This is a difficult question to get an authoritative answer for (but it shouldn’t be) – and hardly ever spoken of by ‘dawah carriers’, with rare exceptions. The reasons for this frequent omission will soon become abundantly clear.
From the outset, on such an important and understandably emotive topic, let me reassure my readers, that ‘circumcision’ in the sense of surgical assault on the clitoris, infibulation etc or indeed any type of tampering with the female clitoris is unequivocally prohibited, (in Arabic terminology ‘haraam’) and is hideously immoral and this is the unanimous agreement of all within the bounds of orthodox traditional Islam and sharia.
However, I must now go into more detail: because as Islamophobes and sadly Salafis as well will remind us, ‘circumcision’ (translated as ‘khitan’ in Arabic) is mentioned for women in no less than the Muwatta of Imam Malik (the early hadith compendium) as well as in Bukhari’s ‘Adhab wal Mufrad’ – several times the euphemism ‘when the circumcised part touches the circumcised part’ (i.e that of the man and the woman) is used to describe sexual activity, even in at least one case reportedly by the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). This of course has led Islamophobes, the genuinely uninformed and inexcusably ignorant (often Muslims) to shout it at the top of their lungs and make a direct link between the reprehensible practices of some Sub-Saharan (and Egyptian) communities and orthodox Islam.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
But then why is ‘circumcision’ (or ‘khitan’) mentioned for women in Islamic sources at all? It was clearly widespread in pre-Islamic Arabia and there is a narration that Hadrat Uthman (RA), the third Caliph, allowed women to be circumcised when it was requested. A group of female prisoners of war had a female warden who asked him whether the captives should be circumcised as per custom at that time, and Uthman allowed it..
The key issue here is what was meant by ‘khitan’ of a woman (or even a man): even amongst the pagan Arabs it meant only taking off part of the labia minora (or as they described it ‘that part between the clitoris and urethra which looks like the comb of a rooster’ – more on this later) and absolutely nothing else. This is a procedure known as a ‘limited labioplasty’ and is common today for cosmetic purposes (though that was not the Arabs reason – more on this in a moment too).
As mentioned, this practice (limited labioplasty) was very widespread during the time of the pre-Islamic pagan Arabs, and likewise during the time of The Prophet (SAW). He is neither reported to have praised it nor proscribed it. In fact his alleged view on it is only mentioned in one undoubtedly weak hadith from ‘Sunan Abu Dawood’ (a famous collection of hadith narrations) which has two versions. In it, a woman of the Ansar (the ‘helpers’ from Medina) approaches the Prophet and asks if she is allowed to continue circumcising women, as that was her profession.
Narration #1: ‘If you want to do it, make it very shallow (arabic ‘ashimi’) and do not go very deep. Because it will brighten the face of the woman and give more portion to the husband’.
Narration #2 ‘do not go very deep because it gives more portion of enjoyment (‘athza’ in Arabic) for the lady and that is more liked by the husband’.
Both versions of this narration are weak…but so what?
Both are straightforward: that ‘khitan’, or ‘circumcision’ if you will, for the woman is merely tolerated and if done is to be for the express purpose of ‘improving her enjoyment of sex’.
The classical scholars have explained while commenting on this hadith that the logic was that when the Labia Minora are at their full extent they may partially cover or obstruct the clitoris thereby reducing it’s stimulation by friction from the male pubis (or indeed penis, especially if it is large) during sex. This in turn may conceivably delay female orgasm, since clitoral stimulation is a big part of this. Clearly the hadith commentators were already well beyond denying the female orgasm which was sadly found in some other societies until much later. Since many men suffer from premature ejaculation, failure to stimulate the clitoris would make this shortcoming even worse and may cause the woman to not experience orgasm at all during sex. Hence the woman climaxing at the same time (or at least near to) as the man is more ‘liked by the husband’, as per the hadith. It is clearly also less sexual work for him if what they say about better exposure to the clitoris is correct. Note that the covering or hood (anatomically ‘prepuce’) of the clitoris is not mentioned.
The euphemism in the first narration ‘brighten her face’ also refers to the woman’s enjoyment of sex, since depression or unhappiness is often referred to as ‘darkening of the face’ in Arabic (another misunderstood expression, which people incorrectly portray as racist).
Therefore the phrase ‘athza-lil-maraa’ in the above hadith or ‘more portion of enjoyment to the lady’ in English, is explained as to help women reach orgasm by partially removing obstructions to clitoral stimulation (namely large or mobile labia minora, especially after multiple pregnancies), especially if the man has a smaller penis or suffers from the common enough problem of premature ejaculation.
This is obvious without the commentary on the hadith to anyone who has had sex with a woman or is familiar with the rudiments of female anatomy:
Or from the (now famous) classic ‘Greys’ Anatomy’:
This is not some clever idea or interpretation I have dreamed up: not only is it obvious from the text of the Hadith, but it is the consensus of the four schools of Islamic Jurisprudence that anything other than this is ‘muthla’ (Arabic for mutilation) and thus absolutely prohibited (‘haraam’) and punishable. Therefore we are the first to welcome punitive measures by the British government against FGM and demand that others follow suit.
Once again: it is the consensus (‘ijmaa’) of the four madhahib (as mentioned, the schools of jurisprudence in Islam) unanimously, that only, as they call them ‘minor lips’ can be partially removed – without touching the clitoris at all and without reaching the urethra at all.
The proof is in the agreed upon (by orthodox Muslims as opposed to modernist or protestant movements such as Salafism) books of Islamic law and conduct: ‘Bahur Rayagh‘, the authoritative text of the Hanafis is quoted below. Hanafis hold that circumcision for women is merely permissible – the Shafis, Malikis and Hanbalis hold it to be sunnah or waajib – so Muslims speakers and dawah carriers who say that ‘it is mutilation’ without clarifying why, for example, there is an opinion of Ahmad ibn Hanbal saying that it is compulsory, are leaving themselves wide open for a humiliating rebuttal, let alone the other narrations mentioned. Nonetheless, it has to be said that even regarding the limited labioplasty ‘khitan’, the Hanafi position is clearly the only tenable one – how do the other schools establish a compulsory action based on a single weak hadith?
‘It is the khitan of the lady to remove the skin which looks like the comb of the rooster (‘that thing on the head of the rooster’)…between the clitoris and the urethra there is a thin layer of skin; it is this that can be removed.’
In the ‘Majmoo’, Imam Nawawi (read: an authority) repeated the above quote.
In the Hanbali (most literalistic) school, Mansur ibn Yunus Al Buhayti repeated the above mentioned quote verbatim.
Another Hanbalite authority, the famous Ibn Qudamah Al Maqdisi:
‘The khitan is to remove the slim skin on the top of the vaginal opening’.
Note that it is interesting that even the entirely legal (and increasingly popular at the time of writing) procedure of ‘Labioplasties’ practised nowadays (often for cosmetic reasons or influenced by the types of vaginas popularised in pornographic imagery) is completely prohibited in Islam as they involve; ‘a plastic surgery procedure for altering the labia minora (inner labia) and the labia majora (outer labia)’ (from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labiaplasty), and Islam is completely unequivocal about anything other than only a slight trimming of the inner labia being genital mutilation (recall: ‘muthla’ in Arabic sharia terminology). Labioplasty with clitoral unhooding, is also practised in the UK/US especially if the clitoral prepuce (or ‘hood’) is too thick and interferes with sexual stimulation and is even more problematic Islamicaly – as per the prohibition of going and tampering with anything other than the labia minora (which would also exclude the clitoral prepuce).
It is clear that the problem we appear to have in the West is how to make Islam more tolerant of the widespread forms of vaginal (plastic) surgery practised here rather than Islam being permissive of the vulgarity that is FGM. Given the long-standing ijma (consensus) of Islamic jurists on this issue though, that leeway for allowing even procedures such as therapeutic clitoral unhooding is likely to be…well, perhaps none.
So let me just emphasise once again to make it abundantly clear: even the types of vaginal surgeries commonly practised in the UK and US are proscribed by traditional, old fashioned Orthodox Islam – let alone the entirely absurd claim of Islam being an excuse for FGM. In fact, Islam has a far more harsh definition of FGM than the law as it stands now.
I would personally support voices which question the expansion and acceptability of potentially harmful vaginal cosmetic surgery (although, truth be told, I would argue the same for cosmetic breast augmentation – but that’s a whole different story).
Okay, you may well ask, but then where did the idea, that no doubt exists and is sadly practised that ‘khitan’= female circumcision = removing the clitoris’ come from if all this is true?
If the Four Schools of Islamic Jurisprudence are unanimous, and condemn mutilation of the clitoris or cutting anything other than the labia minora, then why does the problem even exist?
And why aren’t most Muslim speakers, with few exceptions, willing to clarify this matter, especially as some of the classical schools regard ‘khitan’ as compulsory for women? (It is not even compulsory for men in the Hanafi school by the way)
The problem, as so often, begins with the unusual and troubling opinions of controversial 14th century heterodox thinker Taqi Ad Din Ahmad Ibn Taymiyya (1263 – 1328 C.E).
He popularised his (personal) view that ‘khitan’ or ‘circumcision’ was carried out for the actual reason of reducing the sex drive of women, that if women are circumcised they will ‘not enjoy it (sex) too much’. Even he however did not go so far as to say the clitoris should be removed (but he is implying it, in direct contravention of the hadith we mentioned from Abu Dawood).
Ibn Taymiyya is mentioned by the hadith master Ibn Hajar Al Asqalani to have left the consensus of Muslims on twenty or more issues: this is perhaps the most sickeningly gynophobic in an already disturbing oeuvre.
His disciple (and fellow icon of the Salafi/Wahhabi movement) Ibn Qayyum Al Jawzi, in his book ‘The Sunnats Pertaining to the Newborn’ sadly followed His Masters Voice and said that khitan was to ‘balance/lower the desire of the female’.
Of course, this is again in direct contravention to the alleged saying of the Prophet who said that if done, it should be only to ‘give her more portion in the enjoyment of sex’ (‘Athza-lil-maraa’). So much for a ‘Quran and Sunnah’ based religion I guess…
Interestingly, the only other scholar I could find who went against the consensus was Ibn Jawzi (the student of Abdul Qadir Al Jilani, not of Ibn Taymiyya), who mentioned it in his commentary on the difficult hadith of Bukhari, regarding the episode where Abu Bakr (RA) allegedly returned the insult of an opponent by mentioning the clitoris (which is ‘Al bidr/badr’ in Arabic). Ibn Jawzi said that the ‘bidr’ was ‘the part the lady lady leaves behind when she is circumcised’.
We can at least perhaps excuse the ramblings of Ibn Taymiyya, who never had a wife or sexual partner that we know of at least, and could perhaps be ignorant of such matters and since he did not explicitly say that the clitoris should be mutilated. Sadly however, contemporary Salafi scholars such as Nasiruddin Albani, Muhammad Hasan and Albanis’ Egyptian disciple (though they apparently only met for three hours) Huwayni, have shown no such restraint and have been far more explicit – they have said that ‘khitan’ is indeed FGM and involves the removal of ‘some part of the clitoris’, but not all (most generous of them: I wonder if they would be similarly accommodating if someone were to cut off ‘only a part’ of the head of their penis’?). They claim the saying of The Prophet (SAW) ‘keep it shallow’ refers to the clitoris.
I am sorry to be blunt: this is sheer madness and a gross and inexcusable violation of traditional Islamic law for fourteen centuries (i.e forever).
However Albani does not stop there: he violates a second consensus by saying that ‘khitan’ (which in his case really is FGM), is only to be practised on certain ladies. And who are these unlucky women? Well the ones from ‘hot countries, due to their well developed clitoris’. I will leave it to the reader to figure out how he came to this gynaecological conclusion.
Even more horrifically, doyen and most senior of the latter day Salafis, rector and founder of Medina ‘University’ Abdul Aziz Bin Abdullah Ibn Baz (1910 – 1999) went so far as to say that French women in particular should be preferentially subjected to a clitorectomy due to their sexual habits. How he arrived at this disgusting (and racist) stereotype does not bear thinking about.
So now perhaps it becomes clear why people from certain orientations in the Islamic community and the ‘dawah’ movement are unwilling to speak about important concerns that non-Muslims (and most Muslims) will have: for the sake of not going against Albani and other Wahhabi figureheads, the enquiring mind is met with amateurish efforts which are easily refuted (or even deliberately dishonest) or worst of all, a wall of silence on the issue, as we find from most of the well known Dawah carriers in the UK (I’m talking about iERA if you did not take the hint).
Yet worse, the scholarly authority behind organisations such as iERA and public speakers such as Hamza Tzortzis, Haitham Al Haddad, makes remarks on ‘female circumcision’ without the necessary clarifications: given his militant insistence on the Wahhabi tradition, one suspects they would not be forthcoming in any case…
An interesting critique of Labioplasties in the UK (often for cosmetic reasons):
Wikipedia explains the WHO gradings of FGM: the ‘lowest’ grade, Ia, still involves the clitoris (it is removal of the clitoral hood and as mentioned, may be carried out in the NHS for a think and obstructing hood as mentioned above), in contravention to the consensus of the Muslim schools of jurisprudence and thus even this is a major sin and forbidden:
A more academic presentation of much of the same information, by an Islamic jurist: