– wait a second. Let us not get carried away here. I am sure Huma would be the last person who would want you to tell another person about what she did last Friday night. Furthermore, unfortunate is the case that when one would prevent another person from speaking about Huma behind her they will most probably get offended, act as if they were born and raised in heaven and were by no means committing a sin.
“… nor let some of you backbite others. Does one of you like to eat the flesh of his dead brother? But you abhor it…” (Surah al-Hujuraat 49: 12)
Many Muslims tend to shy away whenever a discussion related to backbiting (gheeba) arises. Perhaps one of the primary reasons for this is that many of us have still not been able to fully understand and decipher what backbiting really is. Though understanding it can get complicated when in various discussions certain individuals try to find loopholes and bring in excuses that even leaves some scholars confused – needless to say, the Prophet (pbuh) and his progeny (pbut) have clearly outlined what backbiting entails of.
What is Backbiting?
A simple narration from the Holy Prophet (pbuh) breaks down for us what backbiting is:
رسولُ اللهِ (صَلَّيَ اللهُ عَلَيهِ وَ آلِهِ): الغِيبَةُ ذِكرُكَ أخاكَ بما يَكرَهُ.
The Prophet (pbuh) said, ‘Backbiting is to remember your brother about that he would not like.’
It doesn’t get any simpler than this. This is not to say that further details on backbiting do not exist; however the narration can be taken as a base point to determine what can be labeled as backbiting. Ayatullah Dastaghaib Shirazi in his book Greater Sins states that backbiting is of 3 types: Absolute, Apparent and Implied. In all 3 instances – whether explicit, implicit or illusive – the fact remains that anything that is done or said in a way that points to a defect about another person that they would not appreciate, constitutes to being backbiting.
Imam Kadhim (as) has been quoted to have said the following:
الإمامُ الكاظمُ (عَلَيهِ الّسَلامُ): مَن ذَكَرَ رجُلاً مِن خَلفِهِ بما هُو فيهِ ممّا عَرَفَهُ الناسُ لم يَغتَبْهُ، ومَن ذَكَرَهُ مِن خَلفِهِ بما هُو فيهِ ممّا لايَعرِفُهُ الناسُ اغتابَهُ.
‘He who remembers someone behind his back, mentioning what is true about him, and what people already know, then he has not backbitten him, whereas he who remembers someone behind his back about something that is true but that people do not know about, then he has backbitten him.’
But I Wasn’t Lying – It Was The Truth
The amount of times I have heard this as an excuse is unbelievable! The entire premise of backbiting is based on the fact that you are exposing a truth about someone that would not want known. Lying about someone is not the same as backbiting. Lying about someone is just that: a lie and slander.
Abu Dharr (ra) once asked the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh): “O Messenger of Allah, what is gheebah?” He replied: “It is to mention about your brother that which he detests.”
Abu Dharr (ra) said: “O Messenger of Allah, what if that which is mentioned of him should actually be in him?” He (pbuh) replied: “Know that when you mention that which is in him, you have committed his gheebah, and when you mention that which is not in him, then you have slandered him.”
The aforementioned narration reaffirms the notion that if you are telling the truth about someone in regards to something that he or she would detest, it is considered backbiting. On the contrary, if it is a lie, then one is slandering a person with false accusations. Some individuals might say that what they were saying about a 3rd individual was already know by the person who they were communicating with. In other words, it was not something that the person one was unaware of and that it was common knowledge between them. In the narration by Imam Kadhim (as) mentioned above, it says that if it is something that people already knew about, it is not backbiting. Therefore scholars have differed in this aspect in regards to labeling such type of talk in the category of backbiting or not, nevertheless what is agreed upon is that if something is being said in a degrading manner, then that is a sin. So who are we really kidding then? If we were all ever so kind to only praise a person behind their back, I would not even be writing about this topic. But the fact of the matter is, most people engage only in these futile talks in order to put down a person behind their back and to ridicule them. Therefore having knowledge about a 3rd person’s characteristic or personality should not be any excuse to speak about them in a way that would hurt them.
