By Dr. Ali Gomaa
Religious leaders with sensitivity to intellectual debates of the time as well as the circumstances of the Muslim community have long taken an interest in the questions raised with respect to Islam and women. I have published a number of fatwa collections exclusively devoted to this topic, addressing contemporary matters in public lectures and study circles, and convening seminars to investigate how better to advance women’s rights.
This in response to the realization that modern Western concepts have begun to have great impact on Muslim societies, and in particular, doubts about the status of women within the Islamic worldview have begun to proliferate. The history of Islam had not been previously confronted with what is now called “women’s issues.”
As a result of the Muslim world’s encounter with the West, and due to the West’s particular history during the Dark Ages (due widespread and historical mistreatment of women), calls began to be heard about liberating women. Though these calls have found their way into the discourse of those living in Muslim societies, the truth is that the Muslim woman has long been liberated for centuries under Islamic rule.
What is striking in this new discourse is the way in which it puts women against men in a continuous struggle and state of competition. Islam, however, is a religion which recognizes the equal status of men and women in the eyes of God, as is attested by numerous passages in the Holy Qur’an. The most fundamental aspect of this status is the unity of the human spirit in which both genders stem from. As God says, “O mankind, fear your Lord, who created you from one soul and created from it its mate and dispersed from both of them many men and women. And fear God, through whom you ask one another, and the wombs. Indeed God is ever, over you, an Observer” (Quran 4:1).
Similarly, He has made clear on more than one occasion the spiritual equality of men and women in matters of religious worship, considering solely the sincerity of their acts of worship and piety. Instead of paying any attention to the gender (or ethnicity or class) of the worshipper, God has made the standard for acceptance of one’s worship based on the degree of reverence, sincerity, and purity of heart exhibited by the worshipper. As He says in His Holy Book, “O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of God is the most righteous of you. Indeed, God is Knowing and Acquainted” (Quran 19:93).
Indeed, it may be said that not only are the genders equal in their servitude to the Almighty, but indeed all of creation presents itself before Him as a servant: “There is nothing in the heavens and the earth but that it will come to the All-Merciful as a servant” (Quran 19: 93).
The matter is no different in terms of legal obligations, and the rewards and punishments that accrue from those obligations, as is clearly stated in the following verse: “Whoever does an evil deed will not be recompensed except by the like thereof; but whoever does righteousness, whether male or female, while he is a believer - those will enter Paradise, being given provision therein without account.” (Quran 40: 40).
The very structure of legality in the Sharī‘ah is based on a reciprocity which recognizes the importance of conferring equality to women. As the Quran says “And women shall have rights similar to the rights against them, according to what is equitable” (Quran 2: 228).
The fundamental principle is that they are both honored members of creation, possessing equality with respect to spirituality and worship. Socially, the relationship between them is one of complementarity, and not of competition. As the Quran says, “And do not wish for that by which God has made some of you exceed others. For men is a share of what they have earned, and for women is a share of what they have earned. And ask God of his bounty. Indeed God is ever, of all things, Knowing.” (Quran 4: 32).
From this comes the concept of social equity, and not identity. This standpoint maintains the distinction between men as men, and women as women, a distinction which has come under attack from some materialist philosophies. Each of the genders fulfills their roles in life, in accordance with their natural specificities and responsibilities.
The extent to which the Islamic worldview on male-female relations constitutes a remarkable breakthrough can only be appreciated against the background of the pre-Islamic customs practiced by the Arabs. Describing these customs, the Quran castigates this state of affairs in the strongest possible terms: “And when one of them is informed of [the birth of] a female, his face becomes dark, and he suppresses grief. He hides himself from the people because of the ill of which he has been informed. Should he keep it in humiliation or bury it in the ground? Unquestionably, evil is what they decide” (Quran 16: 58-59).
Indeed, God warns the reader of the position on the Day of Judgment of one who commits infanticide, the day “And when the girl [who was] buried alive is asked, For what sin she was killed” (81:8-9).
