Cleanliness In Islam
Why it’s so important to Muslims
It is in the nature of man to be clean. Like it or not, humans are the only creatures on earth who need proper grooming to keep themselves clean. Take for instance fingernails or superfluous body hair which continues to grow until it is deliberately removed through human intervention. Other creatures simply shed these redundant outgrowths. But man has to remove these to maintain his health. If he does not he is likely to suffer the consequences of disease.
Likewise we have to clean ourselves when answering a call of nature. No other creature on earth or land or sea needs to do so when it excretes. It’s all simply jettisoned through a valve that opens and closes to meet that specific need so that they are clean down there soon afterwards. But not so man. This is the way we have been created, so different from even the great apes to whom we are anatomically similar, but still so different when it comes to this natural function despite the contentions of evolutionists that we are in fact descended from the apes, when in fact these apes like other creatures evacuate their waste without any of it sticking onto their persons. As a result we are the only creatures on earth who need to clean ourselves after a call of nature and that too alone and hidden away from others.
What this shows is that we humans have been created in such a way that we need to take care of our bodies to maintain good health. This also marks man apart from the animal, this fact that he has to make a conscious effort to keep himself clean, which in turn sets him on a psychological trajectory towards a more civilized way of living.
Cleanliness a Religious Obligation
While humans in general consider cleanliness to be a good thing, something pleasing and desirable, Islam insists on it and makes it a religious obligation to be clean in both body and mind. This is because in our faith, cleanliness means much more than its physical aspect of maintaining good health; it also has a religious dimension. Why, because to worship God we need to be clean of bodily impurities and superfluous outgrowths like long fingernails and pubic and armpit hair that can harbour dirt. What’s more, being clean helps us stay healthy and free of disease, laying the groundwork for a healthy mind and inner self committed to do God’s work on earth. As God says in the Qur’an:
God loves those who turn to Him and those who keep themselves pure and clean
(The Heifer: 222)
His Prophet told his followers:
Verily God is good and loves goodness, is clean and loves cleanliness, is generous and loves generosity, is hospitable and loves hospitality. So keep your rooms and courtyards clean, and be not like the Jews
Islam holds that just as one should be spiritually clean of sins, one should also be clean in body. As the Prophet said:
Cleanliness is half of faith
Spiritual cleanliness is achieved when we stay away from sin and repent of it. This is why the good Muslim, in keeping with the practice of his Prophet supplicates at the beginning of his prayer even before the Fatiha or Islamic Lord’s Prayer: O God, distance me from my sins just as you have distanced the East from the West, O God, purify me of my sins as a white robe is purified of dirt, O God, cleanse me of my sins with snow, water and hail (Saheeh Muslim). Here we see sin being compared to dirt and its cleansing compared to washing it away with snow, water and hail.
The Prophet told his followers a nice parable about the daily prayers which he compared to bodily cleanliness:
If any of you had a house with a stream in front of you, and you went into that stream and washed five times a day, would there be any dirt on you?”
Similarly when we approach God in prayer, we should be pure in body as well, to stand before the Most Pure One. So just as prayer cleanses our souls of our sins, the ablution we perform prior to it removes physical impurities from our bodies. However much we long for spiritual purity, we cannot do so without being clean in the worldly sense. This is because the body is an earthly reflection of the soul and its very repository in this worldly life of ours. Should not it be kept equally clean?
Thus washing the exposed parts of the body as part of the ablution is obligatory before we pray. Only when one is truly clean physically that one gets this soothing feeling that one is really, really close to God. Indeed, the Prophet told us that ablution even brings us spiritual benefit:
Whoever makes ablution and makes it well, his sins will come out of his body, even from under his nails
When the believing servant makes ablution and washes his face, the sin of everything he looked at with his eye comes away with the last drop of the water, and when he washes his hands, the sin of everything he stretched out his hands to comes away with the last drop of the water. And when he washes his feet, every sin which his feet walked towards comes away with the last drop of water
This ablution prior to prayer is not just a recommended act, but an absolute requirement before the prayer. God Himself is very clear about it:
O ye who believe! When you rise up for prayer, wash your faces, and your hands up to the elbows, and wipe your heads (with wet hands), and (wash) your feet up to the ankles. And if you are in a state of major ritual impurity, purify yourselves (by taking bath). And if you are sick or on a journey, or one of you comes from the answering of call of nature, or you have had contact with women, and you find no water, then go to clean earth and wipe your faces and hands with some of it. God does not want to place you in difficulty, but He wants to purify you and to perfect His Grace upon you that you may give thanks
(The Repast: 6)
Thus in Islam purity of body is a necessary condition for Prayer to be valid. Since Prayer has to be offered at least five times a day, a Muslim is required to wash his face, hands up to the elbows and feet up to the ankles this number of times, though one can pray with a previous ablution so long as one does not answer a call of nature, pass wind, come into contact with filthy substances, fall asleep, lose consciousness or become so sexually excited as to emit a discharge of seminal fluid or vaginal secretion. Each body part is usually washed three times in keeping with the practice of the Prophet, though it could also be washed twice or even once as the Prophet himself did this as well. However it’s best to wash thrice, not just from a spiritual perspective, but also from a physical point of view. The first wash moistens the dirt, the second wash loosens it and the third wash removes it. Needless to say, this helps one keep oneself clean daily, constantly removing sweat, dust and environmental pollution, which is perhaps more important today than ever before.
Being clean for prayer also means removing from one’s person all traces of bodily excretions arising from a call of nature. When one passes stools one has to wash the area around the anus so that not a trace of faeces is left. Only water can so purify and this means that we Muslims cannot use toilet paper for the purpose. Likewise when we urinate, we have to ensure that all traces of urine are washed away from the end of the penis or vulva.
