The Guardian on Islam and female genital mutilation

The Guardian reports that Britain’s largest Muslim organization, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), has condemned female genital mutilation as un-Islamic.

The article reports on the campaign to end the practice brought to Britain by immigrants from Africa and the Middle East, and the steps taken by the MCB and NGOs to educate immigrants on its health dangers.

I am pleased to hear this news as I believe FGM is an abominable practice. But in looking at the journalism on display in this story — not the topic — I was struck by the disconnect between a claim in the lede that FGM is “no longer” linked to Islam and the claims made by the Muslim council further down in the article that it was never part of authentic Islam.

It is not The Guardian‘s job to referee disputes between religious scholars and to award the prize to what it believes is the true embodiment of Islamic principles. Yet by presenting only one view of Islam, only one side of the debate, the newspaper does just that.

Monday’s story states:

The influential MCB has for the first time issued explicit guidance, which criticises the practice and says it is “no longer linked to the teaching of Islam”. It added that one of the “basic principles” of Islam was that believers should not harm themselves or others. The organisation will send flyers to each of the 500 mosques that form its membership, which will also be distributed in community centres in a drive to eradicate a practice that affects 125 million women and girls worldwide and can lead to psychological torment, complications during childbirth, problems with fertility, and death.

The article quotes one MCB pamphlet as stating:

FGM is not an Islamic requirement. There is no reference to it in the holy Qur’an that states girls must be circumcised. Nor is there any authentic reference to this in the Sunnah, the sayings or traditions of our prophet. FGM is bringing the religion of Islam into disrepute.

If this second claim is true, what prompted some to believe that it was linked to Islam?

A study of the academic literature reveals that there is no settled view on FGM among Islamic scholars. In an article entitled “To Mutilate in the Name of Jehovah or Allah: Legitimization of Male and Female Circumcision,”  published in Medicine and Law, July 1994, pp. 575-622, Islamic legal scholar Sami A. Aldeeb Abu Sahlieh cites Muhammad as saying:

Circumcision is a sunna (tradition) for the men and makruma (honorable deed) for the women.

Aldeeb further states:

The most often mentioned narration reports a debate between Muhammed and Um Habibah (or Um ‘Atiyyah). This woman, known as an exciser of female slaves, was one of a group of women who had immigrated with Muhammed. Having seen her, Muhammad asked her if she kept practicing her profession. She answered affirmatively, adding: “unless it is forbidden, and you order me to stop doing it.”

Muhammed replied: “Yes, it is allowed. Come closer so I can teach you: if you cut, do not overdo it, because it brings more radiance to the face, and it is more pleasant for the husband.

While some clerics say circumcision is not obligatory for women, others say it is. “Islam condones the sunna circumcision … What is forbidden in Islam is the pharaonic circumcision,” an Ethiopian Muslim leader told the IRIN news agency, while the Middle East Quarterly cites the former rector of  Al-Azhar University, Sheikh Gad al-Haq, as holding that since Mohammad did not ban female genital circumcision, it was a lawful practice for Muslims and, at the very least, could not be banned.

In sum, the Muslim Council of Britain condemns FGM as un-Islamic, some clerics say it may be practiced, whilst others believe it must be practiced. A balanced article on Islam and FGM should note the lack of unanimity amongst Muslim legal scholars on this issue — and explain the seeming contradiction between the claim in the lede and the claim in the body of the article about Islam and FGM. The Guardian need not, and should not, referee the dispute of religion v. culture in the FGM debate. However, it should provide context and balance so that the reader may understand.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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