Circumcision in Islam: A Meaningless Tradition Worth Discarding?

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This article was written for muzlimbuzz.sg (read: I’m running out of things to blog about)

About a week ago, in the midst of raging hijab debates and raucous Halloween debaucheries, The Real Singapore, a local alternative news website, did something rather strange and wholly unnecessary. It decided to publish an article, written by a Muslim man, on his disdain for male circumcision. This was more trick than treat.

To be honest, The Real Singapore is often guilty of the downright bizarre, though not the kind often associated with jack-o-lanterns and creepy costumes. But I suppose in wanting to attract a countercultural audience, they sometimes have to feature opinions which are very much opposed to the mainstream. An article on how circumcision is vile and barbaric, and not an obligation in Islam because no Quranic injunction exists to support it, is undoubtedly right up their alley.

Unfortunately, this particular writer seemed not to understand that Islam does not allow for the cherrypicking of laws to suit one’s motives and feelings. Yes, there may be a difference of opinion with regards to some laws (the permissibility of music comes to mind), but the vast majority of laws are clear and unambiguous.

As a Muslim, one is obligated to follow these laws, and not simply cast them aside on a whim. In Surah Al-Baqarah, Allah commands the believers to “enter into Islam completely”. Interestingly, in that same verse (208), they are warned “not to follow in the footsteps of Satan”, for he is, to believers, a “clear enemy”.

Is circumcision commanded in the Quran? No, it isn’t (and that’s perhaps the only thing the writer and I agree upon). But Islamic law is derived from several sources, not just the Quran, though it is regarded as the primary source. The Sunnah (sayings and teachings) of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) also serves as guidance when deciding how to behave as a Muslim.

In this regard, Muslim men are circumcised because the Prophet Muhammad himself was circumcised and is reported to have said “Five things are part of fitrah (natural disposition of man): circumcision, shaving the pubic hair, trimming the moustache, cutting the nails and removing hair from the armpits”. (Sahih)

Naysayers who claim that following the Quran alone is enough fail to understand that the Quran itself exhorts Muslims to follow the examples of the prophets (peace be upon them all), and that to obey Allah means to obey His Messenger. How does one obey the Messenger if he or she discards the Sunnah?

So if you’ve read this wanting to know if circumcision can and should be discarded as an archaic tradition with no place in the modern world, the plain and simple answer is no. Well, not for Muslim men anyway. But don’t take it from me. Walk over to your nearby mosque or Islamic centre and ask a local alim. Email him. Sign up for one of his classes. There are many in Singapore today, even though we may not be a Muslim country.

Just don’t take your knowledge of Islam from the World Wide Web. In today’s day and age, just about anybody can give you a half-baked ‘fatwa’, without having to spell out his name, let alone his credentials. Don’t learn about Islam from The Real Singapore.

Know that just like any other body of knowledge, there needs to be rigorous, authentic scholarship to determine what gets admitted and discarded from the canon of Islam. This is especially important when one considers what is at risk: the innovation and distortion of the Shariah, which ultimately leads to two phenomena, a refashioning of Islam to please the senses of the liberal democratic world and a hugely splintered faith, with a billion differing schools of thought. The symptoms of these two are already evident, for anybody who cares to look deeper into the crisis facing Islam today.

As such, not anybody can interpret the Quran and the Sunnah. In Abdul Hakim Murad’s Understanding the Four Madhabs, it is clearly listed the conditions that allow someone to claim the right to ijtihad (independent, scholarly reasoning leading to the formulation and codification of Islamic law). These conditions are, among others, mastery of Arabic language, a profound knowledge of the Quran and Sunnah, knowledge of the specialised disciplines of hadith, and knowledge of the views of the Companions, Followers and the great Imams.

To use an oft-quoted analogy, if we don’t subscribe to fly-by-night quacks for medical advice out of fear of the irreversible damage to our physical bodies, how can we be guilty of not doing the same in matters of religion? Taking instruction on religious rulings from just about anybody can result in untold harm on our eternal souls.

This medical analogy can also be used to clear up a long-standing misconception. Islam does not believe in circumcision because of its health benefits, numerous they may be in scientific literature. After all, as Muslims we do not consider science as the ultimate arbiter of truth. Rather, the Quran and Sunnah guides us to what truth is. As such, we are unlikely to be affected by what scientific research has to say about circumcision, negative or otherwise.

Nevertheless, we do not denounce science, or in this case, medicine, entirely. We know of its untold benefits in the modern era. In fact, on the issue of circumcision, a medical opinion, from a genuine doctor of course, can be used to overrule a religious obligation. For instance, if the doctor performing the circumcision feels the patient is at risk of haemorrhaging, or is perhaps too old or weak to undergo the procedure, then the obligation to be circumcised is waived. Some scholars have even said that the obligation is also waived if the person fears the procedure.