But that’s not all, Islam requires that we a have a bath after sexual intercourse or ejaculation of semen so that one becomes ritually clean again to offer one’s prayers. As the Prophet said:
When anyone sits between the four parts of a woman and the parts (of the male and female) which are circumcised join together, then bath becomes obligatory
This bath involves a total ablution where water has to touch all parts of the body, even the skin under the hair. As the Prophet said:
There is sexual defilement under every hair. So wash the hair and cleanse the skin
Such a bath we can be certain contributes to the cleanliness, not only of the genital organs of the amorous couple, but of the entire body. The passion of sex often leaves saliva, seminal fluid and vaginal secretions on our persons and what better way to cleanse oneself of it than by taking a cooling bath? If you stop to ponder, you will notice that after sex you will feel enervated, as if sapped of your strength and get this feeling that you’re not in a very clean state. Take a bath and feel the difference. You’ll feel like a new man or woman! But no need to be hasty, the bath is required only before offering one’s daily prayers.
Menstrual blood is also polluting. The Qur’an commands the believers abstain from sexual intercourse with women during their menses. But that’s not all. A woman may not pray during her menstrual period. She must also take a bath after her menstrual flow has ceased to purify herself for prayer.
They ask thee concerning women’s courses. Say: they are a pollution. So keep away from women in their courses, and do not approach them until they are clean. But when they have purified themselves, you may approach them in any manner, time or place ordained for you by God. For God loves those who turn to Him constantly and who keep themselves pure and clean
The Prophet even went to recommend that a woman perfume her genitals after purifying herself with a bath. The Prophet’s wife Ayisha tells us:
A woman asked the Prophet, may God bless him and grant him peace, about menstruation”. He told her how to wash, saying, ‘Take a piece of cloth scented with musk and purify yourself with it’. She repeated, ‘How shall I purify myself with it?’.
He said, ‘Purify yourself with it.’ She said,’How?’. He said, ‘Glory be to God! Purify yourself with it!’”. (Ayisha says):“I pulled her towards me and said ‘Wipe off any traces of blood with it’’”
So you see, Islam made bathing a religious duty. It made it an obligation at a time when mediaeval Europe regarded it as a sin and a necessary evil at the most, where cleanliness of the body was tantamount to the pollution of the soul.That’s why you will find in old European accounts monks and nuns boasting that they had never bathed in their lives. One such nun recorded with pride that up to the age of sixty she had never washed any part of her body except the tips of her fingers when taking the mass. Ordinary people were a little better. Some bathed once a week or so, others once in two weeks, yet others only once a month. Many however seem to have bathed only once a year for a few consecutive days at the best time of year. Even royalty was no better. Queen Elizabeth I for example took a bath only once a month and proudly boasted about it. The Sun King, Louis XIV, never took a bath at all.
In contrast, the Arabs took bodily cleanliness to extreme lengths. They invented soap as we know it today by combining vegetable oils with sodium hydroxide and aromatics such as thyme oil. This they used in their public baths known as hammams centuries before it caught on in Europe. That was after soap-producing Muslim cities began exporting their product to Europe. Indeed did you know that the modern spa has its origins in the Arabian hammam? Cordoba in Islamic Spain alone had as many as 300 public baths. Many such baths were destroyed on the orders of Phillip II on the grounds that they were the relics of infidelity. Fortunately the idea survived and so we have the spas and bathrooms of modern Europe.
This is why Wilmot Buxton was prompted to write in his Makers of Europe: “In every Moorish town were erected magnificent public baths; for the Moors were the first to teach the healthfulness and duty of cleanliness to the Western World. Thus, under the rule of the Moors, the face of the country became utterly changed, and a new spirit pervaded the land”.
Besides bodily cleanliness, Islam stresses on oral hygiene, requiring that we keep our teeth clean by brushing it regularly. In the time of the Prophet this was done with a little twig known as miswak, the end being made like a brush by beating or chewing it so as to separate the fibres, the functional equivalent of the modern toothbrush. Today, the toothbrush as we know it serves the same purpose and could be used with toothpaste, without losing out on its benefits:
As the Prophet said:
Were it not hard on the community, I would order them to use the tooth-stick at the time of every prayer
On another occasion he declared:
The prayer that is made after brushing the teeth with miswak is seventy times stronger than the one without it
And to think that people in the West began brushing their teeth as a habit only in fairly recent times, when its benefits in preventing dental decay was made known by the medical community. Muslims have been brushing their teeth for over a thousand years, maintaining a very high level of oral hygiene that helped do away with bad odour and preserve their teeth while at the same time earning its spiritual benefits.
Still, the miswak which the Prophet recommended to brush our teeth with can hold its own against any toothbrush. This wonder twig of the Salvadora Persica is as good or better than your usual toothpaste for preventing gum disease, dental caries and plaque buildup, not to mention the fact that it dislodges food deposits that can later cause trouble and removes bad breath. Recent studies have shown that miswak has germ-fighting properties, like the one done by the Wrigley Company which found that mints laced with miswak extract were 20 times more effective in killing bacteria than ordinary mints. Such bacteria needless to say cause tooth decay as any schoolboy knows. That’s not all, it contains over ten different natural chemical compounds essential for maintaining oral hygiene including fluoride, salvadorine and trimethylamine.
Other Sanitary Prescriptions
Islam encourages one to wash his or her hands before and after meals. The Prophet said:
Food is blessed when one washes his hands before and after it
I need not dwell too much on this hygienic prescription recommended by our Prophet since we of our day and age well know the importance of washing the hands with which we eat, very well knowing that germs lurk everywhere and can easily get into our bodies when we take in food. Its equally important to wash our hands after eating since food residue can easily decay and attract germs of all sorts to become a breeding ground for dangerous bacteria which could then pass on to your body the instant you take your next morsel.
The Prophet did not stop at that. He gave instructions to keep food and drinks clean and sanitary by covering the vessels used for food and tying up waterskins, especially at night:
Cover the utensils used for eating and drinking, because there will be a night during the year during which an epidemic will fall. Whenever such epidemic will pass by an uncovered eating or drinking utensil, it shall infect it
Just imagine, the Prophet spoke of epidemics that could be passed on by germs simply settling down on things long before science discovered their existence. When the Prophet spoke of epidemics passing by and infecting things, especially food, he obviously meant germs, what else! This was more than a thousand years before Louis Pasteur’s discovery that microbes could cause diseases. What the learned men of Europe and other parts of the world thought was that epidemics were a visitation by God for the sins of men or that they were caused by evil spirits or the stars.
Exposed food also poses other dangers. Since food is soft, it is especially susceptible to contamination caused by pests. Rats may eat of it and cockroaches nibble and walk over it, leaving in their wake numerous germs that can cause a host of diseases. Today we have health experts telling us to make sure all left over foods are tightly sealed in food containers before turning off the lights since cockroaches love food and feast on them in the dark. But that’s just the start. Roaches are by nature filthy creatures and pick up germs on the spines of their legs since they crawl through decaying matter or sewage before passing these unto food. If you can digest more, the latest findings show that roaches can spread as many as 33 kinds of bacteria, six kinds of parasitic worms, and at least seven other kinds of human pathogens. Among the diseases they contribute are gastroenteritis and food poisoning resulting from Salmonella, Staphylococcus and other bacteria. In fact, roaches carrying Escherichia coli from human faecal matter which can cause terrible bouts of diarrhea have even been found in food establishments.
The same holds true of rats who carry bacteria that causes food poisoning such as Salmonella and E. coli that causes diarrhea not to mention pathogens causing dangerous fevers such as Seoul hantavirus and Leptospira. That’s not all. Scientists have found 18 unknown species related to viruses already shown to cause diseases in humans with two of them being similar to the virus that causes hepatitis C. Who knows, with time, these germs can mutate to cause some terrible sicknesses among humans.
Who can, after all, forget the great plague known as the Black Death that ravaged Europe centuries ago caused by infected rats that found their way to human dwellings. Yes, Yersinia pestis, which caused bubonic plague, wiping out an estimated third of Europe’s population was spread by rats.
Islam did not just stop at ensuring cleanliness to prevent outbreaks of epidemics. It also took measures to control it once it had broken out. It forbade people to leave or enter lands where there had been an outbreak of plague so as to check the spread of the disease, thus giving the world the first lesson in quarantine. As we know today, even people who may not show any outward signs of disease, may actually be carrying the disease which they could transmit to other people. As the Prophet said of the plague:
It is a remnant of the chastisement inflicted upon the Israelites. If a plague breaks out in a place where you are, do not leave that place, and when you hear of its spread in another place, do not go there
He who runs away from the place of plague is like the one running away from fighting n the cause of God; and he who is patient and stays where he is,he will be rewarded with the reward of a martyr
Thus Islam made quarantine whenever an epidemic breaks out as a religious obligation so that it could be contained and not spread to other areas. Had Middle Age Europe followed it, the Black Death would not have spread beyond a very limited area.
Avoiding Contact with Dogs
But that’s not all, Islam also prescribed a number of other sanitary measures to ensure its followers were healthy. One of these was its call to avoid contact with dogs, and especially their saliva which it regarded as extremely polluting. Muslims are discouraged from keeping dogs on the grounds that angels do not visit homes in which dogs are kept. The Prophet once became sad and said that Gabriel had promised to meet him at night but did not turn up. “By God what has kept him back,” said the Prophet. Then he realised a puppy was under his bed. He ordered that the puppy be removed and the area be sprinkled with water. In the afternoon when Gabriel came the Prophet asked about the delay and Gabriel replied: “We (angels) do not enter a house where there is a dog or pictures”. (Saheeh Muslim)
The only exception to this are dogs kept outside the house as watchdogs to watch over one’s property or livestock or as hounds used for hunting. As the Prophet said:
Whoever acquires a dog – with the exception of a dog to guard livestock, a hunting dog, or a farm dog – each day a Qirat is deducted from his reward
It is very clear however that they cannot be taken into one’s house. For one thing, dogs are not clean creatures like cats who are naturally inclined to wash their whiskers and coats clean and even bury their excreta under the soil. Dogs on the other hand need regular washing to keep clean and defecate on the surface rather than covering it under the soil. Their faeces is extremely unclean and is host to a number of deadly germs and parasites. A garden with dog poo if left unchecked for as little as a week can become a mine field bursting with germs and can contaminate the soil and nearby water sources, especially after rain. Among others it contains pathogens like whipworms, hookworms, roundworms, threadworms, campylobacteriosis, giardia, coccidia and parvovirus which could lead to infections, especially in little children. Hookworm larvae who lay dormant waiting for a new host by this means easily pass on to humans directly through the skin or by accidental ingestion.
Further dogs tend to lick people often, exposing them to the dangers of their saliva which can be host to a number of dangerous diseases such as rabies. A dog need not be openly mad to make it rabid, for rabies can breed in it for weeks or even months before manifesting itself. Needless to say, it’s the dog’s saliva that they find the ideal way to reach a human host. The bite comes later in the more advanced stages. There is also the very real danger of intestinal parasites such as roundworm being passed by a dog merely licking you. Other diseases that can be transmitted by dog saliva include Leptospirosis, Salmonella and E. coli that can cause severe intestinal diseases in humans and in severe cases blindness and brain disorders. Dogs also tend to lick their anus or eat their faeces which is why they are known, along with pigs, as coprophagic creatures or creatures that tend to eat their faeces. So parasite eggs found in their faeces could also find their way to humans through licking especially of the face which many folk in the West affectionately call ‘puppy kisses’ not aware of the dangers they face. The single celled parasites, Giardia and Cryptosporidia can cause immediate infection simply after being transmitted by a lick while contracting hookworms, tapeworms, threadworms take longer to show.
It is not surprising then that the Prophet should have warned us of the saliva of the dog when he pronounced:
When a dog licks an utensil you must wash it seven times, using earth for the seventh time
Personal grooming is also very important in Islam since it is inextricably connected with not only comeliness, but also cleanliness. It once happened that a man with unkempt hair and beard came to the Prophet’s mosque in Medina and the Prophet pointed with his hand that he should take care of his appearance. When the man had done so, the Prophet said to him: “Does not it look nicer than the one like the devil with messy hair and beard” (Muwatta).
