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Serena Tolino
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Castration, scientifically called gonadectomy, is the action by which a male loses the use of his testicles. It can be done through a surgical procedure, with excision of one or both testicles (surgical castration) or through the use of pharmaceutical drugs that inactivate the testicles (chemical castration). It is also practiced on animals in order to favor a desired development of the species, to prevent overpopulation, or to produce a particular kind of meat for nutrition purposes. The term castration can also refer to the removal of the ovaries in a female (oophorectomy) or, in the common use, to emasculation (the removal of penis and testicles), or penectomy (the removal of the penis through surgery). Penectomy can be performed either for medical reasons (e.g., in advanced prostate cancer), or for personal reasons, as in the case of a hijra or a transgender who undergoes a sex-reassignment surgery. Usually in this case a penectomy is not necessary: part or all the glans can be kept and reshaped in the form of a clitoris, and the skin of the penis can be used to form a vagina. Penectomy can still be practiced if these procedures are not possible.

The Arabic terms that refer to castration are ikhṣāʾ, khiṣāʾ, or khaṣāʾ, from the root kh-ṣ-y which means “to remove the two testicles.” The man whose testicles are cut is called khaṣiy (Ibn Sīdah, 1996, vol. 1, p. 161). The root jbb instead and the deriving term majbūb refer to “a khaṣiy, whose penis and testicles were extirpated” (al-Harawī, 2001, vol. 10, p. 271).

In premodern times, castrated men (eunuchs) were usually slaves who were castrated outside the dār al-Islām and then imported, basically to guard the ḥarem or religious establishments, such as the shrine at Mecca (Marmon, 1995). But they had many other functions. In Arabic medieval sources, the process of castration has been described by, for example, the medieval geographer al-Maqdisī (or al-Muqaddasī, 945–991). He wrote that according to some the penis and the scrotum were cut off at the same moment while, according to others, the scrotum was cut and the testicles removed. Then a stick was put under the penis, which was cut off later (al-Maqdisī, 1906, p. 242). According to al-Maqdisī, the penis was cut off in the majority of cases. Also the polymath al-Jāhiẓ (776–868/9) devotes a long chapter of his Kitāb al-Ḥayawān (Book of Animals) to castration that, according to him, has physical and psychological consequences that make eunuchs different from non-castrated men (fuḥūl).

Nowadays, surgical and chemical castration can be offered in some states to sex-offenders as an alternative to further incarceration or to reduce prison sentences. Voluntary surgical castration is nowadays rare, but it is legal in Texas, while chemical castration can be enacted either by court order, as it happens in several states in the United States (Oswald, 2013, pp. 483–484), or it can be offered as an alternative to imprisonment, as happens in the United Kingdom and Denmark. Poland has been the first European country to impose it as a form of punishment for adults who rape children or immediate family members (Oswald, 2013, p. 484).

While some studies argued that surgical castration significantly reduces the sex drives of many offenders, others demonstrate that a substantial percentage of castrated offenders still retain some sexual functioning. Regardless, offering or imposing this treatment as an alternative to further incarceration raises ethical concerns, such as the lack of concrete independence of the patient in the decision-making process, and is considered by many a form of inhumane treatment. Apart from the general concerns, the issue is particularly controversial in Islamic bioethics, due to the sanctity which is attributed to the human body that, moreover, is considered to belong to God and not to the human being, who is merely its caretaker.

Castration in the Qurʾān and Sunnah.

Castration is considered a mutilation and a change in God’s creation, whose prohibition is included in the Qurʾān. The verse 30:30 (“So direct your face toward the religion, inclining to truth. [Adhere to] the fiṭrah of Allah upon which He has created [all] people. No change should there be in the creation of Allah. That is the correct religion, but most of the people do not know”) and the verse 4:119: (“And I will mislead them, and I will arouse in them [sinful] desires, and I will command them so they will slit the ears of cattle, and I will command them so they will change the creation of Allah. And whoever takes Satan as an ally instead of Allah has certainly sustained a clear loss”) have been interpreted as encompassing an alteration in the physical appearance of human beings and animals (referring specifically to castration) by many exegetes, while others have interpreted them as referring to an alteration in religion.

