FGM and Islam – An unfair association


The issue of FGM has become a perennial problem of clarity and what appears to be an irreconcilable opinion both in terms of its definition and its justification.  The debate seems to be consistently adding the flavour of unfair and abstruse association with Islam.

The question whether FGM is practised in The Gambia seems to ask for a clarification (if there is one) between female circumcision and female genital mutilation.  From a technical point of view and from the opinion of learned people all over, simply put – they are one and the same.  However, for advocates of the tradition in our sub-region, the separation of the definition is one of the justifications used for the perpetration of the practice by not classifying it as FGM; technically the same in the sense that it is only the degree that varies but the act and the consequences are the same.  For example in its very minor form it involves just a trimming process and in its more intensive form it involves the removal of major aspects of the body. 

In either case a large body of medical opinion indicates that medical complications are possible, including haemorrhage, difficulty at childbirth, and so forth, and of course the everlasting psychological impact. In addition, for those who take the excuse that it is a sort of control on promiscuity, it is also a fact that female circumcision does not diminish sexual desire. What it certainly does is to make the woman less able to get satisfaction – an issue more a cause of marital discord than what is claimed as a control measure.  The concepts of chastity and fidelity which are so often used as an excuse for the practice is more related the upbringing of the person than a natural physical condition.  Otherwise one would question the moral standards of Islamic countries that do not practice it since there is no evidence that those countries that practise it have higher moral standards than those that do not. 


Now coming to the religious justification – it should be made clear by Islamic scholars in no minced words that in Islam the practice may be condoned BUT IT IS NOT MADE COMPULSORY.  There are four main schools of thought in Islam and all three go along with this and only one says it is a must BUT even then it is not to be a mutilation as is commonly practised.  There is a historical aspect to this.    There are two commonly quoted hadith – that circumcision is obligatory (i.e. sunnah) for men and a good deed (i.e. charity) for women.  This particular hadith is considered by various scholars as not authentic.  The other hadith is a case where a woman, Oumm Attiya, used to perform circumcision in Medina. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said to her: ‘Do not cut severely as that is better for a woman and more desirable for a husband.’– Abu Dawood, Book 41, No.5251.  This hadith is classified by the compiler himself as “weak”! Furthermore, it was only a permission granted and not an encouragement – (ironically this appears to be more a discouragement of the practice than encouraging it by giving it a stricter performance level if one considers the [Shakespearean] Sherlock and Anthony case of “not a drop of blood…”).  Historically, this case is generally considered with reference to a particular tribe that insisted on continuing the procedure since it was not recommended by Islam nor was it forbidden. As a matter of fact, both Judaism and Christianity had a similar opinion at the time.  

Two issues arise.  One – it is not compulsory in Islam to use the practice.  The practice predates Islam and even from a mapping of countries performing it, there is no geographical relationship with the Islamic regions.  It is practised in parts of South America, parts Russia, Egypt (a minority) and Sudan (majority) thus covering both a few Muslim and non-Muslim countries! So please let the advocates keep Islam out of it as a justification.  In other Muslim countries in the Middle East, even in those where some of our scholars hail from, it is not practiced. That is a fact.

Second, for those who want to continue the practice, their views should be respected, BUT if doing so as Muslims, then they should do so as advised by the Holy Prophet and protect the wellbeing of the girl and her dignity.  The question is how.  Singapore practises it in this manner (minimally to the extent of defining the minimum requirement and it MUST be performed by a qualified doctor or midwife.  However, one should ask what justification there is for Muslims, if the practice has no religious value nor is there any hygienic reason for it?   Why don’t we concentrate more on practising spiritually enhancing matters that are required by Islam?

We must not use the justification of the practice by outlining some misunderstood religious tolerance.  Yes, it is indeed true that in Islam what is not outrightly prohibited is allowed.  Nonetheless, this basic law only emphasises the tolerant nature of Islam, which is its strength.  We must not confuse traditions originating from ancient cultures with religious requirements.  If one wants to continue an outdated form of traditional practice, please justify it by some other means but not by Islam.  It is unfair and absolutely not right to ascribe cultural traditions that are found to be undesirable in modern day society to religious belief.  This attitude breeds extremism and sows seeds of discord and misunderstanding (and misinformation). (We have similar distortions on issues like family planning). Tradition and its essence with the passage of time has to be put in the right context with regards to its relevance, credibility and adequacy.  (Allah knows best).


Pap Lamin Sillah

Brikama New Town