Monday, May 7, 2012

FGM and Muhammad

My previous post was sent as an email to a liberal Christian friend who sent me this link to the alleged Hadith which permits female genital mutilation. This my reply to her. The passages in quotes are from her message to me.
That Hadith is considered to be fraudulent by most of the sources I have encountered, for purely historical reasons. Muslim scholars have a very elaborate system of scholarship for determining the authenticity of Hadith, and by that standard this Hadith is on the bottom rung. The most obvious reason for thinking it fraudulent, however, Is that it says that this practice was done by members of Muhammad’s tribe,  and there is very strong evidence that they never did it. (Such as the fact that they don’t do it now.)

 There is something reflective of Muhammad’s character in this story in that he tries to correct the abuse of the practice (“If you cut, do not overdo it”), rather than ban it outright. But Muhammad made those kinds of compromises only with powerful groups, and he would have had no reason to do it for this woman. Also there are Hadiths which say that a man has a moral obligation to make sure his sexual partner is satisfied,  which is clearly impossible with FGM.

Also the distinction between Sunna and Makruma is best translated as “required” and “encouraged”, and an important part of that distinction is that no one can be required to do an act which is Makruma. Consequently, forcing a woman to do a Makruma act is contrary to Islamic law, even if this story is true.

“Why is there such a gap between the fatwas and ideas of right-thinking people and the institutions on the ground?"

Because Islam became trapped in a series of Narrow and often Scripturally unjustified versions in the early 19th century, thanks to of Wahab and other fundamentalist writers. I have never denied that these conservative  interpretations are wide-spread, and are becoming more so, because of the Saudi funding of Wahabbi clerics. But I believe the best way to combat these people is to point out that they are misinterpreting Islam.  To some degree that point is orthogonal to our discussion, because even the most conservative Wahabbi clerics in Saudi Arabia condemn FGM (As do the equally conservative Shia clerics in Iran.) But the problem is basically the same: Confusing folk prejudices with Islamic teachings that actually contradict those prejudices.

“the Koranic view that such ideas are inherently those of infidels who will burn in hell for all eternity” is no different from the orthodox Christian view.  Yet this has not stopped the Christian world from developing  multicultural function states. Do you really buy into the Dawkins principle that “the only good Christian is a bad Christian.” , and that we only have religious freedom here because westerners don’t take their Christianity very seriously? The Koran actually gives a lot more support for tolerance than does the Bible. The Koran at least specifically forbids forced conversion, in dozens of passages.  Some of these passages do imply that those who do not heed the word of God will burn in hell, but the Koran stresses that this is the will of God, and Muslims cannot change that by forcing people to convert. There is arguably something self-righteous about that attitude, but it can and has served as a basis for religious tolerance.

 Nevertheless, The claim that infidels burn in hell is controversial among Islamic scholars. There are passages that say that anyone who follows any of the other prophets can also be saved, and that there are countless prophets who aren’t mentioned in Koran. Some Muslim scholars in Bangladesh argue that Hindus are followers of the prophet Adam, and therefore a good Hindu can enter paradise.

You ask “Is it possible for Islam to create a multicultural, functioning secular state with a rule of law and  Western style human rights? “. I don’t know whether it will ever happen, that depends of the strengths and weaknesses of individuals. But I have no doubt that it is possible. There are three claims here that need to be untangled.

1) Islam has little precedent for the separation of Church state, but although I strongly want to preserve that in my home country, I don’t think it’s essential for a humane modern government. Many European states, such as England and Denmark, are not technically secular.

2)One of Muhammad’s greatest achievements was  introducing the concept of rule by Law into the Arab world. This is the reason he is depicted along with Hammurabi and other great law givers on the US supreme court building. We may not like many of those Laws, but the principle of rule by law is clearly there.

