Vol VIII, Issue 3 (Summer 2001): Female Circumcision Revisited
Peter K. LeMaire
Bernice A. LeMaire
For more information
Editorial: Female Circumcision Revisited
Male and Female Circumcision in Africa: Pharaonic Egyptian and Religious Origins
By Desmond Wiggins, University of South Australia
in Ancient Egypt
stele from the twenty-third century BCE indicates that mass male
circumcision rituals were undertaken in Egypt. Uha, the author of
the stele, wrote: "when I was circumcised, together with one
hundred and twenty men, there was none thereof who hit out. . ."
(Wilson, 1950, p. 326). However, not all Egyptian males were circumcised.
X-rays of Pharaoh Ahmose's mummy (sixteenth century BCE) indicate
that he was not circumcised, and it is possible his successor Amenhotep
I was also uncircumcised (Harris and Weeks, 1973, p. 126-30). There
is also debate as to whether the lower classes of society practiced
circumcision. Harris and Weeks, along with Pritchard (1958, fig.
153), provide substantiation that commoners were not circumcised,
whereas Bailey provides evidence that the opposite was the case
(1996, pp. 21-23).
origin of "female circumcision" is obscure-so hazy that
Hosken argues the origin is unknown (1994, p. 71). Assaad suggests
that female circumcision was practiced in ancient Egypt and hence
originated there. Widstrand traces classical references to Agatharchides
of Cnidus, a second century BCE geographer (1964, p. 116), while
Abdalla suggests that it was practiced in ancient Egypt as a way
to "obtain control of [women's] magic power" (1982, p.
suggests that other nations borrowed the custom of male circumcision
from the Egyptians (translated by Selincourt, 1954, pp. 167-68),
but there appears to be no way of verifying the soundness of this
statement. Herodotus" statement may be accurate and is possibly
the explanation of how male circumcision became established in cultures
such as the Hebrew nation (ca tenth century BCE), as attested in
Exodus 4:24-26. Later Jewish philosophers such as Philo (first century
BCE) advocated circumcision as a means of reducing sexual desire
of males and females (Yonge, 1993, p. 534-35); this idea still held
favour as late as 1932 in Western society.
1963 study conducted by Shandal determined that a large number of
female mummies found in Egypt were circumcised (1963, cited in Ras-Work,
1997, p. 142). As with male circumcision it is believed "female
circumcision" was performed to mark class distinction in Egypt.
Taba proposes that "female circumcision" was transported
from Egypt to the Sudan and the Horn of Africa in the fifth century
CE with the migration of the population (cited in Ras-Work, 1997,
Meo provides geographical data that reinforces Taba's view. He concludes:
"based upon geographical distributions...it is reasonable to
assume that they [female circumcisions]...were spread by inhabitants
of these regions [Egypt]" (1997, p. 10).
and Male and Female
an Islamic perspective male and female circumcision has been practiced
for generations and is a practice which Muslims-especially in Africa-are
accustomed to observing. Ibn Hajar summed up the views of Islamic
scholars on male and female circumcision:
and the majority of his disciples believe circumcision is an obligation.
Among old scholars who hold the same opinion is Attaa. He goes so
far as to say: if an adult embraces Islam, he does not become a
full Muslim until he is circumcised (cited in al-Sabbagh, 1996,
Ahaddith is utilised by Muslim scholars such as Ibn Qudana
to advocate obligatory male circumcision in Islam (Al-mughni
cited in al-Sabbagh, 1996, p. 15). Al-Shafii goes further advocating
that this Ahaddith teaches that circumcision is Sunna
for both males and females and is equally mandatory for both sexes
(Wensinck, 1986, p. 20).
important question that arises with regard to circumcision in Islam
is whether Muhammad instituted the practice for his followers within
his lifetime. If it can be shown that male or female circumcision
has the direct sanction of Muhammad then debate among Muslims might
cease. The answer is not clear. The practice is mentioned in early
Egyptian poetry and the Haddith; the ancient language had
special words for those who were not circumcised: alkhan, aklaf,
aghlaf, and aghral (Wensinck, 1986, p. 20). According
to al-Jahiz, who died in 868 CE, and his contemporary al-Marsafi,
male circumcision had been practiced by Arabs from the time of Abraham.
Al-Marsafi further adds that Arabs were known as the "nation
of circumcision" (cited in Aldeeb, 1998, chapter 2, p.1).
in the Haddith of Ahmad Ibn-Hanbal (who died 855 CE)
the following appears:
Ibn-al-As was invited to a circumcision, but he refused to come.
When asked the reason, he said: in the time of Muhammad we did not
practice circumcision and we were not invited to it (cited in Aldeeb,
1998, p. 2).
to this is an account in the History of Al-Tabari (who died
923 CE) that details the report of the Caliph Umar Ibn-Abd-al-Aziz
(who died 720 CE) writing to the military chief Al-Jarrah Ibn-Abdallah.
Ibn-Abdallah had written to the Caliph requesting an opinion on
whether male converts to Islam should be circumcised. The Caliph
replied: "God sent the prophet Muhammad and entrusted him to
summon people to embrace Islam. He did not send him as a circumciser"
(Aldeeb, 1998, chapter 3, p. 3). Aldeeb gives further textual evidence
to show that male circumcision was not a compulsory act in the time
of Muhammad, but rather a matter of choice.
regard to the prevalence of "female circumcision" in the
time of Muhammad, information is scant. In order to support female
circumcision classical and modern authors often quote a saying reported
by Ahmad and Al-Baihaqee that states: "when two circumcised
parts unite then bathing becomes obligatory." These authors
argue that this saying implies that both men and women were circumcised
in the time of Muhammad (Aldeeb, 1984, article no. 05, p. 11).
(cited above) suggests that female circumcision was practiced from
the time of Hagar just as male circumcision was practiced from the
time of Abraham. Hagar's circumcision is supposed to have eventuated
because Sarah, plagued by jealousy, swore that she would mutilate
Hagar. Abraham protested, but eventually allowed Sarah to act accordingly.
Although textual evidence is limited and not explicit regarding
the exact nature of female circumcision, Donzel et al. argue that
the "synonymy of khitan, and khifad leads one
to think that the minimal practice comprised excision of the prepuce
of the clitoris" (1978, p. 913).
the tenth century CE Islam was entering Africa through three primary
routes: the ports of the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea coast and North
Africa (Hicks, 1993, p. 21). These were the main trade routes and
offered a vehicle for the dissemination of the Islamic faith (Lewis,
1980, p. 4-6).
on the above evidence it seems clear that Muhammad did not personally
institute female circumcision amongst his followers, so another
source needs to be identified. As female circumcision is perceived
to be a religious rite in "traditional Islam" by necessity
this source needs to be found in the writings of Islam.
Textual Support for Circumcision
important factor regarding the Qur'an that is generally overlooked
is its form. Most Westerners have probably never seen the book itself
though many will have seen a translation. It is necessary to recognize
the difference between the Qur'an and a translation of the
Qur'an. For Muslims the divine word assumed a specific form-namely
Arabic-in order to convey the message of God. Hence, to Muslims
the Arabic Qur'an is the genuine Qur'an; translations
are viewed as inferior interpretations that are a necessary evil.
emphasises this idea: "to anyone who has not heard the sonorous
majesty of an Arab reciting the Qur'an, it is impossible
to convey what the Book lacks in English, French and German"
(1997, p. 1). Murata and Chittock reinforce this with the following
observation: "the Arabic form of the Koran is in many ways
more important than the text's meaning" (n.d., p. 1).
Arabic Qur'an is considered to be the complete account of
God's will. In fact, based on Q 6:38 and Q 16:89-which declare respectively-"we
have left out nothing in the Book" and "for to you We
have revealed the Book which manifests the truth about all things"-it
seems reasonable to assume that the Qur'an contains the core
tenets that form the underlying framework of Muslim belief.
al-F'aruqi aptly comments: "it is the conformance to a Qur'an
based society for which we all must work if the Muslim peoples are
to enjoy a felicitous future" (n.d., p. 2). The Zayed Bin Sultan
Al Nahayan Charitable and Humanitarian Foundation proposes that
the Qur'an is the "complete book of guidance for mankind
[sic]...no other book in the world can match the Qur'an"
(n.d., p. 4). Ammar writes:
even though these statements seem clear, the issue of what constitutes
textual authority in Islam is just as complex as in other religions.
There has been, and still is, much debate in Islamic circles regarding
what is acceptable as Scripture in Islam. Basically there are two
philosophies. One philosophy accepts that only the Qur'an represents
the guide for matters of faith and practice. The other viewpoint
accepts the Qur'an as well as the Haddith, Sunna, Sira, Tafsir,
and other religious opinions as the guides for understanding the
will of Allah. As one would expect, the respective schools of thought
are emphatic about their ideas. For example, Muhammad lists a dozen
reasons why believers should "follow the Qur'an and nothing
but the Qur'an." Iqbal argues that for true Muslims "QUR'AN
ALONE is all that we need" (1997, p. 1).
the importance of extra-Qur'anic material such as the Haddith
is seen in Robson's comment: "Haddith came to be recognised
as a foundation of Islam second only to the Kur'an" (1971,
p. 24). Al-Shafii (cited in Robson, 1971, p. 24) argues that when
the Qur'an speaks of the Book and the Wisdom (Q 2:151; Q
3:164; Q 4:113; Q 62:2), it refers to the dual role of the Qur'an
and the Haddith.
Zafrulla Khan postulates that the Haddith gives the complete
picture of the Muhammad's mode of life (n.d., p. 2). Further, any
Muslim who is interested in upholding moral and spiritual values
owes a heavy debt of gratitude to the narrators and compilers of
the Haddith. Muhammad Salim al-Awwa maintains that to determine
a point of truth in Islamic law it should be sought from four sources:
the Qur'an, the Sunna, the consensus of scholars,
and finally, from analogy (1996, p. 34). The Haddith is the
foundational source for the Sunna and is a vital part of
the sacred texts of "traditional Islam."
development of the Haddith occurred during the first three
centuries of Islamic history, and its study provides a broad index
to the thinking and ethos of Islam. Soon after the death of Muhammad
there was a desire to understand in more detail the exact meaning
of certain passages in the Qur'an. Approximately one hundred
years after Muhammad's death the Khalif, Umar II, ordered that the
sayings of the Prophet be collected and committed to writing (Klein,
1985, p. 26).
traditions that constitute the Haddith are divided into various
classes depending on the degree of authority they possess; the authority
of each Haddith is determined by many factors such as the
manner of transmission and the persons from whom they were derived
(Klein, 1985, p. 26). The collection of traditions which
are considered standard authoritative texts are referred to as the
six books: Muhammad ibn Isma'il al-Bukhari, Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj,
Abu awad al-Sijistani, Abu 'Isa Muhammad at-Tirmidhi, Abu' Abd
ar-Rahman an-Nasa`I, and Abu Abdallah ibn Maja.
recorded on paper, these books and the other sayings that form the
Haddith then constituted the Sunna, the teaching of
Muhammad who was the "exemplar who followed the right path"
(Trimingham, 1980, p. 67). The process of determining the exact
form of the Sunna was not without difficulties. As different
interest groups arose after the death of Muhammad contradictory
tendencies emerged and the various groups were at loggerheads. On
one hand, male politicians sought to manipulate the sacred, while
on the other hand, scholars determined to oppose these politicians
through the science of fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence (Mernissi,
1991, p. 43).
while traditionalists sought to verify the authority of traditions,
there were others who were not prepared to lay great emphasis on
tradition; this difference of opinion led to disputes between the
parties involved (Robson, 1971, p. 24). But even though disagreement
exists today over the acceptance of the Haddith, and about
which sayings should be granted authority the fact remains that
the Haddith is an established corpus of text accepted by
a large percentage of contemporary traditional Muslims as the word
of Allah. This is an important point because it has direct bearing
on my contention that female circumcision is a religious rite in
Haddith is not the only extra-Qur'anic source in Islam
that constitutes guidance for traditional Muslims. Another element
is the Ijma, the unanimous agreement of the Muslim nation.
Perhaps a more accurate definition of Ijma would be the agreement
of the Mujtabidin or the great doctors of the nation (Klein,
1985, p. 30). The Ulamas, as the religious scholars are known,
are consulted on both personal and political matters. When the Ulamas
arrive at a consensus on an issue, it is interpreted as Ijma
(Wiechman, Kendall and Azarian, n.d., p. 3). Trimingham comments
that the Ijma is the criterion that determines the social
ethics of Islamic communities and is a concept that remains unchallenged
in Islam (1980, p. 67).
to this is the Qias (measuring) which incorporates the "reasoning
by analogy of the learned doctors of Islam, the Mujtabidin (Klein,
1985, p. 31). The Qias are not found in the Qur'an,
Sunna or Ijma; rather they are new cases that have
already been judged by a higher judge (Wiechman et. al., n.d., p.
3). Klein quotes a tradition to show that the Qias is in
keeping with the wishes of Muhammad (1985, p. 32). Muhammad wished
to send a man named Muaz to Al Yaman in order to collect alms which
were to be distributed to the poor. Muhammad asks by what rule Muaz
will act, to which he replies: "the Qur'an." Muhammad
then asks what Muaz will do if the Qur'an has no direction
to give on the matter. Muaz responds: "according to the Sunna."
"If that fails?" questions Muhammad. Muaz informs Muhammad
that he would: "make an Ijtihad and act on that." According
to the tradition, that response pleased Muhammad.
the Qur'an, Sunna and Qias, the religious norms
of previous Muslim communities, as received through the various
prophets accepted as valid for Muslims, are considered to be the
revealed will of God. According to Islamic norms, whatever is necessary
to accomplish a duty becomes a duty (Aldeeb, 1984, article no. 05,
interesting approach to accepting norms is presented by Professor
Al‑Labban, who argues that if Muslims do not understand the
wisdom of a religious norm, the problem lies with their reasoning,
not with God (Aldeeb, 1984, article no. 05, p. 24). An Egyptian
fatwa, issued on June 23, 1951, says: "experience has
taught us that, given time, the true meaning of the Lawmaker's wisdom,
which was hidden, is unveiled to us" (cited by Aldeeb, 1984,
article no. 05, p. 25).
element in this seemingly complex area of authority/law is the issuing
of a fatwa-an opinion on a point of law that affects civil
or religious matters. The institution of the fatwa parallels
jus respondendi of Roman society and is comparable with it
in many respects (Walsh, 1965, p. 866). Like the other elements
previously mentioned, fatwas can be issued by muftis-religious
lawyers-to individuals, magistrates and any other authority. It
is very important that a fatwa is rendered in accordance
with fixed precedents in Islam, rather than on the personal ideas
of the muftis (Kjeilen, 1999, p. 1). The authority inherent
in a fatwa is seen in the death decree issued against Salman
Rushdie by Imam Khomeini on February 13, 1989.
one reads the arguments for and against extra‑Qur'anic
material that is accepted as authoritative for law and guidance
in Islam one thing is apparent: there is no consensus on the matter.
However, the preceding discussion indicates that there are two distinct
philosophies on the subject: "Qur'an‑only,"
or "Qur'an plus the Haddith, Sunna and
other elements." But the fact that there is no universal, unanimous
position on this matter is of no consequence to my proposal that
"female circumcision" is a religious rite in "traditional
Islam." Quite the reverse.
Islamic belief allows for the acceptance of rites, such as female
circumcision, to be accepted as religious in one Islamic community
and yet not condoned even condemned in another. This is of paramount
importance when studying "female circumcision" in Islamic
Africa because: "the religion of African Muslims is based...on
their apprehension and expression of Islam" (Trimingham, 1980,
p. x). The pivotal issue is which particular philosophy is adhered
to in a given society. It is a moot point which position is most
accurate and is not within the scope of this research to establish,
but there are some considerations that warrant mentioning in this
Muhammad did not personally write the Qur'an just as Jesus
did not personally write the sayings of the Christian Scriptures
attributed to him. Some Muslims even present the argument that Muhammad
was illiterate and ask:
can an illiterate person come up with such a rich, poetic, intellectual,
and inspiring text that it rocked the entire Arabia? An illiterate
man is simply not capable of writing such a book" ('who wrote
the Koran, n.d., p. 3).
