The Sin of Backbiting in Islam

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

from “Mukhtasar Minhaj al-Qasideen” (being Ibn Qudamah’s abridgement of Ibn al-Jawzi’s summary of al-Ghazzali’s “Ihya’ `Ulum al-Deen“)

“O you who believe! Avoid much suspicion, for some suspicions are a sin. Do not spy on one another, nor backbite one another. Would one of you love to eat the flesh of his dead brother? Nay, you would abhor it, [so similarly, avoid backbiting]. And fear Allah. Indeed, Allah is Most Forgiving, Most Merciful.” Qur’an, [49:12]

“And do not follow that of which you do not have knowledge. Indeed, the hearing, the sight and the heart – [you] will be asked about all of those.” Qur’an, [17:36]

“He does not utter a [single] word, except that there is, with him, [an angel] ready and waiting [to record it].” Qur’an, [50:18]

Imam Nawawi says “It is obligatory for every sane adult to guard his tongue against talking, except when it contains a clear benefit. If talking and remaining silent are of equal benefit, it is sunnah to abstain, for permissible talking might lead to something undesirable or forbidden, as in fact is very often the case, and nothing matches safety.”

On the authority of Abu Hurayrah :

“Whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day should say [something] good, or he should keep silent.” [Bukhari, Muslim, Ahmad, Tirmidhi, Ibn Majah]

Nawawi says, “This hadith is quite explicit that it is imperative to not talk unless the speech is good, which is that wherein there is some benefit. If a person is in doubt as to whether there will be any benefit, then he should remain silent.”

On the authority of Sahl ibn Sa`d :

“Whoever guarantees for me what is between his two jaws and what is between his two legs, I guarantee Heaven for him.” [Bukhari, Muslim]

On the authority of `Uqbah ibn `Amir : I said, ‘O Messenger of Allah! What is salvation?”
He said, “Hold your tongue, let your house contain you, and weep over your sins.” [Bukhari, Muslim]

Mu`adh ibn Jabal said, “Are we even going to be held accountable for what we say?!”
The Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) said, “May your mother be bereaved of you! Is there anything which drags people into the Fire on their faces other than the harvest of their tongues?!” [Tirmidhi (hasan sahih)]

On the authority of Abu Bakrah, from the Farewell Pilgrimage:

“Indeed, your blood, property and honor are sacred to [one another], like the sanctity of this day of yours in this city of yours.” [Bukhari, Muslim]

On the authority of Abu Hurayrah :

“All of a Muslim is prohibited to another Muslim : his blood, his honor and his property.” [Muslim]

“O assembly of those who have believed with their tongues, but into whose hearts faith has not yet reached! Do not backbite the Muslims, nor seek out their secrets! For, whoever seeks out the faults of his brother, Allah will seek out his secrets. And, whoever has his secrets sought out by Allah, Allah will disgrace him, even [if he hides] in the depths of his house. [Abu Dawud in al-Adab, 4/271, #4880]

“Beware of backbiting, for backbiting is more serious than adultery. A man may commit adultery, and drink [wine], and then repent, and Allah will forgive him. But, the backbiter will not be forgiven by Allah until his [backbited] companion forgives him.” [Suyuti, Al-Jami` as-Saghir, 1/174, #2919, from Ibn Abid-Dunya, and Abush-Shaykh, Al-Tawbikh.]

Meaning of ghibah

It has been defined precisely by the Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) as, “Your mentioning your brother with something about him that he dislikes [being spoken about].”
Someone asked, “How about if my brother contains that [characteristic which I am mentioning]?”
He replied, “If he possesses that which you mention, then you have [indeed] backbited him. And, if he does not contain that which you say, then you have slandered him.” [Muslim in al-Birr, 4/2001, #70; Ahmad in Al-Musnad, 2/230,384]

Body.
Lineage.
Character.
Clothing.

Ghibah in the guise of religiousity

“Praise be to Allah who has saved us from such evil.”
“We ask Allah for protection.”
“That poor fellow! Allah has afflicted him with a great calamity. May Allah forgive him and us.”

Listening to Ghibah

Someone who listens to backbiting is a partner to it. He is not absolved of the sin of listening unless he remonstrates verbally, or in his heart if he is afraid. If he is able to start talking about something else, or to change the subject of the conversation, then it is imperative for him to do so.

