Just as in English and all other languages, in Arabic some words have various connotations.
The word “fitnah”, the equivalent of “oppression”, has more than one meaning in Arabic.
“Fitnah” is primarily the process by which gold is purified of other elements. As used in the Qur’an however, the word implies the trials through which believers are separated from unbelievers or hypocrites. These trials have a basic feature: they may lead a person astray. Put briefly, the fact that the individual can both be guided to the true path or be led astray during these trials entirely depends on the type of attitude he assumes towards religion. The prayer of Moses addresses this feature of fitnah:
And Moses chose seventy of his people for Our place of meeting: when they were seized with violent quaking, he prayed: “O my Lord! If it had been Your will, You could have long before destroyed both them and me: would you destroy us for the deeds of the foolish ones among us? This is no more than Your trial: by it you cause whom You will to stray, and You lead whom You will to the right path. You are our Protector: so forgive us and give us Your mercy; for You are the best of those who forgive. (Al-Araf, 177)
Many verses imply that the earth is a place of trial and men will certainly be tested whether they really believe or not:
Do men think that they will be left alone on saying, “We believe”, and that they will not be tested? We tested those who went before them, and Allah will certainly know those who are true from those who are false. (Al-Ankabut, 1-3)
In another verse it is explained that this trial is of two different kinds:
Every soul shall have a taste of death: and We test you all by evil and by good by way of trial. To Us you must return. (Al-Anbiya, 35)
If an individual complies with the commandments of Allah, albeit the owner of substantial possessions and living in very favourable circumstances, this is, in reality, a way to feel closer to Allah. Yet if he does not spend what he owns in such a way as to obtain the approval of Allah, he may go astray. Such a person fails the test and “suffers a manifest loss” in the hereafter.
In the same way, a trouble, distress, disease, loss of one’s house or family may be cited as examples of the trials an individual is likely to encounter. His reaction to these trials reveals whether he is a true believer or not. No alteration ever occurs in the attitude of a believer when he faces trouble. Rebellion, hopelessness, despair, or distress evinced towards the trials indicate that the person in question is not a true believer.
A believer is always conscious that each incident occurs by the Will of Allah. He, therefore, puts his trust in Allah and faces even the gravest trouble with maturity. Loss of any property never affects him since he does not allow worldly passions to control him. He is confident that this is the attitude by which he can please Allah.
Fitnah: Straying From the True Way
Some incidents are specially designed by Allah to reveal the attitude of unbelievers. Some verses in the Qur’an relate this fact:
Thus We tried some of them by comparison with others, so that they should say: “Is it these then that Allah has favored from amongst us?” Does not Allah know best those who are grateful? (Al-Anaam, 53)
A similar verse follows:
Never did We send a messenger or a prophet before you, but, when he framed a desire, Satan tampered with it. but Allah will cancel any vain intervention by Satan, and will confirm (and establish) His signs: for Allah is full of knowledge and wisdom: He makes Satan’s interjections a trial for those in whose hearts there is a disease and who have become hardened truly, the wrong-doers are in open schism and far from the truth. (Al-Hajj, 52-53)
In the verse below it is remarked that in some cases property is given to people to test them:
Do not strain your eyes in longing for the things We have given for enjoyment to some of them, or for the splendour of the life of this world, for with these We seek only to test them: but the provision of your Lord is better and more enduring. (Ta-Ha, 131)
Rather than just the testing of human faith, these trials are created to verify the rebellion of certain people, as well as disclosing the truth about them. This is explained in another verse:
Let neither their wealth nor their (following in) sons dazzle you; in reality, Allah’s plan is to punish them with these things in this life, so that their souls may perish in their (very) denial of Allah.(Al-Tawba, 55)
Allah states in the Qur’an that He has left some people astray:
Then do you see such a person as takes as his god his own vain desire? Allah has, knowing (him as such), left him astray, and sealed his hearing and his heart (and understanding), and put a veil over his eyes. Who, then, will guide him after Allah has withdrawn His guidance? Will you not then receive admonition? (Al-Jathiya, 23)
There is no other recourse for the people whom Allah has left astray:
Why should you be divided into two parties about the hypocrites? Allah has upset them for their (evil) deeds. Would you guide those whom Allah has confounded? For those whom Allah has confounded, there can be no guidance. (An-Nisa, 88)
Straying With Fitnah
From the foregoing we know that fitnah, in certain cases and at certain times, might lead people astray. The Qur’an repeatedly recalls the stories of people in the past who went astray. For instance, when Moses was away from his people, they followed Samiri, who made a statue of a calf, and worshipped it. This is recounted in the Qur’an: as “being led astray”
(Allah) said: “We have tested your people in your absence: the Samiri has led them astray.” (Ta-Ha, 85)
“Then he brought out (of the fire) before the (people) the image of a calf. It seemed to low; so they said: ”This is your god, and the god of Moses, but (Moses) has forgotten!’”
Aaron had already, before this said to them:
“O my people! you are being tested in this: for truly, your Lord is Allah Most Gracious; so follow me and obey my command.” (Ta-Ha, 88-90)
Another verse confirming that fitnah leads the unwary astray is as follows:
Soon you will see, and they will see, which of you is afflicted with madness. Truly, it is your Lord who knows best, which of you have strayed from His path: and He knows best those who receive true guidance. (Al-Qalam, 5-7)
Fitnah As A Test
The positive attitude one takes at the time of a fitnah is a means by which one can feel closer to Allah. Fitnah is surely a way by which a believer demonstrates his perseverance and commitment to Allah and is a means of attaining personal maturity in His sight.
For instance all-out war is a time of great trial. No matter what the circumstances are, believers, and only believers, display the attitude explained in the Qur’an:
When the Believers saw the confederate forces, they said: “This is what Allah and His messenger had promised us, and Allah and His Messenger told us what was true.” And it only added to their faith and their zeal in obedience. (Al-Ahzab, 22)
No matter how hard a trial may be, believers always conduct themselves in such a way as to merit the pleasure of Allah.
What seems to be fortunate and good for believers may well be a reason to go astray for unbelievers. The verse below points to another trial, a trial regarding the number of angels in hell. What becomes a matter of going astray for unbelievers, may be good news for believers and may strengthen their faith.
Over it are nineteen. And We have appointed none but angels as guardians of the fire; and We have fixed their number only as a trial for unbelievers,in order that the people of the book may arrive at certainty, and the believers may increase in faith, and that no doubts may be left for the people of the book and the believers, and that those in whose hearts is a disease and the unbelievers may say, “What symbol does Allah intend by this?” Thus Allah leaves to stray whom He pleases, and guides whom He pleases: and none can know the forces of your Lord, except Himself and this is no more than a warning to mankind. (Al-Muddaththir, 30-31)
The Effort To Lead People Into Fitnah
Some people concentrate all their efforts on making believers go astray. Their main purpose is to make them adopt their own unreasonable way of thinking and beliefs. The Qur’an informs us that, throughout history, against almost all believers assaults were carried out for this purpose. All these attacks were planned to weaken the commitment of believers to the commandments of the Qur’an. Allah states that believers would fall into fitnah if they ever complied with this plan.
And their purpose was to tempt you away from what We had revealed to you, to substitute in Our name something quite different; (in that case), behold! They would certainly have made you (their) friend! (Al-Isra, 73)
In Surat Al-Baqara verses 191 and 217, Allah states fitnah to be “worse than slaughter”. To have a better understanding of fitnah as an offense, it would be helpful to examine the case of “killing a man”, an offense described by the Qur’an.
If a man kills a believer intentionally, his recompense is Hell, to abide therein (forever): And the wrath and the curse of Allah are upon him, and a dreadful penalty is prepared for him. (An-Nisa, 93)
Actually here fitnah has a meaning other than “trial”. It is used for all acts and deeds leading man astray.
The Qur’an especially refers to hypocrites as the ones who “cause fitnah”. Allah informs us that hypocrites practise many forms of fitnah; they basically try to prevent believers from involving themselves in war, hatch plans against the messenger and believers, and try to make them lose their sense of commitment.
Hypocrites misinterpret the verses, or rather distort the interpretation of verses and only comply with them, if they are of benefit to them. Believers, on the other hand, assume a totally different attitude; they demonstrate complete submission whatever the circumstances may be.
He it is Who has sent down the Book to you: In it are verses basic or fundamental (of established meaning); they are the foundation of the Book: others are allegorical. But those who have perversity in their hearts follow the part of it that is allegorical, seeking discord, and searching for its hidden meanings, but no one knows its hidden meanings except Allah. And those who are firmly grounded in knowledge say: “We believe in the Book; the whole of it is from our Lord.” And none will grasp the message except men of understanding. (Al-Imran, 7)
The basic characteristic of hypocrites is their indulgence in fitnah. The Arabic version of the word “hypocrite” is “munafiq”, which means “the one who makes a division.” Dividing believers is a fitnah as well as a great sin. There are verses in the Qur’an stating that hypocrites try to practise fitnah among believers:
If they had come out with you, they would not have added to your (strength) but only (made for) disorder, hurrying to and fro in your midst and sowing sedition among you, and there would have been some among you who would have listened to them. But Allah knows well those who do wrong. (Al-Tawba, 47)
Should their plans be disclosed to believers, hypocrites plotting against the messenger and believers try to convince believers of their innocence. They make an effort to reduce such treachery to insignificance. They surely go in great fear of believers and punishment, and thus conduct themselves as if they have never committed an offense. Moreover, they ask believers not to treat them like other hypocrites and demand the continuance of their relations.
Among them is (many) a man who says: “Grant me exemption and do not expose me to temptation. Have they not succumbed to temptation already?” And indeed hell surrounds the unbelievers on all sides. (Al-Tawba, 49)
The verse asserts that hypocrites are liars and are involved in fitnah, just like others. Allah warns believers not to be deceived by their fraud.
