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Friday, December 8, 2023

The on-going FGM controversy analysed from an Islamic standpoint

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Momodou Lamin Yaffa

Sukuta, The Gambia

Over the past couple of weeks, the recurrent and humdrum controversy over “Female Circumcision or Female Genital Mutilation or Female Genital Cutting” has flared up again, particularly between Isatou Touray of Gamcotrap and former vice president of The Gambia and Abdoulie Fatty, former imam of the State House Mosque. The matter has taken another twist when it was tabled for debate by a member of the National Assembly, where apparently most of those who took the Assembly floor have called for the revocation of the law that bans female circumcision in The Gambia.

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The imbroglio stemmed from a magistrate court ruling that found four women in Jimara District, Upper River Region, guilty of practising female genital cutting on some girls. The ladies were fined each a sum of GMD 15,000.00, failing which they shall receive a prison term of one year each.

Aboulie Fatty together with his cohort of supporters raised the funds for the payment of the fines. He then issued a diatribe at Isatou Touray and any other person who clamours against the practice of female circumcision. He went to the extent of considering the practice a fundamental Muslim precept that must be observed by all Muslim females.

Owing to such a posture adopted by Abdoulie Fatty and others coupled with the fact that many Gambian Muslims would like to have clarity over this matter from an Islamic standpoint, I have found it topical, imperative and congenial to give my opinion on the matter and clear the confusion surrounding it as far as Islam is concerned.

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I must first of all point out that the practice, under the current laws of The Gambia, is a criminal offence, if committed, may result in punitive action. Indicating this caveat is crucial because no responsible individual would like to be embroiled in a legal tussle that one can simply avoid.

Secondly, I hope that those Gambians who claim vehemently that female circumcision is a strongly recommended precept in Islam know that most Muslim countries in the world do not practise it. It suffices to look at the north of our continent in countries like Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, which are all overwhelmingly Muslim-majority countries. In fact, Islam in our Senegambia subregion was transmitted to us through interactions with scholars and traders from the above-mentioned countries. Many of our scholars studied in Quranic schools in Mauritania as well as the two ancient universities of Qarawiyyine in Fes, Morocco and Zaitouna in Qayrawan, Tunisia.  By the way, Egypt banned the practice in 2007 following a national outcry over the death of a twelve-year old girl as a result of the procedure.

Furthermore, a huge segment of the Gambian Muslim population does not practise it, neither does the majority of the population of Senegal, where only 28% of the population resorts to it.

Truth be told, Muslim jurists of the four Sunni schools of Islamic jurisprudence, until few decades ago, never banned it. The Hanafi and Hanbali schools refer to a scantily used Fiqh term “Makrumah”, meaning honourable, to denote it, while the Maliki school, to which the overwhelming majority of Muslims in the Senegambia sub-region adhere, labels it as “Mandoub”, meaning desirable but not mandatory i.e. the act is rewarded if performed but not sinful if not performed. The Shafi school is the only one that believes it is “Wajib”, meaning obligatory.

However, contemporary Muslim scholars have overall adopted a Fiqh jurisprudential term called “Mubah or Ja’iz” meaning permissible. This is now the general trend that most Muslim scholars and Muslim societies worldwide have adopted. 

Female circumcision should be equated with slavery in Islam in terms of the evolution of Islam’s jurisprudential outlook to it. Islam did not ban outright at its advent the ancient practice of slavery. As a result, it remained a widespread practice that was gradually abandoned and abolished overtime in all Muslim-majority countries. This is why all jurisprudential schools of Sunni Islam entail codified laws that legislate the practice. However, in light of international humanitarian law, no Muslim scholar has authored a book over the past two centuries justifying or legislating slavery. It is worth stating that the Prophet (pbuh) never kept slaves. He set free all the slaves that were gifted to him. Some of them preferred to stay with him as servants (mawali) in the Arabic of that period in history.

Female circumcision has also gone through the same process in light of modern medical advancements. It is appropriate to point out that female circumcision, as a procedure, remains intrinsically a mere traditional and cultural practice with no medical or sanitary justification. It should also be pointed out that many communities that practise it in Africa have been doing so before the advent of Islam. In fact, just like the Prophet’s (pbuh) attitude of not keeping slaves, he never subjected his daughters to female circumcision. I believe such a fact speaks volumes when it comes to Islam’s approach to female circumcision.  

We do notice that many families with educated members, although from communities in which the practice is deep-rooted, are distancing themselves from the practice. We believe that civil society organizations that strive for its eradication should continue their efforts without resorting to the courts to invoke the law that bans the practice. This, we reckon, should be their approach to avoid superfluous controversy over the issue. This is the overall approach to the issue in most countries where activists operate against female genital mutilation in all its various forms.

If a justification is to be found for female circumcision, it is in the following versions of the same hadith: a lady called Ummu Atiyya used to carry out the procedure in Madina. The Prophet (pbuh) once said to her: do not cut it deep for such a state is more pleasurable for both husband and wife.

Another version of the hadith runs as follows: the Prophet (pbuh) once said to a lady called Ummu Atiyya, who used to circumcise slave girls in Madina: Circumcise, Ummu Atiyya, but without cutting it deep for such a state is more comely and more pleasurable to the husband.

Another version reads as follows: among the ladies that migrated to Madina was one called Ummu Atiyya, who was known for circumcising slave girls. On spotting her one day, the Prophet (pbuh) said to her: Ummu Atiyya, are you still in possession of the item you used to carry. She answered: yes, Allah’s Messenger, unless you prevent me from doing it, if it is now forbidden (haram). The Prophet (pbuh) said: it is instead halal. Get closer to me so that I explain to you how it should be performed, said the Prophet (pbuh). Ummu Atiyya, if you should do it, do not cut it deep. It is in such a state more comely and more pleasurable to the husband.

The above-stated versions are the only hadiths referenced by the scholars of yore to legislate on female circumcision for all the four existing schools of jurisprudence of Sunni Islam. My research has revealed to me that Shiite Islam does not recognize the practice. A perusal of the chain of transmission of the above-mentioned versions also reveals that none is authentic. This is why the highest authority of Islamic edicts (Fatwa) in Egypt considers female circumcision a practice that has no ritualistic basis in Islam. As a result, it has arrived at the conclusion that it is haram.

In conclusion, it is worth indicating that Muslim scholars of Quranic and Hadith exegesis resort to discourse analysis that subjects Surahs and Hadiths to textual, contextual and sub-textual analysis to grasp the semantics of the Quranic corpus. It is referred to in Arabic as “sibaaq, siyaaq and lihaaq”.

Our Hadith text above in all its three versions is basically the only reference for jurisprudence. All other references are far-fetched extrapolations. As for their contextual and sub-textual analysis, the

Prophet’s question put to Ummu Atiyya gives the impression that the Prophet is concerned about the adverse effects of the practice. In fact, Ummu Atiyya’s immediate reaction to the question suggests that, along the way, female circumcision might not have been a general practice because according to the text, it was limited to slave girls, probably to reduce their libido and overcome them as objects of male sexual desires and fantasies. As I stated in a preceding paragraph, female circumcision, although existent in Muslim communities worldwide, is no longer widespread as the outbursts of Abdoulie Fatty and people of his ilk would want us to believe.

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