Fitnah means Trial and test, but for whom?

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By Qamar Bashir

The top brass of the Pakistan Muslim League (N) has been labeling Imran Khan a “Fitnah,” which in fact is a term that refers to a process rather than a person. Declaring Fitna in Islam necessitates strong evidence, clear intent, consultation with knowledgeable individuals, and a fair and just approach and attracts penal action for labelling someone or a process as Fitna without first having a competent forum declare it as such.

I believe PML(N) is doing this out of ignorance or a desire to belittle him at all costs, reduce his larger-than-life size, and transfer its hatred to their followers by exploiting their religious sentiments without having the slightest idea of Fitnah’s connotation, historical reference to the context, and its consequences and outcome. They even vowed to rid the country of this fitnah, which means either dysfunctioning him or depriving him of his life. This extreme hatred is understandable given that he was the primary reason for first crippling the government in 2014 by a prolonged sit-in jointly with PAT and severely weakening it, which helped him less and more to the establishment, which further tightened its grip on civilian affairs and later PML(N) ouster from power in 2018 allegedly by riding on the shoulders of the establishment, which even Imran had never denied in so many words. When in power, with the blessing of the establishment and the tacit support of the courts, he imprisoned almost the entire top PML(N) leadership one after the other on unproven charges. He was the driving force behind Mr. Nawaz Sharif’s imprisonment and later his exile to London. After being thrown out of power in 2022 due to an alleged international conspiracy, his successful narrative of Haqiqi Azadi and hawkish attitude towards establishment and court as and when suits him successfully eroded the support of PML(N) in its stronghold and richest province Punjab.For them, Imran is a great threat, a menace and perhaps the only challenge to the hold of their family on the powerbase of the country. He emerged as a formidable opponent having grit, tenacity, and determination to stand against all odds and, in doing so, he has mustered such a massive public support which perhaps none of us has seen in our living memories. His die hard and devoted followers are willing to sacrifice even their lives to defend him, an unparalleled phenomenon where an armed-less crowd defended his arrest by a heavy contingent of police and rangers and literally defeated them if one dared to say. These are perhaps the reason they coin this hateful and obnoxious term of Fitna for him but have they erred and falter in their choice of the label.

Before going any further let us try to understand the word “fitna”. It is an Arabic term used to describe disorder, chaos, or temptation but at times it has been subject to different interpretations by Islamic scholars and leaders. Variations of the usage of fitna are found throughout the Quran to describe the trials and temptations that may face believers: “And know that your worldly goods and your children are but a trial and a temptation [fitna], and that with Allah there is a tremendous reward” (8:28). “They said: ‘In Allah do we put our trust. Our Lord! Make us not a trial [fitna] for those who practice oppression'” (10:85). “Every soul shall have a taste of death. And We test you by evil and by good by way of trial [fitna]. And to Us you must return” (21:35). “Our Lord! Make us not a test and trial [fitna] for the unbelievers, but forgive us, our Lord! For You are the Exalted in Might, the Wise” (60:5). “Your riches and your children may be but a trial [fitna], but in the presence of Allah, is the highest reward” (64:15). In historical perspective, it is used to justify political repression or persecution of dissidents, while others have argued that it has a legitimate role in maintaining social order and preserving Islamic values. It describes a particular state of consciousness of protesting participants, and determines the state of society affected by the turmoil that occurs at the time of resignation of the unwanted ruler.

There are mainly four fitnahs particularly mentioned in the Islamic history. The Fitna of the Kharijites (656-661) was the major fitnah that occurred in the early Islamic period when a group of Muslims rebelled against the ruling authorities, declaring them as corrupt and deviant. This fitnah led to a lot of bloodshed and division within the Muslim community. The second fitnah followed Muʿāwiyah’s caliphate (661–680), which itself was not free from strife, and coincided with the caliphates of Muʿāwiyah’s son Yazīd I (ruled 680–683). The third fitnah (744–750) resulted in the establishment of a new and final dynasty of caliphs, the ʿAbbāsids which was marked with several instances of political unrest and rebellion where Abu Muslim lead rebellion against the Umayyad caliphate and culminated in the ascendancy of the Abbasid dynasty. The fourth Fitnah occurred when Hārūn died and Al-Maʾmūn came to the caliphate (813–833) after winning the bloody war of ascendancy. In the 20th century various political and social upheavals which occurred in the Muslim world are termed Fitnah including the fall of the Ottoman Empire, colonization by European powers, and the rise of extremist movements like Al-Qaeda and ISIS. These fitnahs have had a profound impact on the Muslim world and had led to ongoing debates about the relationship between Islam and modernity.

