IRIN interview with Sheikh Omer, a muslim religious leader

Sheikh Musa Mohammed Omer, a member of the Executive Committee of the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs in Ethiopia, was one of the religious leaders who attended the recent sub-regional conference on female genital mutilation (FGM) in February 2005 in Djibouti City, Djibouti.

In an interview, given to IRIN at the conference, he explains the position of Islam in relation to FGM and why he continues to supports certain forms of the practice.

QUESTION: Why is the practice of female circumcision important in the Muslim religion?

ANSWER: Our Islamic scholars believe that female circumcision is different from male circumcision. They have a strong view that female circumcision is allowed, and that there is no evidence from Islamic sources prohibiting female circumcision, unless it is pharaonic [infibulation, Type 3, involves the removal of part or all of the external genitalia - clitoris, labia majora, labia minora - and stitching and/or narrowing of the vaginal opening, leaving a small hole for urine and menstrual flow].

Q: Do you believe there is a religious requirement for female circumcision in the Islamic community?

A: The Muslims following the views of modern Islamic scholars feel that female circumcision makes certain medical difficulties and problems for women, but not in all its forms. Therefore, they are not in a position to ban it.

Q: Why it genital cutting important to Islamic culture?

A: This tradition, whether it is female or male circumcision, was done starting from prophet Muhammad and we have practiced it for the last 1,000 years. He ... did not prohibit it, but gives the advice to moderate the surgery.

So we, as Muslims, believe that the prophet's advice was to moderate it - therefore, there is no problem with it in the religion. This conference, and the medical research associated with it, does not show that the Sunnah circumcision - cutting only the outer part of the clitoris - has caused any medical complications.

There is a difference between hot weather areas and cold weather areas. Most of the Islamic scholars live in hot weather areas, so that they support non-pharaonic female circumcision. But they have also an opinion that people living in cold weather - like in Europe - do not need female circumcision. In Ethiopia, we believe in the towns and the cities, Muslims mostly do not circumcise their females.

Q: Why does it make a difference whether it's hot or cold?

A: Islamic scholars have this view that females living in hot areas should be circumcised. This is related to women's sexuality - they feel that in cold weather women's sexuality is more moderated than in the hot weather areas.

Q: As one of the religious leaders gathered here [at the FGM conference in Djibouti], what are your personal views on this practice, and would you like to see it continued, or not, in Ethiopia?

A: I believe excluding [i.e. not permitting] female circumcision - this should be avoided. We do have a problem in excluding [i.e. people not following] what the Islamic Shari'ah advises concerning female circumcision, especially in rural areas [where] there are no medical precautions for surgical purposes.

I am of the position that if people exclude [i.e. do not have] attitudes according to the rulings of the Qur'anic Shari'ah, [it] is not good; it is according to the Qur'anic precepts to cut it [the clitoris] moderately, okay. But in the name of Islam, people make the pharaonic circumcision - so, we have to avoid this ... to keep the integrity of the Islamic religion.

Q: So you say that the Sunnah circumcision is in the Koran, but the pharaonic isn't - so, as long as it is in the Koran, it's acceptable?

A: I believe that Islam condones the Sunnah circumcision; it is acceptable. What's forbidden in Islam is the pharaonic circumcision but, in actuality, we see people execute the pharaonic method - this is bloodshed. And Islam rejects shedding the blood of a woman or any creature, so we have to avoid it - it is up to us to protect the life of a woman.

Q: Could you ever see the day when, or approve of a day when, female circumcision is abolished absolutely in Ethiopia, or Africa?

A: Islamic schools have talked about this issue so many times, and they don't reach any consensus, so I don't believe that female circumcision will ever be banned.

Q: But if it were banned, would you approve?

A: If female circumcision is done according to the rulings of the Islamic Shari'ah, I do not order people to avoid it. I do oppose non-Islamic [pharaonic] circumcision. It should not be done anymore.