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Saturday, January 30, 2010

Two Arabic words: Falah, Fitna and General George Casey’s Koranic World View

There are two Arabic words which are crucial for understanding the Koranic world view.  Both begin with f. One is falah ‘success’, and the other is fitna ‘persecution’. 

Falah or success is what Islam promises to its adherents. For those who submit to Allah and accept his guidance, the intended result is success in this life and the next. The call of Islam is a call to success.

This call to success is proclaimed in the call to worship, which sounds forth to Muslims five times a day (in Arabic):

Allah is Greater! Allah is Greater!
Allah is Greater! Allah is Greater!
I witness that there is no god but Allah.
I witness that there is no god but Allah.
I witness that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.
I witness that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.
Come to worship. Come to worship.
Come to success. Come to success.
Allah is Greater! Allah is Greater!
Allah is Greater! Allah is Greater!
There is no god but Allah.

The Quran emphasizes the importance of success a great deal. It divides humanity into winners and the rest:  those who do not accept Allah’s guidance are repeatedly called ‘the losers’:
Whoso desires another religion than Islam, it shall not be accepted of him; in the next world he shall be among the losers. (Q3:85)
If thou associatest other gods with Allah, thy work shall surely fail and thou wilt be among the losers. (Q39:65)
On the other hand, those follow Islam are the ones who are promised success in this life and the next.

For many Muslims, part and parcel of this success is an entitlement to a sense of superiority.  This struck me forcibly for the first time when I was conversing with a friend, a convert to Islam, who stated, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world, ‘Of course a more righteous person is superior.’

I was completely taken aback.  I had spent forty years reading the Bible and listening to sermons in church, yet this idea, that religious rigor brings superiority, was completely alien to me.  I searched through my knowledge of the gospels and the other writers of the New Testament, but I could not ground this idea  in my own religious context.  This was truly something distinctly Islamic, this idea that the religious person is superior and the non-religious person inferior.

Over the years I have found many references to the theme of superiority in Islamic sources.  There seems to have been a real fascination with superiority in the sayings of Muhammad (hadiths): many discuss what is superior to what.: which kind of camel is better than other camels; which well gives the best water; which kind of horse is better; which people are the best; which gender is better; which women are the best, and so forth.  Superiority was a major theme for Muhammad, and this influences Islamic thinking in many subtle ways.  It goes hand-in-hand with Islam’s focus on success, for an entitlement to feel superior, and to demand respect is part of Islam’s promise of success. In an often cited passage, the Koran states that Muslims are the best people on the earth: ‘You (Muslims) are the best nation ever brought forth’ (Sura 3:110).

Our second key word was fitna. The word fitna ‘trial, temptation’ is derived from fatana ‘to turn away from, to tempt, seduce or subject to trials’. The base meaning is to prove a metal by fire. 

Fitna can include either temptation or trial, including both positive and negative inducements, up to and including torture. It could encompass seducing someone, or tearing them limb from limb.

Fitna became a key concept in Islamic theological reflection around the early Muslim community’s experiences with unbelievers. Muhammad's complaint against the Meccans was that they had subjected him and the rest of the Muslims to fitna – including insult, slander, torture, exclusion, economic pressures, and other temptations – in order to get them to abandon Islam or to dilute its claims. They had stood in the way between him and success.

In Christian tradition, temptation or trial (Greek peirasmos) has been regarded as an inevitable part of following Christ.  However the New Testatment promises God’s grace to those who suffer trials because of their faith, and a reward for those who persevere.

The traditional Islamic attitude to fitna is very different.  It is much more proactive, with the goal being not so much to endure trials - although that is meritorious – but to eliminate them wherever possible.

The great Muslim commentator Ibn Kathir reported that,  at the time when Muhammad and his small band of followers migrated to Medina, Allah made made it clear that the whole purpose of fighting against non-believers was to eliminate fitna, i.e. anything which could cause Muslims to turn away from their faith:

And fight in the way of Allah with those who fight with you, but aggress not: Allah loves not the aggressors. And slay them wherever you come upon them, and expel them from where they expelled you; persecution (fitna) is more grievous than slaying .... Fight them, til there is no persecution (fitna); and the religion is Allah’s;
then if they give over [i.e. cease their disbelief and opposition to Islam], there shall be no enmity save for evildoers.’ (Sura 2:190-93)
The idea that subjecting Muslims to any kind of trial or temptation away from their faith was ‘more grievous than slaying’ proved to be a momentous one. The same phrase would be revealed again after an attack on a Meccan caravan (Sura 2:217) during the sacred month (a period during which Arab tribal traditions prohibited raiding). It implied, at the very least, that shedding the blood of infidels is a lesser thing than a Muslim being led astray from their faith.

The other key phrase in this passage from Sura 2 is ‘fight them until there is no fitna’. This too was revealed more than once, the second time being after the battle of Badr, during the second year in Medina (Sura 8:39).

These fitna verses, each revealed twice in the Quran, established the principle that the use of force was justified by the existence of any obstacle to people entering Islam, or the existence of inducements to Muslims to abandon their faith. However grievous it might be to fight others and shed their blood, undermining or obstructing Muslims from following Islam was worse.

Later, most Islamic jurists extended the concept of fitna to include even the mere existence of unbelief, so the phrase could be interpreted as ‘unbelief is worse than killing’. Thus Ibn Kathir equated fitna to what he called ‘committing disbelief ’ and ‘associating’ (i.e. polytheism), as well as hindering people from following Islam:

“Since jihad involves killing and shedding of blood of men, Allah indicated that these men [i.e. polytheists] are committing disbelief in Allah, associating with Him (in the worship) and hindering from His path, and this is a much greater evil and more disastrous than killing. ... Shirk (polytheism) is worse than killing.”