So, speaking hypothetically, if the Muslim man who wrote the article bashing circumcision were to explain to his future son the procedure of being circumcised, and if for some reason the son did not feel safe to undergo such a procedure, then, technically, the son wouldn’t have to. And it would not make him any less of a Muslim. Judging from experience though I don’t think any self-respecting seven-year-old kid would pass off that once-in-a-lifetime chance to feel like a tough hero.

However, I fear that there will be parents like the writer who insist that the religious obligation for circumcision is nothing but a fallacy, and in doing so would have already made a decision on behalf of their sons. How ironic, to dismiss such obligations on the basis of them being dogma, while espousing no less rigid an ideology.

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4 thoughts on “Circumcision in Islam: A Meaningless Tradition Worth Discarding?

    • Hi Robin-Frans,

      No, I don’t think the relationship is at all similar. Let me explain. Muslims believe that the Quran is the unedited, unabridged word of God. We do not doubt its authenticity. To do so would actually be tantamount to disbelief. However interpretations to the Quran differ, which is why I mentioned in my article that rigorous scholarship is important. How you interpret it is very important, as you can probably tell from the lunatics amongst Muslims who blow themselves up because a verse in the Quran mentions the killing of infidels.

      The Sunnah was not written down during the time of the Prophet because he explicitly forbade it, fearing that it might be muddled up together with the verses of the Quran. Nevertheless, he also said that we are obligated to narrate the Sunnah to others. Therefore, Muslim scholars only wrote it down several years after the Prophet’s passing, after the compilation and publishing of the Quran.

      As mentioned in my article, this Sunnah refer to practices and sayings of the Prophet and they help to support what is written in the Quran. So it’s more of Sunnah supporting Quran instead of the other way round as you mentioned. For instance, the Quran might command believers to pray, but the Sunnah has the details on how to pray, what to recite, etc. It is a source of Islamic law.

      Now, the question might arise, how do we know the Sunnah isn’t fake or made up by scholars and narrators? That’s where the science of hadith (reports) comes in. A hadith is only considered authentic if it passes certain strict criteria. Without going into details, this criteria include the number of reporters of the hadith, the reliability and memory of these reporters, the links between them and the text itself.

      You may wish to read more about them here:

      http://www.islamic-awareness.org/Hadith/Ulum/hadsciences.html

  1. Roze

    Please be sure to mention that female circumcision is also required in Islam. Some organisations like Darul Arqam in Singapore are saying that its only necessary for males and hiding the importance of the procedure for females. Here’s an article sent by a friend:

