Islamic Ruling on
Male and Female Circumcision

Al-Amin Dawood, Ph.D

Islamic Ruling on Circumcision

   Someone asked me about circumcision, the ruling on it in the case of both .males and females, and the time to perform it.   He said, "If this question raises no i problem for some Muslim communities, it involves several problems for others, particularly in Africa".

When I considered the matter, I realized that it falls under the question of  Islam's attitude towards human beings and the way it takes care of them.

In point of fact, every time I examine something advocated by this profound faith of Islam, whether a specific detail or a general matter, I end up with a greater conviction that this religion and its noble Book come from God. I further conclude that no human being, however gifted a genius, could produce all this with the, Circumcision is one of the characteristics of sound human nature, which leads people to the worship of one God and to submit to His law.

The Prophet (pbuh) says, "Sound human nature is in five things: circumcision, removal of public hair, plucking of armpit hair, trimming of the moustache, and cutting of the nails".

Let us begin with a definition of circumcision linguistically and in Islamic law.  The Arabic word for cirumcision is derived from the verb khatana, which means to cut or sever, and the word khitan is used for both the procedure of circumcision and for the part of the body which is circumcised, as indicated in the authentic hadith related by Aisha, who directly quotes the Prophet (pbuh) as saying: "If the two 'circumcision' organs meet, grand ablution, i.e. ghust, becomes obligatory". (In some versions the hadith is phrased as if the chain of transmission ends with her and the statement is made in her own words, but this is still regarded as equal to a direct quote. )

In Islamic law, circumcision is the removal of the skin flap which covers the balanus. By this removal, the body is relieved of a pocket where dirt, germs and fungi accumulate and a focus of impurity and offensive smell. Several medical studies have concluded that the occurrence of inflammation of the male genitals is higher among men who have not been circumcised-', and that infection with sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis, gonorrhoea, and particularly AIDS, is much more common among them. This is in addition to the well-known fact i ' that the incidence of male genital cancer is reduced by circumcision, and the rate " of occurrence of cervical cancer among married women is less in the case of the t wives of circumcised men.  Such advantages explain why many non-Muslims in Europe and America are circumcised.