When looking at the sunnah, in the collections of aḥādīth there are three main lines on the argument:

  • 1. The story of the Companion ʿUthmān b. Maẓʿūn, who wanted to vow chastity and asked the Prophet’s permission to castrate himself but the Prophet refused. Many aḥādīth say that other Companions declared that they would have castrated themselves, had the Prophet permitted ʿUthmān b. Maẓʿūn to do so (e.g., al-Bukhārī, book 67 on “Wedlock,” chapter 8).
  • 2. Various stories about Companions (e.g. Abū Hurayra) who could not cope with sexual abstinence, either because they could not marry or because they were away from their lands for long periods, and asked the Prophet to allow them to castrate themselves. The Prophet refused and ordered them to keep praying and fasting (e.g., al-Bukhārī, book 67 on “Wedlock,” chapter 8).
  • 3. A warning from the Prophet to any master who castrates a slave, that he himself will be castrated for that, as used for the law of retaliation (e.g., al-Nasāʾī, book 45 on “Oaths (qasāma), Retaliation and Blood Money,” chapters 10, 11).

The Debate in the Premodern Period.

While Muslim jurists of both the premodern and the modern periods agree on the prohibition of castration, their specific interests changed over time. In the premodern period, historical evidence suggests that castrated men were a very important presence in Islamic courts. The Prophet Muḥammad himself accepted at least a eunuch, who was sent to him together with Maria the Copt. Only a handful of jurists opposed their presence, including Mālik b. Anas (ca. 711–179), eponym of the Mālikī madhhab, who suggested that it would be better not to possess castrated men, or maximum one. Mālik’s reasoning was that a reduction in the demand for eunuchs would have had as a consequence a reduction in the number of castrations (al-Shaybānī, 1403 A.H., pp. 374–375). Jurists were interested not only in the prohibition of castration, on which there was a total ijmāʿ, but also in the practical aspects of dealing with castrated men in everyday life. For example, jurists asserted that a eunuch could perform the call to the prayer, the adhān, and act as an imām, even though for Mālikīs not as a permanent (murattab) imām in a mosque. According to the Mālikīs, castrated men should not look at women, exactly as for non-castrated men, because ʿĀʾishah (a wife of the Prophet) said that castration is a mutilation, and does not make licit what was forbidden before it. The marriage of a eunuch was also discussed, and usually considered valid if the wife knew and accepted this “mutilation”: if he was able to penetrate her, then he was considered exactly as a non-castrated man; if not, the wife had the right to ask for an annulment. According to the majority of jurists, the eunuch (at least if khaṣiy) had the right to one year of ajal (postponement) to satisfy his wife, while for Mālikīs the judge should proceed immediately to annulment. If the wife was not informed, then she had the right to an immediate annulment. As for the bridal money (mahr), as long as a castrated man remained in intimacy with his wife, he had to pay it, but for some jurists he needed to pay only half. The attribution of nasab, parenthood, was also debated: if the eunuch had his testicles, then the paternity was attributed to him; if he had only the penis, then according to the majority of jurists the paternity was not attributed, while according to others the case should have been referred to doctors; if he had neither, then the majority of jurists believed that the paternity could not be attributed.

The Contemporary Debate.

In the modern age, castration is typically forbidden and the number of castrated men has been greatly reduced (even though the phenomenon has not completely disappeared). Surgical castration is forbidden in any case, and can become acceptable only for medical reasons, when it is inevitable and prevents a greater danger (e.g., to prevent death in case of severe prostate cancer). Still, the debate on chemical castration, which has been proposed to reduce sexual harassment and pedophilia in Egypt, India, and Indonesia, is more nuanced. In 2007 a fatwā of Masʿūd Ṣabrī, a member of the World Union of Muslim ʿulamāʾ, ruled that it is permissible to use drugs under medical control in order to decrease sexual desire, if a person is afraid of committing immoral acts. According to him, this should not be intended as a form of proper castration. The mufti also stated that chemical castration cannot be allowed or imposed when it could cause any kind of damage, especially in relation to reproductive ability. As an alternative, a 2014 fatwā of the Saudi scholar Saʿūd b. ʿAbd Allāh al-Fanisān, former dean of the faculty of Sharīʿah at the Imām University in Riyadh, advocated outright chemical castration for sexual offenders. Stressing that other penalties have proven to be ineffective, he stated that “the Prophet has forbidden castration, but if science finds a chemical remedy to cut the desire of the perverts, then this is allowed.”


