Current Islamic Guidance on FGC: Do Not Cut Too Deeply

‘Islamophobia’ may be a very fashionable disorder these days but I’m pretty sure that I don’t suffer from it. Islamorejection and even Islamohilarity I will cheerfully admit to but only as part of a simple rationalist dismissal of all supernatural religions. Our bible-waving enemies – and Islam, in particular treats atheists as extremely dangerous heretics – are not exactly extinct but most of them have been in retreat or confusion ever since superstition and biblical literalism started to acknowledge science, however grudgingly. The main exceptions have been those religions that didn’t have much contact with science and the modern world until quite recently – like much of Islam, after its promising mediaeval start. That’s why, at one level, I can’t get too excited about things like the subjection of women and the executions for blasphemy or homosexuality in some Islamic countries, as long as they don’t try to re-introduce them here or claim any moral high ground at the UN. After all, the Pope put out a contract on Elizabeth the First and it’s barely three hundred years since young Thomas Aikenhead of Edinburgh became the last person to be executed for atheism in Britain. Aggiornamento takes time. Some day, Islam too will probably have its Reformation and its Evolution Crisis, though given developments in the technologies of death, its Wars of Religion could be a whole lot nastier than even ours were.

My own Muslim friends are mostly fellow-physicians. Like other British doctors, they are not much given to religious fundamentalism (ubi tres physici, ibi duo athei, as they used to say) and I know there are many more Muslims like them. Maybe some Islamic Luther is even now finishing a list of complaints and looking for his hammer, though I think Islam – at least in Britain – also needs its own Bradlaugh to stand at Speakers’ Corner and repeatedly challenge Allah to strike him dead within five minutes. Though perhaps with an armed police guard to prevent some Islamist enthusiast from trying to do Allah’s work for him.

It was with this mildly hopeful attitude that I found myself walking past the East London mosque in Whitechapel. Next to the main entrance was an Islamic bookshop and one of the volumes in the window was called ‘Guidelines and fataawa [rulings] related to sickness and medical practice’. The cover design looked quite modern, depicting a state-of-the-art stethoscope, a syringe, assorted pills and capsules and a fever chart. Hoping that the sentiments between the covers might be equally up to date, I bought it.

The work was published in Britain in 2004 as part of a series called ‘Invitation to Islam’; its compiler, Dr Ali Ar-Rumaikaan, aims to present to ‘the English reader’ a translation of an Arabic book which is ‘a collection of rulings and legal verdicts concerning many…medical issues’. The Koran features prominently but most of the ecclesiastical rulings are quite recent. Some concern ethical issues largely restricted to Muslims. There is for instance a 1986 ruling on assisted fertility that allows a wife’s ovum to be fertilised externally by her husband’s sperm and replaced in her own womb but not in the womb of one of the husband’s other wives.

Many chapters focus on sexual or reproductive matters. Abortion, according to a 1975 Committee of Eminent Scholars in Riyadh, is allowed for serious medical conditions affecting the mother and also for serious foetal abnormalities but not for social or psychological reasons except for ‘certain types of lunacy, such as schizophrenia’. This point is made even more strongly in the section on contraception, which is generally a no-no but ‘…completely forbidden…if the motive behind it is a fear of poverty since that involves harbouring evil thoughts towards Allah’. Who, in case you hadn’t noticed, always ensures that there is enough of everything to go round. Indeed, the growth and defence of Islam require a pro-natalist policy. According to the Muslim World League; ‘Provision is with Allah and is taken care of; natural resources are many in Muslim countries; the fields of work are wide, and the places for resettling people extensive’. Of course, as with Catholicism, many Muslims (including Muslim governments) ignore these ‘rulings’. There may even be some thoroughly modern mullahs (one tries to imagine a sort of Islamic Hans Kung or David Jenkins) but if so, Dr Ar-Rumaikaan isn’t letting on.

Some rulings will strike a sympathetic chord in those of other faiths. For example, what do you do if you are a preacher whose sermons and prayers are interrupted by frequent emissions of – er – wind? Interestingly, the Prophet himself had something to say about this delicate problem. The Imam should keep preaching ‘until he hears a sound or smells an odour’. On this issue at least, Dr Ar-Rumaikaan is evidently a modernist who thinks we may legitimately look beyond mere sounds and odours to social context. You can continue to be an Imam, he advises, ‘if you are better than the rest at recitation, so long as the impurity is not a continuous one but comes [only] at certain times’. Other Muslims apparently want to know what to do next if their wife is possessed by a Jinni [evil spirit] which does not respond to beatings. Can they burn her in order to drive it out? Absolutely not, for: ‘…only Allah has the authority to punish with fire’.