Male circumcision

    Scholars are not unanimous on the question of male circumcision; some , maintain that it is obligatory, while others say it is recommended.
    Those who say it is an obligation cite a number of proofs in evidence. One of these is that the Prophet (pbuh) says: " Abraham circumcised himself at the age of eighty, using a hatchet"4 (related by Al-Bukhari and Muslim).
    Ibn Hajar lists seven arguments as evidence, one of them is the above-quoted hadith and the others are quoted below. After making each point, he cites the comments made on it by scholars.
    The first is that the prepuce retains impurity, which renders prayers invalid, the same as in the case of a person holding an impure object.
    The second is the hadith related by Ahmad and Abu Dawood on the authority of Kulaib, who quotes the Prophet ~ as telling him: "Get rid of the hair of infidelity and get circumcised"5. Scholars have found this hadith to be lacking in authenticity.
    The third is that a person who is going to be circumcised is allowed to expose his genitals, the exposure of which is usually prohibited. If circumcision were not obligatory, the exposure would not have been allowed.
    The fourth is that the procedure isa removal of a part of the body that does not grow back, and it is done as an act of worship. This makes it obligatory, the same as the amputation ofa thief's hand.
    The fifth is that it causes considerable pain, which is permitted only in one of three cases: an advantage, a punishment, or an obligation. The first two are inapplicable, which makes the third the valid reason in this case.
    The sixth reason which makes circumcision an obligation is that it is the distinctive mark of Islam, distinguishing a Muslim from an infidel.
    In Tulifat al-mawdood, Ibn al-Qayyem lists fifteen points of evidence, proving , that circumcision is an obligation6, among which are those quoted from Ibn Hajar.  After the list, he writes a chapter in which he quotes the response to these points
by those who disagree that circumcision is obligatory.
    Ibn Hajar says "According to Al-Baihaqi, the best argument is to cite as evidence the hadith reported by Abu Huraira and listed in both AI-Bukhari' s and Muslim' s anthologies of authentic hadith as a direct quote from the Prophet (pbuh) and which says,  Abraham circumcised himself at the age of eighty, using a hatchet'. God says, Then We inspired you (with this message): Follow the creed of Abraham ( 16: 123). An authentic hadith quotes Ibn Abbas as saying that the commandments by which God tested Abraham and which the latter fulfilled7 were qualities of normal, sound human nature, one of which was circumcision. 'Testing' is more often used for obligations."
    Ibn Hajar goes on to quote Al-Mawardi who says: " Abraham would not do it at that age without an order from God",8
    Ibn Hajar adds: " Abu al-Sheikh quotes and documents in Al-aqiqah, referring to Musa ibn 'Ulai ibn Rabah, who quotes his father, that Abraham was ordered to be circumcised, and he was at that time eighty years old, He hastened to carry out God's order, using a hatchet. As a result, he suffered great pain and prayed God to relieve his pain. God sent him a message saying, 'You hastened to do it before being told what instI-ument to use'. He answered, 'Lord, I hated to procrastinate in carrying out Your command'9,"'o
    Apparently, this command was observed by Abraham's followers, including the Arabs before Islam who had retained some remnants of his religion, the most obvious of which was the pilgrimage,
    Abu Shama says: " Arabs regarded the prepuce as filthy, Censure and satire of the non-circumcised is frequent in their poetry. Circumcision, for them, was a special occasion, and it called for a special banquet. Islam endorses this attitude".'1
    Circumcision is a practice which Muslims in general, generation after generation, observe and are accustomed to. Such observance can only be for something which is obligatory .
Ibn Hajar sums up the views of scholars on circumcision as follows: " Al- Shafie and the majority of his disciples believe circumcision is an obligation.  Among old scholars who hold the same opinion is Attaa. He goes so far as to say: 'If an adult embraces Islam, he does not become a full Muslim until he is circumcised ."
    Ahmad and some Maliki scholars also say it is obligatory .Abu Hanifa holds the opinion that it is an obligation, but not an ordinance.  AI-Nawawi says that circumcision is viewed by Malik and many other scholars as a sunna.l: Ibn al- Qayyem says: "Scholars of Islamic jurisprudence differ on this question. Al- Shaabi, Rabia, AI-Awzaie, Yahia ibn Said al-Ansari, Malik'4, AI-Shafie, and Ahmad all say it is obligatory .Malik emphasizes the point and goes as far as to say: 'When a man is not circumcised, he cannot be an imam in prayer and his testimony cannot be admitted'."
    Many scholars quote Malik as holding the view that it is asunna. Judge Iyadh says: "For Malik and scholars in general, circumcision is a sunna, but they are of the opinion that failure to observe a sunna is akin to a sin, for they place it somewhere between a recommended practice and an ordinance.   Therefore, the Imam Malik declares that the testimony of a non-circumcised man cannot be admitted, nor should he serve as imam ".
    AI-Hasan al-Basri and Abu Hanifa say that it is not obligatory , but rather a sunna. The same view is held by Ibn Abu Musa, one of Ahmad ' s colleagues, who says it is a confirmed sunna.
    " Ibn Qudama says ill Al-mughni: "Circumcision is an obligation for men and a sign of respect for women, but for the latter it is not an obligation. This is what many scholars believe".17 He adds: "If a male adult embraces Islam and feels apprehensive about circumcision, it is waived in his case, since ablution, ghusl or grand ablution, and other obligations are waived in his case if he feels any of these is hazardous. It makes then more sense for circumcision to be waived in such a
    The point of view I find most convincing is that circumcision is obligatory only for males, as suggested by the evidence used by those who deem it obligatory, some of which is cited above, but the obligation is waived in the case of a person who embraces Islam and feels afraid of the consequences of the procedure. In any case, it is not a condition for the validity of a person's profession of accepting the Islamic faith or the performance of his religious duties.
    Many scholars express the opinion that circumcision is one of the rituals of Islam and that if the population of a town intentionally and collectively abandon it, the ruler should fight them the same way as he should do if they abandon the call for prayer.

