Female genital cutting and Islam

Wednesday 11 March 2015

There are strong arguments against female genital cutting (FGC) within Islam. Despite this, religion is often used to justify the practice. This needs to be addressed because of high prevalence in countries with large percentages of Muslim families and because explicitly religious opinions are increasingly being used to defend or even newly promote the practice in some countries (e.g. Indonesia).

‘Islamic’ arguments used by the pro-FGC camp:

The secondary authority to the Quran in Islamic law is prophetic traditions (hadith), and these include a very few direct and indirect references to female ‘circumcision’.  One such, often cited, states:

“A woman used to perform circumcision in Medina. The Prophet said to her: Do not cut severely as that is better for a woman and more desirable for a husband.”

Using this as evidence, many Muslims hold the consequent belief that – while condemning the more severe forms – any ‘lighter’ type of FGC may be a legitimate or even commendable tradition (sunnah).

This argument is also used to justify the so-called ‘medicalisation’ of the practice, as is increasingly common in present-day Indonesia and Malaysia, for example.

However, many senior Islamic scholars – both past and present – contend that this particular prophetic tradition is weak (daef) in its authenticity and should, therefore, never be used in Islamic law and practice.

A further argument used against advocates of ‘light’ FGC is that if a certain substance or practice is fundamentally un-lawful and forbidden (as with more severe forms of FGC), then supposedly ‘lighter’ versions must also be prohibited in law (such as with different strengths of alcohol or different rates of monetary interest – all forms of which are forbidden in Islam).

Quranic arguments forbidding practices such as FGC:

The Quran makes no specific mention of FGC but there are verses which warn believers that wanton damage to the created human form is inspired by suggestions from the Devil, as in:

“[Satan said] I will mislead them, and I will create in them false desires; I will order them to slit the ears of cattle, and to deface the (fair) nature created by Allah.” (4:119 part).

Another common anti-FGC argument centres upon a woman’s access to sexual pleasure – considered a God-given right in Islam – which, therefore, needs to be protected from any potential damage caused by FGC.

Campaigning against religious justifications for FGC:

Unfortunately, not all religious practices are based upon authentic precepts of their faith, and this is especially so when the religious component is mixed with cultural notions of honour, chastity or superstitious belief.

There is a long-standing and authoritative mainstream school of thought within Islam that categorically rejects all forms of FGC. Knowing this should give international and local campaigners greater confidence in challenging religious sentiment that lacks rigour; campaigns to end the practice can draw from Islamic thought and do not need to solely employ a secular agenda.


This blog was compiled by Khalid Roy who trained as a social anthropologist and has spent 20 years working with local and international NGOs in Africa and Asia. Follow@Khalidroy69 on Twitter. 

Further reading: ‘Delinking FGM/C with Islam