Fitna is a word in the Arabic language which, I believe has no equivalent in English only if 'Fitna' itself will enter English.

One meaning to it is temptation or appeal, but it's not that which I'm worried about it is the other meaning, maybe you can prove me wrong in averring to that there is no equivalent:

although some sources refer to it as sedition and civil strife, I don't think that is 100% accurate. Arabic Scholars (and there are not plenty considering that the bulk of Arab world speak dialectal Arabic according to their region/country) concur to that. As difficult as it is to explain, 'Fitna' is as I cited earlier is more than intricate to elucidate because a civil strife is not Fitna, it is part of the phenomena of Fitna. If one would elaborate the tale of Imam Ali and the reasons behind his death and that of his male offspring, maybe then and just then one would have a somewhat better understanding of the word. I understand the word but I cannot explain it patently and I struggle to explain it in my mother tongue due to its complexity.

To give you an element of hint: it is a jumble of fragmentation, chaos, unrest, scandal, disorder, mistrust, hatred, grudge and could include mass killings (between dissidents/family members/or other people (with no relation).. but dissidents and relatives is more common).

Reasons to Fitna: Religion, but not necessarily. فتنة (in Arabic)

Thank you

  • 3
    This is a case where it would be highly unlikely for English (or any other non-Arabic) language to develop or adopt a single-word equivalent precisely because of all of the historical associations and implications that accompany the Arabic word. If English were to adopt and assimilate Fitna or if a new word were to be created to mean the same thing, it would quickly assume a uniquely English meaning based on usage and context that would still be missing most of the nuance you are looking for.
    – bye
    Nov 7 '14 at 9:09
  • @bye "There is no such word" is a valid answer. You should post it as an answer. Nov 7 '14 at 10:12
  • @bye English has adopted thousands of words from different languages, so why not follow suit in this case. The only word I can think of now is 'Intifada' an Arabic word present today in the English language meaning 'revolution/rebellion' introduced after repeated citation in Newspapers, the Media, Politics etc. 'Fitna' should be considered, Politicians and Historians do write it in italics and it's use is certainly on the rise.
    – DesertLion
    Nov 7 '14 at 10:30
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    DesertLion, there is no central governing body of the English language. And certainly the website EL&U has no power to establish fitna or any other word as English. Words become English by "popular demand"; if people find fitna useful enough in English-speaking contexts and start using it broadly and frequently, it will become "English"; if they don't, it won't. But asking us to "make it so" is a bit fruitless. Asking whether there's an existing word which has its meaning or fits its niche is on-topic, however.
    – Dan Bron
    Nov 7 '14 at 12:13
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    DesertLion: to help explain what the cultural connotations of the word are, would you say that all the instances of 'Arab Spring' were cases of 'fitna'? If not, why not?
    – Mitch
    Nov 7 '14 at 13:11

As you mentioned, it is a general concept and it is not only related to politics or religion (even though it usually shows itself in these domains.)

I think an equivalent (or near-equivalent) word is instigation or even mischief-making. Also, it can show itself as a provocation. But these words may not cover all the meanings of the word.

When you instigate something, you start it, but the word carries conflict with it. If you are suspended for wearing a political t-shirt, the incident might instigate days of protest by students and faculty.

Instigate comes from the Latin word instigare "to incite." People who are instigators often begin trouble but then back off and let others break the rules.


Though, as a terminology, it is used as fitna or fitnah in English and it gains different meanings in different domains. There are even differences between the meanings of the term in Classical Arabic and Modern Arabic. Wikipedia

  • Your suggestion mischief-making makes fitna sound almost childish, silly, cheeky and slightly irksome. Instigation is a much better candidate, violence is often connoted with it.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Nov 7 '14 at 20:49
  • @Mari-LouA: Why would it be childish? It depends on the context. I tried to come up with generic terms that can be used in different contexts. It is not only used in violent situations.
    – 0..
    Nov 7 '14 at 20:57
  • thefreedictionary.com/mischief wayward but not malicious behaviour, usually of children, that causes trouble, irritation, etc
    – Mari-Lou A
    Nov 7 '14 at 21:14
  • @Mari-LouA: That is one of the meanings of mischief. We are talking about mischief-making and it depends on the context. I don't think mischief-making connotes a childish behavior without a context. Does it?
    – 0..
    Nov 7 '14 at 21:27
  • I gave you my interpretation. I then supplied you with a dictionary definition. If you believe that riots and general turmoil can be described as mischief-making; the OP said and I quote: although some sources refer to it as sedition and civil strife. Then that's fine.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Nov 7 '14 at 21:34

I don't speak Arabic, but one translation, possibly among the earliest, of the Classical Arabic interpretation of the word to English is;

To burn

That's the translation given in Edward William Lane's Arabic-English Lexicon from the mid-19th century, and it is my understanding that this is the meaning attributed to the word in the Quran.

Burning has a complex range of meanings in English, spanning from pain and suffering through persecution to desire and passion, so it's likely that burn and fitna overlap at least a little.

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