By Ghulam Ghaus Siddiqi, New Age Islam
1 April 2021
Before understanding the Quranic verse 2:191 which reads “Fitna is worse than killing”, we should know the lexical meaning as well as the variations of the usage of ‘Fitna’ in the Quran.
Lexical Meanings of Fitna
The Arabic word ‘fitna’ (also spelled ‘fitnah’, pl. fitan), as used in Classical Arabic as well as in Modern Standard Arabic, has several meanings and connotations, such as, ‘trial’, ‘test’, ‘affliction’, ‘temptation’, ‘sedition’, ‘civil strife’, ‘conflict’, ‘distress’, ‘an act of oppression perpetrated by the powerful against the weak’, ‘rebellion against a ruler’, ‘an act of falling prey to the ‘whispers’ of Satan and falling into sin’, and ‘attractiveness or captivation’.
Meanings of Fitna in the Quran
Variations of the meaning of ‘Fitna’ can be found throughout the Quran. I have collected several verses which have used the word ‘fitna’ to indicate several meanings, such as the verses 2:102, 2:191, 2:193, 2:217, 3:7, 4:91, 4:101, 5:41, 5:71, 6:23, 7:27, 7:155, 8:25, 8:28, 8:39, 8:73, 9:47, 9:48, 9:49, 10:85, 17:60, 21:35, 21:111, 22:11, 22:53, 24:63, 25:20, 29:10, 33:17, 37:63, 39:49, 51:14, 54:27, 60:5, 64:15 and 74:31. For the ease of the readers, I am quoting below some verses in full.
Allah Almighty says, “And Know that your wealth and your children are a test (fitna) and that with Allah is an immense reward.” (The Quran- 8:28). Here Fitna means ‘test’.
“Your wealth and your children are just a test (fitna); and with Allah is a tremendous reward.” (64:15)
“They said, “We have relied only upon Allah; Our Lord! Do not make us [objects of] trial (fitna) for the unjust people.” (The Quran-10:85). Here Fitna means ‘trial’.
“Every soul will taste death. And We test you with evil and with good as a trial (Fitna); and to Us you will be returned.” (The Quran- 21:35). Here Fitna refers to ‘trial’.
“O our Lord! Do not put us into the trial [fitna] of the disbelievers, and forgive us, O our Lord! Indeed You only are the Most Honourable, the Wise.” (The Quran- 60:5). Here Fitna refers to ‘trial’.
“….and the two (angels, Harut and Marut) never taught a thing to anyone until they used to say, “We are only a trial (fitna), therefore do not lose your faith…” (The Quran- 2:102). Here too, Fitna refers to ‘trial’.
“And fight them until no mischief (fitna) remains, and only Allah is worshipped; then if they desist, do not harm them, except the unjust.” (2:193). Here Fitna may denote several implications, ‘mischief’, ‘injustice’, ‘oppression’, ‘religious persecution’, or ‘any act preventing a believer from believing in the Deen [roughly translated as Religion] of Allah’.
“O children of Adam, let not Satan tempt (the verb of ‘fitna’ used here as ‘yaftinann’-a-kum, fitne me daalna, or tempting to commit what is disliked by God Almighty) you as he removed your parents from Paradise, stripping them of their clothing to show them their private parts. Indeed, he sees you, he and his tribe, from where you do not see them. Indeed, We have made the devils allies to those who do not believe.” (The Quran, 7:27)
“[And will be told], "Taste your torment (fitna). This is that for which you were impatient.” (51:14). Here fitna refers to ‘torment’.
