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Fitna (pl. fitan) (فتنة) is an Arabic word with connotations of secession, upheaval and chaos. It is often used to refer to civil war, disagreement and division within Islam and specifically alludes to a time involving trials of faith, similar to the Tribulation in Christian eschatology.

The term originally referred to the refining of metal to remove dross [1], but became common in apocalyptic writings and is often used to refer to the First Islamic civil war, in 656–661 AD, a prolonged struggle for the caliphate after the 656 assassination of the caliph Uthman ibn Affan. The Second Fitna, or Second Islamic civil war, is usually identified as the 683–685 AD conflict among the Umayyads for control of the caliphate. The third one refers to the taifas in the end of the Caliph of Córdoba's rule.

Variant Qur'anic translations demonstrate some of the confusion this term has engendered:

(8:39) "So fight them until there is no more disbelief (fitnah) and all submit to the religion of Allah alone" (from translation of Muhammad Al-Hilali & Muhsin Khan)
(8:39) "And fight with them until there is no more persecution (fitnah) and religion should be only for Allah" (from translation of Sher Ali, Shakir, Pickthall, Arberry)

The meaning of the term is illustrated in the apocalyptic literature by people under extreme moral and psychological stress to compromise an element of their faith in return for worldly gain, and sometimes in return for their lives. They are made to choose, often not knowing exactly what is good and what is evil [2].

According to Orientalist Gilles Kepel, "fitna is sometimes translated as sedition, that is to say the fact that the Muslim community is fragmented is because it has lost its sense of proportion and of reality - of maslaha (public interest); to its detriment this has delivered it to the demons of extremism. Jihad returning like a boomerang weakens the community from within. The fitna has been the ulemas' obsessive fear for as long as Islam has existed."

(8:39) "And fight with them until there is no more sedition (fitnah) and religion should be only for Allah" (from translation of Palmer)

Western scholars believe that this internal fear of fitna in Islamic countries, is the key factor against an introduction and easy maintenance of free pluralistic democratically elected rule. Because many contemporary Islamic scholars believe that free pluralistic democracy resembles the evil of fitna. Something which is contrary to the united spirit of the kaliphate and the ummah.[3]

See also

  • Fauda (used in Palestine to refer to a state of lawlessness)
  • Jihad


  1. ^ Arab-English Lexicon, Lane, E.: a burning of fire, a melting of (metals) in order to distinguish the bad from the good, a means wherby the condition of aman is evinced in respect of good or evil, punishment, chastisement, conflict among people, faction and sedition, discord, dissension, difference of opinions, a misleading, causing to err, seduction, temptation.
  2. ^ David Cook. Studies in Muslim Apocalyptic. Darwin Press, March 1, 2003 (ISBN 0-87850-142-8)
  3. ^ Gilles Kepel, in « Fitna. Guerre au coeur de l’islam », September 7, 2004 interview in El Watan newspaper (concerning his book, Fitna. War Inside Islam, translated in 5 languages).

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