YOU ARE FITNA! If you’re a Muslim woman, it’s likely that you have heard this a thousand times. You might have even been convinced that your own existence is somehow bad or the cause of evil. “Women are Fitna” has unfortunately turned into a blanket statement and a kind of religious manipulation to keep women from participating in, well, pretty much everything including their own lives.
Much of what Muslim women face in terms of oppression is because many misunderstand the meaning of one particular ḥadîth:
I have not left behind me any fitna more harmful to men than women. (Bukhâri)
And this misinterpretation plays out in very real and destructive ways in Muslim women’s lives.
Fitna in Driving?
Maha Salman recalls a trip to her husband’s country, where she was unaware of cultural standards. She ended up feeling traumatized after being told she had caused fitna. Salman says, “While I was visiting with my family, I needed to get something out of the car. I put on my outer garments, grabbed the keys, and went to the parking garage. As I approached the car with car keys in hand, one of the [morality police] started running toward me yelling fitna and something else in Arabic that I didn’t understand.”
While disallowing women to drive is seen in few countries, it is still based on the “religious” assumption that women driving, in their particular local context, will lead to fitna, or a door to sin, in many ways. Yet we know that in the Prophet’s time his wives rode camels, the modern equivalent to driving. The Prophet ﷺ said:
The best women among the camel riders are the righteous women of the Quraysh. (Bukhâri)
Fitna in the Mosque?
Tayiba Haqq remembers a time when she was made to feel less than human when she was refused entrance in a masjid in the U.S. She recalls, “We [she and her husband] were out and time for prayer came. So we looked for a place to pray and found a masjid. When I went to go pray, a big man came out and told me I wasn’t allowed to come in, even though I was fully covered and only my hands, feet, and face were showing. He welcomed my husband in but refused me. I had to pray out in the parking lot. And I am an old woman. I felt so disrespected.”
Haqq’s experience is not atypical. According to the blogger known as Woodturtle, “People are told that it [preventing women from entering the mosque] is because women beautify themselves when going out, and cause fitna or religious strife in the community […].” [i] However, having little space for women, and even disallowing women to enter the masjid because of some perceived fitna, flies in the face of the saying of the Prophet ﷺ:
Do not prevent the female servants of Allah from going to the mosque. (Abû Dâwûd)
Fitna in Public Spaces?
Shahnaz Iqbal was excited to move to Egypt when she heard her husband wanted to return to his homeland. But what she found when she arrived was that she was seen only as a target. She says, “I never wanted to leave the house, you know. I felt anxiety all the times. Men’s eyes were always on me, or men would start following me, saying disturbing things. My husband said that they [the men who were harassing her] think they can get away with it because they think all women are fitna and deserve to be harassed if they come out of the home.”
Many women suffer from this kind of treatment in public in majority Muslim countries even when wearing proper hijab. [ii] Men feel the right to mistreat women in this way, claiming that women cause fitna for them. This is the unfortunate and predominant attitude toward women even though the Quran puts equal responsibility on men to maintain appropriate conduct:
Tell the believing men to lower their gaze (from looking at forbidden things), and protect their private parts (from illegal sexual acts, etc.). That is purer for them. Verily, Allah is All-Aware of what they do. [Sûrat Al-Nûr 24:30]
The term “fitna” is often used as a weapon against women, a way to silence us, to afford minimal space for us, keep us out of the public sphere, financially dependent, and hidden. But can this interpretation really be the intentions of the ḥadîth in question? Would our Prophet ﷺ, who sought counsel from women, who encouraged his wife to be taught the healing arts, who deeply loved a businesswoman, and encouraged women in all areas of life, really want this saying of his to be used in a way that oppresses women?
How we view women and this ḥadîth all depend on how we define fitna in this case. In the Quran, we see that fitna is mentioned several times and in different contexts with different meanings.
However, many people take the strictest interpretation when women are involved, like the interpretation of Ibn Al-Athîr, “Fitna: trial or test … The word is often used to describe tests in which something disliked is eliminated.” [iii] And this is exactly the way many Muslim women are made to feel when they are refused space in the masjid, in public, on the road, and in many other ways.
But can we honestly claim that women are disliked and something to be eliminated when Allah says in the Quran:
The Believers, men and women, are protectors one of another: they enjoin what is just, and forbid what is evil: they observe regular prayers, practice regular charity, and obey Allah and His Messenger. On them will Allah pour His mercy: for Allah is Exalted in power, Wise? [Sûrat Al-Tawbah 9:71]
If we take a look at the context in which fitna is used in the Quran when people are involved, we will see that fitna means something very different than something inherently bad.
And know that your worldly goods and your children are but a trial and a temptation [fitna], and that with God there is a tremendous reward. [Sûrat Al-Anfâl 8:28]
In this meaning, people can be seen as a test or fitna for others. A test is meant to determine who the tested really is. It is not a comment on the thing by which we are tested. Children are not considered inherently evil. But how well we treat our children and whether we allow our children to distract us from remembrance of Allah determines the good or bad within us, not the nature of children.
The same can be said for how men treat women. Women are not inherently evil, less than men, or somehow disliked by Allah. The Prophet ﷺ said:
Men and women are twin halves of each other. (Bukhâri)
But the test, or the fitna of a woman, is a reflection on a man’s own character, and whether he treats women well or not.
Furthermore, by putting the entire burden of appropriate Islamic behavior on women, some men are really admitting that they would rather oppress someone else, even fellow Muslims, than to exercise any amount of self-control—all under the guise of a misinterpretation of fitna.
More than a Test of Strength over Sexual Desires
This ḥadîth is often caught up in the politics of sexuality, modesty, and desire. But more than that, the ḥadîth in question does not mention anything in specific about men’s weakness when it comes to sexual desire for women. It simply states that women will be a fitna for men. Men will be tested in their treatment of the women in their lives.
Will men treat women well? Or with disrespect, harassment, and harshness? How will men pass or fail this test? Do they measure up to the ḥadîth:
The most perfect of the believers in faith are the best of them in morals. And the best among them are those who are best to their wives? (Tirmidhi)
Do men live with their mates in tranquility, or at least strive to achieve that, as it is mentioned in the Quran?
And from amongst His signs is that He created for you mates from among yourselves, so that you may dwell in tranquility with them. [Sûrat Al-Rûm 30:21]
Or will men simply throw their hand up in the air, call “fitna”, and act upon their base desires?
We cannot continue to claim that Islam gave women their rights 1400 years ago if we insist on taking those rights away through misinterpretation. We must rethink the ways in which we apply this kind of thinking of women as “fitna,” especially when it results in the oppression of our mothers, sisters, wives—oppression of our fellow human beings.