Meaning of The Quranic Verse 2:191 ‘Fitna Is Worse Than Killing’
And fight them wherever you confront them [during combat] and expel them from wherever they have expelled you, and [though killing is bad] fitna is worse than killing. And do not fight them at al-Masjid al-Haram until they fight you there. But if they fight you, then kill them. Such is the reward of the disbelievers. (2:191)
I have translated the word ‘waqtulu’ in the above verse as ‘fight’. Here the imperative sentence ‘waqtuluhum’ literally means ‘kill them’. This meaning has been creating confusion among the common readers who do not bother about going into exegesis or correct interpretation befitting of the cause of revelation (shan-e-nuzul) or historical background. Since this divine command is not about the offensive attack and that this was specific for the state of war, as proven by the details narrated in the classical and popular books of Tafsir with the proofs of Ahadees, I have opted the befitting meaning here, that is, ‘fight them wherever you confront them [during combat]’. The literal translation of this verse 2:191, such as “kill them wherever you find them…’ requires implication and explanation, whereas the exegetical translation [tafsiri tarjuma] must be a befitting one and ease the burden of the common readers in terms of seeking details, and thus they would not be confused.
For the related facts that this verse was revealed in the state of war and was specific for the Mushrikin of Arab, please read my articles referenced below.
In this article our main focus is the part of the verse “Fitna is worse than killing”. What is the meaning of Fitna here? Some people on the internet have been facing difficulty to understand what is actually meant here. For that matter, we should take into consideration the historical background of this verse or cause of revelation [shan-e-nuzul].
The context of the verse implies that the Muslims used to think that they cannot fight the Mushrikin of Arab in the precincts of the Haram (sacred area around the Ka’aba where fighting is prohibited) out of reverence for it. In this verse, Allah Almighty draws the attention of Muslims to the fact that these Mushrikin perpetrate a much more severe crime, that is, they commit acts of shirk (polytheism) in the precincts of Haram, for this reason, the Muslims should not hesitate to fight in defense if the occasion arises. In other words, this signifies that fighting is bad in the precincts of Haram but their committing shirk in the precincts of Haram is worse than fighting. So Muslims can prefer bad to worse.
From the same verse, the jurists have derived the injunction that it is just not legitimate to kill even a bird or animal, let alone human beings. However, the same verse suggests that in the event someone starts killing somebody else within the sacred precincts, then that other person is permitted to fight back in defense. The jurists [fuqaha] have made unanimous agreement [ijma’] on this point.
The classical Hanafi exegete and author of Ruh al-Ma’ani writes,
﴿والفِتْنَةُ أشَدُّ مِنَ القَتْلِ﴾ أيْ: شِرْكُهم في الحَرَمِ أشَدُّ قُبْحًا، فَلا تُبالُوا بِقِتالِهِمْ فِيهِ؛ لِأنَّهُ ارْتِكابُ القَبِيحِ لِدَفْعِ الأقْبَحِ، فَهو مُرَخَّصٌ لَكم ويُكَفَّرُ عَنْكُمْ.
Translation: The part of the verse ‘Fitna is worse than killing’ means their committing shirk in the Haram is worse [than fighting therein], so you should not hesitate to fight against them therein, because there is the committing of bad to remove what is worse. Therefore, the concession is granted to you [O Muslims] in the sense that it is permissible for you to fight, and it (your fighting to remove this fitna) will be atonement for you, that is, you will not be accountable for that.
From this, it becomes clear that this verse is specific for defending the reverence for the precincts of Haram. Hence one cannot derive the general meaning from the part of the verse that kufr or shirk is a type of fitna that must be eliminated everywhere or in every state. If the perpetrators of kufr and shirk are living in the state of peace-treaty or in the country where both Mushrikin and believers have vowed to live peacefully under a constitution of peace, they are bound to respect their promise of peace. Hence one cannot adopt the selective approach based on some books of Tafsir where fitna is translated as ‘kufr’ and ‘shirk’. Instead one should read this verse with its full context which specifically implies that ‘act of shirk and kufr in the precincts of Haram is worse than fighting therein’ and therefore if the Mushrikin of Arab fight you in the Haram, you should not hesitate to fight back in defense, because committing bad as compared to removing worse is permissible.
(This is what I have understood from the studies of the Quran, Books Of Tafasir, and Relevant Ahaadees. May Allah forgive me if there is anything wrong! Aameen).
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