Fitna (word)

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For other uses, see Fitna.

Fitna (or fitnah, pl. fitan; Arabic: فتنة , فتن‎: "temptation, trial; sedition, civil strife"[1]) is an Arabic word with extensive connotations of trial, affliction, or distress. A word freighted with important historical implications, it is also widely used in modern Arabic. As with any word in Arabic, one should distinguish between the meanings of fitna as used in Classical Arabic and the meanings of fitna as used in Modern Standard Arabic and various colloquial dialects. Furthermore, because of the conceptual importance of fitna in the Qur'an, its use in that work will be considered separately, though in addition to, the word's general lexical meaning in Classical Arabic.

Root and Forms[edit]

Arabic, in common with other Semitic languages like Hebrew, deploys a system of root letters combined with vowel patterns to constitute its whole range of vocabulary; it is, therefore, essential to identify the root letters of any word, in order to better understand the word's full semantic range.

Fitna has the triliteral root fā'-tā'-nūn (Arabic: ف ت ن‎). In addition to the feminine noun fitna, fitan, this root forms, in particular, a Form I active verb fatana, yaftinu (Arabic: فتن ، يفتن‎), a Form I passive verb futina, yuftanu (Arabic: فتن ، يفتن‎), a Form I maṣdar futūn (Arabic: فتون‎), a Form I active participle fātin (Arabic: فاتن‎), a Form I passive participle maftūn (Arabic: مفتون‎), and so on.

Lexical Meanings[edit]

Classical Arabic[edit]

Lane, in his monumental Arabic-English Lexicon compiled from various traditional Arabic lexicographical sources available in Cairo in the mid-19th-century, reported that "to burn" is the "primary signification" of the verb.[2] The verb then came to be applied to the smelting of gold and silver. It was extended to mean causing one to enter into fire and into a state of punishment or affliction. Thus, one says that something caused one to enter al-fitna, i.e. trial, affliction, etc., or more generally, an affliction whereby some good or evil quality is put to the test.[2] Lane glosses the noun fitna as meaning a trial, a probation, affliction, distress or hardship, and says that "the sum total of its meaning in the language of the Arabs" is an affliction whereby one is tried, proved or tested.[3]

The definitions offered by Lane match those suggested by Badawi and Haleem in their dictionary of Qur'anic usage. They gloss the triliteral root as having the following meanings: "to purify gold and silver by smelting them; to burn; to put to the test, to afflict (in particular as a means of testing someone's endurance); to disrupt the peace of a community; to tempt, to seduce, to allure, to infatuate."[4]

Modern Standard Arabic[edit]

The meanings of fitna as found in Classical Arabic largely carry over into Modern Standard Arabic, as evidenced by the recitation of the same set of meanings in Hans Wehr's Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic.[5] In addition, Wehr glosses the noun fitna as also meaning "charm, charmingness, attractiveness; enchantment, captivation, fascination, enticement, temptation; infatuation, intrigue; sedition, riot, discord, dissension, civil strife."[1]

Buckwalter & Parkinson, in their frequency dictionary of Arabic, list the noun fitna as the 1,560th most frequent word in their corpus of over 30 million words from Modern Standard Arabic and colloquial Arabic dialects. They gloss fitna as meaning "charm, allure, enchantment; dissent, unrest; riot, rebellion."[6]

In the Qur'an[edit]


Badawi & Haleem note that the triliteral root fā'-tā'-nūn (Arabic: ف ت ن‎) occurs in 6 different forms a total of 60 times in the Qur'an.[4] In particular, it appears 34 times as a noun and 26 times in various verbal forms.[4] Bakhtiar's concordance of the Qur'an confirms Badawi & Haleem's numbers, although Bakhtiar further breaks down the appearance of each verbal form by distinguishing active and passive verbs by tense as well.[7] The following table sets out the details; note that since the root only appears as a verb in Form I forms, that is assumed.

Form Number of Appearances
Noun 34
Verb, perfect active 9
Verb, imperfect active 8
Verb, perfect passive 2
Verb, imperfect passive 4
Participle, active 1
Participle, passive 1
Maṣdar 1


The triliteral root fā'-tā'-nūn (Arabic: ف ت ن‎), as noted above, bears a range of significations, even in the Qur'an itself. The Qur'anic appearances of the root are explored below (in no particular order).


Fitna as persecution appears in several of the verses commanding Muslims to fight the unbelievers (specifically referring to the Meccan polytheists who had persecuted Muhammad and his early followers, thus leading to the hijra). For example, in Qur'an 2:191, the command to fight is justified on the grounds that "persecution (al-fitnatu) is worse than slaying." Similarly, in Qur'an 2:193, Muslims are forbidden from fighting unbelievers around the Holy Mosque in Mecca unless the unbelievers attack first, in which case Muslims are to fight "until there is no persecution (fitnatun) and the religion is God's." The hijra is mentioned in Qur'an 16:110 as having occurred because of the persecution believers had suffered in Mecca. Other examples are Qur'an 85:10, which promises the chastisement of Hell for those who have persecuted Muslims, and Qur'an 4:101, which provides that one's daily required prayer may be shortened if, when on a journey, one fears that the unbelievers may attack if one remains in a place long enough to complete the full prayer.


In Qur'an 3:7, the Qur'an itself is described as having "clear revelations - they are the substance of the Book - and others (which are) allegorical," and then the Qur'an characterizes those who are unsteady and who do not have firm faith as desiring dissension in the community through their pursuit of interpretations of the "allegorical" verses of the Qur'an. A set of occurrences of the root related to dissension or sedition occurs in Quran 9:47–49, where those who say they are believers, but show themselves reluctant to follow certain of God's commands, are described as seeking "sedition" among the community.


Many instances of the root as "trial" appear throughout the Qur'an. This sense of the root bears the further sense of a "tribulation" or "difficulty" in such verses as, for example: Qur'an 20:40, where Moses, after killing a man in Egypt, was "tried with a heavy trial"[8] by being forced to flee and to live among the Midians for many years; and Qur'an 22:11, where some believers are characterized as worshipping God "upon a narrow marge,"[9] since they are happy so long as their life is relatively secure and easy, but as soon as they experience a trial, they turn away from God.

However, the root in other verses carries a sense of "trial" as simply a kind of test of a person's commitment to their faith (without necessarily implying that the testing results from something bad happening, as the sense of trial as "tribulation" might bear).[10] For example, Qur'an 6:53 says, in part, "And even so do We try some of them by others." Things widely-recognized as good things in life may serve as trials, as Qur'an 8:28 and 64:15 make clear by describing one's own wealth and children as trials. Qur'an 39:49 also carries this sense of trial by something good; there, God's own "boon" (or "blessing") is described as a trial for certain people. Again, in Qur'an 72:14–15, God will give those idolaters who decide to "tread the right path" an abundance of good "that We may test them thereby," to see whether they will turn away from God once they have obtained his favor or whether they will be steadfast in faith.

Trials may also result from things revealed by God that some may find difficult to accept. For example, Qur'an 17:60 describes the revelation of the "Cursed Tree" as "an ordeal for mankind."[11] Another example of this sense is Qur'an 74:31, where the number of the angels who guard the Fire has been "made a stumbling-block for those who disbelieve . . . and that those in whose hearts there is disease, and disbelievers, may say: What meaneth Allah by this similitude?"


The root also bears the sense of "temptation," as in Qur'an 57:14, where those who were hypocritical in their faith will be turned away and told by the steadfast believers, from whom they are separated, "ye tempted one another, and hesitated, and doubted, and vain desires beguiled you till the ordinance of Allah came to pass; and the deceiver deceived you concerning Allah." In Qur'an 20:90, Aaron is said to have warned the Israelites, when Moses had left them to meet with God for forty days, that the Golden Calf was only something they were being tempted by (or, in Pickthall's translation, "seduced with"). Harut and Marut warn the people of Babylon, in Qur'an 2:102, "We are only a temptation, therefore disbelieve not," although the warning proved to be ineffective for some.

Historical Usage[edit]

Aside from its use in the Qur'an, fitna came to have a primary sense of "'revolt', 'disturbances', 'civil war', but a civil war that breeds schism and in which the believers' purity of faith is in grave danger."[12] This was especially so as it came, in the term First Fitna, to refer to the first major civil war of the Islamic Caliphate, which lasted from 656 to 661. "On account of the struggles that marked Mu‘āwiya's advent, the term fitna was later applied to any period of disturbances inspired by schools or sects that broke away from the majority of believers."[13] The term thus appears the descriptions of other major conflicts such as the Second Fitna (680-92), the Third Fitna (744-47), the Fourth Fitna (809-827), and the Fitna of al-Andalus (1009–1031).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Wehr (1976), p. 696.
  2. ^ a b Lane (1968), p. 2334.
  3. ^ Lane (1968), p. 2335.
  4. ^ a b c Badawi & Haleem (2008), p. 692.
  5. ^ Wehr (1976), pp. 695-696.
  6. ^ Buckwalter & Parkinson (2011), p. 151.
  7. ^ Bakhtiar (2011), entries 2455-2456, pp. 369-70.
  8. ^ Arberry translates this phrase as "tried with many trials."
  9. ^ Yusuf Ali translates this as "on the verge."
  10. ^ The English word "trial" bears this more neutral sense of testing, without necessarily implying that the test results from something bad: for example, "clinical trial."
  11. ^ Yusuf Ali, Shakir, Arberry, and others translate the root here as "trial" rather than Pickthall's "ordeal."
  12. ^ Gardet (1991), p. 930.
  13. ^ Gardet (1991), p. 931.


  • Badawi, Elsaid M. & Haleem, Muhammad Abdel (2008). Arabic-English Dictionary of Qur'anic Usage. Brill. 
  • Bakhtiar, Laleh (2011). Concordance of the Sublime Quran. Library of Islam. 
  • Buckwalter, Tim & Parkinson, Dilworth (2011). A Frequency Dictionary of Arabic: Core vocablary for learners. Routledge. 
  • Gardet, L. (1991). "Fitna". In Lewis, B. et al. The Encyclopaedia of Islam. II: C-G (New ed.). Brill. pp. 930–931. 
  • Lane, William Edward (1968) [orig. pub. 1877]. An Arabic-English Lexicon. Volume 6: ghayn-fā'. Librairie du Liban. 
  • Soravia, Bruna, "Fitna", in Muhammad in History, Thought, and Culture: An Encyclopedia of the Prophet of God (2 vols.), Edited by C. Fitzpatrick and A. Walker, Santa Barbara, ABC-CLIO, 2014, Vol I, pp. 209-211.
  • Wehr, Hans (1976). Cowan, J. Milton, ed. A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic (3rd ed.). Spoken Language Services.