“Mama, I am sorry that I am a very big trouble and difficulty upon you,” my son (who was 8 back then) said to me as he entered the house after Jumu'ah. It was a strange thing for him to say! I noticed serious regret on his face, filled with remorse, and my heart cringed at the sight. Perhaps if it was any other time I would have taken advantage of his “realization” but he had just come back from Jumu'ah and that is the time when I usually appreciate and encourage him. So I asked him why he said what he had said, and he explained, “Today shaikh said in his khutbah that money and children are fitnah!”
Ah! My son had become just another victim of misunderstanding the word “fitnah”. Because he was called a “fitnah”, he thought of himself as someone evil and wicked!
Unfortunately, it is not only a misunderstanding of an 8 year old, but of a fair percentage of the Muslim world, and hence, the most commonly misunderstood hadeeth remains the one in which the Prophet, sallallahu alihi wasalam warned the men:
“I have not left behind me any fitnah more harmful to men than women.” (Bukhāri & Muslim)
It seems that some of my Muslim brothers, as much as they love the female species, equally love to demean Muslim women, put them under unnecessary restrictions, and psychologically butcher their confidence as “proud Muslimahs”using the above hadeeth as a “proof” for their actions.
In reaction, some of the sisters, to justify and maintain their Muslimah pride, have gone to the other extreme of rejecting the hadeeth and denying its authenticity. The common notion of their rationalization is along the lines: “If I must believe in the fairness of Muḥammad then I must deny…” and a number of ahadeeth are questioned in the name of “fairness and logic”, the aforementioned included.
I questioned the meaning of the hadeeth in an effort to understand if the negative view of women was justified. I could not argue with the hadeeth, since without a doubt, I discovered that, it was an authentic hadeeth. Therefore, rejecting it was out of the question for me. Hence, I was faced with a dilemma: should I miserably accept myself as a fitnah, inherently evil as portrayed by many Muslim clerics, and let them condemn me whenever they wish, by using the words of the Prophet, sallallahu alihi wasalam, as proof, or simply excuse away the hadeeth? It so happened that since I am a proud Muslimah and am very proud of every aspect of my deen, so accepting either option would have been a paradox.
Did I have a third option? Was there any way the hadeeth could be understood rationally while maintaining the harmony of fairness.
Of course, educating myself was the only option not only in this situation but in any situation when my belief, the Qur'an or ahadeeth are criticized; instead of denial and rejection, knowledge is always the key. After researching the matter, I discovered several of the following misunderstandings.
Firstly, I focused on the word fitnah. Fitnah comes from the word fitan which means to separate. That's why one of the names of goldsmith is al-fattan because he separates the pure gold from its impurities.
In sharee'ah this word has been used numerous times to indicate a test or a trial, because a test/trial separates a true believer from a non-believer. It is only through a trial that a person's true faith shines. As Allāh azzawajal says:
أَحَسِبَ النَّاسُ أَنْ يُتْرَكُوا أَنْ يَقُولُوا آمَنَّا وَهُمْ لَا يُفْتَنُونَ
“Do people think that they will be left alone because they say: “We believe,” and will not be tested”
وَلَقَدْ فَتَنَّا الَّذِينَ مِنْ قَبْلِهِمْ ۖ فَلَيَعْلَمَنَّ اللَّهُ الَّذِينَ صَدَقُوا وَلَيَعْلَمَنَّ الْكَاذِبِينَ
“And We indeed tested those who were before them. And Allāh will certainly make (it) known (the truth of) those who are true, and will certainly make (it) known (the falsehood of) those who are liars.”
يُفْتَنُونَ and فَتَنَّا both are derived from the rood word “fitan”.
When something is referred to as “fitnah” it doesn't mean that it is inherently evil or an innate source of corruption, rather it only means that it is a mean to put a person through a trial. In fact, every blessing or favor of Allāh is also a fitnah for mankind. For if a person is blessed with something, and that blessing becomes a reason for him/her to disobey Allāh or become negligent of Allāh due to the luxuries of it, then in of itself that blessing becomes a fitnah for that person.
Likewise, if a person is put under a test (fitan) but he/she uses that fitnah (test) to come closer to Allāh, increase his/her īmān through worship, repentance, proper evaluation of himself/herself and improving his/her condition, then in fact that fitnah becomes a blessing of Allāh upon him/her.
Hence in the hadeeth, the Prophet sallallahu alihi wasalam, is simply warning the men against their shahwa (lust/desires) for women and that this shahwa (not the women) is one of the biggest trial for men. He, sallallahu alihi wasalam, is not labeling women innately evil or wicked rather he is warning the men that their lust for women will be a test for them. How they act with and around women can be a case for them or against them. Even in our rational world, psychologists have recognized carnal lust of men as one of the strongest desires and addictions.