3) Western Style Human Rights are a long way off for many Muslim countries, in part because of Western subsidies of corrupt dictators who kept the Oil flowing. As I said before, I think there are toxic fundamentalist trends in Islam which violate important human rights, and are becoming dangerously more popular. But the Turkish strategy of banning headscarves and Islamic parties is not working very well. The current Turkish prime Minister is a member of an Islamic party, whose popularity has increased because of the banning of headscarves. That strategy has been followed by many Arab dictators including Saddam Hussein and Gaddhaffi, before they started grasping at fundamentalists straws to consolidate their waning power. The result has in many cases been a fundamentalist backlash. The Shah of Iran also banned headscarves, before he was overthrown. The usual problem has been alternating between forcing women to wear headscarves, and then forcing women to not wear them. There is no easy solution to this problem, but I think a better strategy is for Islam to go back to its roots and correct the many misinterpretations cultivated by the modern fundamentalists.

All the Best,


P.S. I think you’re right that there is an important difference between a culture built around a single sacred text, and a culture built around several such texts by several authors. But your argument that this is a fundamental difference between Christianity and Islam is essentially equivalent to my defense of a Liberal Islam that can be found by reinterpretation of the original texts. Only a few liberal Christians like yourself accept this difference. The majority of Christians  see every word of the Bible as the literal word of God, just as a substantial minority of Muslims see FGM as  an Islamic practice. You can’t consistently define Christianity using your own liberal interpretation, and then insist that Islam be defined by the practices of  “the institutions on the ground”.


Just had a conversation with some people who insisted that Female Genital Mutilation must be described as an Islamic practice. So I did some research to find out.

According to the Christian Science Monitor, There is only circumstantial evidence that it is practiced in secret in parts of western Iran. The Cultural Consul of the Islamic Republic of Iran said Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) is not a fundamental practice in Islam and that women should not be forced to undergo it. There is a group that actively works against FGM in Iran. However, The official government position is that there isn't any, that this is something that only happens in Africa and is not a true part of Islam. This is probably delusional, like the claim that there is no homosexuality in Iran. But people suffering from such delusions can't be accused of actively promoting FGM as part of Islamic teaching.

This is a folk practice that even the most conservative of the top clerics in Iran have rejected. I also found an article about the Iranian Embassy actively campaigning against the practice in Sierra Leone by denouncing it as Anti-Islamic. In Egypt, there are many clerics who argue that FGM is required by Islam. However the Al-Azhar Supreme Council of Islamic Research, the highest religious authority in Egypt, issued a statement that FGM had no basis in core Islamic law, and this enabled the government to outlaw it entirely. In Mauritania, where almost all the girls in minority communities undergo FGM, 34 Islamic scholars signed a fatwa in January 2010 banning the practice.

In the Arab pennisula, the practice is done primarily by Kurds and Bedouins. As these people have wandered throughout the Arab world, there many countries where the practice occurs, but usually the majority Islamic cultures condemn it as something done by these ignorant tribal peoples. The Kurdish state in Iraq has banned FGM, and several Kurdish clerics have protested this law as unIslamic. But once again, the establishment position is that it is not a proper Islamic practice.

The Muslims did not bring FGM to Indonesia. It was already there, as a practice in Pagan Micronesia. It's also practiced by Australian Aborigines. According to a report prepared by the US state department, the practice in Indonesia is largely symbolic, involving a very light pinprick that heals without leaving permanent damage. In some cases, it is even performed symbolically on a plant stalk. I don't like the symbolic implications of such an act, but it's clearly misleading to identify the symbolic act with the barbarism of real FGM.

It appears that the Clerics who defended the practice are the Islamic analog to redneck backwoods preachers. Those on the top of the Islamic hierarchies are at worst neutral, and frequently openly condemn the practice. This is true not only of Muslim Liberals but of even the most conservative fundamentalists. The only reason that more Muslims are involved in the practice today is that Islam spread into areas where it was already there, and either tolerated the practice or were unsuccessful at stamping it out. Those few FGM countries that are majority Christian or Animist had no more success. Ethiopia is over 90% Christian, and the practice is as common there as in Egypt.

These distinctions are important because there are people like Geert Wilders and Sam Harris who claim that it is impossible to build a humane modern religion out of Islamic teachings. There are also Muslim extremists who believe this, and think it's a good thing. The best way to fight FGM is to do what many Muslim clerics do--separate the two by using texts to show that the practice is unIslamic, regardless of how many people do it who call themselves Muslims.