The most worrying rulings relate to circumcision. For chaps, it’s best to get it over with early because ‘A baby is born with numbness in all of its body and cannot feel pain for seven days’. That’s not true. I performed a few circumcisions myself (without anaesthetic) when I did some GP locums in Australia long ago and while I don’t think any of the newly-delivered sprogs will remember it or hold it against me, they certainly weren’t numb. For female circumcision, we are given – unusually for this book – three divergent views. ‘Some scholars…hold that it is obligatory… The majority…hold that it is prescribed for women and is recommended… Others hold that it is not prescribed for them. And this is a weak opinion’ (My italics.) So, not very divergent after all. Still, though Dr Ar-Rumaikaan evidently thinks that female circumcision is a Good Thing, he warns against the truly dreadful Pharaonic method still widely used in Egypt and Sudan. This often blocks off most of the vaginal opening with dense scar-tissue that must be ruptured by the bridegroom on the wedding night. (I was once consulted by a Sudanese gynaecologist, only too aware of what was involved and worried that he would fail this ultimate test of machismo.) The Prophet himself, as Dr Ar-Rumaikaan reminds us, ‘said to a woman who used to circumcise women “When you circumcise, do not cut severely”.’ So that’s all right then, even though girls are circumcised much later than boys. And without the benefit of that reassuring ‘numbness’.

Is one to laugh or cry at this bizarre anthology, openly displayed for the enlightenment of passing ‘English readers’ like me? Even if the intended readers are mainly English Muslims, it is still pretty depressing, while as a public relations exercise, it suggests a complete failure to understand that virtually all non-Muslims in Europe regard female circumcision as barbaric, as surely many Muslims do. And that even male circumcision (which, interestingly, is evidently a useful factor in reducing HIV infection in southern Africa) has a lot of critics and is now rare in Britain outside Moslem and Jewish circles. A free press means that a bookshop sharing a building with a leading British mosque has a perfect right to put such a volume on its shelves. However, to put it prominently in the window indicates – assuming someone at least glanced at it beforehand – either a disturbing level of arrogance in the shop-owners and the clergy of the mosque or a worrying lack of awareness and understanding of the society in which many of its worshippers have ‘resettled’.

Another Islamic institution that could do with a bit of basic PR advice is Dr Majid Katme, who describes himself in some correspondence I had with him as ‘Spokesman: Islamic Medical Association UK on Medical Ethics’. Since he is also apparently the secretary of the association, it may actually be a rather thinly-populated entity but that doesn’t excuse his curious views on embryology. This is what he told me when I enquired about Islam’s (or at least the IMA’s) line on abortion. The capitals are in the original.

At 6-7 weeks pregnancy, the SOUL is breathed in, in the body of the foetus. DIVINE/HUMAN life starts when the embryo turns into a foetus. At this critical stage it is absolutely forbidden to interfere with this new sacred life. One can call the foetus here: A PERSONA: human and divine. However, there is a wide Muslim opinion in the Muslim world, which considered by many Muslim Scholars in the past and today as wrong, and which states that ensoulment does occur 120 days after conception (4 months). Personally I and other Muslims, do not agree with this view, as it is based on some wrong Arabic interpretation of one Saying of the Prophet!

By way of clarification, he added “this important Saying of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) ‘When 42 nights (6 weeks) have passed over the Nutfa (fertilised egg), ALLAH (THE GOD) sends an angel to it who shapes it and makes its hearing (ears), vision (eyes), skin, muscles (flesh) and bones, then he says: O Lord is it male or female? and your Lord decides what He wishes and the angel records it’. (Ref: HADITH/ Sahih Muslim/Qadr)”

So there it is. Forget all that ludicrous stuff about Y-chromosomes and gender selection in embryos; it’s Allah wot does it. But maybe someone should ask the Muslim Council of Great Britain if they really want this clown advising them on medical matters, as he apparently does.

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