Time for circumcision
   As for the time set for circumcision, Al-Mawardi says: "There are two periods tor it, one at which it becomes obligatory and another at which it is recommended. The first is the time of puberty, and the other is any time before that. The seventh day after birth is chosen as the proper date for circumcision".
    The question of time is a matter of controversy, and the important point is that a boy should be circumcised when he reaches puberty. It is the habit of people to have their male children circumcised shortly after birth, which is a good habit. There is, however, no hadith that supplies a definite evidence as to any definite time to perform this obligation.
    Abu al-Sheikh cites a quotation of Jaber saying that the Prophet (pbuh) had his grandsons Hassan and Hussein circumcised when they were seven days old.
    AI-Walid ibn Muslim says: "I asked Malik about it, and he said: 'I do not know, but circumcision is an act of purification, and therefore the earlier it is performed, the better to my liking".
    AI-Nawawi says in Al-rawdha: "Circumcision becomes obligatory when the age of puberty is reached. But it is recommended to have a child circumcised on his seventh day, unless the baby is too weak to take it. Then it should be postponed until the child can go through it".

Female circumcision

    With regard to female circumcision, it is a question on which there is controversy among scholars. As for the hadith that speak of it, none aspires to a degree of authenticity which would indicate that female circumcision is obligatory .24 One of the hadith often quoted on the subject is that of Umm Attia, a woman who performed female circumcision.  It is said that God's Messenger (pbuh) told her, "Umm Attia, restrict yourself to a sniff and do not overstrain; (this way), it is more pleasant in appearance and more satisfactory to the husband". Al-Iraqi in Al-mughni 'an al-asfaar says: "The hadith concerning Umm Attia is quoted by Al-Hakim and Al-Baihaqi, on the authority of Al- Dhahhak ibn Qais. Abu Dawood mentions something similar to this hadith of Umm Attia, and both versions are lacking in authenticity".
    As Abu Dawood quotes it, the hadith says: "Do not overstrain; that is more pleasant for the woman and more preferable to her husband". Abu Dawood points out that the hadith is reported in its general sense on the authority of Ubaidullah ibn Arnr ibn Abd al-Malik. Abu Dawood comments that: "Its chain of transmitters is not strong. Besides, it is reported not as a direct quote attributed to the Prophet (pbuh). Moreover, Muhammad ibn Hassan is unknown. This hadith is poor in authenticity".
    This shows that Abu Dawood mentions the hadith only to point out its weakness. It is quoted with several chains of transmission, all of which are poor in authenticity, as explained in my detailed footnote. Some of these are poorer than others. This goes to prove that what Ibn al-Munther says, as quoted by Ibn
    Hajar in Al-talklzis, is true. He says: "In regards to circumcision, there is no authentic report to refer to, nor a sunna to be followed".
    Consider how these two eminent scholars, Abu Dawood and Al-Iraqi, as welJ as the others mentioned in my documentation of this hadith, judge it as a hadith markedly lacking in authenticity. It is better to pay no attention to later scholars who sought to classify it as authentic. It is very unJikely that the Prophet (pbuh) would address a woman, and be so candid with her, on such a subject, using the words, "that is more pleasant for the woman and more preferable to her husband".
    Even if the Izadith is authentic, it does not imply that circumcision is a requirement. All it does is to forbid removing too much of the parts concerned. So, if female circumcision is to be performed, it should not be overdone.
    This is why some scholars say: "Circumcision is obligatory for men and a signof respect in the case of women". A hadith with similar wording is quoted, attributed to Usama al-Huthali, who directly quotes the Prophet (pbuh) as saying: "Circumcision is a sunna for men and a sign of respect for women".
    Hadith scholar AJ-Iraqi comments on the status of this hadith: "It is related by Ahmad and Al-Baihaqi, with a weak chain of transmission".
    Ibn Hajar says, "According to one opinion of the Shafie school of thought, it is not required for women.31 This is the one mentioned by the author of Al-mughni, quoting Ahmad ibn Hanbal. The majority of scholars, including some of the Shafie school of thought, are of the view that it is not a requirement", that is for  women.
    Al-Mawardi describes it as follows: "Female circumcision is cutting a fold of skin in the upper part of the vagina, which resembles a fruit stone or a rooster comb, but without removing the whole fold".
    AI-Nawawi says: "It is cutting off the lowest part of the fold of skin in the upper part of the vagina".
    However, female circumcision as currently practised in some Islamic countries in Africa, does not observe the limitation set by scholars, but goes much further . So-called Pharaonic circumcision (infibulation)35 is still common in certain countries. Everything is removed, with the labia and the organ itself being mutilated and just an opening left for urine and blood.
    Physicians tell us that female circumcision, and infibulation in particular , has severe consequences, which are summed up as follows:-