According of various studies in Islam a person may be severely punished only if the conduct in question amounts to blatant dis- belief (kufr sarfi) but forbids the use of coercion by those seeking to spread the faith, it also takes measures to protect Muslims against aggression that would deny them their own freedom. As used here, fitnah is antithetical to freedom of religion and can claim no validity under any legitimate concept and variety of freedom (Ghazawi n.d.)

In the religious context, fitnah arises only when the government in power believes that someone is interpreting Islamic values differently than those practised by it, or when any group in the public believes that the government is not acting on the righteous path, is violating Islamic principles, and is propagating unIslamic values in their personal conduct or by imposing unIslamic laws, rules, or regulations. Surprisingly, in all of these documented cases, Fitnah eventually resulted in a change in the seat of government until a new fitnah emerged.

Let us try to comprehend what Imran Khan is requesting. His main demand is that free, fair, transparent, and verifiable elections be held because, according to him, the government has no legitimacy and has been propped up as a result of an internationally hatched conspiracy, is incompetent, and lacks the wherewithal to deal with the daunting financial and economic challenges, the economy has nosedived, and so has its currency. The international donor institution has lost faith in the government, and friendly countries have expressed their sympathy but are unwilling to help the country out of its dire economic situation. The country is experiencing hyperinflation, businesses and industries are closing due to a lack of raw materials, high utility prices, exorbitant taxes and high cost of borrowing capital. Economic activity is at a low ebb as a result of high prices and people’s dwindling purchasing power. According to him, the solution to this quagmire is the installation of a fully legitimate and credible government mandated by the people to steer the country to safer shores and usher the country to much needed political stability, which will persuade donor agencies, friendly and brotherly countries, and investors to come to Pakistan and help stabilise the country’s financial and economic outlook. His entire rhetoric is entirely based on political expediency and bears no religious connotation.

In his personal conduct, behavior or speeches, he has shown no sign of defying any religious beliefs, values, or practices. He never used religion as a weapon against the current government, nor did he base his political narrative on religious motives. His religious credentials are head and shoulders above any other politician in our country or any other Muslim leader. He is a practicing Muslim who lives a pious life and fights against “Islamophobia” all over the world, bravely opposing the desecration of the Holy Quran and the publication of blasphemous cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in all national, regional, and international forums. Due to his efforts, the entire world observed the International Day to Combat Islamophobia on March 13th. Similarly, in terms of humanitarian services, he has no rival who comes close to matching his philanthropic achievements. It is worth noting that not a single opposition leader has charged him for defying religious beliefs, customs, or practises, with the exception of confronting his past life, for which he has already repented and shown remorse.

The recent confrontation of Imrans supporters with the brute state power cannot be called as rebellion or Fitnah because the state in guise of serving arrest warrants in compliance to the court orders instead of observing the laid down rules for services of warrants, invaded his resident with excessive forces but, “Imran’s supporters gave them tough fight and successfully frustrated every efforts of the government to arrest him until Islamabad high Court suspended the warrant and allowed him the time to appear before the trial court to which he agreed. The orders of the high court vindicated the legality of the resistance and rendered the state’s use of brute power as illegal.

With the foregoing in mind, PML(N) may call him anything which is within our cultural and social parlance and politically correct and may rethink the use of word Fitnah which mainly refer to the struggle of a person or group of persons against the rulers which according to them are not following the true tenet of islam and promoting un Islamic values in the society through state patronage. Moreover, his personal conduct as a practicing Muslim is unquestionable, his services to Islam and the cause of Islam are praised and acknowledged worldwide, and his philanthropic work is unparalleled. His entire critique and narrative of the government is purely political. He is pursuing his vision and objectives using universally accepted political tools, and he is above all loved by his followers and admirers who are willing to sacrifice their lives and property in his political struggle.

The government and the PML(N) have every right to use any or all political tools at their disposal to give Imran Khan a hard time, and they may consider using any other term to express their heartfelt feelings for him, but not Fitnah, which has more of a religious connotation than a political one and is normally a struggle waged against the state due to its perceived moral turpitude and patronage of unIslamic ways of life, which I believe is not the case. Furthermore, public pledges and vows to kill him may be politically and religiously insensitive. He is fighting a political battle for his vision for Pakistan, whether right or wrong, and it may be more appropriate to fight him out and defeat his political vision and him with a better vision and service, and now that the PML(N) is in power, it should focus its energies and collective wisdom, intellect and experience and competency and acumen to bring the country out of its formidable financial and economic woes, which may neutralize his narrative and him, better than any other manner, no matter how strong and appealing.