“And, when they hear vain talk, they turn away from it.” [Qur’an, 28:55]

“[Successful are] those who shun vain talk.” [Qur’an, al-Mu’minun: 3]

“Whoever is present while a Muslim is humiliated before him, and is able to assist him [and yet does not], Allah will humiliate him before [all of] creation.” [Ahmad in al-Musnad, 3/487; Suyuti in Al-Jami` As-Saghir, 2/510, #8375]

“Whoever protects a believer from a hypocrite, Allah will send to him an angel to protect him from the Fire of Hell on the Day of Arising. [Abu Dawud in al-Adab, 4/272, #4883]

“Whoever averts [an attack] from the honor of his brother, Allah will avert the fire from his face on the Day of Arising.” [Tirmidhi (hasan)]

Causes of ghibah

  1. Thirst for revenge. Backbiting one’s brother and obtaining gratification from his anger.
  2. Peer pressure. Desire to fit in with and be accepted by one’s companions.
  3. Desire to exalt one’s self by degrading another. In the same way, one may become jealous when another is praised, and therefore seek to disparage him.
  4. Jest and play. A desire to make others laugh. Some people even make a living out of this.

Cure for ghibah

Realize that it exposes you to the displeasure of Allah, the Exalted. Remind yourself that your good deeds will go to the person whom you are backbiting, and his sins will be borne by you. Ponder over your own faults, and occupy yourself with correcting them. Feel ashamed to discuss the faults of others when you yourself have so many faults. If you are rally free from fault, then occupy yourself with thanking Allah for His favor. Just as you would dislike someone else backbiting you, out yourself in the place of the one whom you are inclined to backbite.

“Indeed, truthfulness leads to righteousness, and righteousness leads to Heaven. And, a man [continues to] tell the truth, until he is recorded before Allah as a truthful one. And, indeed, lying leads to evil, and evil leads to Hell. And, a man [continues to] lie until he is recorded before Allah as a liar. [Bukhari, Muslim]

“Insulting a Muslim is impiety, and killing him is [a form of] unbelief.” [Bukhari, Muslim, Ahmad, Nasa’i, Ibn Majah, Tirmidhi, Tabarani, Daraqutni.]

Ghibah of the heart

To think the worst of Muslims. You may not think badly of a Muslim unless you have definite knowledge of his having done something evil, and there is no possible excuse or justification for him. You should try to make 70 excuses for your brother, and if you cannot find an excuse for him, look for some flaw in your perception. If someone informs you of something bad about someone else, it is obligatory upon you to investigate the matter. Is there some enmity between the informer and the one he is telling you about? You are obliged to think the best of your Muslim brother/sister. Thwart Satan by making du`a for the person. Do not spy on your brother, under the pretext of trying to find out the truth. If it does turn out that he has done something wrong, then advise him in secret.

Cases in which ghibah is permissible

  1. Injustice. One who has suffered injustice is entitled to mention the one who has committed injustice to someone who is capable of restoring his rights to him, such as a legitimate Muslim ruler or judge.
  2. Seeking help to change an evil, or to reform the wrongdoer. If the intention in telling the ghibah is not to change the wrong, then it is forbidden to relate it.
  3. Asking for a fatwa. A person may say, ‘My father/brother/wife has done such-and-such to me. What can I do about it?

    On the authority of `A’ishah : Hind, the wife of Abu Sufyan, said to the Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace), “Abu Sufyan is a miserly man, and he is not giving me what would suffice me and my child, unless I take from him without his knowing.” He said, “Take what suffices you and your child according to common usage.” [Bukhari, Muslim]

    However, it is more precautionary to avoid mention of names, for example by asking instead, “What is the verdict regarding a person who has done such-and-such?”

  4. Warning, such as warning a prospective buyer that the merchant is a swindler, or warning a student that his prospective teacher is an innovator or a deviant. Also, revealing the faults of weak narrators and forgers of hadith, and giving someone a candid appraisal of a person whom the former is thinking of marrying.

    On the authority of Fatimah bint Qays : she said, “I came to the Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) and told him, “Abu Jahm and Mu`awiyah have [both] proposed to me.” He said, “As for Mu`awiyah, he is a poor man with no money, and as for Abu Jahm, his stick never leaves his shoulder.” [Bukhari, Muslim, Malik]

  5. If someone is commonly known by a nickname, although if there is some alternative way to refer to him, it is preferable.
  6. Someone who sins openly, and has no qualms about his sins being mentioned.
    However, it is not permissible to mention any of his secret sins.

    “There can be no backbiting of one who casts off the mantle of modesty.” [Suyuti, Al-Jami` As-Saghir, 2/519, from Bayhaqi.]

Expiation for ghibah

The backbiter has committed two infringements; one upon the limits of Allah, and this must be expiated by repentance and regret. The second is on the rights of his brothers/sisters. If news of the backbiting has reached the person, the backbiter must apologize to him/her, and express regret at having said it.

“Whoever has wronged his brother, in the way of property or honor, let him go to him and repair it, before it is taken [from him on a day] when he has no dirhams or dinars, such thatif he has any good deeds, some of the good deeds will be taken and given to [the wronged one], otherwise [if he has no good deeds], some of the other’s evil deeds will be taken and cast upon him.” [Bukhari, Al-Mazalim, 5/121, #2449. Ahmad, Al-Musnad, 2/435]

If the person has not learned that he has been backbited, then the backbiter
need not tell him, but he should ask Allah to forgive him.

“The expiation with regard to one who has been backbited is that forgiveness be asked for him.” [Suyuti, Al-Jami` As-Saghir, 2/390, #6259]

Mujahid said : the expiation for eating the flesh of your brother is that you praise him and pray for good for him, and similar is the case if he has died.

On Backbiting non-Muslims

In the Name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.

Praise be to Allah, Who sent His messenger with the Guidance and the religion of truth, in order that He might make it prevail over all religions, though the pagans may be averse. Blessings and peace be upon the Messenger of Allah, who was sent to perfect the noble traits of character.

To proceed : May Allah guide you to felicity! You have asked about the permissibility of a Muslim’s backbiting a non-Muslim. A possible source of confusion here is that the Qur’anic verse prohibiting backbiting is addressed to the believers, and says, in translation,

‘O you who believe! Avoid much suspicion; indeed, some suspicions are a sin. And do not spy, nor backbite one another.’ [Qur’an, 49:12]

Hence, one may mistakenly conclude that backbiting non-Muslims is permissible. However, one should beware of relying on first impressions, and especially in matters related to the Sacred Law, one should refrain from pronouncing one’s own, unlearned opinion on a matter based on one’s own impressions. The Qur’anic and hadith texts prohibiting speaking without knowledge, and censuring those who pronounce verdicts (fatwa) rashly, are numerous, and we will not mention them here. The verdict here requires consideration of the evidence and texts in their totality, for only such can yield a full picture of the situation.

Firstly, the fact that the address is made to the Muslims, rather than to mankind in general, is understandable when one takes into consideration that the unbelievers, although also subject to all of Allah’s commands, and technically obligated to follow them, (as evidenced by the clear texts of the Qur’an, and backed by the consensus of Muslim scholars) are first and foremost called upon to believe. This is because rectitude of doctrine is a prerequisite for the acceptability of a good deed, and without belief in Allah and all His Messengers, deeds are rendered worthless, like floating dust or scattered ashes, not earning their doer any reward in the Hereafter. It is only by accepting the message of Allah, and all his Prophets, that one can ‘validate’ one’s good deeds so as to earn reward for them in the Hereafter. This includes those who followed the message of a previous Prophet, and they shall receive a double reward upon embracing the Final Message.

`Those to whom We gave the book before it, they believe in it. And, when it is recited to them, they say, ‘We believe in it. Indeed, it is the truth from our Lord. Indeed, we were, [even] before it, Muslims’. They will be given their reward twofold, because they persevered.’ [Qur’an, 28:52-54]

Furthermore, there are some orders and prohibitions (or all, according to the epistemology of the Ash`aris) whose goodness or baseness can be known only through scriptural communication, such that an unbeliever would not be likely to obey them without first embracing faith.

That the address is made to the believers does not rule out its applicability to unbelievers; i.e. the command, `Do not backbite one another,’ does not, logically, imply a permission to backbite others. For example, Allah says, (translated),

‘O you who believe! Devour not your wealth amongst yourselves by falsehood, except if it be by trade, by mutual consent amongst yourselves.’ [Qur’an, 4:29]

This verse does not give permission to consume the wealth of the Dhimmis (non-Muslim subjects of the Islamic state). It is reported that the Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) said,

‘Does any of you, while reclining on his couch, imagine that Allah has prohibited only that which is to be found in this Qur’an? By Allah, I have preached, commanded and prohibited various matters as numerous as that which is found in the Qur’an, or more numerous. Allah has not permitted you to enter the houses of the people of the Book without permission, nor to beat their women, nor to eat their fruits when they give you that [tax] which is imposed on them.’ [Narrated by Abu Dawud]

And it is reported in another narration that he (peace and blessings be upon him and his Household) said: ‘Indeed, whoever wrongs a person of the contract (i.e. a Jew or a Christian), or deprecates him, or imposes upon him [something] beyond his capability, or takes anything from him without his consent, I shall be his adversary on the Day of Arising.’ [Narrated by Abu Dawud; al-Mundhiri said : it contains unknown narrators.]

