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Much of the recent talk about apostates, heretics and infidels in today’s world has emanated from fundamentalist and highly-politicized sects of Islam. To understand why, and to comprehend how those old terms have managed to re-emerge in the civilized world, it’s helpful to know the meanings of two Arabic words you may not have heard before—fitna and zindiq. In this essay in our series on apostasy, heresy and infidels, let’s take a look at the Islamic concept of fitna.
The word fitna (or fitnah) has several meanings—trial, temptation, revolt, civil strife—but in a Muslim context it typically means “seditious speech that denies believers the right to practice their faith.” Some fundamentalist Muslims believe that those who criticize or blaspheme Islam commit fitna, and can therefore be censured or even killed for what they say. The well-known 1989 edict (called a fatwa) of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini against author Salman Rushdie was based on the Ayatollah’s decision about Rushdie’s supposed fitna and blasphemy in his novel The Satanic Verses. Accusing Rushdie of blasphemy and therefore apostasy, the Ayatollah ordered all faithful Muslims to kill the author.
In a similar but less severe fatwa in 1998, Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani tried to forbid Professor Abdulaziz Sachedina, who teaches at George Mason University in Virginia, from educating others about Islam, solely because Professor Sachedina has encouraged religious pluralism in the Muslim world.
Of course, the entire world saw the most recent instance of the fanatical application of fitna in the killings at Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris, when cartoonists and editors were gunned down after some fundamentalist Islamic clerics accused them of “blasphemy against the prophet Muhammad.”
However—many modern Muslim experts reject the entire idea of blasphemy laws and punishments for fitna as un-Islamic. The Islamic legal scholar Faisal Kutty calls them a legacy of colonial rule in Muslim countries, and argues that past Islamic jurists made serious mistakes when they confused blasphemy and apostasy:
There is, of course, strong precedent in the Islamic legal tradition to argue that blasphemous speech targeted at any religion should be restricted, but at the same time there is scholarly consensus around the notion that there is no criminal or worldly sanction mandated... So where does the confusion arise from? It appears that many Islamic jurists conflated blasphemy and apostasy. As prominent classical and contemporary scholars such as Ibn Taymiyah, Mahmood Shaltut, Mohamed Hashim Kamali and [Intisar] Rabb, among others, have examined the context of the ruling on apostasy and concluded that death was only mandated even in the case of apostasy when it was combined with war against the community...In other words, classical Islamic law interpretations stipulated death as a punishment when apostasy was combined with treason and rebellion against the state, not for blasphemy. – The Huffington Post, April 15, 2014.
Hashim Kamali, who chairs the International Institute of Advanced Islamic Studies in Malaysia, has also concluded that seditious fitna should be defined solely as apostasy combined with treason and rebellion against the state—not for blasphemy. Kamali’s position, increasingly recognized as correct among many Islamic jurists, agrees with the Qur’an’s “there is no compulsion in religion” teaching; and recognizes the freedom of conscience in every person, regardless of religion.
The Baha'i principles, however, go much further. They completely repeal and do away with the entire idea of fitna and blasphemy, replacing it with the principle of unbounded love:
…all the prophets were sent, all the books were revealed, so that the law of love might be promoted. But a few self-seeking people subverted the original aims of the religion of God, changed its pure current and made it an instrument of hatred and rancor and quarrel and sedition [fitna]. Why should we hate the members of other religions? Why should we not love each other? Why should we be tattlers and busy-bodies and gossip-mongers? Why are we not looking at our own shortcomings? Why do we not let people alone? Why do we not search after our own faults?
…Let us have love and more love, a love that melts all opposition, a love that conquers all foes, a love that sweeps away all barriers, a love that aboundeth in charity, large-heartedness, tolerance, and noble-striving, a love that triumphs over all obstacles, a boundless, resistless, sweeping love. Ah me! Each one must be a sign of love, a sea of love, a centre of love, a sun of love, a star of love, a haven of love, a pearl of love, a palace of love, a mountain of love, a world of love, a universe of love. Hast thou love? Then thy power is irresistible. Hast thou sympathy? Then all the stars will sing thy praise!" – Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 4, p. 171.
The Islamic laws that pronounced fatwas and death penalties against those who supposedly committed fitna, blasphemy or apostasy did not originate from the prophet Muhammad—instead, they came later, from a corrupted clerical system clinging to worldly power and influence. Those laws emerged despite Muhammad’s spiritual example, personally responding to insults, mockery and blasphemy with gentle and loving responses and urging his followers to do the same, just as the Baha'i teachings suggest:
…religion must be the cause of unity and love amongst men; that it is the supreme effulgence of Divinity, the stimulus of life, the source of honor and productive of eternal existence. Religion is not intended to arouse enmity and hatred nor to become the source of tyranny and injustice. Should it prove to be the cause of hostility, discord and the alienation of mankind, assuredly the absence of religion would be preferable. Religious teachings are like a course of treatment having for its purpose the cure and healing of mankind. If the only outcome of a course of treatment should be mere diagnosis and fruitless discussion of symptoms, it would be better to abandon and abolish it. In this sense the absence of religion would be at least some progress toward unity. - Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 394.