Abu Dawood Book 41, Number 5251 Narrated Umm Atiyyah al-Ansariyyah: A woman used to perform circumcision in Medina. The Prophet (saw) said to her: Do not cut severely as that is better for a woman and more desirable for a husband.
So – what is female circumcision, or – as it is also increasingly known – “female genital mutilation (FGM)”? Several procedures, varying in severity, are in fact grouped together under this name; it is important to be aware of the distinctions:
1. Circumcision (also known as “Sunnah”). This involves removing the hood or tip of the clitoris. It is the mildest of the procedures known as “female circumcision,” and is the only form which may be regarded as having any kind of Islamic sanction, being mentioned in a Hadith  as a practice which the Prophet (saws) allowed.
2. Excision. This is an “intermediate” operation, in which the clitoris and all or part of the labia minora are removed. This has no basis in Islam, is detrimental to the woman, and is haram.
3. Infibulation. This is the most radical procedure: the clitoris, labia minora, and at least the anterior two-thirds of the labia majora are removed. The two sides of the vulva are then pinned or sutured together, leaving a small (often inadequate) opening for the passage of urine and menstrual blood. Upon marriage, the infibulated woman has to be “opened up” with a knife or other instrument she has to be “opened up” to deliver a baby, and will be re-stitched after childbirth. This horrific procedure cannot be sanctioned by any Islamic text, and is definitely Haram.
It is important to make a clear distinction between the “Sunnah” procedure and the more extreme operations: for the purpose of this discussion, I will use the word “Sunnah” (with inverted commas) to refer to the minimal operation which – according to one Hadith – was allowed, but not enjoined or encouraged, by the Prophet (saws), and female genital mutilation or FGM to refer to the more extreme procedures.
Not unique to Islamic cultures
It is those two more extreme procedures which give rise to the most concern, and these are the ones which are usually focused on by critics when female circumcision is discussed. These are also the procedures, for which there is no basis whatsoever in Islamic teaching, although Islam is often blamed for the practice. In fact, “female circumcision” is practiced by peoples of all religions – Christians and animists, as welt as Muslims – in the regions where it is common, so it cannot be described as a uniquely “Islamic” phenomenon. Female circumcision is common in several parts of Africa, notably Egypt, Sudan, Somalia and Ethiopia; it is also known in parts of Arabia, and in Malaysia and Indonesia. However, in other parts of the Muslim world, such as Syria, Pakistan, etc., it is unknown. The custom is one of great antiquity: it is mentioned by Herodotus (seventh century BCE) and is regarded by many as dating back to Pharaonic times. Curiously enough, clitoridectomy (removal of the clitoris) was a common procedure until fairly recent times in the west, as a cure toe ‘hysteria” and other oddly-defined ailments, and there are strange reports from media review times of the lengths knights would go to in order to guarantee the fidelity of their wives whilst they were away fighting battles (chastity belts and all that). Hence it should be clear that FGM is not a uniquely Islamic custom, although, regrettably, many Muslims believe FGM to be lslamically sanctioned.
A girls’ ordeal
The trauma of such radical surgery is compounded by the fact that these operations are almost always carried out in non-sterile conditions, with old or rusty implements, by traditional “midwives” who have little, if any, knowledge of proper surgical procedures. Anesthesia is virtually unknown, and infection is an ever-present threat, in addition to the severe trauma caused by such radical surgery.
In most cultures where “Sunnah” or FGM are practiced, the operation usually takes place in early girlhood, before the onset of puberty (menarche). It is a leitmotif in the writings of modern Arab feminist writers, notably Nawal El Saadawi, who uses this and other “women’s issues” as a stick with which to beat Islam, and is a favorite topic among anthropologists. Circumcision represents just one part of a whole socio-cultural belief system regarding relationships between the sexes, femininity, virginity, etc. Some critics and activists would like to see the whole lot come tumbling down, of course, but looking at these important issues, one can see that the popular beliefs among Muslim communities where these procedures are common, may have their starting-point in Islamic values (such as the importance of chastity, segregation of the sexes, etc.), although they may have been taken to extremes, and/or distorted along the way by being mixed with local pre-Islamic or non-Islamic ideas and customs.
Medical and Psychological Consequences
When we turn to the medical and psychological consequences of FGM, we can see that these procedures cause more problems than they are supposed to solve.
Medical: as stated above, most procedures are carried out in unsanitary conditions. In the autumn of 1995, I watched a Canadian-made documentary on female circumcision on CBC-TV, in which footage of an actual circumcision was shown – with the worst details blanked out (although viewers still had to endure hearing the child’s screams). The operation was carried out in an earthen-floored hut in Ethiopia. Nawal El Saadawi, from a middle-class Egyptian family, describes her own circumcision taking place in the family’s bathroom. Anesthesia is uncommon, although one writer describes a Sudanese midwife using proper surgical sutures, lint, etc. having received some medical training from the government; this midwife also told the anthropologist of methods used in the past: no anesthesia and, in the case of Infibulation, the use of thorns to hold the flesh together. No doubt such unsanitary practices still prevail in some areas of the world.