Even the early scholars of Islam compared uncleanliness to devilishness. For instance there was Ibn Qayyim who said in his Ahkam al Mawlood: “What is more beautiful than to cut what is too long and exceeds limits in the foreskin, the pubis, the armpit and moustache and the fingernails ? The Devil is hidden inside of all of these, is acquinted with it and lives in it. He blows in the penis and the vagina of the uncircumcised more than in those of the circumcised. He hides himself inside the hair of the pubis”.
Keeping the Fitra
As we know, even flowering trees become unsightly when they are overgrown. Be it rose or bourganvillea, it becomes an eyesore rather than an object of beauty when overgrown. So it is with humanity. Removing superfluous hair, trimming nails and circumcising bring beauty to humanity. It restores to humanity its pure, God-given nature, which is why such acts are called the acts of the Fitra. The Fitra is the pattern one is created by God in accordance with one’s natural disposition.
Thus Fitra acts are those Divinely-inspired natural inclinations of humans that align our physical state with our natural state of cleanliness created by God thus bringing about the equilibrium necessary for a truly Godly life, removing all else that interferes in this process. This necessarily involves the removal of redundant outgrowths that contribute to uncleanliness, taking the human body to that more perfect state desired by God. To attain such a state may mean taking some pain like the rough stone does when it’s polished into a gem, but as always perfection often comes with a price.
As the Prophet told his followers:
Five are the acts of fitra: circumcision, shaving the pubes, clipping the moustache, paring the nails, plucking the hair under the armpits
The first of these, circumcision involves the removal of the foreskin in the case of males and the prepuce of the clitoris in the case of females. In the case of men, it helps to keep the penis clean and free of germs and prevents urine getting trapped beneath the foreskin. In the case of females, it frees the clitoris of its prepuce, a useless bit of skin that gives out a bad smell and breeds germs that can harm their genital health as well as their male partners. Once done it lasts a lifetime since it is not something you can undo. Likewise the benefits it confers you lasts a lifetime. Circumcision also marks one as a Muslim, like initiation in tribal societies that brings about loyalty. It gives one the feeling of having sacrificed a part of oneself, however small it be, for purifying the self for the sake of the faith.
As for the other fitra acts such as removing the pubic hair, plucking the hair under the armpits and paring the nails, these have to be done regularly and not to be left for more than forty nights. This is based on a narration from the Prophet’s close companion Anas who said, “The Messenger of God set a time limit for us for trimming the mustache, trimming nails, removing armpit hairs and removing pubic hairs. They cannot be left for more than forty nights” (Saheeh Muslim).
Removing Pubic Hair
The removal of superfluous outgrowths facilitates good hygiene. Take the removal of pubic hair which tends to grow in men and women to become an unsightly mess if left unchecked. Pubic hair is often very thick and combined with the oil and sweat that often collects in the area around the genitals can contribute to general uncleanliness in this vital part of the human body. The pubes if left unshaven attract crab louse which in fact takes its scientific name of Pthirus Pubis from the pubes it loves so much. This little parasite which could hardly be seen feeds exclusively on blood, gorging it up five times a day. Still worse is the fact that these creatures spread rapidly since the female lays about three eggs a day on the coarse hairs of the pubes so that in less than a month one could have fully grown adult bugs continuing with their bloody meals and perpetuating their species to reach other hairy parts of the body to infest and spread to other people.
Plucking Armpit Hair
Similarly plucking the hairs under the armpits also helps maintain hygiene. Armpit hair if let to grow is not only unsightly but also unhealthy since it tends to combine with sweat and grime that very frequently collect under the armpit, giving out a bad odour and serving as a breeding ground for bacteria to thrive leading to infections like trichomycosis axillaris caused by the bacteria Corynebacterium tenuis which thrives in the moist hair under the underarm. The infection produces unsightly yellow masses that grow around the hair shafts, but that’s not all. It releases a revolting body odour as the bacteria causing the condition can break down sweat, metabolizing testosterone in the sweat to form foul-smelling compounds.
Likewise paring the fingernails is vital for cleanliness since dirt and germs can easily be trapped under the nails and get passed on to oneself while eating or others while preparing food. Indeed, uncut fingernails are one of the most prolific places for germs to breed. The little spaces under the nails can harbour numerous bacteria that can cause diarrhea and other potentially deadly diseases, not to mention pinworms, a very common little roundworm Enterobius vermicularis that can find its way to the intestines to wreak havoc there. Even ordinary day to day activities like cleaning one’s genitals after a call of nature or changing diapers or handling food like raw meat can leave such germs under one’s nails especially if they are longer than three milimetres. Needless to say, this creates a potential health hazard.
Health workers with long nails are among the most likely to carry the deadliest germs such as Klebsiella, a bacteria that causes pneumonia and urinary tract infections, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, an all too common bacteria that can find their way into nasal passages and Candida parapsilosis, a yeast that causes wound and blood stream infections, all of which have been blamed for the deaths of newborns in maternal hospitals. If such diseases caused by long nails can occur under extremely sanitary conditions in the health care sector one can only imagine what problems they can cause in other settings? Yes, long fingernails can even kill, literally! Needless to say, keeping nails short on all occasions is the best solution. It is unfortunate that many western women continue with the practice of growing long fingernails to splash with colour as a fashion statement unaware of the lurking dangers it poses. One wonders why they cannot just keep their nails short like any good Muslim woman.
All these practices of removing redundant bodily matter are not really peculiar to Islam. It is part of universal human culture since man has this innate longing to be clean and control the growth of unseemly things. But Islam goes further, making of it an obligatory duty and even lays down a time limit within which they have to be removed from the body. The only fitra act that is not so universal is of course circumcision. However it is in man’s nature to desire it, however much it may scare you if you grow up uncircumcised in a culture that doesn’t accept it due to the perceived pain it involves or a misguided sense of prudishness.
