Fitnah: Coming to a Sin-e-World Near You! (Part 1)
The Arabic word fitnah bears the meaning of trial, discord, affliction, temptation and civil war, and any other strife ‘that ruptures the community’s unity and pits Muslim against fellow Muslim.’1 As well as discussing the ageless and abiding fitnah of wealth, women and civil war, this blog piece will also reflect upon the fitnahs related to callers to misguidance, governments seeking to domesticate Islam and Muslim scholars, the active promotion and funding of warped understandings of our faith, and the fitnahs of sectarian violence and takfir. Our Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Before the coming of the Hour there will be fitnahs like patches of dark night. A person shall awaken in the morning a believer but by the evening become a disbeliever, or in the evening be a believer but by morning become a disbeliever; and people will sell their religion in order to acquire some portion of the world.’2
1 – Fitnah of Wealth: We are reminded in the Qur’an: Your wealth and your children are but a trial, and with Allah is an immense reward. [64:15] The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Truly, for every nation there is a trial, and the trial for my nation is wealth.’3 The trial, or fitnah, of wealth is when one either acquires anything of it in a forbidden way, or it distracts one from fulfilling religious obligations and duties, or one becomes overly attached to it; especially when becoming enslaved by it. It says in a hadith: ‘Wretched be the slave of the dinar; wretched be the slave of the dirham; wretched be the slave of fine cloth; wretched be the slave of embroidered cloth. May he be wretched and degraded, and if such a one is pierced by a thorn, let it not be extracted. When he is granted his desires he is pleased and when he is denied them he is angered.’4 Such is the state of the one whose heart is a slave to wealth or to worldliness: wretched and depraved! The heart, when its contentment or anger is for other than Allah, it is a worshipper of whatever desire or caprice animates it; and much of its moods, feelings and emotions become servile and captive to it.
In the consumer-driven lives of our e-world (with its emails, eBay, e-commerce and e-credit), protecting ourselves from this particular fitnah is not easy. To be clear, wealth, in and of itself, isn’t bad. But the worship, enslavement or overly preoccupation with it is. A sound and correct attitude towards wealth is always a useful reminder. Wealth must be seen as a means, not an end – as Ibn Taymiyyah said, when asked about how seekers of Allah and the Afterlife should view it. ‘We must view wealth much as we do the toilet,’ he replied, ‘in that we resort to it whenever needed, but it has no place in our hearts.’5
Shaykh Jaleel Ahmad Akhoon, a present-day shaykh of spiritual wayfaring (suluk), said about fostering a sense of detachment from wealth and the wordly (dunya), that:
As one begins to fill the heart with love of Allah, and seeking His acceptance and good pleasure, love of dunya is gradually cast out. Imagine it to be a plane journey, he said. If, while the plane is still on the tarmac one peers out of the window, other planes and the airport terminals look large and imposing. But when the plane takes off and starts its upward ascent, those very same objects appear to look smaller and smaller, until they seem insignificant and just disappear. Likewise, as we make a serious effort to fill our heart with love of Allah, and as the heart soars higher and higher in its journey to Him, dunya becomes more and more insignificant in its estimation, till it diminishes, dwindles, then finally disappears.