Infection is an ever-present threat. There is also the risk of error at the hands of untrained dayas (traditional midwives), leading to severe hemorrhaging and shock (in both the medical and psychological senses). Infertility, chronic pelvic infections, menstrual problems are also mentioned frequently.
Complications also arise, inevitably, when these excised, and infibulated women marry and have children. One can barely imagine the trauma involved in getting married in the first place; suffice to say that one writer refers to a special “honeymoon hut” far enough removed from other dwellings that no-one will be able to hear the bride’s screams.
Western doctors who have to treat infibulated women may find the experience shocking. Dr Mary McCaffery, a London obstetrician, wondered how a baby could “get out of a tiny hole surrounded by scar tissue.” This doctor operates to remove scar tissue several weeks before the baby is due. The operation takes place under general anaesthetic, but even then. “some of the women scream when their genitals are touched. The pain is not just physical – it goes very, very deep and will be with them forever.”
Moral/psychological: The comment quoted above also indicates that the trauma experienced by circumcised/infibulated women goes beyond the physical. Sexual frigidity is not uncommon, so it is clear that although this practice is supposed to guarantee the virginity of brides, it is hardly conducive to a satisfying married life – a right which Islam gives to both men and women.
 Abu Dawood Book 41, Number 5251 Narrated Umm Atiyyah al-Ansariyyah: A woman used to perform circumcision in Medina. The Prophet (saw) said to her: Do not cut severely as that is better for a woman and more desirable for a husband.
WHAT THE SCHOLARS SAY ABOUT FEMALE CIRCUMCISION
An-Nawawi said in al-Majmoo’ (1/367): Circumcision is obligatory for both men and women in our view. This is the view of many of the Salaf, as was narrated by al-Khattaabi. Among those who regarded it as obligatory is Ahmad… it is the correct view that is well known and was stated by al-Shaafa’i (may Allaah have mercy on him), and the majority stated definitively that it is obligatory for both men and women. (See also Fath al-Baari, 10/340; Kishshaaf al-Qinaa’, 1/80)
Ibn Qudamah said, in his book al-Mughni: “Circumcision is obligatory for men, and it is an honour for women, but it is not obligatory for them. This is the opinion of many scholars. (Imam) Ahmad said: For men it is more strictly required, but for women it is less strictly required.”
Ibn al-Qayyim said: “Abu’l-Barakaat said in his book al-Ghaayah: It is mustahabb to circumcise females provided that is not done in an extreme manner. It was narrated that ‘Umar said to a woman who circumcised females, ‘Leave some of it if you circumcise (a girl).’”
Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyah was asked about whether women should be circumcised or not. He replied in Majmoo’ al-Fataawa, 21/114: “Praise be to Allaah. Yes, they should be circumcised, i.e., the top of the piece of skin that looks like a rooster’s comb should be cut. The Messenger of Allaah (S) said to the woman who did circumcisions: ‘Leave something sticking out and do not go to extremes in cutting. That makes her face look brighter and is more pleasing to her husband.’ That is because the purpose of circumcising a man is to make him clean from the impurity that may collect beneath the foreskin. But the purpose of circumcising women is to regulate their desire, because if a woman is not circumcised her desire will be strong. Hence the words ‘O son of an uncircumcised woman’ are used as an insult, because the uncircumcised woman has stronger desire. Hence immoral actions are more common among the women of the Tatars and the Franks, that are not found among the Muslim women. If the circumcision is too severe, the desire is weakened altogether, which is unpleasing for men; but if it is cut without going to extremes in that, the purpose will be achieved, which is moderating desire. And Allaah knows best.”
The Permanent Committee has also stated in Fatwa (5/223): “Circumcision is one of the Sunnahs of the fitrah, and it is for both males and females, except that is it obligatory for males and Sunnah and good in the case of women.” And in Fatwa (5/120): “Circumcising females is Sunnah; it is neither a bad practice or harmful, if it is done within moderation. When extreme forms of female circumcision are carried out, harm may result.”
Shaykh Ibn ‘Uthaymeen said: “The most correct view is that it is obligatory in the case of men and Sunnah in the case of women. The difference between them is that in the case of men, it serves an interest which has to do with one of the conditions of prayer, namely purity (tahaarah), because if the foreskin remains, when the urine comes out of the urethra, some of it will collect there, and this causes burning and infection every time the person moves, and every time the foreskin is squeezed, some drops of urine come out, thus causing najaasah (impurity). In the case of women, it serves a useful purpose which is to reduce desire. This is seeking perfection, not removing something harmful.” (Al-Sharh al-Mumti’, 1/133-134)