In place of the shame and embarrassment regularly alongside the birth of a baby girl, the Prophet of Islam came with a message to expressly state that, “Women are the sister-halves of men” (Sunan Abu Dawud, Sunan Tirmidhi).
Unfortunately, it has become common to think of Islam as precisely the means by which women are oppressed, whereas it is obvious to any clear-minded historian that the place of women in the medieval period was much stronger in the Islamic world than it was in the Western world. There are now, however, a number of allegations leveled against Islamic thought, culture and civilization with regards to particular women’s issues.
As we have seen above, the Islamic worldview is based closely on a conception of male-female relations which stresses the importance of women, and values their contributions to society. It is then not surprising that the particularities of Islamic law reflect this status in regards to women, and in fact honor them for their particularities and specificities. This is the basis for a healthy family arrangement: one in which roles and responsibilities are well understood, and antagonism between the sexes is not seen as a natural state of affairs, but rather a divergence from the ideal which both sides must work towards minimizing and overcoming. This reflects a deep equality and harmony between the sexes which is not accounted for when one focuses on superficial expressions of sameness or identity.
In an effort, however, to clarify the Islamic worldview and dispel a number of misconceptions surrounding Islam’s position on women, the remainder of this paper will discuss in details the common objections leveled against Islam regarding the issue of female genital mutilation.
Female Genital Mutilation
The distinguishing characteristic of mankind, according to the Quran, is the dignity bestowed upon it by God: “We have dignified the children of Adam ... and favored them over much of creation.” Human dignity is, therefore, a fundamental tenet of the Islamic worldview. It should be no surprise then, that Islam’s emergence and presence in the world has been one which has placed a very high regard on the protection of human rights. This concern is heightened considerably when one turns to the most vulnerable members of society. Indeed, one of the first missions of the Prophet Muhammad was to express his outrage and denunciation at the pre-Islamic Arab customs surrounding newborn girls, customs which saw them as less than human and a source of embarrassment to the family.
These are long-standing and unshakeable principles which are representative of the enduring spirit of Islam. It is crucial, therefore, that at this stage in our historical development, they be understood within the context of modern social conditions and the state of scientific knowledge today.
When we take a look at the way in which this matter has been addressed legislatively in Egypt, we find that the first legal provision issued concerning female circumcision was the ministerial decree #74 in 1959. The first article of this decree includes a list of the fifteen committee members made up of Muslim religious scholars and medical practitioners including the under secretary of the Ministry of Health Mustafa Abd al-Khaliq, the Grand Mufti of Egypt at the time Hassan Ma’mun, and the previous Grand Mufti Hasanayn Muhammad Makhluf. The second article of the decree states that the committee decided on the following:
• It is forbidden for anyone but a trained doctor to perform circumcisions; and those who want [circumcisions to be performed] must have partial, not full circumcisions.
• For health, social, and psychological reasons circumcisions are not to be carried out in medical units outside of the Ministry of Health.
• Certified midwives are not licensed to carry out any kind of surgical operation including female circumcision.
• Circumcision, in the manner in which it is currently being carried out, causes both physical and psychological harm to women whether it is performed before or after marriage.
When the cases of female circumcision increased, thereby causing great harm to women’s health, the Minister of Health issued a decree dated 8/7/1996 decree # 261 for the year of 1996 stating:
Female circumcision is prohibited, regardless of whether it is performed in a hospital or a public or private health clinic. The performance of female circumcision is not permitted except in cases of medical necessity, this will be determined by the head of the Women’s Disease and Birth department of the hospital and based on the recommendation of the patient's doctor.
Some shortsighted Muslims considered this decree to be at odds with Islamic law, and as such, unconstitutional. They took a case to the court, which mentioned the following in its judgment:
The court has concluded that it is understood from an examination of the juridical opinions presented that Islamic law does not contain a conclusive ruling or unequivocal textual evidence that makes female circumcision mandatory or forbidden.