Primary Works

  • Bukhārī, Muḥammad al-. Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī. There are several editions of this work. The website https://sunnah.com (specifically https://sunnah.com/bukhari) offers the Arabic text with an English translation. The chapter numbers used in this article refer to the classification used on this specific website, and can change when using other editions of the work.
  • Harawī, Muḥammad b. Aḥmad b. al-Azharī al-. Tahdhīb al-lugha. Beirut: Dār Iḥyāʾ al-turāth al-ʿarabī, 2001.
  • Ibn Sīdah, Abū al-Ḥasan ʿAlī b. Ismāʿīl. al-Mukhaṣṣaṣ. Beirut: Dār Iḥyāʾ al-turāth al-ʿarabī, 1996.
  • Jāhiẓ, Abū ʿUthmān ʿAmr b. Baḥr al-Fuqaymī al-Baṣrī al-. Kitāb al-Ḥayawān. Cairo: Muṣṭafā al-bābī al-ḥalabī, 1938. This work has an entire chapter devoted to castration and its effects on humans and animals.
  • Maqdisī, Abū ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad al-. Aḥsan al-Taqāsīm fī maʿrifat al-aqālīm. Edited by M. J. De Goeje, Leiden, Netherlands, 1906. Translated into English by Basil Collins as The Best Divisions in the Knowledge of the Regions. Reading, U.K: Garnet, 2001.
  • Nasāʾī, Aḥmad al-. Sunan. There are several editions of this work. The website https://sunnah.com (specifically https://sunnah.com/nasai) offers the Arabic text with an English translation. The chapter numbers that are used in this article refer to the classification used on this specific website, and can change when using other editions of the work.
  • Ṣabrī, Masʿūd. “al-Ikhṣāʾ al-kīmyāʾī li-ʿilāj al-taḥarrush al-jinsī.” Onislam. https://fatwa.islamonline.net/15835.
  • Shaybānī, Abū ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad b. al-Ḥasan al-. Kitāb al-ḥujja ʿalā ahl al-Madīna. Beirut: ‘Ālam al-Kutub, 1982.
  • “Shaykh saʿūdī yujīz al-ikhṣāʾ al-kīmāwī radʿan liʾl-taḥarrush.” al-Quds. www.alquds.co.uk/?p=147971.

Secondary Works

  • Ayalon, David. Eunuchs, Caliphs and Sultans. A Study in Power Relationships. Jerusalem: The Hebrew University, 1999. This is the most extensive study available on eunuchs in Middle Eastern history.
  • Ayalon, David. “On the Eunuchs in Islam.” Jerusalem Studies in Arabic and Islam 1 (1979): 67–124. This article is a good introduction to eunuchs and castration in Islam.
  • Douglas, Thomas, et al. “Coercion, Incarceration, and Chemical Castration: An Argument From Autonomy.” Journal of Bioethical Inquiry 10, no. 3 (2013): 393–405. This is a useful article for setting the argument from a bioethical perspective.
  • Marmon, Shaun. Eunuchs and Sacred Boundaries in Islamic Society. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. This work specifically analyzes the role of eunuchs guarding the tomb of the Prophet Muḥammad in Medina.
  • Oswald, Zachary Edmund. “‘Off with His __’: Analyzing the Sex Disparity in Chemical Castration Sentences.” Michigan Journal of Gender and Law 19, no. 2 (2013): 471–503. An account of the impact of chemical castration on sex offenders in different countries.
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