2 – Fitnah of Civil War: A hadith says: ‘Before the Hour there will be fitnahs like pieces of dark night, wherein a man will be a believer in the morning and a disbeliever by the evening; or a believer in the evening and a disbeliever by morning. He who sits during it is better than he who stands; he who stands is better than he who walks; he who walks is better than the he who runs. So during such times, break your bows, cut your bow-strings and blunt your swords upon stones. If one of them enters upon you, then be like the better of the two sons of Adam.’6 Which is to say, in times of the fitnah of a civil war, where Muslims are pitted against fellow Muslims, people are duty bound to not fan the flames of political violence in any and every way possible. Killing another Muslim simply isn’t an option. The Prophet ﷺ said: sibab al-muslim fusuq wa qitaluhu kufr – ‘Reviling a Muslim is sinful and killing him is disbelief.’7
Muslims doing their utmost not to take the life of a fellow Muslim – even to the point of laying down their own life – is one thing. But as for being intent on taking the life of your political Muslim opponent, the next narration speaks to such foulness: ‘If two Muslims meet each other with swords drawn, both the killer and the one killed are in the Fire.’ The Prophet ﷺ was asked: The killer, yes! But also the one killed? So he ﷺ replied: ‘He was just as intent on killing his opponent.’8
If we add to the evils of civil war, the even greater scourge of religious extremism and takfir, the situation becomes darker and even more dire. And this is precisely what we have today. The Prophet ﷺ forewarned: ‘Truly what I most fear for you is a man who will recite the Qur’an until its radiance appears on him and he becomes a support to Islam, changing it to whatever Allah wills. He then separates from it, casts it behind his back and raises the sword against his neighbour, accusing him of idolatry (shirk).’ I asked: O Prophet of Allah, who most deserves to be imputed with shirk; the accused or the accuser? He replied: ‘The accuser.’9
If civil war does not strip away faith or salvation from the Hellfire, at the very least it snatches away intellects and peoples’ sanity – as both reality and the next hadith bear out: Abu Musa relates that Allah’s Messenger ﷺ said: ‘Before the Hour comes there will be harj!’ I asked: O Allah’s Messenger, what is harj? He said: ‘Killing.’ Some people said: O Allah’s Messenger, now we slay [in battle] such and such number of idolaters in a single year. The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘This won’t be like slaying the idolaters. Instead, you will kill one another, to the extent that a person will kill his neighbour, nephew and relatives!’ Some people said: O Messenger of Allah, will we be in our right minds that day? He said: ‘No! For reason will have departed from most people at that time, and there shall remain only the dregs of people who will be devoid of reason. Most of them will assume they are upon something, but they won’t be upon any thing.’10 I’ve discussed political violence here, and the thorny question of rebellion against Muslim rulers here. In all these affairs, piety (taqwa), knowledge (‘ilm) and patience (sabr) are crucial. To this end, Ibn al-Qayyim wrote:
‘The Prophet ﷺ legislated for his nation the duty of forbidding the evil so that, by it, the goodness that Allah and His Messenger love could be procured. But if eliminating evil leads to an evil worse than it, and more hateful to Allah and His Messenger, then it is not permissible to censure it – even if Allah detests that evil and its doers. This is like censuring kings and others in authority, by rebelling against them. Indeed, this is the root of every evil and tribulation till the end of time … Whoever ponders the tribulations that have befallen Islam, the great or the small, will see that they are due to neglecting this principle and not bearing patience with the evil, but instead seeking to remove it by giving rise to an evil far worse than it.’11
Whether in terms of actively participating in fighting and killing, or rallying people to party zeal and frenzy, or spreading news and propaganda via social media, the shari‘ah insists that we withdraw from all such activities and rid ourselves of any means which could add fuel to the fire. In fact, during a civil war the best form of political activism is actually quietism. While there is great honour in waging a bonafide jihad against a hostile unbelieving army, no such honour or glory exists in a civil war.
3 – Fitnah of Women and the Desires of Men: Allah ﷻ says in the Holy Qur’an: Made beautiful for mankind is the love of desires for women and offspring, of hoarded heaps of gold and silver, of branded horses, cattle and plantations. [3:14] Although such things are elsewhere spoken of positively in the Qur’an, as blessings for which people should be thankful, here they are spoken of seductively in terms of objects which men lust over, crave and covet. Unsurprisingly, women top the list. This fact rings loudly in a hadith in which the Prophet ﷺ informed: ‘I have not left after me a fitnah more harmful for men than women.’12 It’s a warning only a fool or a fasiq would be keen to overlook or take lightly. Another hadith states: ‘The world is green and sweet and Allah has placed you in it as custodians to see how you behave. So be mindful of the world and be wary of women; for the first fitnah of the Children of Israel was regarding women.’13
If alcohol breaks inhibitions such that people will sexually behave in ways they usually wouldn’t when they are sober, then the devil is even more powerful in removing such modesty and inhibitions between the sexes. The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘A woman is ‘awrah; whenever she goes out, the devil beautifies her.’14 The word ‘awrah, usually translated into English as ‘nakedness’, can also mean weakness, vulnerability and something that is unseemly or indecent.15 Women are considered ‘awrah because of their desirability; because their exposure to being seen is like leaving one’s home unguarded and hence vulnerable to attack. In Islam, the feminine form – desirable, alluring and sensuous in the privacy of the marital home – shouldn’t be made to appear so in the public sphere. It’s not just the objectifying male gaze that demeans or threatens women; sometimes some women need saving from their own intemperate selves.
