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The Circumcision of Girls

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Even though circumcision has no Qur´anic basis, it has become an important obligation among Muslims. Yet, it does not have the same importance that is given to other rituals and traditions. According to the majority of Muslims, circumcision is the introduction into Islam and the sign of belonging to it.(1) Jurisprudents claim that circumcision has a great benefit that outweighs the pain resulting from it. The reason underlying circumcision is to remove the foreskin since it collects a lot of excrements underneath it that can lead to fatal diseases, such as cancer. Thus circumcision is a preventive procedure.(2)

All this applies to men. But what is the reason underlying the circumcision of girls, which is applied in some Islamic countries? The first reason is the statement of Muhammad: "Circumcision is a law for men and a preservation of honour for women."(3) The second reason lies in the supposition that circumcision makes a woman more enjoyable, provided that it is practised moderately. Umm `Atiyya the Ansarite narrated that a woman used to circumcise in Medina, and the Prophet said to her, "Do not overdo it, because this makes woman more favourable and it is more agreeable for the husband."(4) As to the third reason why a female should be circumcised, it is to "diminish her lust", and to "tone down the sexual desire of the woman."(5)

Al-Mawardi tells us how female circumcision is performed: "It is performed by cutting a piece of flesh over the vulva topping the entrance of the penis [that is the vagina]. It is homologous to a kernel or the crest of a rooster. One should cut the upper part of it, and not completely remove it."(6) Al-Shafi`i and most of his followers hold that circumcision is obligatory, as well as `Ata´, one of the old scholars. Ahmad and some of the Malikites hold that it is obligatory, while Abu Hanifa says that it is obligatory, yet it is not a ritual obligation. One Hadith says that it is sin to discard it. The Shafi´ites say that it is improper [to do such a thing] to women. Most scholars and some Shafi´ites hold that it is not obligatory.(7) Jurisprudents say that the circumcision of men, namely removing the foreskin, is a prophylactic procedure that keeps the body healthy. Female circumcision, they say, is otherwise, since removing the clitoris helps only to reduce the libido of the woman but does not do away with it, which is for the common good of society, and for her own good as well.(8) It can also preserve the woman's dignity and honour.(9)

As we mentioned previously, the main reason for the circumcision of girls, according to the jurists, is to restrain lust or the sex drive. For the girl nowadays is exposed to all kinds of temptations, they argue, which lead to depravity and corruption in society.(10) Lastly, we learn from Shaltut that women accept circumcision willingly to honour their husbands, as they also hate to look at that part of the flesh that would increase the enjoyment of man when removed.(11)


Subordination of the Woman to her Husband in the Religious Rites

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In this present age, which has witnessed the most violent conflicts concerning the issue of women in the Islamic world and the equality of the sexes as far as the religious commandments are concerned, Muslim writers emphasise that "giving the commandments to both man and woman, and equalising them in terms of promises and threats, the Qur´an has admitted the humanity of woman and has given her a responsibility."(1) Equalising the faith of women to that of men proves this fact, since a woman has the right to command what is proper and prevent dishonour.(2) Islam has not only determined her competence to faith and worship, but also her entrance into paradise, if she does good, and her punishment, if she does evil- in this case being completely equal to man.(3) The participation of woman with man in faith and worship has become one of the favourite and common arguments in this century.

Islam has introduced a kind of equality in this field, to say the least, but what they call one time "equality" and another time "religious responsibility" includes some things that cause many doubts as to the validity of these claims. Regardless of the Friday prayer, which is required only of the men, and the invalidity of women's fasting and prayer, which Muhammad considered as part of the deficiency of their religion,(4) woman still needs the permission of her husband to perform certain rites. This is very common since she exists basically to please him and pay him his due. Muhammad said, "I swear by the One who holds Muhammad's soul in His hands! A woman does not pay God His dues until she has paid the dues of her husband."(5) Muhammad is reported to have allowed women to go to the mosque at night: "Allow women to go to the mosque at night."(6) Another hadith says that they are allowed to attend the Friday Prayer at the mosques as long as their presence does not cause any temptation.(7) But a woman should ask her husband's permission before she goes out of the house, all the while knowing that he is not supposed to refuse her permission: "If the wife of any one of you ask permission to go to the mosque, he should not forbid her."(8) So then, the woman is supposed to perform her prayers at home. This has become general tradition in the Islamic world so that one may think that mosques are for men only, even if there is no clear text to this effect. As to fasting, which is one of the five pillars of Islam, the woman needs the permission of her husband in order to practise it: "Abu Huraira narrated that the Messenger of God said, 'No woman can fast a day of Ramadan, while her husband is there, without his prior permission.' "(9) The Muslim scholars believe that it is "hateful" for a woman to fast of her own accord without the permission of her husband, and that she sins if she fasts without his permission. Al-Nabawi, in his exegesis on Muslim, said that the reason for this prohibition is that the man has the right to enjoy the woman sexually at all times, and that she should obey him at once. She should not abandon him by volunteering to fast or for any other religious obligation.(10) A saying attributed to the Prophet says: "Any woman who fasts without the permission of her husband, and he desired her for a certain thing but she refused, God will record three major sins against her."(11)

This may help us understand the attitude that prevailed in the Middle Ages, and still continues today in some circles about woman and her duties. Muhammad allowed women and female slaves to slaughter animals for ritual purposes: "a woman slaughtered a sheep with a stone, and when the Prophet was asked about it, he said, 'Eat it.' "(12)