Unbelievers and hypocrites will suffer the most grievous penalty in the hell in return to the fitnah they have caused:
“Taste this your trial, the punishment which you have sought to hasten!” (Adh-Dhariyat, 14)
Dispute Among Believers Causes Fitnah
Oppression prevails on earth unless believers provide protection to one another. This fact is stated in the following verse:
The unbelievers are protectors, one of another: Unless you do this, (protect each other), there will be tumult and oppression on earth, and great mischief. (Al-Anfal, 73)
Believers conduct themselves with caution, taking care not to become involved in any issue which is likely to foment oppression. Certain attitudes and behaviour, albeit unintentional, may well underlie such injustice. As mentioned in the verse above, failure to protect one another or allowing disputes to arise among believers can also be causes of oppression, in which case the responsibility would rest also with the believers. True believers, therefore pay the utmost attention to giving each other comfort, care and protection.
Factors of Fitnah
In the Qur’an, Allah, the Creator of man, informs us in detail how a man should lead his life. If the individual follows his own desires in this world, it is more likely that he will hold his desires and his own expectations above the good pleasure of Allah. In such a spirit, he will display a heedless attitude towards pleasing Allah and the benefits of Islam. In such a case, one can expect him not to be cautious in observing the limits set by Allah.
Allah repeatedly reminds man that this world is a temporary place in which to reside and a setting for trial. Knowing this, people can still see it as an eternal place to stay and turn their faces away from the afterlife.
Anyone refusing to embrace the Qur’an as a guide is bound to have ambitions for this life. He is therefore prone to suffer great distress about everything related to daily life. Possessions and children are also referred to as fitnah in the verse below:
Your riches and your children may be but a trial: but in the presence of Allah is the highest reward. (At-Taghabun, 15)
The use of the word ‘trial’ here is indeed striking. Pretending not to understand the main task of man in this life, people are generally carried away by certain false aims and embrace them as “a law of this world”. Due to the indoctrination of an ignorant society, people believe marriage, having children and possessions to be the immutable law of worldly life. The majority of people evince a strong interest in getting married, having possessions and children while they remain rather indifferent to complying with the commandments of Allah and observing His limits.
The criterion that creates the need to have children is also provided in the Qur’an. Accordingly, such an intention is acted upon not simply out of custom, but only when it is in compliance with the pleasure of Allah The prayer of Prophet Imran is given as example for this case:
Behold! A woman of ‘Imran said: “O my Lord! I dedicate to you what is in my womb for your special service: So accept this of me: for you hear and know all things.” (Al-Imran, 35)
The Qur’an relates similar prayers of the prophets and leads the beleivers to the true way:
There Zakariya prayed to his Lord, saying: “O my Lord! Grant to me from You progeny that is pure: for You are the one Who hears all prayers! (Al-Imran, 38)
Abraham’s prayer is as follows:
“Our Lord! make of us Muslims, bowing to your will, and of our progeny a Muslim people bowing to your will; and show us our place for the celebration of due rites; and turn to us in mercy; for you are the Oft-Returning, Most Merciful. (Al-Baqara, 128)
Possessions, too, would enable the individual to attain the mercy of Allah and an eternal salvation, provided that they were used in the cause of Allah. Otherwise, they would be fitnah. The attitude of the Prophet Solomon towards possessions sets an example for all believers. Rather than avoiding possessions, believers regard possessions as a way to remember the word of Allah.The conduct of Sulayman is recounted as follows in the Quran :
Behold, there were brought before him one evening steeds of the highest breeding, and swift of foot; and he said, “Truly, I love the love of good, with a view to the glory of my Lord,” -until (the sun) was hidden in the veil (of night): “Bring them back to me.” Then he began to pass his hand over their legs and their necks. (Sad, 31-33)
About possessions and children, Allah gives other warnings to believers in the Qur’an. Constant vigilance is essential to avoid this fitnah:
Wealth and children of this world by no means ensure salvation from a disastrous end, unless they are made for the good pleasure of Allah:
O you who believe! Let not your riches or your children divert you from the remembrance of Allah. If any act thus, the loss is their own. (Al-Munafiqoon, 9)
The property and the children they possess will do them no good in the hereafter: Of no profit whatever to them, against Allah, will be their riches or their sons: they will be companions of the fire, to dwell therein for ever! (Al-Mujadila, 17)
Oppression, Torture and Burden
Oppression, torture and burden are also referred to as fitnah (trial) in the Qur’an.
But none believed in Moses except some children of his people, because of the fear that Pharaoh and his chiefs, would persecute them; and certainly Pharaoh was mighty on the earth and one who transgressed all bounds. (Jonah, 83)
In their prayers to avoid the oppression of unbelievers, believers again use the word fitnah (trial):
They said: “In Allah we have put our trust. Our Lord! Do not make us a trial for those who practise oppression.” (Jonah, 85)
Also the Qur’an names distress, disasters, and catastrophes as fitnah (trial):
Do they not see that they are tried every year once or twice? Yet they do not turn in repentance, and they take no heed. (Al-Tawba, 126)