Q. Why are Muslim girls circumcised in some countries in Africa and the Middle East? This procedure is not only painful at the time it is performed, but also throughout the life of the woman as she fulfills her conjugal duties. Is there anything in Islam that supports this tradition? And how would you answer Muslims who argue that Islam accommodates a cultural practice such as this one?

A. First or all, I would rather refer to the practice by a name which truly reflects it in its horrible essence: Female Genital Mutilation, known also in its abbreviated form as FGM. The propaganda machines of the western world have placed the blame solely on the shoulders of the Muslims. The fact of the matter is that many non-Muslim African tribes follow this custom, indeed some Christian tribes also practice FGM. Some say that this custom dates back to the time of Pharaoh. We do know that the pre-Islamic Arabs practiced it, but we have no proof that it is Islamic. In fact, any analysis of the custom cannot but show it as being against everything Islamic. Since the practice takes away from a woman, it certainly, ipso facto, disqualifies itself as Islamic.

As far as the hadith goes, all the references are problematic. We know that the men's circumcision is a carry-over from the Abrahamic covenant, so for that we may claim some scriptural provenance. But for the woman, there is nothing, and any ritual or practice that has such a deep effect on one's life must have provenance. As mentioned before, the hadith are all problematic. Now there is the story that Aisha allegedly said: "If the khitan touches the khitan, bath becomes necessary" -- the literal meaning of khitan means "circumcised organ," and therefore since two men are not meant, it seems obvious that one of the circumcised organs has to be that of the woman. The problem is this: How do we know, again assuming just for argument's sake, that the khabr is correct, and that khitan had not evolved into a term for the private part, regardless of if it was circumcised or not?

We have already stated that the pre-Islamic Arabs did it, and so it is possible that in these circumstances, the name could have become commonly applied. Now the question comes regarding another hadith where the Prophet supposedly said that if we do it, we only do so lightly. We can also understand this hadith in light of gradualism -- a wide spread practice cannot be obliterated in one fell swoop. Things go gradually, so that when our minds, our brains, and our hearts realize the truth and actual import of what we have before us, we may make the full change. In fact, all of the Islamic legislation reveals this methodology of approach.

Now a reading of the Qur"an warns us about defacing things. Q4:119 puts this as a Satanic practice. One may state that the matter being dealt with in the ayah is different to the case we are discussing. I agree, but hold that the ayah tells us even more. It tells us that if we treat the Qur'an as a thematic whole, Allah has created us in the best of molds, and any change of that beautiful mold should be sanctioned by a clear order. This can only come from the Qur'an, or in the case of those who hold to it, a mutawatir hadith. We have no such thing in the case of FGM. Our knowledge informs us now that it has a long term negative effect on the mental make up of the poor child, it has horrible effects on her body, it makes childbirth an ordeal, and even much more painful than what the process already is. It is not part of the Abrahamic covenant, nor part of any covenant known to us.

We therefore cannot do this sin. I have already theorized as to how the practice came about. In addition to that, the Westerners are trying to fix the problem by putting down Islam, and the people are reacting by adhering to it more strongly. This is largely why the attempt to fix the problem has failed in Africa. People stick to tradition unless they have reason to stop. Our ulema have done very little. In fact, they often put their fingers in their ears when any matter of sexuality or a woman's body comes up, not wanting to discuss such "dirty things." If the Muslims were to show that the practice is against the Qur'an, in light of what we have discussed above, then it would prove that female circumcision is a reprehensible act. However, to do so would make the scholars doubt some of their hadith, which puts them in a quandary.

People who profit from such work also do not want to be out of a job, and in the areas where the practice is widespread, these practitioners must be recruited and given equally, if not more lucrative forms of employment. The matter is not only one of religion, but of tradition and economy. It will take Muslims going to preach to Muslims about the harm of FGM, not well meaning, yet misguided non-Muslims. And to the Christian tribes of Africa, Christian doctors will have to go. To the best of my knowledge, the matter is being dealt with in this way and is gradually being eradicated.

Posted April 26, 1999