This article develops the concept of fitnah and its bearing on freedom of expression. It puts together information from the unconsolidated source materials of the Shari'ah in a manner reflecting the interest and style of a modern student of comparative law. It also develops the theme that modern interpretations of seditious speech and conduct have done much to restrict the scope and substance of the freedom of expression. The Shari’ah tends to advocate the opposite, as it confines the scope of restrictions to measures necessary to repel an imminent danger to normal order in society. The individual's freedom to investigate facts and ideas and to formulate and express an opinion are integral to Islam's approach to the dignity of the individual and the quest for ascertaining the truth.
What Is Fitnah?
Dictionaries give various meanings for fitnah: temptation, trial, misguidance, enticement, fascination, commotion, sedition, confusion, affliction, torture, and strife (Majma' al Lughah a1 'Arabiyah 1405/1958; al Zawi n.d.; Wajdi 1971; Cowan 1976; Hughes n.d.; Khan 1979). This plurality of meaning might have contributed to a certain ambiguity noted in the term's juridical meaning. Fitnah and its derivatives feature prominently in the Qur'an, being found in no less than sixty places. In the chapter "Kitab al Fitan," Sahih al Bukhari records eighty-six hadiths. Thus, as might be expected, the word appears in both the Qur'an and the hadith in several contexts and denotes meanings that converge and overlap.
Among the juridical meanings of immediate concern are seditious speech that attacks a government’s legitimacy and denies believers the right to practice their faith (Hughes n.d.). This latter meaning tends to be the most dominant one in the Qur’an. Each of these two meanings will be addressed in detail as the discussion proceeds. However, there are a few other Qur’anic usages of fitnah of which the reader should be aware.
As a dominantly moral concept, fitnah occurs in the Qur’an in the sense of temptation or enticement, as in: “Know that your possessions and your offspring are but a trial (fitnah) and that it is God with Whom lies your highest reward” (Qur’an 8:28; 64:15). Love of property and children may thus entice one to indulge in sinful conduct (Ibn al Qayyim 1983).
Fitnah is also used to denote trial and testing (imtihan) someone for what he/she finds difficult to accept or deny. In this sense, it entails an exposure to hardship with a view to forcing someone to do or abandon an act, speech, or a belief. God tests believers and unbelievers in order to reward or punish them in proportion to the fitnah they have undergone. Note for example: “We put to test (laqad fatanna) those who preceded them (the believers) and God knows the truthful from those who lie“ (Qur’an 29:3; 9:49; 44:17; Rida 1910).