When I read about the recent arrests of Muslims in Michigan for practicing female genital mutilation, a horrific custom that tragically exists in parts of the Middle East and Africa, I was disgusted, appalled and bewildered that such evil had made its way to our shores in America. How is it possible that well-educated people (in this case doctors!) could still commit this crime against innocent children, damaging them physically and psychologically for life? Especially when it violates the basic precepts of Islam?
Wait a minute, female circumcision violates Islam? Yes, it does. And the fact that this evil practice is thought of by many people, including some Muslims, as part of the religion is just another sad example of how the world’s second largest religion is not only misunderstood by many, but is actually perverted in the modern world to represent the exact opposite of everything it stands for.
Female genital mutilation is an ancient practice where parts of a girl’s genitalia are removed in order to eliminate sexual desire and pleasure in a woman. It originated in pre-Islamic Africa and was referenced by the Greek geographer Strabo during a visit to Egypt around 25 BCE. The practice continued through the Christian era as well as the rise of Islam, and still continues today. UNICEF estimated in 2016 that over 200 million living today have undergone this procedure, mainly in Africa, but it has also been documented in Muslim countries such as Yemen and Indonesia.
The fact that this practice continues 14 centuries after Islam entered these societies has made many conclude that it must be condoned by the religion. But in reality, female genital mutilation has no basis in the Qur’an and violates the clear teachings of Prophet Muhammad.
In 2006, Islamic scholars led by the grand Sheikh of Al Azhar University, the highest scholarly authority in the Islamic world, declared that female genital mutilation is a violation of Islam’s teachings. And in 2008, the US Agency for International Development published an important paper on the issue, “De-linking Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting from Islam.” The authors, Ibrahim Lethome Asmani and Maryam Sheikh Abdi, lay out a very clear and straightforward analysis of Islamic teachings on the subject.
While male circumcision has always been a part of Islam as it has Judaism (both religions linking the practice to their ancestor, the biblical patriarch Abraham), female circumcision is not found anywhere in the Qur’an. A very few hadiths, or oral accounts attributed to the Prophet, have been interpreted by some to suggest that female circumcision was accepted in the early Muslim community, but Islamic scholars have largely discounted such accounts as historically weak and unreliable. So the scriptural basis for such a practice in Islam is unsupported.
But more importantly, the practice itself violates clear teachings of Islam that form the basis of its value system. Firstly, body mutilation is condemned in the Qur’an very clearly, not just in humans but also in animals. The Qur’an says that Satan will arouse in human beings an evil desire to mutilate God’s creation, quoting the Devil as saying: “Truly I will mislead them and surely arouse in them false desires and I will order them to slit the ears of cattle and indeed I will order them to change the nature created by God.” (4:119). Furthermore, the Qur’an is very sensitive to protecting children from harm, especially young girls, and Islam ended the ancient Arab practice of burying unwanted baby girls alive. But more directly to the issue of female genital mutilation, the practice violates the Prophet’s very clear teaching that women have the right sexual fulfillment. Prophet Muhammad advised men: ““When a man has sexual intercourse with his wife, he should be at the same pace with her. If he satisfies his desires before her, he should not withdraw until she has also satisfied herself.”
The latter hadith is surprising to many people today in the West, where religion is often seen as embarrassed by sexuality, especially female sexuality. While this may have been the case in the Christian world for much of history, it is not true of Islam (or Judaism for that matter). Both Islam and Judaism have a long history of seeing sex as a natural part of life and a blessing from God to be enjoyed. What is tragic in the case of Islam is that many Muslims today have forgotten their own religious teachings on the matter. When I first published my novel “Mother of the Believers” on Aisha, the wife of Prophet Muhammad, I was approached at a book signing in the Midwest by a Pakistani woman who said she liked my book, but was very uncomfortable with the open discussion of sexuality among the female characters. Before I could respond to her, another woman in the audience, a white American convert, spoke up. She said that she loved my book because it showed the authentic attitude toward sexuality in early Islam, and that one of the reasons she had converted was her discovery of Islam’s healthy and open views toward sex, which contrasted vividly with her repressed Catholic upbringing.
I was not surprised to see that an American woman embraced Islam’s view of sexuality as natural, while the Pakistani woman was embarrassed, as the Pakistani woman was the product of British colonialism of the Muslim world. The British imperialists during the Victorian era were shocked by Islam’s open view of sexuality and worked hard to change Muslim cultures and make them more “civilized” by being embarrassed by sex. The end result is that in places like India and Pakistan today, Muslims are more repressed than the Victorians, and sex is now an embarrassing and shameful thing to be kept hush hush, rather than accepted as a normal part of life, like eating and drinking.
The Muslim emperors of India who built the Taj Mahal as a monument to love, also embraced a rich artistic heritage in which erotic painting was considered a high art form. But their descendants today blush at the mention of sex in front of “polite company.” It is a bizarre situation in the Islamic world where Muslims have adopted unhealthy Christian attitudes toward sex and abandoned their own values, leading to exactly the kind of confusion that allows practices like female genital mutilation to persist in the shadows.
But the purpose of religion is to bring light to the shadows. As Prophet Muhammad said, Islam was not sent to make people’s lives harder, but to make their lives easier. Islam is a religion that reveres nature as a manifestation of God’s beauty and wisdom. And it is a religion that embraces all that comes with being human, including the blessed gift of sexuality. Islam teaches that the human being is a khalifah, God’s vicegerent on Earth, sent to make the world like unto the perfect Garden from which we originated. And the first step in embracing our spiritual calling is to embrace the beauty of our bodies as the sacred vehicle for that task. The day that we eliminate female genital mutilation from the Earth is the day we will have begun to fulfill our destiny.