FEMALE genital mutilation (FGM), also known as female genital cutting and female circumcision, is the removal of some or all of the external female genitalia.
FGM was practiced among the pre-Islamic Arabs and has survived among some Arab communities after the advent of Islam. Its practice today is widespread despite the generally negative opinion of Muslim scholars concerning it.
FGM is seen as an injury and violation of the physical integrity of a female child. Islamic law and religion only validates circumcision of the male child. There have also been international efforts to persuade practitioners to abandon it, and in 2012 the United Nations General Assembly, recognising FGM as a human-rights violation, voted unanimously t o intensify those efforts.
Female circumcision is prevalent in Malaysia. The issue is, however, intermingled with cultural and ethnic sensitivities. Malaysia has no laws in reference to FGM. The practice in Malaysia usually involves a prick or a slit at the top of the clitoris and is widely contested whether it should be construed as FGM at all. Similar practices exist among Malay Muslims of southern Thailand and Indonesia.
The procedure was previously performed by village midwives but with rapid urbanisation, it has moved to formal healthcare settings, clinics and hospitals.
This also brought with it a dilemma for doctors — whether to perform the procedure and if so, how exactly to do it. Doctors turned to the Health Ministry, which then consulted the National Fatwa Committee in 2009.
Mary Ainslie in her study, The 2009 Malaysian Female Circumcision Fatwa, wrote that rather than continue dialogue with medical practitioners or open up discussions with international Islamic organisations, the committee’s immediate response was “to draw up and issue the fatwa very quickly in early 2009”. The fatwa puzzled many in the ministry as it marked a paradigm shift in the practice with female circumcision moving it from being sunnah (recommended) to being wajib (obligatory).
In other Muslim countries, religious leaders have debated the FGM. Reportedly, in 2006, the Cairo-based Egyptian Dar al-Ifta convened an international conference of scientists and Islamic scholars, and after exploring a diverse range of opinions, it concluded that the mutilation presently practised in some parts of Egypt, Africa and elsewhere represents a “deplorable custom which finds no justification in the authoritative sources of Islam, the Quran and the practice of the Prophet”.
The former grand mufti of Egypt, Sheikh Ali Gomaa, emphasised that Islam is a religion of knowledge, learning and research. While FGM was previously practised as a social custom (and not a religious requirement), it becomes a religious obligation to say unequivocally that the practice of FGM is today forbidden in Islam.
In countries, such as Burkina Faso and Senegal in West Africa, religious leaders themselves have led the call for abandonment of the practice and with success.
There is no reference to FGM in the Quran whatsoever. No ruling of general consensus (ijma’) nor of an analogy (qiyas) with the male circumcision has been recorded. The one hadith that is often quoted in support of FGM is problematic and seen as forgery.
Thus, it is reported that a Madinah woman, Umm Atiyyah, practiced FGM and other women used to go to her for the purpose. Then it is added that the Prophet told her one day: “Oh, Umm Atiyyah! Take the smallest amount (of the skin) so as not to weaken (the body); for it gladdens the face and adds enjoyment for the husband.”
Al-Baihaqi and Abu Dawud have recorded slightly different versions of the hadith. Abu Dawud has followed it with the comment that the chain of transmission of the hadith is weak and broken in parts (da’if, munqati’).
One of its narrators is Muhammad ibn Hasan al-Kufi. Some hadith scholars have identified him and Muhammad b. Sa’id al-Kadhdhab were one and the same person, who was believed to have fabricated 4,000 hadiths, and was executed for it by the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur (d. 775CE). Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal has confirmed that he was a zindiq (heretic) which was why he was executed.
Contemporary Egyptian scholar, Mohammad Salim el-Awa, has quoted a large number of prominent Muslim scholars, including Zayn al-Din al-‘Iraqi (d.1403 CE), Muhammad b. Ali al-Shawkani (d. 1839 CE), Sayyid Sabiq (d. 2000 CE), Yusuf al-Qaradawi and others to say that the hadith is unreliable and should be discarded.
Mohammad Salim draws the conclusion that FGM is a violation of the physical safety of young girls, and it is a fallacy to label FGM as permissible (mubah).
We now have two conflicting syariah positions, which affect the people’s lives. Both cannot be correct. It is likely that there is some weakness in both versions.
Since there is no scriptural ruling on FGM and it is the subject of juristic conflict, the issue may be determined on rational grounds, by reference perhaps to the benefit (maslahah) and harm (mafsadah) thereof. General tendency among Muslim scholars, and also the international opinion, is inclined to suggest that its harm outweighs its benefit.
A gradual approach and campaign to discourage the practice may be advised, starting perhaps with parents, as the current Mufti of Perlis has also suggested, that parents should stop sending their female children to be circumcised. It is an individual right and should be left to their personal choice. Education and the mass media should also play a role.
Mohammad Hashim Kamali is the founding chief executive officer of the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies (IAIS) Malaysia. All views expressed are solely of the writer.