Shirk Or Persecution – What does The Word Fitna Mean?

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Often times the Arabic word “fitna” (فِتْنَةٌ) in Surah 2:190-194 and Surah 8:39 gets associated by critics to mean “shirk” (disbelief). They claim when the Quran ordered early companions of Muhammed to fight against “fitna”, they assert here that they were ordered to fight non-Muslims merely because of them not believing in Islam. This claim has no foundation whatsoever when one looks at the earliest sources of Islam.

The following Hadith saying is from a Companion of prophet Muhammed (p) and he clarifies what is meant by “fitna” (فِتْنَةٌ):

“Narrated Sa`id bin Jubair:`Abdullah bin `Umar came to us and we hoped that he would narrate to us a good Hadith. But before we asked him, a man got up and said to him, “O Abu `Abdur-Rahman! Narrate to us about the battles during the time of the afflictions, as Allah says:– ‘And fight them until there is no more afflictions (i.e. no more worshipping of others besides Allah).'” (2.193) Ibn `Umar said (to the man), “Do you know what is meant by afflictions? Let your mother bereave you! Muhammad used to fight against the pagans, FOR A MUSLIM WAS PUT TO TRIAL IN HIS RELIGION (THE PAGANS WILL EITHER KILL HIM OR CHAIN HIM AS A CAPTIVE). His fighting was not like your fighting which is carried on for the sake of ruling.
Arabic:
حَدَّثَنَا إِسْحَاقُ الْوَاسِطِيُّ، حَدَّثَنَا خَالِدٌ، عَنْ بَيَانٍ، عَنْ وَبَرَةَ بْنِ عَبْدِ الرَّحْمَنِ، عَنْ سَعِيدِ بْنِ جُبَيْرٍ، قَالَ خَرَجَ عَلَيْنَا عَبْدُ اللَّهِ بْنُ عُمَرَ فَرَجَوْنَا أَنْ يُحَدِّثَنَا، حَدِيثًا حَسَنًا ـ قَالَ ـ فَبَادَرَنَا إِلَيْهِ رَجُلٌ فَقَالَ يَا أَبَا عَبْدِ الرَّحْمَنِ حَدِّثْنَا عَنِ الْقِتَالِ فِي الْفِتْنَةِ وَاللَّهُ يَقُولُ ‏{‏وَقَاتِلُوهُمْ حَتَّى لاَ تَكُونَ فِتْنَةٌ‏}‏ فَقَالَ هَلْ تَدْرِي مَا الْفِتْنَةُ ثَكِلَتْكَ أُمُّكَ، إِنَّمَا كَانَ مُحَمَّدٌ صلى الله عليه وسلم يُقَاتِلُ الْمُشْرِكِينَ، وَكَانَ الدُّخُولُ فِي دِينِهِمْ فِتْنَةً، وَلَيْسَ كَقِتَالِكُمْ عَلَى الْمُلْكِ‏.‏ “ (Sahih al-Bukhari volume 9, Book 88, Hadith 215 https://sunnah.com/bukhari/92/46)

That above hadith says fighting can’t be “for leadership”/supremacy. The fitna fighting was in relation to persecution and oppression. Here is a longer version:

“Narrated Nafi: During the affliction of Ibn Az-Zubair, two men came to Ibn `Umar and said, “The people are lost, and you are the son of `Umar, and the companion of the Prophet, so what forbids you from coming out?” He said, “What forbids me is that Allah has prohibited the shedding of my brother’s blood.” They both said, “Didn’t Allah say, ‘And fight then until there is no more affliction?” He said “We fought until there was no more affliction and the worship is for Allah (Alone while you want to fight until there is affliction and until the worship become for other than Allah.” … Won’t you listen to why Allah has mentioned in His Book: ‘If two groups of believers fight each other, then make peace between them, but if one of then transgresses beyond bounds against the other, then you all fight against the one that transgresses. (49.9) and:–“AND FIGHT THEM TILL THERE IS NO MORE AFFLICTION (FITNA فِتْنَةٌ).” Ibn `Umar said, “WE DID IT, DURING THE LIFETIME OF ALLAH’S MESSENGER WHEN ISLAM HAD ONLY A FEW FOLLOWERS. A MAN WOULD BE PUT TO TRIAL BECAUSE OF HIS RELIGION; HE WOULD EITHER BE KILLED OR TORTURED. BUT WHEN THE MUSLIMS INCREASED, THERE WAS NO MORE AFFLICTIONS OR OPPRESSIONS (FITNA). …
Arabic
حَدَّثَنَا مُحَمَّدُ بْنُ بَشَّارٍ، حَدَّثَنَا عَبْدُ الْوَهَّابِ، حَدَّثَنَا عُبَيْدُ اللَّهِ، عَنْ نَافِعٍ، عَنِ ابْنِ عُمَرَ ـ رضى الله عنهما ـ أَتَاهُ رَجُلاَنِ فِي فِتْنَةِ ابْنِ الزُّبَيْرِ فَقَالاَ إِنَّ النَّاسَ قَدْ ضُيِّعُوا، وَأَنْتَ ابْنُ عُمَرَ وَصَاحِبُ النَّبِيِّ صلى الله عليه وسلم فَمَا يَمْنَعُكَ أَنْ تَخْرُجَ فَقَالَ يَمْنَعُنِي أَنَّ اللَّهَ حَرَّمَ دَمَ أَخِي‏.‏ فَقَالاَ أَلَمْ يَقُلِ اللَّهُ ‏{‏وَقَاتِلُوهُمْ حَتَّى لاَ تَكُونَ فِتْنَةٌ ‏}‏ فَقَالَ قَاتَلْنَا حَتَّى لَمْ تَكُنْ فِتْنَةٌ، وَكَانَ الدِّينُ لِلَّهِ، وَأَنْتُمْ تُرِيدُونَ أَنْ تُقَاتِلُوا حَتَّى تَكُونَ فِتْنَةٌ، وَيَكُونَ الدِّينُ لِغَيْرِ اللَّهِ‏.‏ وَزَادَ عُثْمَانُ بْنُ صَالِحٍ عَنِ ابْنِ وَهْبٍ، قَالَ أَخْبَرَنِي فُلاَنٌ، وَحَيْوَةُ بْنُ شُرَيْحٍ، عَنْ بَكْرِ بْنِ عَمْرٍو الْمَعَافِرِيِّ، أَنَّ بُكَيْرَ بْنَ عَبْدِ اللَّهِ، حَدَّثَهُ عَنْ نَافِعٍ، أَنَّ رَجُلاً، أَتَى ابْنَ عُمَرَ فَقَالَ يَا أَبَا عَبْدِ الرَّحْمَنِ مَا حَمَلَكَ عَلَى أَنْ تَحُجَّ عَامًا وَتَعْتَمِرَ عَامًا، وَتَتْرُكَ الْجِهَادَ فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ عَزَّ وَجَلَّ، وَقَدْ عَلِمْتَ مَا رَغَّبَ اللَّهُ فِيهِ قَالَ يَا ابْنَ أَخِي بُنِيَ الإِسْلاَمُ عَلَى خَمْسٍ إِيمَانٍ بِاللَّهِ وَرَسُولِهِ، وَالصَّلاَةِ الْخَمْسِ، وَصِيَامِ رَمَضَانَ، وَأَدَاءِ الزَّكَاةِ، وَحَجِّ الْبَيْتِ‏.‏ قَالَ يَا أَبَا عَبْدِ الرَّحْمَنِ، أَلاَ تَسْمَعُ مَا ذَكَرَ اللَّهُ فِي كِتَابِهِ ‏{‏وَإِنْ طَائِفَتَانِ مِنَ الْمُؤْمِنِينَ اقْتَتَلُوا فَأَصْلِحُوا بَيْنَهُمَا‏}‏ ‏{‏إِلَى أَمْرِ اللَّهِ‏}‏ ‏{‏قَاتِلُوهُمْ حَتَّى لاَ تَكُونَ فِتْنَةٌ‏}‏ قَالَ فَعَلْنَا عَلَى عَهْدِ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم وَكَانَ الإِسْلاَمُ قَلِيلاً، فَكَانَ الرَّجُلُ يُفْتَنُ فِي دِينِهِ إِمَّا قَتَلُوهُ، وَإِمَّا يُعَذِّبُوهُ، حَتَّى كَثُرَ الإِسْلاَمُ فَلَمْ تَكُنْ فِتْنَةٌ‏.‏ قَالَ فَمَا قَوْلُكَ فِي عَلِيٍّ وَعُثْمَانَ قَالَ أَمَّا عُثْمَانُ فَكَأَنَّ اللَّهَ عَفَا عَنْهُ، وَأَمَّا أَنْتُمْ فَكَرِهْتُمْ أَنْ تَعْفُوا عَنْهُ، وَأَمَّا عَلِيٌّ فَابْنُ عَمِّ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم وَخَتَنُهُ‏.‏ وَأَشَارَ بِيَدِهِ فَقَالَ هَذَا بَيْتُهُ حَيْثُ تَرَوْنَ‏.‏
” (Sahih al-Bukhari volume 6, Book 60, Hadith 40 https://sunnah.com/urn/41950)

And:

Narrated Ibn `Umar: … Ibn `Umar said, “O son of my brother! I would rather be blamed for not fighting because of this Verse than to be blamed because of another Verse where Allah says: ‘And whoever kills a believer intentionally…” (4.93) Then that man said, “Allah says:– ‘And fight them until there is no more afflictions (worshipping other besides Allah) and the religion (i.e. worship) will be all for Allah (Alone)” (8.39) Ibn `Umar said, “We did this during the lifetime of Allah’s Messenger when the number of Muslims was small, and A MAN WAS PUT TO TRIAL BECAUSE OF HIS RELIGION, THE PAGANS WOULD EITHER KILL OR CHAIN HIM; BUT WHEN THE MUSLIMS INCREASED (AND ISLAM SPREAD), THERE WAS NO PERSECUTION (FITNA).” When that man saw that Ibn `Umar did not agree to his proposal, he said, “What is your opinion regarding `Ali and `Uthman?” Ibn `Umar said, “What is my opinion regarding `Ali and `Uthman? As for `Uthman, Allah forgave him and you disliked to forgive him, and `Ali is the cousin and son-in-law of Allah’s Messenger.” Then he pointed out with his hand and said, “And that is his daughter’s (house) which you can see.” (Sahih al-Bukhari volume 6, Book 60, Hadith 173 https://sunnah.com/urn/43280)

And this report from Fath al-Bari:

“’And fight them until there is no more FITNAH…’
Ibn Umar said, ‘We did that during the time of The Messenger of Allah when Islam was weak and the man would be tried in religion, EITHER TORMENTED TO DEATH OR BEING IMPRISONED. When Islam became stronger and widespread, there was no more Fitnah.’ …” (Fath al-Bari volume 8, page 160) (Tafsir Ibn Kathir (Abridged) [Abridged by A Group of Scholars Under The Supervision Of Shaykh Safiur-Rahman Al-Mubarakpuri. Maktaba Dar-us-Salam – Second Edition, 2003] volume 4 page 314)

Ibn Kathir explains that “fitnah” in Surah 8:39-41 is understood classically to mean that a Muslim is persecuted so much that he may abandon his religion. In his footnote he provides Ibn Abi Hatim (854 – 938 AD) who also has this opinion:

“’until there is no Fitnah’ the Fitnah mentioned here means, until no Muslims is PERSECUTED so that he abandons his religion.” (Ibn Abi Hatim volume 5, page 1701) (Tafsir Ibn Kathir (Abridged) [Abridged by A Group of Scholars Under The Supervision Of Shaykh Safiur-Rahman Al-Mubarakpuri. Maktaba Dar-us-Salam – Second Edition, 2003] volume 4 page 314)

When some commentaries or the above Hadith say fitna in connection with “no more worshipping of others besides Allah” in brackets, one should note here this is in reference to some Muslims who were forcefully converted to polytheism (Shirk) and thus they had to worship idols or gods of the persecutors. Thus no more shirk in the sense of them (persecutors) not being able to persecute an individual where they may fall back into polytheism due to the oppression.

Conclusion:

These Hadith reports shown proves unequivocally that fitnah requires physical persecution and oppression against Muslims before any fight can occur. It also proves that it is a fight by the weak against the oppressor and never a fight by the one in power to impose Islam on others. Therefore, “fitna” was understood by Prophet Muhammed’s companions as persecution and oppression.

Related articles:

(1) – “Most Misinterpreted Verses Of The Quran?

(2) – “Early Expeditions And Battles Of Islam

(3) – “Did Quraysh Persecute Muslims When They Fled To Madinah?

(4) – “Did Muhammad Order Or Support The Killing Of Innocents?

fitna-is-persecution

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