Understood this way, the phrase ‘fitna is worse than killing’ was interpreted as a call to fight and kill  infidels who rejected Muhammad’s message, whether they were interfering with Muslims or not. Merely for unbelievers to ‘commit disbelief ’ – to use Ibn Kathir’s revealing phrase – was a greater evil than their being killed.

On this understanding, the whole concept of jihad warfare to extend the dominance of Islam was based. Thus Ibn Kathir, when commenting on Sura 2 and Sura 8 of the Koran, said that the command to fight means to go to war ‘so that there is no more Kufr (disbelief)’ and the Quranic statements ‘and the religion is Allah’s’ (Sura 2:193) or ‘the religion is Allah’s entirely’ (Sura 8:39) mean ‘So that the religion of Allah [i.e. Islam] becomes dominant above all other religions.’

The renowned modern Pakistani jurist Muhammad Taqi Usmani (b. 1943) reports that religious authorities have universally accepted that jihad is warfare to make Islam dominant:
... the purpose of Jehad ... aims at breaking the grandeur of unbelievers and establish that of Muslims. As a result no one will dare to show any evil designs against Muslim on one side and on the other side, people subdued from the grandeur of Islam will have an open mind to think over the blessings of Islam. ... I think that all Ulema (religious scholars) have established the same concept about the purpose of Jehad. (Islam and Modernism, pp.133-34.)
What Usmani is saying is that Islam must be so dominant that no-one could ever be tempted to follow another faith: then the complete dominance of Islam will give everyone an ‘open mind’ to consider the superiority of Islam.  Then there will be no more fitna.

It is significant that Islamic sacred history traces the beginning of the Islamic calendar from the migration to Medina, the point at which Allah declared an end to tolerance of fitna. This was a defining moment in the establishment of Islam, after which struggle must continue until all fitna was removed.

These are not just archaic or extreme ideas. A ruling issued in May 2009 by the International Fatwa Academy, an instrument of the Organization for the Islamic Conference, upheld the Islamic view that leaving Islam (apostasy) is a crime (punishable by death) because for anyone to leave Islam would be ‘a threat’ to the Muslim community, and must lead to to ‘casting doubts’ into the minds of Muslims. What the ruling was in effect saying is that for a Muslim to leave Islam is fitna for other Muslims.  And thus, because apostasy is fitna, the death penalty for apostates is no violation of human rights, but is in righteous agreement with Islam's command to use all efforts to remove fitna.

All this leads us to General George Casey, US Army Chief of Staff, who after the Foot Hood killings declared, “what happened at Fort Hood was a tragedy, but I believe it would be an even greater tragedy if our diversity becomes a casualty here.” 

This statement should be a wake-up call for America. It should have been greeted with howls of protest all up and down the country.  When the head of the army states that the death of diversity is worse than the slaughter of US soldiers, something has gone deeply wrong.  The victims’ relatives had every right to be outraged!

Yet what is most disturbing about General Casey’s statement is how closely it matches the Koran’s ‘fitna is worse than slaughter’.  In context, ‘loss of diversity’ would mean scrutiny of radicalized Muslims in the armed forces.  It would have meant not privileging Major Nidal Hasan, nor overlooking his deficiencies just because he was a Muslim.  It would have meant withholding unearned success from him.  It would have meant taking his religious views seriously into account.  It would have meant fitna – placing obstacles in this one Muslim’s path to success in the military, because of his religious beliefs.  Such 'loss of diversity' is what General Casey has said is worse than the slaughter of US soldiers.

I doubt whether General Casey grasps the concept of fitna.  He has perhaps never even read the verses in the Koran which speak of it, nor the episodes in Muhammad's life which set it in context.  Nevertheless, the general's words seemed to unerringly advocate  a Koranic World View, when he effectively re-expressed ‘fitna is worse than slaughter’ as ‘what happened at Fort Hood was a tragedy, but I believe it would be an even greater tragedy if our diversity becomes a casualty here.’

This is an excellent illustration of World View Subversion.  When your adversary has conditioned you to think his thoughts, and articulate his wishes, your battle is already half lost.  It is deeply disturbing to hear, coming from the mouth of the head of the US Army, a Koranic principle of such compelling power and enduring spiritual significance, at the very time when US soldiers are shedding their blood in the Afghanistan and Iraq jihads. Do America's generals really understand why its soldiers are giving their lives so far from home?

1 comment:

  1. One reader responded:
    "While I understand that you have ... felt that [superiority] was not a textual entitlement in Christian writings, I really wondered about religious rigour and those who practice it ... developing their own cultural understandings. ...

    I think there is often an element - damaging and discriminatory - that individuals or groups take upon themselves as identifying their life choices as superior - and themselves likewise; which can cross religious identification and be about the patterns of groups of people."

    Mark Durie comments: I agree wholeheartedly that all sorts of groups of people develop a sense of their own superiority. Indeed this is and has been an unpleasant feature of many Christian groups. Of course there have been many forms of Christian hatred and bigotry. This tendency to regard oneself as superior is one of the negative characteristics of human beings, a persistent human failing. But for a Christian to justify this THEOLOGICALLY from the teachings of Jesus is a tough call. Jesus often warned his followers against feeling superior, and said it was better to serve than to be served.
    But in contrast, this is easy to justify in Islam, and well-supported by the Koran.
    This is a good example of how no one religious tradition has a monopoly on people behaving badly. But differences in religious traditions do make a formative influence on how ideologies and cultures are formed.

    ReplyDelete

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