The Practice of Female Circumcision

An explanation of the Islamic form of circumcision.

Circumcision is an Islamic rite carried out on males and females. In Arabic it is referred to as khitaan or khatna for males and females, and when performed only on females, it is referred to as khafd. It is also called Sunat perempuan in Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore.

In Muslim and Jewish religious practice, male circumcision is the removal of the prepuce, or foreskin, of the penis.  Analogous to the religious and legally protected practice of male circumcision, female circumcision is the ritual nicking or slight cutting of the prepuce covering the clitoris.

Like male circumcision, female circumcision is a limited, prescribed practice. Unlike male circumcision where a substantial amount of the foreskin of the penis is removed, female circumcision does not prescribe a similar removal of the prepuce of the clitoral hood. Rather, only a small amount of the female prepuce is affected, oftentimes as little as what would be removed in a scratch or piercing. Any procedure carried out to any other part of the female genitalia other than the prepuce is prohibited and is not supported by Islamic ruling.

It is forbidden to undertake any other procedure on any other part of the female genitalia as part of female circumcision. The Prophetic tradition, or sunnah, stresses to never overdo the cutting. 1 (There are judgements where circumcisers (and their families) have been made liable and instructed to pay compensation for cutting more than the prescribed amount.) In fact, by definition, khafd means to “scale down” or “shorten; by no means does it mean to uproot or remove. Any procedure that exceeds what is religiously prescribed cannot be termed female circumcision. Furthermore, it should be noted that ‘circumcision’ (not ‘mutilation’ as the practice has inaccurately been called) remains the appropriate term. (Unfortunately, the WHO has classified the Islamic practice of female circumcision as Type 4, or in its severest form, Type 1A female genital mutilation.)

The primary scriptures of Islam are the Quran and the teachings and normative example (called the Sunnah) of the Prophet Muhammad. According to Islamic texts, female circumcision is an essential component of taharah (religious purity). The Prophetic narration states that circumcision is in accord with the nature (al-fitrah) of humankind. This is reinforced by the injunction, that no one must be left uncircumcised even if he has reached the age of 80. (The directive to circumcise is followed by the story of the Prophet Ibrahim who was divinely instructed to engage in performative bodily acts of religious purity (taharah): trimming his moustache, paring his nails, shaving his armpit and pubic hair, and, finally, circumcision.)

According to some interpretations of Islam, such as the Shafi’i school of jurisprudence and the Ismaili (Fatimid) school, female circumcision is an important sunnah, in that it cannot be abandoned unless circumstances do not allow it. It is considered honorable according to the Maliki and Hanafi sects and strongly encouraged and preferred by the Hanbali and Ithna Ashari schools. 2

The practice of circumcision is no different than any other prescribed religious rite – the practice is universal, gender inclusive and gender nuanced.  The Prophet’s instructions are to hasten circumcision for males; but for females, it is stated that circumcision should not be performed before the age of 7, according to some schools of jurisprudence.

Prophetic narrations refer to the sunnah of female circumcision. Along with taharah, the narrations hold that female circumcision increases the radiance on a woman’s face and pleasure with that of her husband. 3  Therefore it is clear that female circumcision is not intended to curb the sexual pleasure of a woman; rather, it is meant to increase it. (In the elective practice of clitoral unhooding, where the prepuce is substantially reduced to enhance sexual pleasure, this assertion is not unreasonable.)

Taharah is different from cleanliness or hygiene. The primary purpose of ritual acts of taharah are to obtain spiritual purity, and such acts are judged and valued as an element of faith. Taharah is considered to be one of the most important aspects of faith.

The Quran states “Verily Allah loves those who constantly repent and loves those who purify themselves” (Quran 2:222). The value of female circumcision is as a religious practice, and not determined by any other understanding, indication, nor calculation, such as medical benefit.

For further reading:

NOTE: The content of the below articles do not necessarily represent the position of this website.  Any opinions expressed in the linked or hosted articles are the author’s own.

Hussein, Asiff. “Female Circumcision – An Islamic Perspective by Asiff Hussein.” (2017). Print.

Available at: https://asiffhussein.com/index.php/2015/04/02/female-circumcision-the-hidden-truth/

Asiff Hussein is the Vice President-Outreach, for the Centre for Islamic Studies in Sri Lanka. He discusses female circumcision from an Islamic perspective. He covers the Islamic basis for the practice (for both Sunnis and Shi’as), the procedure and possible health benefits.

Lefkowitz, Philip. “Khitan And Milah”. The Times of Israel. May, 2017.

Available at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/khitan-and-milah/

Rabbi Lefkowitz compares the right and religious obligation to practice male circumcision to that of female circumcision (referred to in his piece as khitan).

Citations

  1.  Ibn Manẓūr, Muḥammad ibn Mukarram (1311). Lisan Al-Arab. Qumm, Iran.
  2.  Dr. Wahba A;-Zuhayli, Al-Fiqh Al-Islami wa Adillatuhu, 3rd Ed, Damascus 1989, v 1, pages 306-311
  3. Ibn Al Qayyim, Tuhfat al-Mawdood be Ahkaam al-Mawlood

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