This latter hadith is explicit regarding the prohibition of deprecating a Dhimmi, but its isnad contains weakness, and so it cannot be used as a proof. However, the evidences to follow establish the prohibition of backbiting, and in their light, the above hadith can serve as supporting evidence.

The human being should realize that all his/her words are witnessed by Allah, and recorded by the angelic scribes.

‘He does not utter a [single] word, except that there is, with him, [an angel] watching and waiting [to record it].’ [Qur’an, 50:18]

Imam al-Nawawi says, ‘It is obligatory for every sane adult to guard his tongue against talking, except when it contains a clear benefit. If talking and remaining silent are of equal benefit, it is sunnah to abstain, for permissible talking might lead to something undesirable or forbidden, as in fact is very often the case, and nothing matches safety.’

Allah does not love the loud utterance of harsh/hurtful words, except by one who has been wronged. And Allah is Seeing, Hearing.’ [Qur’an, 4:148]

The Prophet (may Allah bless him and his Household and grant them peace), has said,
‘Whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day should say something good, or should remain silent.’ [Narrated by Bukhari, Muslim, Ahmad, Tirmidhi, Ibn Majah]

Al-Nawawi says, ‘This hadith is quite explicit that it is imperative to not talk unless the speech is good, which is that wherein there is some benefit. If a person is in doubt as to whether there will be any benefit, then he should remain silent.’

And, the Prophet (may Allah bless him and his Household and grant them peace) said,

‘Treat people with good character.’ [Narrated by Tirmidhi, who said it is a good hadith; Nawawi quoted it in his ‘Forty Hadith.’]

The Muslim is not insulting, nor cursing, nor obscene, nor shameless. [Riyad al-Salihin]

From the above Qur’anic and hadith texts, it becomes clear that a Muslim should only speak if there is some benefit in his words, and in particular, it does not become him to engage in harsh or hurtful speech. This forms a basis for not engaging in backbiting, even if it be against a non-Muslim. If we consider the underlying reasons and implications of this, our idea is reinforced. The motive for backbiting is often anger and a thirst for revenge, whereas the believer is supposed to control his anger. Or, it may be intended to degrade the one being backbited and to thereby exalt oneself, which tends to indicate a feeling of arrogance, and arrogance is prohibited by clear scriptural texts. Furthermore, the enmity and other such bad consequences of backbiting are detrimental to society and its smooth functioning. In general, a Muslim is supposed to deal well with people, except if there is some justifying misconduct from the opposite party.

‘Allah does not prohibit you from being kind and equitable to those who have not fought you on account of your religion, nor driven you from your homes. And Allah loves those who are equitable.’ [Qur’an, 60:8]

Al-Haskafi, the Hanafi jurist, says in “al-Durr al-Mukhtar,” about the dhimmi, “Backbiting him is prohibited, just like [backbiting a Muslim].” Ibn `Abidin remarks in his marginal annotations “Hashiyat Radd al-Muhtar,” And, it has been said : Backbiting a dhimmi is more severe [than backbiting a Muslim].”

All this having been said, it should be pointed out that although backbiting in general is prohibited, there are certain circumstances which make it permissible. At this point, it is useful to distinguish between two types of misdemeanors and sins of unbelievers :

  1. deeds which they do openly and shamelessly, because they maintain that they are permissible according to their religion, or because they have little modesty or concern for public opinion. Mentioning such misdeeds of an unbeliever is not considered backbiting, just as in the case of a sinful Muslim who sins in public with impunity.
  2. evil deeds which they do covertly and in hiding, due to their admitting their evil nature. It is not permissible to backbite them regarding these.

Backbiting a non-Muslim is also permissible in the other cases where backbiting a Muslim is justified, viz. To redress an injustice, to seek help to change an evil, asking for a fatwa, accepted nicknames, and warning people against evil.

We conclude with the following hadith, which mentions the punishment for backbiting people (without distinguishing between believers and unbelievers; it therefore serves as support for the verdict we have mentioned).

Abu Dawud has reported that the Prophet (peace be upon him) said, ‘When I was taken up to heaven (i.e. during the Mi`raj) I passed by people who had nails of copper with which they were scratching their faces and their breasts. I said, ‘Who are these [people], O Gabriel?’ He replied: ‘They are those who consumed the flesh of people [i.e. backbite them] and aspersed their honor.’

And Allah, the Exalted knows best.

MMVIII © Qibla.

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