• Category Category: F
  • View View: 2971
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

FITNAH. The Arabic root f-t-n means “burn.” It is used also of melting gold or silver with fire, to try them. Hence it is both a burning and a trial, or a temptation, and by extension a seduction or a charming-an enchantment. Thus in the Qur’an (20.40) it is said that God tested Moses; in surah 9.126, the faithful are tested by being called out to war with infidels; the Helltree Zaqqum is a punishment for evildoers (37.62f.); it occurs to David that he is being tried by God and he begs for pardon (38.24); the faithful pray not to be made a lure for tyrants to oppress (10.85); the goods and children of the faithful are a temptation to forsake righteousness (8.28); the Muslims are ordered to fight those who fight them, if necessary even in the Holy Mosque, and to expel them, for their persecution is worse than killing (2.191); the oppression of the idolators is a worse fault than killing in the sacred month (2.217); if the hypocrites had gone out with the Muslims, they would have stirred up sedition (9.47); God tries every soul with good and evil as an ordeal (21.35); God allows Satan to cast his own verses into the revelations of the prophets as a temptation for those in whose hearts is sickness (22.53).

Hence fitnah is generally negative, but it can have positive aspects. A girl child today may be named “Fatin,” or “Fitnah,” in the hope that she will be not a seduc tress, but charming or alluring. However, some modern feminists desire to see in the name “Fitnah” for a beautiful woman evidence of a negative view toward women generally among Muslims. There is also a hadith to the effect that the greatest fitnah for men is women, and the hadith is sometimes explained by reference to the story of Adam and Eve.

In early Islam, the term is particularly used for trials and temptations to which the Muslim community is exposed. The “Great Fitnah” is the division that occurred from the murder of `Uthman, through the Battle of the Camel and the schisms that led to the formation of the Khawarij and the Shi’is and the seizure of power by Mu’awiyah, founder of the Umayyad dynasty. Here fitnah is civil strife, war, division, and those situations that tempt Muslims to depart from the straight path of unity and right action.

The connotations of fitnat in Persian are fully as negative as in Arabic. The Steingass Persian-English Dictionary gives as possible meanings “temptation, sedition, insurrection, discord, riot, war, anarchy, trial, affliction, calamity, malignity, impiety, crime, sin, error, madness, wealth, wife, and children.”

Where fitnah in modern political terminology has negative insinuations, thawrah: “revolution,” may have quite positive implications, just as it might in English.

The major hadith collections, such as Bukhari and Muslim, have sections on fitan, trials of the community, represented as foretold by the Prophet and leading up to the signs that will usher in the return of Jesus, the end of the world, the resurrection, and the final judgment. The term later came to be applied to any group departure from the collectivity, as well as to religious uprisings like those of the `Alid family in the Hejaz in 762 CE, in which it was easy for people to be confused as to which course to follow. It was also to be applied to religious disturbances such as the riots between the Ash’aris and the Hanbalis in Baghdad in the tenth century CE. The disorders that brought the collapse of the Umayyad caliphate in Andalusia and the rise of the factional kings in the early eleventh century were also called the fitnah in that part of the Muslim world.

Again, fitnah is generally a negative term, and the `ulama’ warn against it. Hasan of Basra is quoted as saying that anyone who instigates fitnah is an innovator in religion, who according to the hadith will go to hellfire. Here, apparently, civil strife and rebellion against the authorities are intended; Hasan was known to consider that the actions of tyrants were a trial to be patiently endured rather than opposed by arms.

The Arab lexicons give fitnah as a synonym for “error,” “crime”; Satan is al fatin, al -fattan, because he leads people into error, while an assayer who melts gold and silver is also fattan. One who is maftun is afflicted with madness or demonic possession. Thus the learned shaykh Ibn Hurmuz of Medina stated as his defense, when apprehended in the `Alid rebellion against the `Abbasids in 762 CE, that he had been carried away by a general fitnah, and he was forgiven. The term is also used for the inquisition in the grave by Munkar and Nakir, and the trials of the dead in their graves.

The kaldm treatises usually discuss fitnah in connection with the imamate or caliphate. When there is no clear imam, there will be fitnah; an imam is necessary to prevent schism in the community. There is discussion as to whether an imam should be appointed during a time of fitnah: not if it will make things worse, but certainly if it will help bring fitnah to an end, since nothing is worse than fitnah. Even tyranny is greatly preferable. Ibn Jama’ah of Cairo (d. 1333) states that if a king gains power by usurpation or force in a Muslim country, the caliph should then recognize him and delegate the affairs of that place to him, to avoid fitnah and guarantee Muslim unity.

The appearance of a claim to be the Mahdi was seen as a clear invitation to fitnah, and so medieval monarchs were instructed to see it as their duty to punish condignly such claimants. The pious sultan Firuz Shah of Delhi (d. 1388) proudly records that he executed a man who claimed to be the Mahdi but only imprisoned a man who claimed to be God. Ibn Khaldun (d. 14o6) regards the whole Mahdi idea as an occasion for fitnah and argues that it has no real basis in Islam, since all of the hadiths it rests on are spurious. This helps explain why in modern times claimants to be the Mahdi have been ruthlessly punished. In the early 1860s, one Ahmad al-Tayyib, who had been acclaimed as the Mahdi in Upper Egypt, was massacred with his followers by government troops, even though they had not made an uprising. This attitude has continued in modern times, even when it meant using armed force in the Holy Mosque at Mecca (on the basis of the Qur’an, surah 2.191) in 1979. The very appearance of a Mahdi brings fitnah, and this may be reckoned one of the signs of the Hour.

In some of the fiqh books, selling weapons at a time of fitnah to a person known to be engaged in it is a reprovable practice, because it will lead to sin. If it is not known that the person is so engaged, then there is no harm in it.

A curious example of use of the term occurred in sixteenth-century Syria when a Shafi’i qadi accused the new Ottoman regime of provoking a fitnah in Islam by imposing a marriage fee, a practice unknown under the previous Mamluk regime. He seems to have meant that it was a scandalous and innovative practice.

The quotation from the Qur’an (2.191, 21’7), “Fitnah is worse than killing,” could be used to justify putting down peasant revolts and urban unrest by often harsh methods. For example, in 1605 the heterodox shaykh Yahya ibn `Isa al-Karaki was judged worthy of execution by the `ulama’ of Damascus, who justified this to the Ottoman authorities on the grounds that he had a following among the rural immigrants to the city of the Maydan quarter and might cause a fitnah.

The term could on occasion be applied to situations outside the Muslim community. The first Muslims to write about the French Revolution of 1789 identified it as a fitnah and clearly took a quite negative view of it.

The 186o civil war in Lebanon and the ensuing massacre of Christians in Damascus was also characterized by contemporaries as a fitnah. In more recent times, the abolition of the caliphate by the Turkish Republic was widely termed fitnah by those who wanted the caliphate maintained or restored.

Fitnah in a social sense is thus seen almost always as highly undesirable, a temptation to the Muslims to forsake the service of God, and “worse than killing.” As a term of opprobrium, it can conveniently be used to characterize the actions of opponents, as it often is in modern journalism and polemical literature. The uprising of the supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood in Hamah, Syria, decisively put down by armed government forces in 1982, was called a fitnah by their opponents. Attacks on Christians by Islamists in Upper Egypt are called fitnah, and the word is occasionally used to describe the activities of Islamists in North Africa. Anything that might polarize or divide society may be called fitnah; on the other hand, attempts by governments to put an end to potentially destabilizing activities by Islamic religious groups may in turn be labeled fitnah by adherents of those groups.

In political discourse, fitnah is today a value-laden term that can be used to discredit opponents. Frequently the division of the original community at the end of the period of the Rightly Guided Caliphs is evoked as a fearful and deterrent example.


`Aqiqi, Antun Zahir. Thawrah wa Fitnah ft Lubnan. Translated by Malcolm H. Kerr as Lebanon in the Last Years of Feudalism, 1840-1868. Beirut, 1959.

Berque, Jacques. The Arabs: Their History and Future. London, 1964. Firuz Shah Tughluq. Futuhat-i Firuz Shahi. Aligarh, 1954. Partial translation in H. M. Elliot and John Dowson, History of India, as Told by Its Own Historians: The Muhammadan Period, vol. 2, pp. 378-379. London, 1877; reprint, New York, 1966.

Gardet, Louis. “Fitna.” In Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., vol. 2, pp. 930-931. Leiden, 1960-.

Ibn Manzur. Lisan al-‘Arab, “f-t-n.”

Jurjani, `Ali ibn Muhammad. Sharh al-Mawaqif, vol. 8, pp. 344f. Cairo, 1907.

Laoust, Henri. La profession de foi d’Ibn Batta. Damascus, 1958. Marghinani, Burhan al-Din al-Al-Hidayah, vol. 4, p. 9o. Beirut, n.d. Translated by Charles Hamilton as The Heddya, or Guide. 2d ed. London, 1870.

Mernissi, Fatima. Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society. Rev. ed. Bloomington, 1987.

Muhibbi, Muhammad Amin al-Khuldsat al-Athar fi A’yan al-Qarn alHadi `Ashar, vol. 4, pp. 478-480. Cairo, 1869.

Williams, John Alden. “The Expected Deliverer.” Chapter 4 of Themes of Islamic Civilization. Berkeley, 1971.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/fitnah/

  • writerPosted On: March 10, 2013
  • livePublished articles: 768

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Translate »