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What is the ruling on female circumcision?

Question: Is female circumcision (Khitan al-Inath) permissible?

Answer: All the various forms of female circumcision are not permissible.  There is no definitive basis in the Qur’an and sunnah that requires or recommends female circumcision.  All the types of female circumcision involve some form of harm, and it is on this basis that female circumcision is judged to be impermissible. 

  • Some forms of female circumcision are extremely harmful.  Based on the World Health Organization’s classification, three types are extremely harmful: Type I which involves removing the clitoris (clitoridectomy), Type II which involves removal of labia minora or majora and the clitoris, and Type III which involves removing the labia and stitching together the vaginal orifice (infibulation; also called pharaonic circumcision).  These types of female circumcision involve major damage to a woman’s genital organs, and therefore they inflict manifest harm, which violates the Islamic principle, “there is no harming or being harmed in Islam.”
  • Some types of female circumcision are less harmful, but nevertheless, they do involve harm and a violation of the laws of many countries, including USA.  Type I, which involves removing the clitoris hood and Type IV which involves pricking or scraping the clitoris and/or hood, do not produce the great damage that the other types do, but these types of female circumcision are also not permissible because
    • these procedures, while not overtly harmful as long as they are done under careful medical care, do expose girls to the unnecessary but real potential for physical and emotional harm;
    • these procedures, historically and into modern times, have not been done under careful medical expertise, and have led to real physical and emotional harm, and therefore making these procedures permissible opens the door to the means of great harm;
    • there is no medical, health or Islamic benefit in these procedures which might lead Muslims to prefer this custom;
    • American culture and American Muslim culture are in general repulsed by female circumcision.  The vast majority of American Muslims do not want female circumcision to be a part of its culture or community.  Also, Americans considering becoming Muslim would undoubtedly be impacted negatively if they thought that female circumcision is associated with Islam and the American Muslim community;
    • American law criminalizes female circumcision, and American law should be honored as long as it does not forbid a required Islamic practice.  Since there is no definitive basis in Qur’an and sunnah for female circumcision, American law should be respected.

Explanation of the statement: there is no definitive basis for female circumcision in Quran and hadith.

  • The hadith that is often quoted to indicate the permissibility of female circumcision is in fact disputed as to its authenticity.  The hadith, which has variations in its wording, says, a woman (said to be Umm ‘Atiyah) used to do circumcision in Madinah, so the Prophet (s) told her, “Do not exaggerate and do not abuse, for it is more pleasant for the woman and more liked by the husband.”  This hadith is found in the collections of Abu Dawud, al-Baihaqi and al-Hakim, but Abu Dawud himself remarked “this hadith is weak.”  The famous hadith scholar Zain al-Din al-Iraqi (1325-1404) labeled all of the various versions of the hadith as weak.  The modern hadith scholar Al-Azimabadi (1857-1911) in his commentary on Abu Dawud concluded that all the versions of the hadith are weak and should not be used as a proof.  The scholar al-Albani in recent times classified the hadith as authentic (sahih), but even Salafi scholars do not depend on this hadith as a proof because of its disputed nature.
  • Another hadith in Ahmad, al-Baihaqi and al-Tabarani says, the Prophet (s) said, “Circumcision is sunnah for males and honorable for women.”  All hadith scholars, including al-Albani, consider this hadith to be weak.
  • A sound (sahih) hadith which is cited in support of female circumcision, is narrated by A’ishah (r) who says the Prophet (s) said, “If the two circumcised parts meet, then ghusl is required.”  This hadith cannot be a definitive proof in support of female circumcision, because the use of the term “two circumcised parts” in the Arabic language does not necessarily mean that both the male and female are circumcised.  Arabic usage at times names two things by the most prominent or well-known part.  For example, it is understood that the words walidan or abawan (literally, two fathers) refers to the father and mother; and qamaran (2 moons) refers to the moon and sun.  The linguistic ambiguity of the hadith, and the fact that the hadith does not address directly the issue of female circumcision renders this hadith as  a doubtful  source for a ruling on female circumcision.
  • Another sound (sahih) hadith, which is used to support female circumcision, concerns the fitrah of Islamic practice.  Some of the authentic hadith mention five things that are fitrah and some hadith mention ten things.  The hadith of five fitrah lists them as “circumcision (ikhtitan), removing pubic hairs, clipping nails, removing the hair of arm pits and trimming the moustache.”  The list of ten fitrah includes letting the beard grow.  The fact that the list includes trimming the moustache and growing the beard gives the indication that this list might be specific to men.  Adding to this possibility is the fact that most commentators, such as Imam Malik in his Muwatta’, discuss the circumcision of men and not the circumcision of women.  The ambiguity of whether the hadith refers to both men and women, therefore, renders the hadith unreliable as a basis of a ruling.

Non-Muslim Origin of Female Circumcision

  • Africa has been documented as the root of this practice; however, religion has not been a factor. For example, Ethiopia with its population being more than 60% Christian, and Egypt with more than 85% Muslims both participate in this practice, as well as Ethiopian Jews.
  • Though many believe that this practice is performed solely by Muslims, it is a fact that many Muslims are unaware of female circumcision and the practice does not exist in a variety of Muslim countries.
  • Throughout history the practice of female circumcision has been performed by people of other faiths, leading some to believe that this practice has more to do with culture than religion. Justifying their opinion, it has been documented that ancient cultures (i.e. Ancient Egyptians and others) used these practices.

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