-islamic-perspective/ “The Islamic Procedure,” paragraph 1)
These classical scholars of Islam did not arbitrarily decide how female circumcision should be done. Rather they based it on a saying of the Prophet ﷺ where he is reported to have told Umm CAtiyyah Al Ansariya, a female Companion who circumcised girls and women in Medina:
“When you circumcise, cut lightly (in a shallow manner) and do not root it out, for this [brings] beauty to [her] face and is desirable for the husband” (Sunan al-Kubra, Baihaqi 18053. Grade unknown)
(ibid, “The Islamic Procedure,” paragraph 2 “)
The specific Arabic wording used in this hadith, “idha khafadti fa ashimmi wa la tanhaki fa innahu ashraq li-l wajh wa ahza Cind al-zawj” tells us precisely what is to be done in circumcising females:
ashimmi – wa – la – tanhaki
“Cut lightly from, not extirpating [it] – and – do not – cut deeply” [ii]
This phrasing (ashimmi) must be understood in the sense of removing the skin covering the clitoris, and not removing the clitoris itself. The word ashimmi used here in fact derives from the root word sh – m, which literally means ‘to take a whiff,’ thus implying here a delicate stroke of surgical steel (over the clitoris to remove its skin). La tanhaki specifies ‘do not cut deeply’, ‘do not uproot’ —which is a prohibition against doing harm to the clitoris. Thus it is very clear that the Prophet ﷺ commanded that those who perform Islamic female circumcision were to remove only the clitoral prepuce and forbade them from harming the clitoris itself.
Furthermore, the expression “this [brings] beauty (more literally, ‘brightnes’s or ‘radiance’) to the face” (ashraq li-l-wajh) may be taken as further evidence of this as it must be understood to mean a face suffused with pleasure; to put it in other words, it refers to the joyous countenance of a woman arising after being sexually gratified by her husband. Another version of the hadith puts it rather more directly. Instead of ashraq li’l wajh (radiance to the face) it gives ahwa li’l mar’a (more pleasure to the woman).
When the Prophet ﷺ said that the procedure was more desirable for the husband, what he obviously meant was that the husband would be pleased that his wife too would had attained orgasm at about the same time as he had and that he would not need to exert himself more to ensure she was fully satisfied. The idea here of course is that it is only with the removal of the clitoral prepuce that real sexual satisfaction could be easily achieved. (ibid, “The Islamic Procedure,” paragraph 3)
The idea here is that a circumcised clitoris is more likely to be satisfyingly stimulated as a result of direct oral, penile or tactile contact than is an uncircumcised clitoris whose prepuce is often an obstacle to direct stimulation. Circumcision, as honored and defined by the Prophet (ﷺ), accordingly tends to lead to a more satisfactory sex life among women within the beautiful confines of marriage.
…To be continued in Part 2
[i] Found in E. W. Lane, Arabic-English Lexicon (1863/1984) Islamic Texts Society, Cambridge (UK), p. 1577, third column under sh – q – q: shiqqun, “the half”: “Women are the likes of men in natural disposition; as though they were cloven from them; or because Eve was created from Adam.” (Taj Al-‘Arûs).
[ii] Found in E. W. Lane, Arabic-English Lexicon (1863/1984) Islamic Texts Society, Cambridge (UK), p. 1593, second column under sh – m: 4. , “make to perceive by the nose”; “take a small portion of the prepuce, not extirpating it” (Qamûs and Taj Al-‘Arûs).