CRUCIBLE: High Horse of Crusades (3)

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews/16 March) – We might be misconstrued as too biased with our view against big powers when we said that they represent as major forces representing modern ghost of Crusades.

But we say that it is not wholly our point because we are equally emphatic with our view on internal crisis in the Muslim world particularly in the Middle East, as we provided a context into the notion of fitrah (pattern) or innate disposition in human being as our framework in explaining man’s tendency to commit acts even in contravention with such universal disposition.

For purposes of providing some focus, we previously did not isolate the internal crisis in the Muslim world. We first highlighted the role of outside powers as equally critical in intensifying the ummah’s problem.

Fitrah and fitnah

At this juncture, we need to underline the internal crisis in the Muslim world to reinforce or counter-balance our view on the notion of fitrah.

This brings into our point about the notion of fitnah (e.g., trial, discord). It is essentially a distinct term from fitrah. In fact, they are quite unrelated as the former is a metaphysical and ethical term, while fitnah is more of a historical and political concept.

Fitnah is mentioned several times in the Holy Qur’an embracing wide range of meanings such as trial, tumult, oppression, temptation, punishment, discord, sedition, civil war, and few others.  For instance, the Qur’an mentioned in Suratu l-isra:

“Behold! We told thee that thy Lord doth encompass mankind round about: We granted the Vision which We showed thee but as a trial for men – as also the Cursed Tree (mentioned) in the Qur’an: We put terror (and warning) into them, but it only increases their inordinate transgression (60).”

This is a notion of fitnah defined as a “trial for men.” While it is a metaphysical terminology, as we said, fitnah owes its pre-existential significance on the theology of isra (ascension) of Prophet Muhammad (SAW).

There is unanimity of views about it according to major Muhaddithun (experts on hadith) like Mujahid, Said bin Jubayr, Al-Hassan, Masruq, Ibrahim, Qatadah, Abdulrahman bin Zayd, and others: that the notion of “fitnatan linnas” (trial for men) was shown during the isra of Prophet Muhammad (SAW).

It could be remembered that after Prophet’s experience with what is referred to in the Qur’an as “ayatu l-kubra” (Greatest Sign), he went into another level of Heaven, after which, he saw the Cursed Tree (sajaratu l-ma’lunah) but which, according to another verse has been covered, suggesting that the Prophet (SAW) was protected from seeing the said tree. Whereas when Nabi Allah Adam (SAW) saw the same tree earlier, it was uncovered resulting in Prophet Adam’s (AS) succumbing into temptation or fitnah that was posed before him.

Thus, a view could be derived that Prophet Muhammad’s (SAW) experience of Greatest Sign (ayatu l-kubra) as he is the only person who experienced it, has also its attendant, if you may, “anti-thesis,” with the notion of fitnah, referring particularly to the evil power of that so-called Cursed Tree.

According to Ibn Kathir, when Prophet Muhammad (SAW) was explaining his experience of the isra (ascension) particularly when he said that he saw the Cursed Tree with its fruit known as Zaqqum, Abu Jahl, his uncle, mocked the Prophet by saying that his story is nonsense. As you know, Abu Jahl was the main opposition during the time of Prophet Muhammad (SAW).

Although these two concepts are disconnected, in a sense, fitrah represents the kernel (for lack of better term an enveloping frame) of human nature embedded with innate disposition or pattern. However, due to man’s Adamic heritage of temptation by the Cursed Tree, then man carries traits rooted with fitnah. It is external to innate disposition or fitrah, but which is critical and dynamic as shown in man’s history revealing manifold forms of trial, punishment, discord, and so on.

Fitnah in history

Partly thus, this explains why man since the days of old has propensity to fitnah, an experience that is quite dramatic in the Muslim world particularly the Middle East as such term has been used to describe fitnah or discord in many phases of Islamic history.

According to some scholars, the use of the term fitnah in Islamic history dated back to the time of Prophet Muhammad (SAW) after the Battle of Badr when an encounter between a group of Muslims with their enemies. It was the first stage of fitnah.

