Q. What is the origin of circumcision?

A. What I heard from my shaykhs is that circumcision was begun by our father Adam. It was a tax he imposed upon his body after he committed his mistake, and Allah knows best. The Prophet listed it among the Sunnas of the Prophets. Following are the hadiths pertaining to this topic and the elaborations of our Shaykhs.

HADITHS:

H1. Abu Hurayra reported from the Prophet (s) that he said: "The characteristics of natural religion are five: circumcision, removing pubic hair, clipping the mustache, paring the nails, and plucking the hair under the armpits." Muslim narrated it (Tahara Ch. 16 #50; English 1:159 #496).

H2. Ahmad ibn Hanbal relates in his "Musnad" (5:75) from Abu al- Malih ibn `Usama's father that the Prophet (s) said: "Circumcision is sunna for men and an honorable quality for women."

Arabic: al-khitanu sunnatun li al-rijali makrumatun li al-nisa'.

H3. From `A'isha: The Prophet (s) said: "If the two circumcised parts (i.e. male and female genitals) have been in touch with one another, ghusl (major ablution) is necessary." Tirmidhi narrated it and said it is fair and sound (hasan sahih -- Tahara #108-109). Also related by Ahmad and Nisa'i. It has come through other narrators and in other versions: see "Kashf al- khafa" under the hadith: "idha iltaqa al-khitanan fa qad wajaba al-ghusl."

H4. From Anas ibn Malik: The Prophet (s) said to Umm `Atiyya -- a circumciser of women in Madina: "When you circumcise, let them smell the breeze and do not enfeeble them (= remove very little and do not excise): it brings good cheer to the face and benevolence for the spouse." Haythami said in "Majma` al- zawa'id": Tabarani narrated it in the "Awsat" with a fair (hasan) chain of transmission. Abu Dawud relates it (Adab #167), also Ibn Mindah and Ibn `Asakir (Tahdhib tarikh Dimashq) from al-Dahhak ibn Qays, and Ibn al-Athir in "al-nihaya" 5:137 and Khatib al-Baghdadi through `Ali.

Arabic: idha khafadti fa ashimmi wa la tunhiki fa innahu asra li al-wajhi wa ahdha `inda al-zawj.

H5. One of the attributes of this Community is "the Circumcised" according to the hadith in the first book of Bukhari: " Ibn al- Nazur the (religious) head of Eilat by appointment of Heraclius and bishop of the Christians of Syria used to relate that one morning after Heraclius had first come to Eilat he was seized by anxiety and that some of his patricians said to him: "We see that your countenance has changed for the worst." Ibn al-Nazur continued: "Heraclius used to be a diviner who gazed at the stars, so when they questioned him he replied to them: "Last night as I gazed at the stars I saw that the King of the Circumcised had appeared. Which of the nations circumcise themselves?" They replied: "None but the Jews, therefore do not let them worry you in any way. Write to the cities of your kingdom and order them to exterminate their Jewish populations." "As they were pondering this a man sent by the king of Ghassan came to Heraclius with information about Allah's Messenger (s). When Heraclius heard his report he said: "Go and enquire: is he circumcised or not?" They enquired and reported back to him that he was. Asked about the Arabs as a whole, the informer said again: "They practice circumcision." Heraclius said: "Now has come the time for this nation to rule (the world)."

COMMENTARIES:

C1. Imam Nawawi said (commenting on the hadith of Abu Hurayra in Muslim): "Circumcision is obligatory (wajib) according to al- Shafi`i and many of the scholars, sunna according to Malik and the majority of them. It is further, according to Shafi`i, equally obligatory for males and females. As regards males it is obligatory to cut off the whole prepuce or skin which covers the glans or head of the penis, so that the latter is wholly denudated. As regards females, it is obligatory to cut off a minute part of the skin in the highest region of the genitals. The sound view in our school (Shafi`i), which is shared by the large majority of our companions, is that circumcision is allowed in a youthful age but not obligatory (at that time). One view is that the guardian must have the child circumcised before he or she reaches puberty. Another view is that circumcision is prohibited before the tenth year. The sound view according to us, is that circumcision is desirable on the seventh day after birth."

C2. Nuh Keller's Translation of al-Misri's "Reliance of the Traveller" (Shafi`i school) p. 59: "Circumcision is obligatory (Sh. `Umar Barakat: for both men and women). For men it consists of removing the prepuce from the penis, and for women, removing the prepuce (bazr) of the clitoris (Keller: not the clitoris itself, as some mistakenly assert). (Sh. `Abd al-Wakil Durubi: Hanbalis hold that circumcision of women is not obligatory but sunna, while Hanafis consider it a mere courtesy to the husband.)"

C3. Ibn Hajar said (commenting on the chapter-heading in Bukhari, Ghusl ch. 28 #291; English 1:174, which is identical with `A'isha's hadith in Tirmidhi): "What is meant by the dual form in the phrase "the two circumcised parts" is the circumcised genitals of the man and the woman respectively. Male circumcision (khatn) is the removal of the skin of the head or glans of the penis. Female circumcision (khifad, khafd) is the removal of a tiny piece of skin in the uppermost part of her genitals which resembles the crest of a rooster, and between it and the entrance of the penis there is a thin membrane" ("Fath al-Bari" 1:520).

C4. It is obligatory for women neither in the Maliki school nor in the Hanbali school. Both schools consider it merely recommended. See Al-Qayrawani's "Risala" p. 161, 305; and "al- Mughni" 1:85. Ibn al-`Arabi al-Maliki says in "Tuhfat al- ahwadhi" (1:167): "_Khifad_ for the woman is like _khitan_ for the man and consists in removing a piece of skin the size of a rooster's crest in the uppermost region of the genitals on top of the urine passage."

C5. Sayyid Sabiq, "Fiqh al-Sunna" 3 vols. (Cairo: Dar al-Bayan li al-Turath, 1408/1987) 1:36: "(The first of the features of natural religion [fitra] is) circumcision. It is the removal of the skin which covers the head or glans of the penis... As for the woman, it consists in removing the upper part of the genitals [! Note: this is incorrect, as shown in C1, C3, and C4]... The opinion of the large majority of scholars is that it is obligatory [this is incorrect, as shown in C1, C2, and C4]... Shawkani said: "Nothing has been transmitted with regard to its timing nor its obligatoriness.""

C6. The so-called "Sudanese circumcision" which consists in removing the whole external genitalia, i.e. the labia minora and majora together with the clitoris, is a barbaric mutilation which has no basis in the shari`a (Islamic law) whatsoever. Legal baselessness is also the case for most cultural practices which revolve around the event of circumcision, both male and female.

C7. The recent "Mu`jam lughat al-fuqara'" (Arabic-English Dictionary of Legal Terminology" by Dr. Muhammad Rawwas Qal`aji and Dr. Hamid Sadiq Qunaybi (Beirut: Dar al-Nafa'is, 1985) p. 198 provides another illustration of the misinformation being propagated on this topic. The Arabic definition for "khafd al- mar'at" (women's circumcision) is correctly given as: "Removal of the uppermost skin at the top of her genitals" but the English word given is: "Clitoridectomy," i.e. ablation of the clitoris which is excision or mutilation, not circumcision. Finally, many or most of those opposed to female circumcision routinely refer to it as mutilation or excision. And Allah knows best.