A couple of weeks ago I posted a translation of a paper by Association of Muslim Jurists of America (AMJA) senior committee member Dr. Hatem al-Haj, PhD, MD, in which he warned American Muslims against working in law enforcement in our ‘infidel’ nation (see here for more details). Now in my latest translation, Dr. al-Haj explains why female circumcision is recommended and even ‘an honor’ for women. This is the same practice which is popularly known as female genital mutilation (FGM) due to the pain it causes women. The World Health Organization (WHO) asserts that “the procedure has no health benefits for women,” and causes a range of health problems including “severe bleeding and problems urinating, and later cysts, infections, infertility as well as complications in childbirth.”
Yet Dr. al-Haj, a medical doctor and fellow at the American Academy of Pediatrics, ignores FGM’s detrimental effects on women’s health, and instead argues that it is ‘an honor’ for women. He justifies this position by referring repeatedly to the words of classical Islamic scholars from the four schools of mainstream Sunni Islamic thought, all of which attest to FGM’s legitimacy under Islam. He also refers to the words of the Prophet Muhammad himself, who reportedly counselled people in his day on how to perform FGM in a way that would be “more beautiful to behold and better for [the woman's] husband.”
It appears that for male circumcision the most correct view is that it is obligatory, owing to the saying of Muhammad to the man who converted to Islam: “Remove your infidel hair and be circumcised.” This was obligatory–there was no alternative.
Regarding women, perhaps the most correct view is that it is recommended, however there is consensus that it is (at least) legitimate. Muhammad also endorsed it, as was narrated in the hadith of Umm ‘Atiyah, who used to circumcise girls. He said to her: “Reduce it, but do not remove too much, because it is more beautiful to behold and better for her husband.” He also said, “If you touch the two circumcisions, you must wash.” This shows that female circumcision was prevalent during his day, and he did not repudiate it. Nor did he stipulate anything else regarding female circumcision.
Perhaps the saying that it is (only) recommended is due to the pain women must go through to carry out the acts of al-fitrah, such as circumcision, as stated in the sound hadith. But as we mentioned, this is not evidence of it being confined only to men. The term circumcision was used for both men and women during Muhammad’s time. But it is clear that performing circumcision must be preferable to not performing it, especially when one considers that circumcision includes both pain and revealing one’s nakedness. Thus if there was no benefit to it, the Messenger of Allah would not have agreed to it. However there is still no evidence for making it obligatory. The fact that the Messenger of Allah agreed to it despite the pain and discovering one’s nakedness is not evidence for making it obligatory. Instead, this is evidence for preferring the action over not doing it, as we stated. (Muhammad’s) command to Umm ‘Atiyah is not a command to all women to (be circumcised), but rather he was regulating its practice. He was not telling her not to do it, he was telling her not to go too far and injure the women.
His command to the man who converted to Islam does not apply to women. Even though the principle is that “women are men’s sisters”, and women are often included when addressing men and vice versa, that only applies when there is no reason to differentiate between them. Here the issue is different for men and women. The man’s foreskin could trap urine at the end of it and affect his cleanliness. The issue is not the same for women. Therefore it is appropriate for this to be stressed more for men, and this is apparent in the words of scholars and the works of the ummah.
I have summed up the words of Muhammad and of scholars to show that circumcision is legitimate, and that the principal issue in the study is the limits of circumcision