It follows that all of the rulings that have been related in this matter are presumptive: the medical field has not agreed on one unified position, with some medical practitioners considering female circumcision as having a medical benefit, and others considering it as having grossly negative medical and psychological effects and the political leadership is permitted to arrange affairs concerning which there is not an unequivocal legal text in the Quran or the Sunna and concerning which there has not been a scholarly consensus. This goes for legal questions concerning which there is a difference of opinion such that Islamic jurisprudence has not settled on one opinion, and generally all those issues concerning which one may use ijtihad (independent juristic reasoning). The approach that the political leadership should take in these matters is not absolute; rather they must seek to achieve the greater good for the people, or the alleviation of harm through their managing of these affairs in a way that does not defy an unequivocal legal text or go against a ruling established with certainty.
In 1997 the court decided that the minister’s decree could not be considered unconstitutional saying:
Since circumcision is a surgical procedure concerning which Islamic law does not contain a rule making it obligatory, the basis is that it should not be carried out except with the aim of medical treatment. Any surgery, regardless of its nature and extent, which is carried out without having the cause of its permissibility with all of its conditions in their entirety is considered a forbidden (haram) action Islamically, and legally, holding fast to the general basis upon which the human right of bodily integrity is ensured and the criminalization of any action which is not legally sanctioned and leads to the encroachment of that integrity.
This is in relation to Egypt. As for other Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia, they do not practice female circumcision. We hope that this concise response to this question has removed any confusion and corrected opinions concerning this matter which are used for propaganda as opposed to justice. In any case, the Prophet did not circumcise his blessed daughters (peace be upon them).
With this in mind, Dār al- Iftāʾ convened an international conference in November 2006 on the topic of female genital mutilation (FGM). Participants included scientists, scholars of Islamic law, specialist researchers on the topic, and activists from civil rights organizations in Egypt and around the world. Upon hearing an array of presentations from across the spectrum, the conference concluded that the mutilation practiced in some parts of Egypt, Africa and elsewhere today represents a deplorable custom which finds no justification in the authoritative sources of Islam, the Quran and the practice of the Prophet Muhammad.
One of the highest values of Islamic law is the Prophetic command to neither inflict nor accept harm. This imperative will be familiar to non-Muslims as the golden rule. A universal commandment that applies to all, irrespective of social class or gender, special care must be taken to ensure that no type of harm befalls those who can neither cause nor repel harm on their own, the weak and helpless in our societies. In light of this reality, and because of the significant physical and psychological harm to young girls (and later women) caused by FGM, all measures must be taken to put a halt to this unacceptable tradition.
Thus, one of the recommendations of the conference was that taking active action on this front is crucial if we are to remain true to our Islamic values and principles. Islam is a religion of knowledge, learning and research. While it was previously practiced as a social custom (and not a religious matter), the state of today’s knowledge makes clear the serious negative effects on women of such practices as FGM. As such, it becomes a religious obligation to say unequivocally that the practice of FGM is today forbidden in Islam.
The findings of the conference represented a call to the peoples of the Muslim world – in Egypt and beyond – to hold fast to their Islamic identity by ending this deplorable custom in their communities. Injuring oneself or another in any form is expressly and categorically forbidden. In connection with this, it is enough for us to quote the example of our Beloved Prophet – the Mercy to all Mankind – who never subjected any of his daughters to this practice.
The conference opined that true eradication of FGM depends heavily on the cooperation of international and religious institutions to concentrate their efforts on educating and instructing their populations on this matter in accordance with the Islamic prohibition against harm. In addition to the Islamic legal position outlined above, special attention must be given to raising basic awareness of female hygiene and medicine. Educational establishments and media, for their part, have a duty to educate people about the devastating consequences of this practice on those who are subject to it, as well as on society at large.
In addition, legislative bodies in the countries of the Muslim world ought to take decisive action by passing laws which ban the practice of this gruesome custom, declaring it a crime once and for all. Both the actual perpetrators as well as the initiators of instances of FGM must be subject to the full punitive extent of the law in view of the seriousness of the crime against society’s most vulnerable members. International institutions and organizations are encouraged to provide help in all regions to facilitate its elimination.
Islam is, without doubt, a religion that adapts and develops to the changing conditions of the world, and the state of scientific knowledge. The enduring commitment to human rights and dignity demand action on our part towards the eradication of FGM.