Circumcision as Fitra
Circumcision is so widespread a cultural practice that it is only natural to suppose that humans are predisposed to practice it. In fact no other cultural practice except the use of fire and manufacture of tools has such a wide global distribution. It has been found in Africa, Asia, the Americas and Australia independent of Jewish or Islamic influence while a recent discovery suggests it was also practiced in Stone Age Europe as seen in an engraving in Los Casares Cave in Spain going back several thousands of years. In the Middle East, the Arabs and other Semitic peoples like the Jews practiced it long before Islam. Islam did not at all introduce this practice, it merely continued the practice as a religious rite binding on Muslims.
In the Old Testament of the Bible we read of God’s Covenant with Abraham: This is My Covenant which you shall keep, between me and you and your seed after you. Every male among you shall be circumcised. Circumcise the flesh of your foreskin and that shall be the mark of the covenant between you and me (Genesis 17:10-11). It was in keeping with the covenant that even Jesus was circumcised. As we read in the New Testament: When eight days were completed for circumcising the Child (Jesus), he was named Jesus, the name given him by the angel before he was conceived in the womb (Luke 2:21).
But the Bible did not make circumcision obligatory on the gentiles, merely the seed of Abraham or the Jews. Because the Jews were a race and not merely a religious community, the rite did not need to be extended to the gentile followers of Jesus as argued by Paul, which is why Christians generally do not practice it, although Jesus was circumcised. The Jews however confined circumcision only to their males on the eighth day after birth, the exclusion of their females being in keeping with their patriarchal idea that the covenant with God applied only to the males of their tribe.This of course had other implications. By obligating only its males to be circumcised and denying circumcision to women, Judaism denied women a place under God’s Covenant in contrast to Islam which made the rite equally binding on male and female, thus recognizing their inherent equality.
In Egypt circumcision was known thousands of years before Islam reached it as seen for instance in a bas-relief in the tomb of Ankh-ma-Hor at Saqqara which shows it being performed on two adolescent youths well before 2000 BC as well as numerous references by Greek writers. The circumcision of females was also known as seen from the case of an Egyptian girl named Tathemis in Memphis in a Greek papyrus of 163 BC which mentions it as ‘the custom among the Egyptians’, the word used for the procedure being peritemnein or ‘cutting around’, the same term used by the Greeks for male circumcision. So hallowed was the rite in the case of both males and females, that they became an established custom of the Coptic Church of Egypt.
The same holds true of the Ethiopian Christians according to whose ancient traditions circumcision was introduced to them by the son of Solomon Meilech, to which his mother, the Queen of Sheba Maqueda, added the circumcision of women in keeping with the custom of her kingdom in Southern Arabia, she herself being circumcised before puberty, and before her journey to Jerusalem to meet Solomon.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, circumcision of both males and females has been practiced for ages among Non-Muslim tribes from Liberia in the West to Ethiopia in the East. Much of it is linked to religious belief. For instance the Masai of Tanzania preserve a tradition that Marumi, a Moses like figure was ordered by God to circumcise their male and female children. Male circumcision has been found among Polynesian peoples like the Pacific Islanders of Fiji, Tonga and Samoa, the aboriginal peoples of Taiwan and the Filipinos where it is still practiced on boys before their teens more than a century after they adopted Christianity. The Australian aborigines also practiced it. In the Americas the Chippeways of the Mississippi region in North America and the Aztecs and Mayans of Central and South America practiced it before European colonization obliterated it.
The circumcision of females must also have been common though it was lost in the mists of antiquity, perhaps due to a false sense of prudishness, with the few recorded cases outside the Middle East and Africa being in South America, among the Tecunas of the Amazon, the Salivas of Orinoco, Panos of Ecuador and Conibos of Peru, and perhaps amongst Japan’s original inhabitants, the Ainu who until recently preserved a practice performed on both males and females that could have well been a vestige of it.
Although the procedure varies among different peoples, the original form must have been analogous to male circumcision with the prepuce or skin covering the clitoris being removed, a practice that was in vogue in Peru among peoples such as the Conibos of the Upper Ucayali where European observers recorded that an old woman performed it on grown-up girls in such a manner as to expose the clitoris in preparation for marriage, one account desribing it as involving the scraping of the clitoris of the girl to remove the top skin.
Even modern Americans often circumcise their infants, with the circumcision rate being around 60 percent though it is a pity they circumcise only their males, so that their females who may later come to realize its benefits get it done much later in life as adults under the name of a surgical procedure known as hoodectomy.
The wide geographical distribution of the practice both in ancient and modern times suggests that humanity has a natural inclination to keep their genitals clean through circumcision, that the circumcised state like the other fitra acts is the one that is naturally desired by humanity and that it is the fear of pain and prudishness that has contributed to its disuse and continues to keep people away from it.
In Islam circumcision is very strongly stressed with most scholars of the view that it is obligatory or at any rate strongly prescribed in the faith. Some are of the view that it t ought to be more stressed in the case of males than of females, but this is erroneous. That circumcision like the other fitra acts should apply equally to females as much as males goes without saying as both sexes have a prepuce, a fold of unclean skin covering the erectile tissue of their genitals that serves a breeding ground for germs. Besides, it is a well established principle of Islam that males and females are to be treated equally in all respects where they are similar and there can be no doubt that in this respect they are indeed similar. It is also agreed that if a practice is not mentioned specifically as being applicable to one gender only or if pronouns do not indicate a certain gender, then it is applicable to both sexes. What’s more there are numerous sayings of the Prophet that stress on its importance specifically in the case of females.