The Prophet Muhammad and his Wives

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We understand from early hadiths that Muhammad had a special inclination to women. For example, he said, "Two things of this world I cherish: women and perfume, prayer being the comfort of my eye."(1) Al-Hasan al-Basri narrated: The Messenger of God said, "The only two things I cherish of the life of this world are women and perfume."(2) The same thing has been narrated by `A´isha in different versions: "The Prophet of God liked three things of this world: Perfume, women, and food; he had the [first] two, but missed food."(3) We may understand the following hadith better in the light of these stories: Many men reached perfection [in character] but none among the women reached perfection except Mary, the daughter of Imran, and Asia, Pharaoh's wife. And the superiority of `A´isha to other women is like the superiority of tarid [a meal of bread and meat] to other kinds of food.(4) Another tradition says, "There was nothing liked by the Messenger of God like horses."(5 ) There was nothing cherished by the Messenger of God like horses.(6) This explains why there will be horses in heaven.(7) "These four are of the traditions of the Messengers [of God]: shyness, wearing perfume, brushing the teeth with siwak, and wedlock."(8) A woman is the best object of enjoyment of this world: "Life is an object of enjoyment, and there is nothing better in the pleasures of the world than a good women."(9) The conditions [or descriptions] of a good wife, however, are: She should bring delight to her husband whenever he looks at her, and obey him whenever he commands her to do something.(10) Scholars accounted for Muhammad's many wives and his inclination to women by saying that he had a superior sexuality, as the Prophet himself stated: "I was the least man in sexuality till God brought down on me the kafit."(11) "Whenever I seek it I find it."(12) Another tradition says: "The Messenger of God said, 'Gabriel met me with a pot, of which I ate, and I was given the kafit [sexual ability] of forty men.' "(13) Salma narrated: "In one night, the Prophet had intercourse with his nine wives (who were to out-live him). When he would come out each time he would say, 'Pour water for me.' He would wash before having sex with the following one. I asked him 'O, Messenger of God, isn't one time of washing enough for you?' The Prophet replied, 'This is purer and better.' "(14)

We would now like to study Muhammad's wives and the major incidents that happened in the house of the Prophet, depending on the sources recognised by the majority of Muslims. In spite of the fact that the sources provide us with contradictory information about the number of Muhammad's wives,(15) we can still say that they were thirteen women, plus Maria the Copt. Muhammad married these women and lived with them for a certain period of time. Apart from these, there were twelve or thirteen women that Muhammad married, but with whom he did not spend a long period of time.(16) There are still other women that he married, but with whom he never consummated his marriage, plus the one who bestowed herself upon him.(17)


Muhammad's Wives in the Order in Which They Were Married to Him

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  1. Khadija Bint Khuwailid: Muhammad's first wife. He married her in 595 A.D. (25 years before the Migration);(1) she died three years before the Migration(2) and ten years after he claimed prophethood.(3)
  2. Sawda Bint Zam`a: Muhammad married her in the month of Ramadan ten years after he claimed prophethood, after the death of Khadija and before he married `A´isha,(4 ) or some months before the Migration,(5) depending on the sources. Opinions agree that she was Muhammad's second wife.(6) Yet the question is whether he slept with `A´isha first or Sawda. Some believe that he married `A´isha first, but had intercourse with Sawda first, as `A´isha was too young.(7)
  3. `A´isha Bint Abu Bakr: Muhammad married her in the month of Shawwal, three years before the Migration, ten years after he claimed prophethood, according to the tradition of `A´isha herself.(8) He had intercourse with her in the month of Shawwal, eight months after the Migration.(9) She was the only virgin among Muhammad's wives.(10)
  4. Hafsa Bint `Umar: The Messenger of God married her in the month of Sha`ban, 31 months after the Migration,(11) or in the third year after the Migration, or one month(12) or two(13) before Uhud.
  5. Zainab Bint Khuzaima: Her husband died in the battle of Uhud, so Muhammad married her.(14) This was 31 months after the Migration.(15)
  6. Ummu Salama: One tradition says that Muhammad married her three years before the Khandaq raid, in the sixth year after the Migration(16) and the wedding was performed in Shawwal four years after the Migration,(17) or three years after Badr.(18)
  7. Zainab Bint Jahsh: It is not possible to determine when Muhammad married her. It was either in Dsu al-Qa`da or Sha`ban in year 5 or 3 A.H.(19) We will study the marriage of Muhammad and Zainab Bint Jahsh in a separate chapter.
  8. Juwairiyya Bint al-Harith: She was taken captive during the raid of Banu al-Mustaliq and was part of the spoils. No one knows when this battle took place exactly. So the dates given for her marriage to Muhammad are the fifth or the sixth year after the Migration.(20) Ibn Hisham claims that Muhammad bought her from Thabit Ibn Qais, set her free, and later married her.(21)
  9. Safiyya Bint Huyay: She was among the spoils of Khaibar (one of the famous Jewish tribes), which was conquered in the sixth year A.H., and was chosen for Muhammad.(22)
  10. Ummu Habiba: Stories say that the Negus of Ethiopia gave her to Muhammad as a wife.(23)
  11. Maria, the Copt: al-Muqawqas, king of Egypt, sent four female slaves to Muhammad and Maria was one of them.(24) She reached Medina in the seventh year after the Migration.(25) Only Khadija and Maria gave birth to male children among all of Muhammad's wives.
  12. Maimuna Bint al-Harith: Muhammad married her in the seventh year after the Umra of al-Qadha.(26) She was the last one the Messenger of God married.(27)
  13. Rayhana: She was not of the "mothers of the believers," in spite of her respectable position in the house of Muhammad.(28) When the Prophet attacked Banu Qurayza, he took her captive since it was necessary for him to have a selection of each spoil.(29) Muhammad offered her Islam but she refused. Yet it is said that she espoused Islam later.(30)

go to CHAPTER 25 - Muhammad's Wives in the Books of al-Sira

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