Islam is a religion of real life. It doesn’t isolate itself in the Masjid (mosque) or confine its teachings to religious rituals. It is rather a religion that coheres with people’s all aspects of life. Its divine guidance rules their behavior, their dealings, their relations, their sayings and even their thoughts. And because Islam is a social religion which is meant to organize and elevate people’s life, it undertakes providing treatments for all socially undesirable behaviours such as hatred, envy, gossip, spying and backbiting. Those social illnesses have destructive effects not only on communities but on human souls as well.

In this article we try to analyze “backbiting” as one of those destructive social illnesses to find out its reasons, effects and treatment from an Islamic perspective.

Backbiting in Islam?

The Arabic term of backbiting is al-Gheebah or al-Gheebatu. It is defined as speaking ill of people behind their backs. To mention a Muslim in a manner which he/she dislikes is considered as a major sin in Islam that drives away from Allah’s mercy and leads to His severe punishment.

Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) once asked his Companions if they know what backbiting is, they said: “Allah and His Messenger know best.” Then he said: “Backbiting is talking about your Muslim brother in a way which he dislikes.” It was said to him: “What if that brother is as I say.” He said, ” If he is actually as you said, then that is backbiting; but if it is not in him, then that is slandering.”

In Quran, there is a very antipathetic depiction of backbiting which indicates the awful sin a Muslim may fall in. Those who amuse themselves with backbiting can never find it amusing when imagining themselves eating the flesh of the dead. “Believers avoid making too many assumptions– some assumptions are sinful– and do not spy on one another or speak ill of people behind their backs: would any of you like to eat the flesh of your dead brother? No, you would hate it. So be mindful of God: God is ever relenting, most merciful.” 

(Chapter 49, Verse 12)

Why do people indulge in backbiting?

I always ask myself why people find such repulsive behavior alluring and many cannot resist it. To understand this point we should always remember the Quranic fact that we are not alone in this life. Allah warns us continuously in Quran that we have a deadly lurking enemy which spares no effort to lead us astray all the time. The Shaytan‘s (devil’s) trick is to make backbiting tempting to our minds by provoking envy, hatred, disdain and mockery among Muslims. Some people deceive themselves and justify backbiting by coating it with showing pity and mercy for their victims, or even showing they do it out of anger for the sake of Allah.

Human soul (Nafs) carries both factors of elevation and descent at the same time; if not trained regularly to be strong, pious and responsible, it becomes weak, fragile and ready to be deceived and manipulated by devils of Jinn and humans. Those of weak and deceived souls (Nafs) find it easier to speak ill about others instead of exerting effort to be aware of their own deficiencies and to work towards improving themselves.

Effects of Backbiting on community

Allah (SWT) created man to be honored, and He imposed strict instructions aiming at preserving man’s dignity. Backbiting and gossip tarnish people’s reputation and kill their dignity. Moreover, it implants seeds of hatred and grudge among people. Therefore, it deprives them of living peacefully and being productive and creative.

When communities are afflicted with such illnesses, it causes hatred and grudge to prevail. Then people fail to build strong relations, and teamwork becomes difficult and fruitless. Hence, the whole society will be in trouble.

Islam gives priority to the integrity of the Muslim society. It asserts the concept of brotherhood and sisterhood in Islam, and it instills in Muslims’ hearts that sincerity of faith is dependent on loving goodness for each other.  The Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) said:  “Don’t envy one another, and don’t increase prices for each other, and don’t hate one another, and don’t turn away from one another, and don’t undermine each other in trade, but rather be servants of Allah and brothers among yourselves. A Muslim is the brother of a Muslim: he doesn’t wrong him, nor does he fail him, nor does he lie to him, nor does he disdain him. Piety is here (and he pointed to his heart three times). It is evil enough for a person to disdain his Muslim brother. The whole of a Muslim is inviolable for another Muslim: his blood, his money and his honour.” (Muslim)

However, there are few exceptional situations in which backbiting could be allowed according to views of religious scholars:

–  When a person is wronged and he/she makes a formal complaint to a judge or someone responsible.

– Warning Muslims from an evil person who intends to get married, or have a business or friendship with someone you know. ,

– When a Muslim intends to change what is wrong and render the wrongdoer back to the right way by telling someone who has power on him/her.

How to avoid backbiting and how to repent

Avoiding backbiting, gossip and other major sins is a process of self- striving (Jihad al-Nafs) towards self-reform. A good Muslim should always keep in mind the serious consequences of indulging in such repulsive sins. The worst of those consequences can be losing reward (thawab) of all good deeds a Muslim does because all reward may go to the victims of backbiting in the Hereafter.

There is nothing except repentance can rescue a Muslim from such consequences. Repentance should be accompanied by asking for forgiveness from victims of backbiting. If asking for their forgiveness will cause bigger harm, then praying for them, and praising them before people may expiate the sin.

It is certain that reciting Quran regularly, adhering to piety, beneficial reading, developing human skills and being engaged in righteous deeds are basic steps in the process of self-reform. They are the best training to strengthen human soul and protect it from indulging in such major sins.

Written by: Amany el-Morshidy