  1. This form of circumcision is a distortion of the female organ that has a terrible psychological effect on women, causing depression, nervous tension, and anxiety.

  2. It weakens the sexual desire, and being so, when the girl gets married, it spoils marital life for her and becomes a major obstacle in the way of her sexual satisfaction.

  3. It may cause infection and introduce germs into a woman's pelvis when it is performed by ignorant practitioners and at locations with poor sanitary conditions and with non-sterilized instruments. A girl exposed to such conditions usually gets sick and is exposed to inflammations, and her fallopian tubes become blocked. She may suffer acute, often fatal, bleeding after the operation. I may comment here that although
    using non-sterilized instruments is not restricted to female circumcision, but is also common in male circumcision, the reason I mention it here is that it is currently common in Sudan and other countries.

  4. It may result in sterility. If i t does not and the woman concerned gets pregnant, delivery will be difficult, and will have to be surgical.

  5. As Dr Salah Abu Bakr37 says, female circumcision has adverse effects on the urinary system, and may cause a urinary fistula, which causes, in turn, retention of the urine and the menstrual blood. He notes other possible complications including inflammation in other organs, such as in thecervix of the uterus,  which is known as a uterine ulcer, or in the endometrium (inner lining of the womb ).

    Since all these risks are involved in female circumcision, it cannot be legitimate under Islamic law, particularly since nothing that  recommends it is definitely established as said by the Prophet (pbuh). It is, however, established that he has said:  "Do not harm yourself or others". This hadith is one of the basic principles of this True Religion.  The conclusion to be reached is that female circumcision is neither required nor is it an obligation nor a sunna.  This is the view taken by a great number of scholars in the absence of any hadith that may be authentically attributed to the Prophet (pbuh). Even those who regard female circumcision as being legitimate oppose its deviant forms.
    I should mention here that some scholars have made a distinction between various countries with regard to the ruling concerning it. Ibn al-Haj says in Al-madkhal: "There are different views concerning women, whether circumcision should be performed for them in general or distinction is to be made between women of the east, in whose case it should be applied, and women of the west, in whose case there is no need for it, because, unlike women of the east, they do not have the additional flap of skin which is supposed to be cut".
    This is a good point, and scholars deal with it in the case of male children as well, where they say that if a boy is born without the flap of skin, nothing is required in his case.
    A specialist in the medical profession once told me that in certain countries this additional fold in women gets so big that it becomes harmful. He says he has seen a case like that and has removed the fold.
    In cases of this sort, no objection can be made to female circumcision as long as proper sanitary conditions are observed.
    When all is taken into consideration, since female circumcision involves these certain and possible hazards, there is no doubt that it is better not to do it. If there is need to remove something that is oversized, it may be removed, but the person who removes it should avoid any excess.
    These are the points I planned to discuss briefl y in this paper. There are aspects t of the subject-such as the history of circumcision, its position in ancient cultures, I the social habits involved, the celebrations held, and so on-which I have not I dealt with, because they have no bearing on the actual problem that people face.
    I have appended to my paper the treatise written by Sudanese Professor Alliin Dawood, because of its great value. It was originally published in Khartoum. I pray God to guide me and grant me sound judgement, and I pray that this paper and its companion piece be of benefit. I pray God to make all our endeavours dedicated solely to His service. It is God who speaks the truth and guides people along the right path. Praise be to God, the Lord of all the worlds.


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Dr Mahmoud Ahmad Fora

Last Updated Mar 25, 2005