    There are many sayings of Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) to show the important place, circumcision, whether of males or females, occupies in Islam. Among these traditions is the one where the Prophet is reported to have declared circumcision (khitan) to be sunnat for men and ennobling for women (Baihaqi).
    He is also known to have declared that the bath (following sexual intercourse without which no prayer is valid) becomes obligatory when both the circumcised parts meet (Tirmidhi). The fact that the Prophet defined sexual intercourse as the meeting of the male and female circumcised parts (khitanul khitan or khitanain) when stressing on the need for the obligatory post-coital bath could be taken as pre-supposing or indicative of the obligatory nature of circumcision in the case of both males and females.
    Stronger still is his statement classing circumcision (khitan) as one of the acts characteristic of the fitra or God-given nature (Or in other words, Divinely-inspired natural inclinations of humans) such as the shaving of pubic hair, removing the hair of the armpits and the paring of nails (Bukhari) which again shows its strongly emphasized if not obligatory character in the case of both males and females. Muslim scholars are of the view that acts constituting fitra which the Prophet expected Muslims to follow are to be included in the category of wajib or obligatory.
    That the early Muslims regarded female circumcision as obligatory even for those Muslims who embraced Islam later in life is suggested by a tradition occurring in the Adab al Mufrad of Bukhari where Umm Al Muhajir is reported to have said: “I was captured with some girls from Byzantium. (Caliph) Uthman offered us Islam, but only myself and one other girl accepted Islam. Uthman said: ‘Go and circumcise them and purify them.’”
    More recently, we had Sheikh Jadul Haqq, the distinguished head of Al Azhar declaring both male and female circumcision to be obligatory religious duties (Khitan Al Banat in Fatawa Al-Islamiyyah. 1983). The fatwa by his successor Tantawi who opposed the practice cannot be taken seriously as we all know that he has pronounced a number of unislamic fatwas such as declaring bank interest halal and questioning the obligation of women wearing headscarves.
    At the same time, however, what is required in Islam, is the removal of only the prepuce of the clitoris, and not the clitoris itself as is widely believed. The Prophet told Umm Atiyyah, a lady who circumcised girls in Medina: “When you circumcise, cut plainly and do not cut severely, for it is beauty for the face and desirable for the husband” (idha khafadti fa ashimmi wa la tanhaki fa innahu ashraq li’l wajh wa ahza ind al zawj) (Abu Dawud, Al Awsat of Tabarani and Tarikh Baghdad of Al Baghdadi).
    This hadith clearly explains the procedure to be followed in the circumcision of girls. The words: “Cut plainly and do not cut severely” (ashimmi wa la tanhaki) is to be understood in the sense of removing the skin covering the clitoris, and not the clitoris. The expression “It is beauty (more properly brightness or radiance) for the face” (ashraq li’l wajh) is further proof of this as it simply means the joyous countenance of a woman, arising out of her being sexually satisfied by her husband. The idea here is that it is only with the removal of the clitoral prepuce that real sexual satisfaction could be realized. The procedure enhances sexual feeling in women during the sex act since a circumcised clitoris is much more likely to be stimulated as a result of direct oral, penile or tactile contact than the uncircumcised organ whose prepuce serves as an obstacle to direct stimulation.
    A number of religious works by the classical scholars such as Fath Al Bari by Ibn Hajar Asqalani and Sharhul Muhadhdhab of Imam Nawawi have stressed on the necessity of removing only the prepuce of the clitoris and not any part of the organ itself. It is recorded in the Majmu Al Fatawa that when Ibn Taymiyyah was asked whether the woman is circumcised, he replied: “Yes we circumcise. Her circumcision is to cut the uppermost skin (jilda) like the cock’s comb.” More recently Sheikh Jadul Haqq declared that the circumcision of females consists of the removal of the clitoral prepuce (Khitan Al Banat in Fatawa Al Islamiyya. 1983).
    Besides being a religious duty, the procedure is believed to facilitate good hygiene since the removal of the prepuce of the clitoris serves to prevent the accumulation of smegma, a foul-smelling, germ-containing cheese- like substance that collects underneath the prepuces of uncircumcised women (See Al Hidaayah. August 1997).
    A recent study by Sitt Al Banat Khalid ‘Khitan Al-Banat Ru’ yah Sihhiyyah’ (2003) has shown that female circumcision, like male circumcision, offers considerable health benefits, such as prevention of urinary tract infections and other diseases such as cystitis affecting the female reproductive organs.
    The latest is the study Orgasmic Dysfunction Among Women at a Primary Care Setting in Malaysia. Hatta Sidi, and Marhani Midin, and Sharifah Ezat Wan Puteh, and Norni Abdullah, (2008) Asia Pacific Journal of Public Health, 20 (4) accessible http://myais.fsktm.um.edu.my/4480/ which shows that being Non-Malay is a higher risk factor for Orgasmic Sexual Dysfunction in women, implying that Malay women experience less problems in achieving orgasm than non-Malay women. As you know almost all Malay women in Malaysia are circumcised (undergo hoodectomy) in contrast to non-Malay women who are not. This would suggest that hoodectomy does in fact contribute to an improved sex life in women rather than diminishing it as some argue.
    Another good reason why women need a hoodectomy (Islamic female circumcision). It can prevent cancer arising from oral sex. Here’s an interesting news item:
    US scientists said Sunday there is strong evidence linking oral sex to cancer, and urged more study of how human papillomaviruses may be to blame for a rise in oral cancer among white men. In the United States, oral cancer due to HPV infection is now more common than oral cancer from tobacco use, which remains the leading cause of such cancers in the rest of the world.
    Researchers have found a 225-percent increase in oral cancer cases in the United States from 1974 to 2007, mainly among white men, said Maura Gillison of Ohio State and we do not know the answer as to why.”University. “The rise in oral cancer in the US is predominantly among young white males
    It is obvious that the only way men can acquire the HPV virus is through the oral stimulation of one’s partner’s clitoris which allows the virus to enter the mouth. The virus no doubt is harboured in the prepuce of the clitoris just as it has been found that HPV also resides in the foreskins of males, through the transmission of which cervical cancer occurs in females. Thus a hoodectomy could, by removing the part that harbours the virus, significantly reduce or eliminate the risk of women transmitting the virus to their male partners.
    For more benefits of Islamic female circumcision also known as hoodectomy see http://www.umatia.org/2011/Safe%20Female%20circumcision.doc

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