Of course, in our e-world awash with sin, porn and the sexualisation of even children, such revealed wisdom is unlikely to be received with the openness it would have done in a not so long ago age. Notions of modesty, decency or respectability with regard to how the sexes should interact are utterly alien to our consumer-driven, selfie-taking, sexually-charged culture. To even suggest, as Islam does, that there could be a modest and dignified way of being a ‘lady’ (and, of course, a ‘gentleman’) is to court ridicule or scorn from an often uncritical public. Some may even shout misogyny. I’ve previously written in some depth on contemporary gender interactions in Beards, Hijabs & Body Language: Gender Relations, so I’ll confine myself to these few remarks:
The principles of modesty, restraint and respectability have long been written out of our social norms and mores, and this was bound to impact Muslim attitudes too. One hadith says: ‘Modesty and faith are two close companions; if one of them is removed, the other follows.’16 Indeed, as Muslims themselves begin to relax these principles, or compromise them in the hope of being welcomed to the table of liberal sensibilities, can we see in where it has led others, where we too could be heading?
It’s not just the hijab or niqab we’re talking about. It runs deeper than that. It’s about much more than just the externals. It’s about how one behaves; about how one carries themselves; how one disposes their soul towards the opposite gender. Ultimately, it’s about the heart’s purity and its attachment to its Lord.
Allah ﷻ commands: Tell believing men to lower their gaze and guard their modesty. That will be purer for them. For Allah is aware of what they do. [24:30]. Upon citing this verse, Ibn al-Qayyim noted:
‘Allah put purification after lowering one’s gaze and guarding the private parts. This is why retraining the gaze from the forbidden necessitates three benefits of great worth and tremendous significance. Firstly, [experiencing] the sweetness and delight of faith that is far sweeter, pleasant or delightful than that which the gaze was left, or averted from, for Allah’s sake. Indeed, whoever leaves a thing for Allah’s sake, He shall replace it with what is better than it.17 The soul is deeply enamoured with gazing at beautiful forms. The eye is the scout for the heart, and it sends its scout out to see what’s there. If the eye informs it of something it finds visually attractive and beautiful, it is moved to desire it … Whoever allows their gaze to roam free will constantly be in regret. For the gaze gives rise to love, which begins with the heart having an attachment (‘alaqah) to what it is beholden too. As it strengthens, it becomes ardent longing (sababah); the heart now totally besotted with it. Growing more, it becomes an infatuation (gharam); it sticks to the heart as a creditor (gharim) sticks to his debtor (gharimah) from whom he doesn’t part. Growing stronger, still, it becomes passionate love (‘ishq); an excessive love. Then it is a burning love (shaghaf); a love which reaches to the very lining of the heart and enters it. Intensifying further, it becomes worshipful love (tatayyum) … the heart becoming a slave [worshipper] of that which it isn’t worthy of being enslaved to. And all of this is because of the harmful gaze.’18
Leave aside the debate on whether the greater onus is on women dressing modestly, or men lowering their gaze. There’s no doubt that in today’s ambiance it falls on men to lower their gaze and refrain from the lustful, illicit or harmful glance. Shaykh Jaleel Akhoon recently remarked that sins usually leave a black stain on the heart, that can be cleansed through the act of contrition and repentance. But if the heart is captive to the object of its love; enslaved to it by its ‘ishq, then this is worse than the ‘usual’ sin. For the heart isn’t just stained or darkened, he stressed; it is inverted. This has certain echoes of Ibn al-Qayyim when he said: ‘Many a passionate lover will admit they have no place at all in their heart for other than their passionate love. Instead, they let their passionate love completely conquer their heart, thereby becoming an avid worshipper of it … There is no comparison between the harm of this dire matter and the harm of sexual misconduct (fahishah). For this sin is a major one for the one who commits it, but the evil of this ‘ishq is that of idolatry (shirk). A shaykh from the knowers of Allah (‘arifun) said: “That I be tested with sexual misconduct by this beautiful form is more preffered to me than to be tested with it through ‘ishq, by which my heart worships it and is diverted from Allah by it.”‘19
The cure, Shaykh Jaleel says, is that as soon as the heart is tempted by what it mustn’t gaze at, one reins in the gaze or diverts it from the haram or harmful. No effort can be spared to do so, lest the forbidden glance secretes its poison into the heart, causing it irreparable injury, anguish and torment.
In the second and final part of the blog, I hope to discuss the three remaining fitnahs of: callers to misguidance; the promotion of deviant understandings of Islam; and the attempt by governments to domesticate Muslim scholars and Islam.
1. Bowering (ed.), The Princeton Encyclopaedia of Islamic Political Thought (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), 100. Raghib, Mufradat Alfaz al-Qur’an (Damascus: Dar al-Qalm, 2002), 623, said: asl al-fitan idkhal al-dhahab an-nar li tazhara jawdatuhu min rada’atihi. He goes on to demonstrate that the word may take on the meaning of punishment, trial, tribulation, discord and hardship. Also consult: Ibn al-Qayyim, Zad al-Ma‘ad (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 3:151-2.
2. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2197. The hadith was graded hasan in al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1995), no.810.
3. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2336, where he states: ‘This hadith is hasan sahih gharib.’
4. Al-Bukhari, no.2887.
5. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 10:663.
6. Ibn Majah, no.3961; al-Tirmidhi, no.2204, who said that it is hasan. As for being the better of the two sons of Adam, this is a reference to Abel who was killed by his older brother Cain.
7. Al-Bukhari, no.48; Muslim, no.64.
8. Al-Bukhari, no.31; Muslim, no.2888.
9. Ibn Hibban, Sahih, no.282. Ibn Kathir said: ‘Its chain is excellent (jayyid).’ See: Tafsir Qur’an al-‘Azim (Beirut: Dar a-Ma‘rifah, 1987), 2:276.
10. Ibn Majah, Sunan, no.3959, Ahmad, Musnad, no.19509. It was graded as sahih in al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1988), no.1682.
11. I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in ‘an Rabb al-‘Alamin (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 2003), 4:338-9.
12. Al-Bukhari, no.5096; Muslim, nos.3740-41.
13. Muslim, no.2742.
14. Al-Bazzar, no.2061; at-Tirmidhi, no.1173, who said it is hasan gharib.
15. Cf. Lane, Arabic-English Lexicon (Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 2003), 2:2193-4.
16. Al-Bukhari, al-Adab al-Mufrad, no.1313; al-Hakim, Mustadrak, 1:22, who asserts: ‘It is sahih as per the conditions of the two shaykhs.’
17. Possibly paraphrasing the hadith: ‘Indeed, you will not leave anything for the sake of Allah, except that Allah will replace it with something better.’ Ahmad, no.22565, and its chain is sahih. Consult: al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Da‘ifah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1992), 1:62; no.5
18. Ighathat al-Lahfan fi Masayid al-Shaytan (Makkah: Dar ‘Alam al-Fawa’id, 2011), 75. The other two benefits discussed are: Secondly, the heart being illumined and given to see with spiritual clarity and insight; and thirdly, the heart is given strength, courage, firmness and honour.
19. Al-Da’ wa’l-Dawa’ (Saudi Arabia: Imam Dar al-Hijrah, 2014), 514-5.