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The word fitna (pl. fitan) is used in the Qur˒an to mean both "a temptation that tests the believer's religious commitments" and "a punishment by trial." In classical Arabic historical texts, it is used primarily to mean "civil war," "rebellion that leads to schism," or "violent factional strife," but even in historical texts, it bears connotations of "communal test, affliction" and "the temptation to turn upon one's fellow Muslims." In the hadith literature, fitna signifies both "strife between Muslims," and "a trial by which God tests and purifies the believer." Especially when combined in the hadith literature with the words malahim (great battles) or ashrat al-sa˓a (signs of the [Last] Hour), fitan specifically indicate apocalyptic schisms and battles predicted to break out within the Muslim community before the Last Hour. The apocalyptic connotation that the word fitan acquired during the first two centuries of Islamic history likely arose partly out of perceptions that the early civil wars that were cleaving the fledging Islamic community asunder were signs that the world was ending, and partly from the propagandistic use of apocalyptic hadiths during those wars.

Early Islamic history saw a series of fitan, or civil wars, unfold in relatively rapid succession. Interspersed between many smaller uprisings and rebellions, the first three major fitan dominated the historical memory of the early community. The first fitna broke out in 656 c.e.—within twenty-five years of the Prophet's death—and lasted until 661 c.e. The long second fitna erupted nearly a generation later, in 680 c.e., and because various rebellions continued to erupt in different places, it was a dozen years before Umayyad dynasts again consolidated power, in 692 c.e. The third fitna, the Abbasid revolution (747–750 c.e.), successfully overturned the Umayyads, bringing to power the new Abbasid dynasty. A fratricidal fourth fitna (which will not be treated here) erupted in 810 c.e. between two sons of the Abbasid ruler Harun al-Rashid, the brothers al-Amin and al-Ma˒mun, and lasted until the complete victory of al-Ma˒mun in 814.

Armed strife between Muslims began with complaints about oppressive or unjust practices of the third caliph, ˓Uthman, and led to that caliph's assassination by a party of Muslims in 656 c.e. Many Muslims then supported the leadership of ˓Ali, the son-in-law and cousin of the Prophet, who was chosen to succeed ˓Uthman. But troubling questions about the assassination of ˓Uthman harried the caliphate of ˓Ali. Was the assassination of ˓Uthman justified, or should the assassins have been promptly punished? Different religiopolitical parties formed in response to these questions and engaged in battles against each other over the correct response (although this was by no means the only issue involved). One group supported the leadership of ˓Ali, with his apparent decision not to punish those who had killed ˓Uthman. Another group, led by the Prophet's wife ˓A˒isha and two of his most important companions, Talha and al-Zubayr, opposed the leadership of ˓Ali and called for the punishment of the assassins of ˓Uthman. The forces of these two parties met at the Battle of the Camel (656 c.e.) during which ˓Ali's forces routed their opponents, Talha and al-Zubayr were killed, and ˓A˒isha was sent home chastened.

˓Ali's troubles did not cease with this victory, since a new opponent arose: Mu˒awiya, a relative of the slain caliph ˓Uthman, and a seasoned governor of the province of Syria. Mu˓awiya sent his Syrian forces against ˓Ali and his supporters, and the two sides engaged in battle at a village called Siffin. The battle of Siffin ended with an agreement to engage in arbitration. One group of ˓Ali's supporters rejected this agreement, and eventually turned against ˓Ali, demanding that Muslims adhere to "God's judgment" alone (manifested on the battlefield and in Qur˒anic injunctions) rather than fallible human judgments exercised in arbitration. This group (the Kharijites) was defeated by ˓Ali's forces but lived on to challenge both the Umayyad and the early Abbasid dynasties in later rebellions and depredations.

It was not only the Kharijites who threatened ˓Ali's rule, however. Since the arbitration agreed to at Siffin did not resolve the conflict, the Islamic community became fractured for a time into three competing groups: the supporters of ˓Ali, the supporters of Mu˓awiya, and the Kharijites. After a Kharijite assassin killed ˓Ali in 661 c.e., Mu˓awiya was eventually recognized as caliph by all but the Kharijites, whose rebellions during Mu˓awiya's firm rule were promptly put down. Thus, although the first fitna came to an end in 661 c.e., the issues of the first fitna did not disappear. They would erupt again in the second and third civil wars, to haunt and eventually undermine the Umayyad dynasty established by Mu˓awiya.

The sons of several of the leaders involved in the first fitna became embroiled in the second fitna in 680 c.e.: Al-Husayn, the son of ˓Ali and the grandson of the Prophet, rejected the caliphate of Mu˓awiya's son Yazid, and set off for the Iraqi city of Kufa to gather support for his own bid for the caliphate. He and a small band of supporters were intercepted en route from Mecca and cut down by Umayyad forces at Karbala. Al-Husayn was rapidly transformed into a martyrfigure among those Muslims who looked to the family of the Prophet to provide just religious and political leadership, namely, the early Shi˓ites. The dramatic story of how al-Husayn and his supporters were killed has long loomed large in Shi˓ite historical memory, and their deaths are still annually mourned in Shi˓ite ritual.