Nevertheless, the complicity in understanding the beautiful meanings of this hadeeth seems to come from the over zealousness of some brothers in many parts of the Muslim world, who have abused this hadeeth to enforce their male “superiority” over women, and use religious submission of women to satisfy their male chauvinism.
Of the common ways this hadeeth is misused is by restricting women from going to the masājid and branding them a source of “fitnah” for mankind, by adopting a condescending tone or attitude towards the women during khutbah or by delivering lectures warning the men against females, as if they are the cause of the “original sin”. I believe that psychological injuries are far worse than physical injuries and those brothers who demonize women in such a way will be held accountable for the harm resulting from misrepresenting the words of the Prophet, sallallahu alihi wasalam. They have obviously not understood the proper meaning of “fitnah” and thus have decontextualized it.
Second, I looked for other verses that use the word fitnah to refer to things other than women.
Allāh azzawal warns against wealth and children calling them a fitnah for us:
إِنَّمَا أَمْوَالُكُمْ وَأَوْلَادُكُمْ فِتْنَةٌ
“Your wealth and your children are only a trial.”
This verse is another proof that just because something is mentioned as “fitnah“, doesn't make it inherently evil. No one considers money to be evil or one's progeny to be wicked. People will attain higher levels in Jannah because of how they spend their wealth in the way of Allāh. Some will continue to gain good deeds even after their death through the righteous children they raised. The fact is that these two are blessings of Allāh and the fitnah lies in how we take advantage of these two blessings, whether we let ourselves get drowned in this world because of them, or we become thankful to Allāh for blessing us with these favors and use them to come close to Allāh. Similarly, how men deal with their desires for women can either become a path to Jannah or path away from Jannah for them.
The same men who condemn women because they are “fitnah” never condemn wealth or adopt a condescending attitude towards children. Furthermore, these men never restrict the usage or gain of money to keep themselves from the “fitnah” of wealth, nor do they distance themselves from their children to protect themselves from the “fitnah” of awlaad (progeny).
It is quite interesting though that when people, both who abuse and those who reject ahadeeth, evaluate the hadeeth in question, they forget to search how many times and how many things are referred to as fitnah in Qur'an. In reality everything we own and everyone we know can become a form of fitnah for us, as described in this verse:
وَجَعَلْنَا بَعْضَكُمْ لِبَعْضٍ فِتْنَةً أَتَصْبِرُونَ
“And We have made some of you a trial (fitnah) for others, will you have patience?” (25:20)
How many times are men reminded that they too are as much fitnah for women as women are for men? If men are attracted towards women, women too are equally tempted to attract attention from men. Nonetheless, the world is as incomplete without men as it is without women, and women are blessings for men as much as men are blessings for women yet they both remain a fitnah for one another. Men are tested through their women as much as women are tested through their men, but neither group is innately evil.
Hence, the notion that Islam considers women to be the innate source of mischief, inherently evil or inferior (based on the word “fitnah”) is nothing short of a blasphemy and a result of sheer ignorance. Although there are a number of textual proofs opposing such a negative view of women, my favorite one to counter these unsubstantial notions regarding women's place in Islam is when the Prophet, sallallahu alihi waslama said:
“Made beloved to me from your world are women and perfume, and the coolness of my eyes is in prayer.” (Ahmad and An-Nasa 'i)
Having said all this, I must remind those who doubt the Authority of the Sunnah, position of the Companions, and prefer to put their logical reasoning over textual proof that it is not upon us to bend Islam based upon our own whims and desires. It is sad to see Muslim women ridiculing the ahadeeth simply because they think they contain misogynist undertones. This type of intellectual arrogance is not limited to female Muslims, but even to Muslim men who like to show their sympathy towards women by picking and choosing ahadeeth. Any authentic statement of the Prophet sallallahu alihi wasalam is binding upon us to accept as much as it is binding upon us to accept the ayahs of the Qur'an. Simply because an authentic hadeeth does not make sense to us, does not mean that the hadeeth can be rejected. Similarly, just because some men misinterpret or misuse a certain hadeeth, does not mean that we deny it, to establish our place in our religion. People who have taken this path have endangered themselves with an understanding that is not in obedience to Allāh.
My son is not an affliction upon me; in fact, he is one of the biggest blessings from Allāh, alhamdullilah, yet he remains a fitnah for me, just as much as I remain a fitnah for him. It was my turn to explain to my son the precise meaning of fitnah, and as I did, his remorse was replaced with relief. As the explanation sank into his little mind, it became obvious through the spark in his eyes and the big smile on his face that he had understood the reality of his “fitnah“. I hope and pray that just as an 8-year-old understood what it means to be a fitnah, so too will most of the Muslims around the world , men and women, so Muslim men can stop demeaning women and Muslim women can stop rejecting the ahadeeth to find their place in Islam.