Fitna (or fitnah, pl. fitan; Arabic: فتنة , فتن: "temptation, trial; sedition, civil strife") 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
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.
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. 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. 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.
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."
Modern Standard Arabic
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. 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."
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."
In the Qur'an
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. In particular, it appears 34 times as a noun and 26 times in various verbal forms. 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. 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|
|Verb, perfect active||9|
|Verb, imperfect active||8|
|Verb, perfect passive||2|
|Verb, imperfect passive||4|
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
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
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). For example, Qur'an
The root also bears the sense of "temptation," as in Qur'an
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." 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." 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).
- Wehr (1976), p. 696.
- Lane (1968), p. 2334.
- Lane (1968), p. 2335.
- Badawi & Haleem (2008), p. 692.
- Wehr (1976), pp. 695-696.
- Buckwalter & Parkinson (2011), p. 151.
- Bakhtiar (2011), entries 2455-2456, pp. 369-70.
- Arberry translates this phrase as "tried with many trials."
- Yusuf Ali translates this as "on the verge."
- 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."
- Yusuf Ali, Shakir, Arberry, and others translate the root here as "trial" rather than Pickthall's "ordeal."
- Gardet (1991), p. 930.
- 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.