The second stage of fitnah was during the war between Muawiyyah and Ali (AS) that culminated with the martyrdom of Imam Husayn (AS) when the latter died in the Battle of Karbala in 680 A.D. It was a bloody encounter between two forces of Islam even if each side says another thing against another. The Battle of Karbala lies at the center of Sunni-Shi’a schism. Some scholars consider this second stage as fitnatu l-kubra or greatest dissension as it resonates continuously in the ideological divide between “Sunni Islam” and “Shi’a Islam” in many episodes of Islamic history. It reflects more vividly the internal crisis in the Muslim world these days.

The third fitnah was during the succession of Caliph Al-walid to Caliph Hisham during the Umayyad Dynasty in the 8th century. It was followed in the fourth fitnah during the Abbasid Civil War, which was caused by the conflict between two brothers – Al-amin and Al-ma’mun – who were both sons of Caliph Harun al-Rashid. It was a bloody episode in the history of Abbasid Caliphate. Finally, some scholars considered the fitnah of al-Andalus particularly the collapse of the Cordovo Caliphate in the 11th century as the fifth stage of fitnah.

What we are saying is that, in the long stretch of Islamic history, there has been series of internal crisis, dissension and wrangling between and among major personalities and forces in Muslim society.

The above-mentioned instances are classic cases of fitnah. This is not to mention the countless and unrecorded fitnah or conflicts between persons, families, dynasties, empires and so on, since then until these days.

We mentioned this point to emphasize the fact that there is a unique internal dynamic inherent in the Muslim world. It continuously unfolds in our time.

This observation has never been vividly displayed when a phalanx of Iraqi forces, Shia militia and Kurdish military were positioned against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or Levant (ISIS) in their battle to control Tikrit, a province in Northwestern Iraq.

The scene is a vivid replication of previous wars reminiscent of old days. It is more than a replay of battles between the Saracens and the Crusaders. It is reminiscent of countless battles involving Muslim forces slugging it out against each other. Alarmingly, today’s discord perpetrated by ISIS has been unprecedented.

We could not count how many battles had been waged since then until these days. Therefore, we could say that there has been no qualitative change in the long stretch of Islamic history about the propensity of that area in the Middle East serving as laboratory of wars and counter-wars involving groups or parties professing Islam.

Given the rather gloomy and continuing recurrence of fitnah-related violence in the Arab world, would that invalidate fitrah, the innate disposition towards goodness of human nature as articulated in Islam?


This point appears to be a bit strange. Despite perpetual occurrence of wars and dissension in the Muslim world, yet, taking Islamic history in longue durée, it was also in those phases where Islamic faith spread in many parts of the world appearing that the series of fitnah or fitan is like isolated events in the rise and spread of Islamic civilizations in many parts of the world.

It suggests that Islamic history is not simply dictated by traditions of fitnah. So that we would not be misconstrued as too subjective and self-serving, let us consult the view of Wilfred Cantwell Smith in his “Islam in Modern History.” He writes:

“To the Muslims, of course, Islam is the religion of God. This means a great many things; among others, that it began not in the seventh century A.D., but at least on the day of creation, if not before. When God created the world, He provided that the forces of nature should operate according to the pattern that he prescribed – inevitably, perfectly, and as it were blindly. The world of nature has no choice but to obey His eternal decrees; and in the course of doing so, it at the same time illustrates them, disclosing, for those who have the wit to discern it, His design and providence, as well as His majesty and might. The patterned behavior of the natural world is the sign of its creator (18).”     

Smith continues:

“For man also there is a pattern, which he ought to follow. God from all eternity ordained how men ought to behave, both individually and in community. There is a proper form of human conduct: vis-à-vis the God who made us (and to whom we shall return), and vis-à-vis our fellows. There is a right way to live.”

Smith is a known Orientalist, but he carries a deep and sympathetic view about Islam and the Muslim world. He captures in more precise term what we refer to as pattern or fitrah, a frame of human nature as our basis in affirming life and the world. Such pattern continues to animate history through time.

Fitrah is therefore universal. And Islam as a dinu l-fitrah or religion of primordial tradition has specific bearing in the Muslim world as she has to experience continuing agitation in the form of fitnah or dissension. This point speaks on how Islam looks strange since the 6th century until these days.