Abd El-Fatah El-Kady wrote in his book Al Mushaf Al-Shareef:
Koran was written during Muhammad's life, on the branches of palm
trees, on thin stones, on paper, on skin, on shoulders and side
bones of animals (n.d., p. 14)
of the Koran was written during Muhammad's life, but was not collected
in one volume. Its suras were not organized. It was scattered on
the branches of palm trees, skin and in the memories or breasts
of Muhammad's "close friends" (n.d., p. 55).
reading of Q 17:106 indicates that the Qur'an was revealed
slowly over a period of time: "a Quran that we have
released slowly, in order for you to read it to the people over
a long period" (Khalifa's translation).
if Muslims argue from a "Qur'an-only" stance in
order to avoid corruption of the word of Allah, their argument is
seemingly inconsistent. After all, the Qur'an is a work that
is just as dependent on other people's memories of what was said
as the other texts I have mentioned: the intermittent revelations
to Muhammad were first memorized by followers and used in ritual
prayers before the text was composed and written onto paper or parchment.
verses were later written down during the Muhammad's lifetime by
his followers they were first compiled in their present authoritative
form during the reign of the third caliph (644-656 CE) the successor
to the Prophet (Encyclopaedia Britannica, Multimedia Version,
1999). Some Muslims suggest that discrepancies crept into the text
between the initial revelation and its being written and compiled
as a text. Dr Rashid Khalifa in his Appendix 24 of the Authorised
English Translation of the Qur'an, maintains that some
scribes originally tampered with the Qur'an nineteen years
after Muhammad's death. He alleges that the scribes "injected
two false verses at the end of Sura 9" (Khalifa, n.d., p. 1).
idea of an "impure" Qur'an is reinforced by a discovery
made in 1972 in the Great Mosque at Yemen. Labourers uncovered a
gravesite that contained no human remains, no funeral jewelry, nothing
except a conglomeration of old parchment documents, damaged books
and individual pages of Arabic text. In 1979, a visiting German
scholar undertook a study of the texts and it was determined that
the discovery was nothing less than the oldest extant portions of
the Qur'an (Lester, 1999, pp. 1-2). The significance of this
discovery is that the parchments that dated back to the seventh
and eighth centuries revealed aberrations from standard Qur'anic
texts. If these parchments are authentic-and as of January 1999
evidence to the contrary had not been presented-the aberrations
provide evidence of changes in contemporary Qur'anic texts.
advocates of the Qur'an plus Haddith, Sunna
and the other elements mentioned previously-those I have defined
as adherents of "traditional Islam"-have a similar problem
as those arguing for the Qur'an-only. There is no way to
prevent a corruption of the texts and assure that no false Ahaddith
are accepted as authentic.
though there are strict guidelines for the acceptance of Ahaddith
(see the article by the Muslim Students Association, n.d., "The
Science of Hadith," pp. 1-4) evidence is presented by some
Muslims that maintains false Ahaddith have been accepted
as authentic (see Mustafa, 1997, pp. 1-33; al-Awwa, n.d., pp. 1-5).
As stated earlier, these issues do not affect the outcome of my
proposal, yet they are issues that should not be ignored and are
worthy of further research at a future date.
(to be continued)
Return to: Table of Contents
By Haines Brown, CCSU Emeritus
While the development of IT industry in Africa is often viewed in terms of the internal obstacles to be overcome, in several countries such as South Africa, more at issue is the relation of internal resources and the world market. However, globalization of South African IT means that the model its development is hotly contested.
has to do with the evolution of the ANC in recent years. In response
to global pressures, social needs (such as Black liberation) are no
longer perceived as primary, but addressed only to the extent compatible
with global market relations.
result is a struggle to balance the demand of social needs and that
of economic efficiency. Whenever these objectives do not coincide,
the outcome is determined by the balance of effective power.
is clearly perceived in South Africa today as tension in the ruling
coalition. The ANC handed initiative over to a South African Association
for Management of Technological Innovation (Saamoti) in June 2000.
Dr. Steve Lennon, chair of the National Science and Technology Forum
and a leading proponent of the Saamoti concept, defined its aim as
an improvement in South Africa's global competitiveness through a
commitment to innovation and public‑private partnership to promote
rapid commercialization of new technology.
initiative was not taken by government, but by five founding corporations:
the CSIR, De Beers, ISCOR, the enterprise promotion agency NTSIKA
and [significantly] the Water Research Commission. This new link is
not between existing economic resources and social need, but between
the global economy and South African (and foreign) private enterprise.
The composition of Saamoti reflects its new purpose: a think-tank
of IT professionals, a network for the private sector and for governmental
and academic co-operation. We see here the abandonment of democratic
people's power in favor of government as corporate management.
role of government is therefore limited to the promotion of the political
order needed by private enterprise. Last year, the South African Department
of Communications drafted a White Paper that sought to define a balance
between social needs and corporate interests, which it assumed were
at the annual general meeting of the Internet Service Providers Association
in Epsom Downs last August, Andile Ngcaba, director‑general
of the department, indicated that the competence of government was
limited to certification and domain names. It would also discourage
cyber-crime and act as arbiter in liability cases. But he emphasized
that "this must not get in the way of industry development or
contravening the spirit of the new economy." The White Paper
represents capitalist hopes for the IT legislation to come in late
offers an instructive example. Here the political context is iGoli
2002-the plan to hand Johannesburg's governing powers over to private
corporations. The Johannesburg Metro Council in October 2000, entered
into one of Africa's largest contracts to "outsource" the
IT implementation of iGoli to a consortium consisting of IBM and Masana
Technologies. Councillor Pule Buthelezi said Johannsburg's enormous
expenditure reflects the government's commitment to privatization.
privatization has been the cause of mounting tension within the governing
alliance of the ANC, SACP and COSATU. One of the objections to privatization
is that it would reduce precious jobs through forcing the remaining
workforce to speed up production. In this case, 115 IT professionals
employed by Johannesburg would be transferred to the consortium. Buthelezi
said that the effort was a major step in joining hands together with
business to ensure the revitalization of the city. He also said that
"It is not about empowering black-owned companies but about performance-the
council needs a world-class IT system to revitalise the way it has
been running its business." It was felt that this IT outsourcing
contract with IBM represented a benchmark for public-private sector
partnership and a model for other communities.
than being a principal purpose of government, social service delivery
becomes merely a source of its legitimization. "We have mapped
IT solutions on to the GJMC's vision of extending services into historically
disadvantaged communities while turning the Greater Johannesburg area
into a globally competitive metropolitan area," said Mark Lambert,
strategic outsourcing executive at IBM SA. In fact, globalization
and privatization have resulted in global impoverishment and social
deterioration, and, in terms of IT, a digital divide.
November of last year was published a green paper on e-commerce that
addressed the issue of the growing digital divide. South African Communications
Minister Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri warned that legislation was required
to enable government to help technology change the lives of people
on the margins of society. Eighteen months before, the government
had set out to assess telecommunication needs, but this defined e-commerce
needs, not public needs. The paper spoke primarily of cyber-crimes
like tax evasion, child pornography and copyright infringement rather
than popular empowerment. It advocated market expansion to promote
easy and affordable access to telephony and internet access, encouragement
of a rapid adoption of e-commerce by small enterprises and an education
system that teaches computer literacy.
green paper contained no specific policies, but instead offered questions
that the government hopes will elicit input from the private sector
and end-users to contribute to a white paper later in 2001 and before
an e-commerce bill is presented to Parliament.
course, labor has quite a different outlook. COSATU and the Communication
Workers' Union (CWU) made a joint submission on the Intended
Telecommunication Policy Directions, on 23 March 2001.
than a trickle down of telecommunications access being the result
of abstract economic growth, labor's position focused instead on power.
It insisted that access to telecommunications is a basic need and
a right, necessary for people's full participation in society and
development is furthered by popular access to telecommunications,
and universal access is crucial in
strengthening democracy. COSATU was not convinced that the
proposed market structure will foster a telecommunications industry
which meets people's basic needs. It said in relation to telephone,
"While we are not opposed to some regulated competition for the
provision of high‑level services to business, we are opposed
to competition in the provision of basic telephony." Also, the
services necessary for democracy and social vitality should be universal
rather than enjoyed by only those who can afford them: "The attainment
of universal service is a priority and a challenge, [and] a more decisive
approach is needed to extend services to the majority of South Africans."
COSATU went on to say, "Given the high levels of poverty and unemployment, affordability means state funding and cross-subsidisation. Competition will not address the problem of high tariffs for basic services, and may actually worsen the situation if price cuts are concentrated at the upper end of the market. Ongoing direct regulation of tariffs will thus be necessary to ensure affordability of basic telephony and genuine universal service." "Any policy initiative needs to be guided by the imperative of protecting current jobs and creating new ones."