Several other important Muslims rejected Umayyad rule in the years immediately following the death of al-Husayn, including al-Mukhtar, who claimed to represent another son of ˓Ali, Ibn al-Hanafiyya, and Ibn al-Zubayr, who represented a pious alternative to certain oppressive Umayyad policies. Although this fitna ended in 692 c.e. with the Umayyads having regained control, the ideological seeds of the third fitna had already been planted. The early Abbasid movement that eventually successfully overturned the Umayyads called for rule by a member of the Prophet's family, and the earliest Abbasids claimed to have inherited their legitimacy from a descendant of the same man whom al-Mukhtar had earlier claimed to represent, Ibn al-Hanafiya. In terms of political ideology, all of the first three major civil wars were thus linked, and all involved competing notions of who should rule.

Later Sunni historical works betray some reworking of historical accounts aimed at dealing with the vexing question of how the Companions of the Prophet and their immediate successors, venerated and idealized by Sunnis, could have engaged in such violent conflict with each other. The memory of these wars and the fracturing of the religious community were particularly problematic for Sunnis, because the Qur˒anic verse, "You are the best community that has been raised up for mankind" (3: 110) was widely interpreted as referring to the Prophet's Companions. This presented difficulties, since the Sunnis eventually developed the concept that all of the Companions, including ˓Ali and several of the Companions who fought against him, were to be considered righteous.

This series of civil wars—along with many other smaller rebellions—brought up not only issues related to Islamic leadership, but other theological issues as well, in part because these conflicts over leadership of the community were not understood as mere contests over temporal power, but rather as struggles to establish righteous Islamic governance. The early Shi˒ites deemed ˓Ali and his descendants (or, more broadly, "the family of the Prophet") to have had exclusive rights to legitimate leadership based on their relationship to the Prophet, their designation by the Prophet as his successors, and their superior knowledge and religious insight. The Kharijites, on the other hand, argued that genealogy played no role in the leadership of the community, which instead should be based on pious righteousness and rigorous observance of the religious law alone. The Sunni position, as it eventually developed, included a requirement that the leader be from the Prophet's tribe, but not necessarily of his family, and strongly promoted obedience to constituted authorities, no matter how unjust, so as to prevent the chaos, violence, and schism engendered by fitna. Issues that arose out of the competing claims made by these groups included, among other issues, the legitimacy of rebellion against unjust or invalid rulers, predestination and free will, and the question of whether or not those who committed grave sins should continue to be considered Muslims.

The impact that the early fitan had on the Sunni hadith literature is manifested in several ways. There are a variety of hadiths that reflect arguments about the relative virtues of ˓Ali on the one hand and the earlier caliphs, Abu Bakr, ˓Umar, and ˓Uthman on the other. These arguments were linked to competing conceptions of history. In addition, the early civil wars bequeathed to Islamic eschatology a number of formative apocalyptic hadiths. Certain hadiths about the figure of the Mahdi, the rightly-guided restorer predicted to usher in a reign of justice before the End Times, can be traced, as Wilferd Madelung and others have argued, to the second fitna. The Sufyani, a mythical heroic figure associated with the End Times, emerged as part of Umayyad propaganda during that conflict. Finally, the earliest portrayals of the figure of the Dajjal ("the Deceiver"), akin to the Christian Anti-Christ, predicted to battle the Mahdi in the End Times in apocalyptic hadiths, may have been modeled in part upon another of the participants in the second fitna, al-Mukhtar. The Dajjal and the Mahdi are still prominent in Islamic eschatological ideas. The third fitna, too, produced numerous hadiths extolling the Abbasids, often in the form of apocalyptic hadiths aimed at motivating men to fight for the Abbasid cause.

More broadly, the impact of the confusing profusion of battles and competing groups associated with the first two fitan in particular can be seen in the positive value placed in Sunni sources on neutrality or quietism, usually called qu˓ud. The apocalyptic hadiths found in the canonical sources, as well as in early collections such as those of Nu˓aym b. Hammad, give a clear sense of the despair engendered by fitan that in part led to this Sunni emphasis on qu˓ud. One such hadith, cited by Nu˓aym b. Hammad, predicts that "there will come a time when men will come to graves and roll on them, as animals roll in the dust, wishing that they could be in the graves in place of their occupants—not out of a desire to meet God, but because of the fitan they witness." This aversion to internecine conflict found expression in numerous quietist hadiths attributed to the Prophet, such as one cited by al-Bukhari: "Whoever dislikes something that his leader has done, let him be forbearing, for whoever departs even a hand's span from authority will die the death of a pagan."

While this quietist position, expressed in credal statements as well as in hadith, was obviously congenial to the political elites, one cannot understand these condemnations of fitna only as tools of domination. Rather, they should be understood as Sunni responses to some of the claims of the Shi˓ites and Kharijites, and to the bloodshed, schism, and destruction wrought by intra-communal conflicts in general. Although the injunction to obey authorities even when unjust and corrupt was strongly expressed in the hadith literature, some Sunni exegetes and jurists, as Khaled Abou El-Fadl has shown, allowed for activist responses to tyranny and oppression (which also served to justify the actions of ˓Ali and others in the past.) The Shi˓ites, too, developed quietist tendencies as a result of their successive defeats in their early struggles for leadership of the community, eventually relegating the duty to "fill the world with justice as it is now filled with injustice" to a descendant of ˓Ali who would appear at the End of Time. Despite the claims of the early Kharijites that Muslims must be held responsible by other Muslims for their actions (rather than by God alone), and that rebellion against unjust and impious rulers was religiously incumbent upon true Muslims, later moderate Kharijite groups also developed quietist doctrines. Thus, the early civil wars and the religious schisms that they engendered led to sectarian divisions and doctrinal developments that continued to be influential throughout Islamic history until today.

Sandra S. Campbell