In this regard, we could not be viewed as totally biased against so-called big powers. What we would like to emphasize is that internal crisis in the Muslim world particularly the Middle East is intensified with big powers’ control and domination in that part of the world.

What alarms us, we said, at least, in the past parties in conflicts only used stones and swords. In this age of ours, the “mechanization of war,” to use Hans Morgenthau term, continues to intensify the tension in the Middle East and other regions.

As war widens in many areas, some countries in the Arab world are used as war bazaars of big powers. Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries continue to arm to the hilt. For sure, those arms would not be used against foreign powers. These are, in most cases, used against their own people, intensifying thus the cycle of fitan (plural of fitnah) in that part of the world.

As we speak, in fact, there is a proposal from the Pentagon to establish a missile defense system in the Middle East. This means Arab countries allied with the United States would be equipped with sophisticated weapons purposely to thwart threats from their neighboring countries. While it may serve certain countries, fact is, such defense system would intensify arms race in the region. It would perpetuate arms culture including the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

As we speak, there are many Arab countries availing or planning to avail nuclear weapon system in the guise of protecting and securing their territories. Who profit from it would obviously not be individual countries or certain Arab regimes. It would be merchants of war that are connected to military- industrial complex among big powers.

Bala’ and balā

On the surface, the above point would probably lead us to carry pessimistic view about the future; yet, if we are convinced with the inherent fitrah in human being that sense of pessimism should not overwhelm us.

In the notion of fitnah, which may also be related to Qur’anic reiteration like “labluwannakum” (we shall surely test you) whose Arabic root word is bala’ or test, there is a profound explanation by the famous Jalaluddin Rumi about it. For Rumi, the concept of bala’ as test is related to Arabic lexical construction of balā (with huruf hamza transformed into long alif) to mean an affirmative response “yes.” In the Qur’an, a verse reads: “alastu birabbikum” (Am I not your Lord who cherishes and sustains you?). Then, the Qur’an notes all the souls responded: “Yea! We do testify (A’raf: 172)!”

Therefore, test like bala’ or fitnah as trial could be transformed in the level of worldview into something positive. Incidentally, the term fitnah from Arabic trilateral word fatana also means “to burn.” It is a transformative method that could transform, say, a stone into gold or silver. Fitnah therefore could not simply be taken negatively. While it is a source of trial, its end is to test the extent of man’s faith and morals. Fitnah thus is simply incidental to fitrah. The continuing fluidity of history attests to it.

In short, bala’ (test) could be transformed into balā (yes), as it is an affirmation of the lordship and sovereignty of Allah (SWT). It means our notion of fitnah is not totally negative.

Islamic history, as we said, has been punctuated with phenomenon of fitnah. It is also a source of trial in history. In this light, the ummah has a way in taking their struggle positively. They have a way to see the brighter side of life and their future. Of course, this view is easier said than done because it is difficult to change old ways in looking at things. As they say, old habits refuse to die.

What we are saying is the strangeness of Islam in relation to modern world continues to present as an enigma or puzzle. As you can see, even as the Middle East and other areas of the Muslim world are gripped by big powers through various instrumentalities of control and domination, on the other side, Muslims are spreading in many parts of the world including Europe and the United States. And they are responsible in implanting new ummah, new communities where they become part of multi-cultural society even as they present new and positive Islamic image.

Thus, let us not be too ensconced with the politics and domination in the Middle East and elsewhere. We cannot solely use it to gauge contemporary Islamic history. No! We have to broaden our perspective and see how new and vibrant Muslim communities are growing in other parts of the world. It is precisely the wisdom why this hadith is our favorite that says:

“Islam began strange, and it will become strange again just like it was at the beginning; so blessed are the strangers.” [Sahîh Muslim (1/130)]

So, we have to be alert even at small things as a source of our positive insights; it is our way to efface pessimism and cynicism. Let us embrace fitrah – the inherent goodness in every person, in nature, and in all creation. (MindaViews is opinion section of MindaNews. A Friday khutbah (with some revision) delivered at the UP-Institute of Islamic Studies on 13 March 2015. Julkipli Wadi is Professor of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines)