Circumcision: Juristic, Medical & Social Perspectives

The least to be said about male circumcision is that it is a tradition pertinent to nature. Some jurists are of the opinion that it is obligatory and the majorities say it is a Sunnah.
As for female circumcision, it is a controversial issue among scholars and doctors. Some argue for and some argue against.
Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi states: Circumcision is an act pertaining to fitrah (pure human nature). Male circumcision means removal of the foreskin of the penis, and female circumcision means removing the prepuce of the clitoris [not the clitoris itself].

Jurists have differed on the issue of circumcision with regard to both males and females.
Concerning male circumcision, Imam Abu Hanifah and Imam Malik maintain that it is considered a confirmed sunnah, whereas Imam Shafi`i and Ahmad ibn Hanbal see that it is mandatory (wajib).
This means that male circumcision is an important ritual in Islam. Consequently, if a whole community of Muslims agreed to give up this ritual, the ruler of the Muslims would have to fight them for this, the same as if a community collectively abandoned calling to Prayer (Adhan).
From the medical point of view, circumcision has many benefits for man’s health and personal hygiene.
First, circumcision helps the penis remain clean. Microorganisms flourish in the warm, moist area under the foreskin, leading to a foul odor and infection.
Second, circumcision reduces the possibility of the penis becoming infected with syphilis, especially since the foreskin is the place where the germ breeds.
Third, the foreskin is most likely to be exposed to inflammation due to repeated friction, especially during sexual intercourse.
Fourth, it has been proved that circumcision (especially during the first five years of life) also reduces the incidence of penile cancer.
Fifth, circumcision helps man prolong the period of erection. This is because the nerves related to sexual stimulation are mostly located at the head of the penis. If the foreskin is present, it would prevent the penis’ head from constant touch with other materials, which makes the penis sensitive to any kind of touch. When the foreskin is removed, the head of the penis becomes less sensitive due to its repeated friction against clothing.
The medical benefits of male circumcision prove the wisdom of Islam in emphasizing the importance of this practice.
There is a difference of opinion among scholars regarding female circumcision.
The Maliki school holds that female circumcision is Sunnah, while Hanafi school as well as a reported view from the Hanbli school maintain that it is not sunnah; rather it is merely a makrumah (customarily recommended act, but no provisions in the Qur’an or Sunnah obligate nor recommend it).
The Shafi`i school, on the other hand, and the famous view of the Hanbali school are of the opinion that it is mandatory as in the case of male circumcision.
The latter group cites as evidence for their opinion the Qur’anic verse: ( And afterward We revealed to you (Muhammad, saying): Follow the religion of Abraham, as one by nature upright. He was not of the idolaters ) (An-Nahl 16: 123).
It was authentically reported that Prophet Abraham circumcised himself after he had passed the age of eighty years.
This evidence can be argued against as follows:
Following “the religion of Abraham” according to the verse quoted above does not imply following the details of his religion, especially as the Qur’an does not mention the details of Abraham’s Shari`ah. Rather what is meant here is following him regarding not associating gods with Almighty Allah, defending our faith in this regard, calling to the right path using wisdom and logical reasoning, and submitting ourselves, heart and soul, to the will of Almighty Allah. This is obvious in the way Prophet Abraham (peace and blessings be upon him) called his people to the Oneness of Almighty Allah and his prompt obedience to Allah’s orders even when it came to sacrificing his son Ishmael (peace and blessings be upon him). Allah Almighty says: (There is for you an excellent example (to follow) in Abraham and those with him, when they said to their people: ‘We are clear of you and of whatever you worship besides Allah: we have rejected you, and there has arisen, between us and you, enmity and hatred forever, – unless you believe in Allah and Him alone’ ) (Al-Mumtahinah 60: 4).
This group also argues that if circumcision had not been obligatory, exposing private parts would not have been allowed for it. [This argument is based on that exposing private parts to others is only allowed in mandatory cases, and that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) by guiding the midwife how to circumcise women, allowed her implicitly to uncover the circumcised women’s private parts, which entails that circumcision is obligatory].
Such reasoning was also argued against by saying that exposing one’s private parts for unnecessary medical treatment is allowed as long as the benefit sought by such treatment is greater than the benefit of keeping the private parts covered.
There is a third point of view (cited by Ibn Qudamah in his book Al-Mughni) that circumcision is obligatory on men and makrumah for women.
In fact, I prefer the first opinion which maintains that male circumcision is a ritual sunnah. This opinion is not significantly different from the third view that male circumcision is an obligatory act as the first opinion stipulates that in case a community should abandon this ritual entirely, it should be fought for this abandonment.
Anyway, it is important to note that male circumcision is generally practiced in Muslim countries with almost no opposition.
There is, however, an important point to be mentioned here, that is, the opinion that circumcision is mandatory for men makes it difficult for new converts to Islam.
During a visit to Indonesia in the 1970s, its Minister for Religious Affairs told me that a huge Indonesian tribe wanted to embrace Islam, but when its chieftains called some senior Muslim sheikhs to enquire about the rituals they were to follow in that regard, the sheikhs told them the first thing required was to perform circumcision. The result was, of course, that the chieftains changed their mind and did not embrace Islam.
As for my point of view regarding female circumcision, I see that all the evidence cited by jurists concerning circumcision’s being either mandatory or recommended (sunnah) do not apply to women.
There is no clear-cut evidence in Shari`ah indicating that circumcision is prescribed either as mandatory or sunnah for women in Islam.
The hadith “When the two circumcised parts (of a man and a woman) contact, performing ghusl (for both) becomes a must” indicates that females were circumcised at that time; however, this does not include evidence either for its being mandatory or sunnah.
There is another hadith to the effect that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said to a woman who circumcised women in Madinah: “Cut out a small part, and do not be excessive (in cutting).”
This hadith is not authentic, for all its chains of reporters are weak, although Sheikh Al-Albani considered this hadith to be authentic due to its being narrated with a number of chains of reporters. Nevertheless, one doubts such a way to conclude its authenticity. Circumcision is an issue of interest to every Muslim family that requires clear evidence. This being the case, why was this hadith transmitted through weak chains of narration?
Even if one approves of its authenticity, does the way the hadith is expressed refer to the circumcision’s being imperative or recommendable, or does it simply clarify how it should be performed?
I believe that the hadith merely guides women to what is best to be done when they perform female circumcision, and this does not imply that this operation is obligatory or even a confirmed act of the sunnah.
In my point of view, female circumcision is permissible, but it is an established rule that permissible matters may be banned if they happen to involve harm, due to the juristic rule that there should be no harm, nor reciprocating harm. Permissible matters may also remain in practice and be improved, as implied in the above hadith regarding the way of female circumcision.
In fact, female circumcision needs to be scrutinized. If unbiased experts prove that it really has harmful effects on females, it should be banned so as to ward off such effects.
At the same time, if it is proved by some specialized doctors that some females are physically in need of being circumcised, this operation can be performed.
In conclusion, female circumcision is permissible, on condition that just a small part is to be cut.
Medical opinion on female circumcision:
Specialized contemporary doctors are of the opinion that circumcision has significant harmful effects on most women, the most apparent of which is that it leaves them without the ability to enjoy sexual stimulation in their marital life.
Moreover, some doctors have proved that circumcision has undeniable far-reaching negative effects on women’s health, as well as on their social, sexual, and psychological well-being.
For example, Dr. Ahmad Shawqi Al-Fangari says:
It is medically established that the clitoris plays a central role in female sexual stimulation. Female circumcision, as practiced by midwives, means cutting the entire clitoris, and sometimes it involves cutting part of the labia. This operation violates a human right for women, for it makes it impossible for them to experience orgasm later in their marital life. It may even cause them to be frigid, which is one of the most important causes leading to divorce and disintegration of the family in the Muslim world.
A related and not less serious phenomenon in the countries that practice female circumcision is men’s becoming addicted to opium and hashish, believing that this would enable them to prolong erection in a desperate attempt to make their circumcised wives experience sexual gratification. Sociologists are almost unanimous that there is no hope of combating men’s addiction to such drugs in the Muslim world unless female circumcision is first stopped. In addition to the damaging effects circumcision has on the sexual feelings of women, it causes them many other health problems. The operation itself is often performed in unhygienic conditions by unqualified midwives, meaning that females are at risk of contracting infections, and it may even cause sterility or obstetric problems later in life. These are just a few examples of the many harmful effects of circumcision on females.”
I believe that the way the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) advised the midwife to follow in practicing female circumcision does not have such damaging effects as cited by doctors and sociologists above. Such effects are rather the result of what is called Pharaonic circumcision (that is, infibulation), which, in fact, mutilates the female genitals and involves removing the entire clitoris, the prepuce, and adjacent labia, followed by sewing up the vulva.
This way of circumcision is practiced in Egypt and Sudan. In the rest of the Arab countries, there is almost no female circumcision. Hence, if female circumcision is prescribed in Islam, would the religious scholars of these countries overlook their country’s noncompliance all that time?