Madi Jobarteh, Human Rights Activist
By Madi Jobarteh
Consistency, honesty, and courage are invaluable principles of life that must characterize the conduct of individuals and organizations if they are to earn respect and appreciation. It is perfectly fine that individuals can agree or disagree but what is not fine is when individuals are not consistent and lack the courage of their convictions. In fact, our elders and imams have taught us that both religious and cultural values require that we speak and stand for the truth even in the face of death, and no matter who is affected. So, I will speak my truth.
The abolition of female circumcision took place in the Gambia in December 2015 when Tyrant Yaya Jammeh earlier declared it illegal in a public meeting in Kanilai. In that meeting there were imams present, but none objected to Jammeh’s declaration at that time. Three months later, in March 2016 two old women were arrested and charged by the police for practicing FGM on a five-month-old girl who later died from the injuries. At that time no imam or Oustass or the Supreme Islamic Council came out to show solidarity with the two women from Sankandi.
But today, in the Year 2023 we have seen the vociferous manner in which the Supreme Islamic Council and several imams and Oustass at home and abroad came to the defense of the two Niani Bakadagi women who were convicted for practicing female circumcision. Some imams even went further to pay their fines, and then openly call on Muslims to violate the Women’s Act to practice FGM. They issued threats against anybody, or any institution standing against FGM and prayed that bad omen befalls them. Yet in 2015 they were imams just as they are the same imams today in 2023. Why didn’t they take the same position in 2015?
To cap it all, the Supreme Islamic Council has now issued a Fatwa in support of female circumcision saying, “Allah has decreed female circumcision,” and condemning those who denounce the practice, and even calling on “the authorities to hold them accountable.” They quoted several unnamed sources to back their claim that FGM is Islamic and must be practiced. Conspicuously they have not quoted any Qur’anic surah or verse to back their claim.
The question is, how come it has to take the Supreme Islamic Council eight good years since the abolition of FGM in the Gambia before they could raise their voice against the law banning female circumcision? Is it that the Islamic scholars and hadiths they are now referring to did not exist before 2015 such that they could not challenge Yaya Jammeh and the law at the time? Or is it now that they are aware of these sources and Hadiths, or some new Hadiths just appeared now?
What was obvious back then was that during his entire time as President and after declaring the abolition of FGM, the Supreme Islamic Council and its imams still continued to enjoy friendly relationship with Yaya Jammeh. They led him into prayers at State House Mosque and led his Gamo events both at State House and in Kanilai while also receiving donations from him. They even conferred on him the title of ‘Nasiruddin’.
Therefore, what has changed in 2023 which was not there in 2015? I think all Gambian Muslims should ask the Supreme Council this question. All the 15 male members of the Fatwa and Moon Sighting Committee were present in the Gambia in 2015 as in 2023. What changed?
I do not know what is the interest or the objective of the Supreme Islamic Council and those imams defending female circumcision, but available evidence from Muslim scholars and organizations and Muslim-majority countries indicate that female circumcision is not Islamic. For example, several Muslim-majority countries such as Senegal, Egypt, Sudan, Iran, Guinea, and Djibouti have banned the practice. Senegal banned FGM since 1999, and Sudan did so in 2020. In Yemen, the practice is banned in medical facilities but not in homes. In Iraq, the practice has been banned in the Kurdish Autonomous Region in the North.
In banning the practice in Kurdistan Iraq in 2010, the High Committee for Issuing Fatwas at the Kurdistan Islamic Scholars Union, the highest Muslim religious authority in Iraqi Kurdistan said the practice is not prescribed in Islam but predates it. They went further to state that, ‘parents may choose to circumcise their daughters but that it is better to avoid the practice because of the negative health consequences.’
The FGM ban in Egypt took place in 2007 after a 12-year-old girl died while undergoing the procedure. At the time the Grand Mufti of Egypt, which is the highest official Islamic authority in the country was Ali Gomaa from 2003 to 2013 who supported the ban by stating that, “The harmful tradition of circumcision that is practiced in Egypt in our era is forbidden.” This position was further supported by the Grand Sheikh of Cairo’s prestigious al-Azhar Mosque, Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, who also described the practice as un-Islamic. Today, in 2023 the leading Islamic scholars in Egypt, Dr. Mohammed Emara and Dr. Mohammad Salim Al-Awa have both noted that female circumcision is neither Islamic in origin nor required by Islam.
Furthermore, in 2014 The Muslim Council of Britain, the country’s largest Muslim organization, condemned the practice of FGM as “un-Islamic” and told its members that FGM risks bringing their religion into disrepute. Earlier in 2012 the UN General Assembly unanimously passed a resolution for a global FGM ban. This resolution was further adopted and supported by the African Union. In both the UN and AU general assemblies there are Muslim-majority countries that never objected to these resolutions. Therefore, what is the real basis for the Supreme Islamic Council’s position on FGM?
I totally agree with the Islamic scholars in Egypt and Sudan that female circumcision predates Islam, and it is not Islamic. The simple answer to this question is to ask if the daughters and wives of the Holy Prophet underwent female circumcision. Available evidence is that they did not. Hence regardless of how many pieces of Hadith one quotes, the simplest answer to this vexed question is to determine if the Holy Prophet did subject his women to the practice. Since he had not done so then one cannot Islamize FGM in anyway.
What is evident from history and Islamic scholars is that FGM is a cultural practice. The fact that some ethnic groups practice it such as the Mandinka, and others do not such as the Wolof, yet they all claim to be Muslims indicates that FGM is a matter of culture. Otherwise, all Muslims would be practicing it as they slaughter rams on Tabaski Day. I am sure if female circumcision was prescribed by the Holy Prophet as claimed by the Supreme Islamic Council, then Serigne Bamba Mbacke of Touba would have told his Wolof people since then to practice FGM. But this never happened.One can even find FGM being practiced among ethnic groups or families that are Christian or belong to other faiths further indicating that the practice is purely a cultural practice.
For example, Mandinka, Fula, Karoninka, Serere or Jola Muslims and Christians practice FGM even though they belong to different religions. They do so not because of religion but because of their culture. For that matter, there is available evidence that female circumcision has potential harm on women. Apart from that, there is absolutely no religious, health, or moral benefit in female circumcision. It does not make a girl or woman better in any sense. Why therefore is the Supreme Islamic Council and Gambian Muslim scholars insisting on subjecting Gambian girls to this harmful practice? Why?
I think the Supreme Islamic Council and imams in general should rather focus more on preaching and guiding Gambian leaders and public officials to become more Allah-fearing so that they can better serve their people. This is because if there is any crisis in the Gambia it is the crisis of leadership and public service. We need public officials who will shun corruption and embrace hard work and commitment to protect public interest as a form of worship. We need honest and courageous imams who are not looking for self-aggrandizement but will call political leaders and public servants by name to tell them to stop defrauding the nation and dividing the people, but to work hard to salvage the Gambia. This is the Will of Allah.
The Supreme Islamic Council and its imams must know that the faith and piety of believers will be shaky if they live in a society where there is high level of poverty, injustice, corruption, and unaffordable cost of living. Such a society is a threat to the religion and its believers hence imams and also priests must dedicate their focus towards making public officials become better patriotic servants who will deliver development, justice, and prosperity for all.
Mawlid-al Nabi Mubarak.
For The Gambia, Our Homeland.