That circumcision is very strongly stressed in Islam is seen from the fact that the Prophet told a person who wished to embrace Islam:
Remove from yourself the hair that grew during the period of unbelief and get yourself circumcised
Among his other sayings that stress the importance of circumcision in the case of both males and females are, firstly:
Circumcision is my way for men and ennobling in women
This suggests that both male and female circumcision was recognized by the Prophet as Islamic acts. The term he used for both was khitan. In the original Arabic: Al-khitanu sunnatun li ar-rijali makrumatun li an-nisa. The different uses of the word ‘the way’ for men and ‘ennobling’ for women does not necessarily affect the obligatory character of circumcision in the case of females for the simple reason that it would have been quite inappropriate to apply the term sunnat ‘(Prophet’s) way’ for the female operation. Similarly, the term makrumah or ennobling used in the case of women need not affect its obligatory character since it merely indicates the fact that women are ennobled by it. Its use nevertheless says a lot. In the Qur’an we read: “We have honoured the children of Adam” (The Night Journey: 70). The Arabic word used here for ‘We have honoured’ is karramna which is related to makruma, the feminine form of honour or dignity.
Secondly, his statement:
When the (male) circumcised part meets the (female) circumcised part, bath becomes obligatory
Here we have the Prophet stating in very clear terms that the bath following sexual intercourse (without which no prayer is valid) becomes obligatory when both the circumcised parts meet. That the Prophet should define sexual intercourse as the meeting of the male and female circumcised parts when stressing on the need for the obligatory post-coital bath pre-supposes the obligatory nature of circumcision in the case of both males and females. There are two forms of this tradition, one in which the prophet used the term khitanain (the two circumcised parts) and the other khitanul khitan (the male and female circumcised parts), leaving no doubt as to what the Prophet meant by it.
The statements of the Prophet stressing specifically on female circumcision shows that it is something that ought not to be taken lightly, like the statement related by Abdullah Ibn Umar who tells us that the Prophet instructed some Ansar (Medinan) women visiting him to ‘be circumcised’ (Mukhtassar zawaid musnad al bazzar, Ibn Hajar). Another tradition has it that the Prophet told Umm Atiyyah Al Ansariyyah, a woman who circumcised girls in Medina: “When you circumcise, cut plainly and do not cut severely, for it is beauty for the face and desirable for the husband” (Baihaqi, Aboo Dawood, Al Awsat of Tabarani and Tarikh Baghdad of Al Baghdadi).
Indeed, even the Prophet’s closest companions believed it to be necessary for women. Thus we have Umm Al Muhajir relating: “I was captured with some girls from Byzantium. (Caliph) Uthman offered us Islam, but only myself and one other girl accepted Islam. Uthman said: ‘Go and circumcise them and purify them” (Adab al Mufrad of Bukhari). Likewise Umm Alqamah says that when the nieces of Ayisha’s brother were circumcised, ‘A’isha was asked: “Shall we call someone to amuse them?” “Yes” she replied (Adab Al Mufrad).
So here we have Uthman, one of the closest companions of the Prophet and the third Caliph of Islam commanding that some women who had converted to Islam be circumcised. And who can dispute the fact that the Prophet’s own wife Ayisha had her nieces circumcised, suggesting that she believed it to be obligatory or at any rate prescribed in the faith. Even early Arabic literature testifies to the fact that female circumcision was thought to be obligatory by the community. In the story of the Muslim Champion and the Christian Damsel in the Alf Layla wa Layla (Thousand and One Nights) we are told of this Christian girl who at her request was expounded the tenets of the faith by a Muslim soldier in the days of the Caliph Umar. The story continues: “And she became Muslimah, after which she was circumcised and he taught her to pray”.
But hold on, I know you must be thinking that what Islam wants us to do is to remove the clitoris of our women to reduce their sex drive as you often hear in the Western media which equates our practice to barbaric forms of female genital mutilation practiced in certain parts of Africa like clitoridectomy where the entire clitoris is removed or infibulation where the clitoris and inner labia are removed and the vulva stitched together to ensure a girl is a virgin until marriage, the equivalent of a mediaeval chastity belt.
Nothing can be further from the truth. All Islam requires is the removal of only the prepuce of the clitoris, a fold of useless skin covering the clitoris like a hood which is analogous to the foreskin of the male which is taken off during circumcision. All the early jurists of Islam were agreed on this. Thus we have Nawawi who states in his Sharhul Muhazzab that the part that has to be removed is “the skin of the structure which is like the cock’s comb above the urethral opening”. He further says in his commentary Sharh Muslim that it constitutes the removal of “a little bit of skin in the upper private parts”. Then there’s Ibn Hajar Asqalani who states in Fathul Bari that it is the removal of “the skin covering the cock’s comb-like structure, and not the flesh”. Abu Nasr Ibn al-Sabbaagh says in Kitab Ash-Shaamil: “In the case of a woman, it means cutting the skin that looks like the comb of a rooster at the top of the vagina, between the two labia” while Ibn Taymiyya says in Majmoo Al fatawa: “Her circumcision consists of cutting the prepuce which is like the cock’s comb, further adding that it is the prepuce of the clitoris which he calls by the name of qalfa that is removed in the procedure. Then there’s Abu al-Hasan Al Mawardi who says of the female’s circumcision: “It is to be limited to cutting off the skin in the shape of a kernel located above the genitalia. One must cut the protruding skin without removing the whole fold”. These early scholars of Islam did not arbitrarily decide how it should be done. They based it on a saying of the Prophet:
When you circumcise, cut plainly (in a shallow manner) and do not cut deeply, for it is beauty for the face and desirable for the husband
(Abu Dawood & Tabarani)
This clearly indicates what needs to be done in the circumcision of girls. The words “Cut plainly and do not cut deeply” is to be understood in the sense of removing the skin covering the clitoris, and not the clitoris. The expression “It is beauty (more properly brightness or radiance) for the face” is further proof of this as it is to be understood to since it means a face suffused with pleasure, in other words, the joyous countenance of a woman arising out of her being sexually satisfied by her husband. Another version of the saying puts it more directly, because instead of ashraq li’l wajh (radiance for the face) it says ahwa li’l mar’a (more pleasure to the woman). When the Prophet said that it was more desirable for the husband, what he obviously meant was that he would be pleased that his wife too had attained orgasm at about the same time as him, maybe even had multiple orgasms and that he need not exert himself further to ensure she is fully satisfied. The underlying idea here is that it is only with the removal of the prepuce of a woman’s clitoris that she can find real sexual satisfaction. Why, because a circumcised clitoris without its cumbersome skin is much more likely to be stimulated as a result of direct oral, penile or tactile contact. This ensures our women are satisfied sexually within marriage, ensuring their chastity.
Isn’t it remarkable that Islam should have taught this 1400 years ago when only recently Western Sexologists found this to be true, especially after Shire Hite’s groundbreaking study on the importance of the clitoris in the arousal and satisfaction of the female. Until then this little pink beauty had been considered a rather insignificant part of the female anatomy. But Islam had already recognized its importance over a thousand years ago and even prescribed a procedure which exposed its surface area to greater stimulation during the sex act as well as during oral sex.
It has now been found that a hooded clitoris is to blame for the failure of countless women to reach orgasm with their sex partners. Yes, all evidence reveal that a large number of women experience sexual dysfunction due to the presence of the clitoral hood. It has been found that roughly one quarter of American women treated for sexual dysfunction have clitoral phimosis, which means that hood of skin surrounding their clitoris is too tight or that there is no opening in the skin for the glans or head of the clitoris to protrude for stimulation. And this mind you, is the proportion of women who sought treatment for their frigidity. What of those countless women who didn’t ?
Thus all the evidence suggests that the prepuce of the clitoris is an obstacle to direct stimulation, reducing sexual sensation or even eliminating it altogether which is why so many women find it hard to achieve an orgasm. This is all the more so during oral sex where the prepuce is the greatest obstacle to direct stimulation. This is why many American women are increasingly seeking surgical treatment to get their clitoral hoods removed in a little procedure commonly known as hoodectomy, which by the way is the same as the female circumcision spoken of my the Prophet and the early Islamic jurists. Wonderful isn’t it?
Indeed as far back as 1900 a Chicago gynecologist A.S. Waiss wrote about the success of this procedure, after having tried it out on a young married woman who was “absolutely passionless,” which greatly troubled her . He promptly identified the culprit as the hood covering her clitoris and removed it. The good doctor noted that the lady soon became, in his words “a different woman”— “lively, contented and happy” and that sex brought her satisfaction. Houston’s first female surgeon, a bright woman named Belle Eskridge who won a fellowship in the American college of Surgeons for her skill with the scalpel also promoted the procedure, routinely circumcising the girls in her care, believing it would do them a lot of good. She titled her paper to a medical journal in 1918 Why not circumcise the girl as well as the boy? and described the procedure as a very simple operation by removing the prepuce with a sharp pair of scissors so that the glans was exposed, which is exactly what the Prophet prescribed four hundred years ago when he instructed Umm Atiyyah on how it should be performed.
In the 1950s another American surgeon W. G. Rathmann sent out a questionnaire to women whose hoods he had removed and to his delight found that of the 72 women who reported having never experienced an orgasm prior to the surgery, as many as 64, almost 90 percent, reported successfully achieving orgasm after the surgery. One woman who had five divorces to her credit before being circumcised remarried the last man she had divorced and told the doctor that she had “wasted four perfectly good husbands“. Why, because she could not find enjoy sexual joy with them, a condition that could have been easily treated with circumcision had she known about it earlier. In the 1970s another American surgeon Leo Wollman found that out of a hundred women he treated as many as 92 reported improvement in intensity of sexual response, rapidity of sexual response, and greater number of orgasms after the procedure. More recently, there was this lady named Dannielle Egan who in 2006 wrote a piece titled ‘Uncovering the Designer Vagina’ showing that unhooding the clitoris could give three to nine times better orgasm based on the reports of women who had undergone the procedure.
Health Benefits of Circumcision
As you may be aware male circumcision has been proven again and again to confer health benefits, among these, a reduction in urinary tract infections, penile cancer and AIDS. Americans due to their strong Judeo-Christian background came to view male circumcision in a positive light with these findings The medical establishment there more than a century ago discovered that the foreskin was a breeding ground for germs due to the constant accumulation of smegma, a whitish, cream or cheese-like foul smelling substance formed of desquamated epithelial cells that collected beneath the prepuce. They found that it served as a good media for bacterial growth and other microorganisms, helping these germs collect and proliferate at the expense of one’s genital heath. This resulted in uncircumcised males having a much higher incidence of UTIs and penile cancer. More recent findings have shown that circumcised men are much less likely to contract AIDS and that they are very much less likely to pass on the Human Papilloma Virus to their female partners which could cause cervical cancer.
To get on with a bit more detail, it is now proven beyond doubt that UTIs are almost always confined to uncircumcised males. Such infections affect the urinary system from the urethra to the bladder, and may even reach the kidneys. This is because the orifice through which urine passes at the tip of the uncircumcised penis hosts pathogenic bacteria not found in circumcised males. Likewise cancer of the penis is almost non-existent among circumcised men, since circumcision reduces the occurrence of cancer-causing types of HPV in men which find refuge and breed in the moist areas under the foreskin. Penile cancer is not rare as one tends to think and may represent over 10 percent of all cancers found in men. Male circumcision also confers 50-60 percent reduction in transmission of HIV in heterosexual penile vaginal sex since a penis deprived of its prepuce with its warm, moist environment can prevent the virus finding its way from the female genital tract to breed, especially among the langerhans cells of the prepuce which is especially targeted by HIV. Circumcision has also been associated with lower rates of genital herpes caused by the herpes simplex virus.
Not only circumcised males, but their female partners too benefit from the procedure since it prevents HPV being transmitted to the cervix or neck of the womb which can cause a very common cancer among women known as cervical cancer. Female partners of circumcised men are at much less risk of contracting bacterial vaginosis and trichomoniasis.
