Why did Geert Wilders choose the word fitna as the title of his movie?
Recent news reports about the movie translate fitna as “strife”, “discord”, or “contention”. But, as with many Arabic words, the meaning is more nuanced than that, and defies literal translation into English.
I located a monograph on the word fitna (pdf format) at the Centre for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at the University of Bergen. It’s by Humphrey J. Fisher, and is entitled “Text-Centred Research: Fitna as a Case Study and a Way Forward for Guests in the House of African Historiography”.
Dr. Fisher lists “temptation, trial; charm charmingness, attractiveness; enchantment captivation, fascination, enticement, temptation; infatuation; intrigue; sedition, riot, discord, dissension, civil strife” as some of the cited meanings of the word, but the most interesting part of his analysis is this conclusion: “…in whatever particular context fitna may be perceived, it is almost always a context within the Muslim community, setting believer against believer.”
In other words, fitna means “the instigation of the kind of trouble that sets Muslims at one another’s throats”.
So Mr. Wilders’ may have chosen an apt title, depending on how the responses to his movie unfold over the next weeks and months.
Here’s an excerpt from Dr. Fisher’s article (pp. 7-13). The original has footnotes and citations, but I left them out to make the text more readable:
As a single example of the technical Islamic terms imbedded — alas, not always very accessibly — in the documents of After the Jihad, let us examine fitna, translated in Cowan and Wehr’s great dictionary as ‘temptation, trial; charm charmingness, attractiveness; enchantment captivation, fascination, enticement, temptation; infatuation; intrigue; sedition, riot, discord, dissension, civil strife’. It is but one of a considerable number of such terms in After the Jihad, but it is an especially good instance, not only being an essential element in this specific body of evidence, closely interwoven into the material which Hanson and Robinson have marshalled for us here, but also raising subtle and difficult questions, and, I believe, casting a new and clearer light over the whole vista of Muslim development in black Africa. We may tackle fitna from various angles: what is its meaning, in the Quran, in its early Muslim development, and in some of its later contexts? How is it used in the Umarian documents, both those gathered by Hanson and Robinson, and other such documents? And what are some instances of other, non-Umarian, West African usage? And what general conclusions may be drawn?
The meaning of fitna in the Quran
The term is prominent in the Quran, appearing specifically as fitna 34 times, and 26 times in a variety of verbal forms drawn from the same root, f.t.n. The overwhelming majority of these passages have the sense of a ‘trial’ or ‘temptation’, of ‘testing’ someone. L. Gardet in the Encyclopaedia of Islam (2) article on fitna speaks of many Quranic occurrences ‘with the sense of temptation or trial of faith’;12 Gardet refers here to R. Blachere’s French translation, tentation d’abjurer, being tempted to apostatise, to forswear or to abandon the faith. This French rendering, as we shall see, has been taken up with enthusiasm by two of al- hajj ‘Umar’s other major editors, Mahibou and Triaud, and made a lynchpin — not altogether persuasively, in my view — of their interpretation of ‘Umar’s theology.
But what of discord within the Muslim community, which is more than hinted at by Cowan and Wehr, and which is clearly of paramount importance in West Africa? Particularly among the verbal forms, it is difficult to find any in the Quran which lend themselves easily to the idea of such internal dissonance. When we turn to the noun fitna, however, we see a handful of passages which do in some measure point in such a direction. In one passage, those — and it seems that they must be Muslims, albeit errant Muslims — who misinterpret certain Quranic verses are condemned for seeking fitna, discord (3: 7). In two other passages, fitna is associated with the hypocrites, who are, almost by definition, either within the Muslim community, or claiming to be so. The first of these two passages discusses the possibility that the hypocrites might succeed in sowing dissension, fitna, amongst the committed Muslims (9: 47-8). The second passage linking hypocrites with fitna is 33:14.
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In a fourth passage the reference is to people who, while not going so far as to declare themselves Muslims, had indeed made friendly overtures to the Muslim community, but who later showed hostility, fitna, against it (4: 91). These people, though not Muslims, not even errant or hypocritical Muslims, were nevertheless in some kind of special relationship with the Muslims: they were in a Muslim context.
There is also a trio of instances (2: 191-3 and 217, 8: 39) in which persecution — by implication persecution of Muslims by non-Muslims — has become a popular modern rendering. But it has not always been so,16 and there seems just a chance that internal strife, within the Muslim community, might be hinted at.
Early development of the term
Somewhat suprisingly, it is this idea, so very subordinate in the Quran, of internal dissension within the Muslim community, which has come to dominate the subsequent theological use of the term. The events beginning with the murder of ‘Uthman, a third of the four rightly-guided caliphs, and culminating in the seizure of power by Mufiawiya, founder of the Umayyad dynasty, all within a few years of the Prophet Muhammad’s death, came to be known as the first or great fitna, the fitna par excellence. Perhaps recalling how rapidly fitna had thus convulsed the early Muslim community, Usuman dan Fodio, al-hajj ‘Umar’s great precursor and model, in Hausaland about 1800, wrote that only the life of the Prophet amongst the umma, or nation, of Islam, preserved it from al-fitan (a plural form of fitna) — ‘discord’ is the equivalent chosen by Usuman’s Nigerian translator here. Fitna became a basic concept, of great symbolic value in the preoccupation of the early Muslim community with questions of continuity and survival — fitna, disintegration, representing of course failure to preserve the harmony of the community. Just such questions were of critical urgency in western Africa, a remote frontier of the Muslim world, and one exposed to many temptations and dangers. Gardet citing a considerable range of historical illustrations of fitna, defines it in these cases as ‘disturbances or even civil war involving the adoption of doctrinal attitudes which endanger the purity of the Muslim faith’.
The phenomenon of fitna may emerge in a very wide variety of different contexts. Wansbrough, speaking of the very early days of the development of Islam, says that the term symbolicalliy enshrined ‘hostility, or at least … tension, between secular authority and the ethical demands of a pious minority’. Or, to move into a very different area, fitna may describe the destabilising effect of women upon society.
A very unusual, interesting, and apposite example of fitna as internal discord of a religious kind comes from the historical novel, City of Wrong: a Friday in Jerusalem, written by a Muslim about the events immediately leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus. In the story, the prosecutor calls upon the Jewish assembly to ‘cut off this disruptive evil’, referring to Jesus, and the word used in the Arabic original is fitna. The prosecutor speaks also of heresies, which threaten to undermine the Jewish people and faith from within. This is exactly right as an illustration of the common Muslim understanding of fitna; and I imagine that it may also be a fairly shrewd assessment of Jewish reactions at the time of Jesus’ trial.
However, in whatever particular context fitna may be perceived, it is almost always a context within the Muslim community, setting believer against believer. Fitna seems not to occur between the Muslim community on the one hand, and independent non-Muslims on the other; though, as will become clear a little further along in the argument, and as we delve into the data supplied by Hanson and Robinson, I suggest that fitna may indeed occur between Muslim and dependent non-Muslims, whose status is fundamentally defined (at least in Muslim eyes by their position as dhimmis (protected, albeit second-class, persons) within an overall Muslim hierarchy.
The monograph has more on the topic. Download the pdf here.