It was not until the early twentieth century that some American doctors like Pilot and Canter, reasoned that since women too had a prepuce, some of the health benefits conferred on males through circumcision could be enjoyed by women, especially when they found that the clitoral prepuce also secreted smegma It had to, because the clitoris anatomically corresponds to the penis in the male. They are both erectile with each consisting of a body, a glans or head at the tip and a prepuce or fold of skin covering it. Like in the male this skin covers the body of the clitoris as well as its head or glans. It usually has two surfaces with connective tissue in between, the outer surface being normal skin and the inner an epithelial surface having Tyson glands which produce the very same sebaceous secretion known as smegma found in males.
Since the clitoris is usually hidden in the vulva it is less likely to be cleansed of this mess. As a result it tends to collect underneath the clitoris, to play host to germs that can cause a number of diseases, the most frequent being Urinary Tract Infections, an all too frequent complaint in women, even more so than in uncircumcised little boys. If still left unremoved such accumulated smegma can harden in the fossa clitoridis, the cavity in which the glans clitoridis resides, to produce adhesions that glue together the glans of the clitoris with its prepuce, making sex a painful, rather than a joyful experience. Much of this has to do with the formation of smegmaliths, rosary like nodules which can cause frigidity or painful intercourse.
There is also good reason to believe that female circumcision could prevent genital cancers in women, just as much as it helps prevent penile cancer in men – vulvar cancer for instance, a malignant persistent growth in the vulva reported in about 4 percent of all types of gynecological cancers. Other benefits include a reduction in genital Herpes, a sexually transmitted genital infection, Chancroid, a bacterial infection that leads to painful sores on the genitalia and Granuloma, inflammations in the vulval region. What’s more it can prevent male partners getting oral cancer as a result of engaging in oral sex with uncircumcised women. As more and more men engage in cunnilingus to satisfy their female partner by stimulating the clitoris with their mouths, the more likely they are to contract Human Papilloma Virus that causes oral cancer. Did you know that actor Michael Douglas recently revealed that his throat cancer was caused by HPV contracted by giving oral sex to women?
Now, it is obvious that the only way men can acquire HPV is through the oral stimulation of one’s partner’s clitoris, allowing the virus to enter the mouth and find sanctuary in its mucosal cavities. The virus, it is obvious breeds in the prepuce of the clitoris just as it does in the foreskins of males, through the transmission of which cervical cancer occurs in females. Thus removing the prepuce of the clitoris is the surest way of removing the area in which the virus thrives, safeguarding their male partners from the risk of oral cancer. In any case, it should benefit women as well. It is well known that men are turned off by unpleasant smells during sex . When it comes to oral sex they could be easily put off by the foul smell of smegma that could have collected underneath their female partner’s prepuce, unless of course she has thoroughly washed her clitoris by retracting it and cleansed it with soap or body wash.
Whether we like it or not, it’s easier for males to retract and clean their foreskins of the regular buildup of smegma than women to clean theirs due to obvious anatomical differences. It would be necessary for them to retract the hood each day or every other day, in order to prevent adhesions forming and smegma collecting beneath the prepuce. In fact genital hygiene in women is, on the average, poorer than that of men because of the numerous folds and the semi-hidden position of the clitoris. I quote from Doctor Edwin Hirsch who has to say about it in his book on conquering frigidity titled Sexual Fear: “The ‘buried’ or concealed clitoris is a common anatomical cause of sexual anesthesia. Frequently this is due to lack of clitoral hygiene. We know this to be a causative factor, for when the ‘buried’ glans clitoridis is elevated out of its bed by separating the strands of tissue which have grown over it, clumps of stale, foul-smeling secretion (smegma) surround this structure. Periodically the hood or foreskin of the clitoris should be retracted so that the accumulated secretions that collect thereunder may be easily removed by soap suds and a slight amount of friction. When the fear of this hygienic process is done away with, a large number of frigidity cases will be automatically corrected”.
But why go through all this as a routine matter day after day when it could be permanently corrected by a minor surgery, preserving both sexual joy and genital hygiene in its purest form?
Now you may ask if God indeed wanted us to be circumcised and benefit from it, why didn’t he create us as such when we issued out of our mother’s wombs? Let’s put it this way. The prepuce has a purpose because it protects the sex organ in the process of birth itself and in early childhood prevents urine after a pee dribbling into one’s pants, but as one grows older it outlives its use and becomes a repository for smegma that starts building up as one reaches one’s teens. So you may ask, why did God make it that way?
Yes, He could have created us prepuceless had he willed. But God in his Wisdom knew very well what he was creating, and he created us with these minor imperfections -like having a prepuce or fingernails that grow- so that we would value our bodies and look after it. This takes us back to what I told you earlier, that man has been created in such a manner that he needs to make a conscious, deliberate attempt to keep himself clean unlike the rest of creation. Take the trimming of nails or shaving of pubic hair. Do not these too take effort? They do. The same holds true of circumcision. It involves some pain no doubt, but then again, the benefits last a lifetime, whereas you constantly need to trim your nails or shave your pubes all your life to keep clean!
So think again, it is only when man makes a conscious effort to keep himself clean that he rises above the animal and attains a state of culture beyond the beast, putting him on the trajectory to a more civilized way of life. So just as his conscious belief in God and realignment of his life with the Divine Commands helps him achieve the equilibrium consistent with the nature God created him in – that pure spiritual state known as the fitra into which every human is born, so does his conscious effort to keep himself clean return him to his pure physical state. This is why both the natural belief in God as well as our efforts to keep ourselves clean and pure by means of circumcision and removal of other superfluous bodily matter are known as fitra. So think of it as a little sacrifice you make for the sake of God – and for your sake.
But at the end of the day, it is faith that counts. Though circumcision is obligatory for a Muslim, this does not mean that a man or woman nor cleansed by it is not a Muslim. You are a Muslim so long as you declare that there is only One God and that Muhammad is His Messenger, irrespective of whether you are circumcised or not. It is your inner spirituality that truly matters and God knows that Best!