But I Wasn’t The One Backbiting
For some unknown reason, people who are on the receiving end of backbiting – as in the individuals who are merely listening – feel that they are in essence less guilty than the individual who is backbiting. This is by no means the case at all.
الإمامُ عليٌّ (عَلَيهِ الّسَلامُ): السامِعُ لِلغِيبَةِ كالمُغتابِ.
Imam Ali (as) says, ‘The one who listens to backbiting is like the backbiter.’
If there was no one to listen to backbiting, the backbiter would not have any place to engage in his sin. The listener makes it possible for the backbiter to backbite about a third party. It is an obligation for one who is in an environment where such discussion is taking place, to restrain others from engaging further in gheeba and to not become a part of it. The Prophet (pbuh) has explicitly stated that: ‘The listener is one of the two backbiters.’ As a matter of fact, Imam Sadiq (as) goes even further and says that ‘Gheeba is equal to infidelity (one who does it is Kafir) and listening to and being pleased with it is like polytheism.’ Therefore those who feel that they are less guilty should not feel so. Unfortunately, due to social circumstances and the wrongful guilt of being labelled as a holier-than-thou individual, people have a hard time telling others to stop backbiting even when they themselves know that gheeba is being done. What people do not understand is that this is not a matter that should be taken lightly. It is incomprehensible why many people are always throwing out the “I don’t care what people think or say about me” statement all the time, but when it comes to taking a stand on a legitimate matter, that is in fact the first and at times, only thing they care about. You will be reprimanded for allowing backbiting to continue on and for not taking a stand against it when you have a chance – whether the person you need to stop is your close friend, family member or even a general colleague at work or mosque. A stand against it will not only safeguard the honour of another believer, but as well as safeguard us in the Hereafter.
Admitting The Mistake And Repenting
Praise is to Allah (swt) who has His doors of Mercy always open. The first step to repenting for any sin or mistake is to kill your ego and to admit that one has made an error. Instead of finding excuses for something one knows deep inside that they were at fault for, it is best to admit the mistake and to seek forgiveness for it. Seeking repentance for backbiting however, is not as straightforward as perhaps seeking forgiveness for singing or listening to music. This is because in the case of backbiting, two individuals are involved – you yourself and the person you are backbiting about. If you harm someone and his or her dignity, then the next step after admitting your mistake is to seek the forgiveness of the victim.
قالَ رسولُ اللّه (صَلَّيَ اللهُ عَلَيهِ وَ آلِهِ): الغِيبَةُ أشَدُّ مِن الزِّنا، قيلَ: وكيفَ ؟ قالَ: الرجلُ يَزني ثُمّ يَتوبُ فَيَتُوبُ اللّهُ علَيهِ، وإنّ صاحِبَ الغِيبَةِ لايُغفَرُ لَهُ حتّى يَغفِرَ لَهُ صاحِبُهُ.
The Prophet (pbuh) said, ‘Backbiting is worse than adultery’, at which he was asked, ‘How so?’ He replied, ‘A man commits adultery, then repents, and Allah pardons him for it, whereas the backbiter is not forgiven until his victim forgives him.’
At times, backbiting is done about someone who one can no longer get in contact with or perhaps has even passed away. In this case, it is one’s responsibility to speak good about the individual and to ultimately seek the Forgiveness of Allah (swt). We are proud to be the followers of the Prophet (pbuh) and his progeny (pbut) who have given us the answer for every problem that we may encounter. The following exert from a Du’a by Imam Zain ul-Abideen (as) explicitly asks Allah (swt) to make a person on whom harm was brought upon due to our negligence, satisfied with us:
أللَّهُمَّ وَأَيُّما عَبْد مِنْ عَبِيْدِكَ أَدْرَكَهُ مِنِّي دَرَكٌ أَوْ مَسَّهُ مِنْ نَاحِيَتِي أَذَىً، أَوْ لَحِقَـهُ بِي أَوْ بِسَبَبي ظُلْمٌ فَفُتُّهُ بِحَقِّـهِ، أَوْسَبَقْتُـهُ بِمَظْلَمَتِهِ، فَصَلِّ عَلَى مُحَمَّد وَآلِهِ، وَأَرْضِهِ عَنِّي مِنْ وُجْدِكَ، وَأَوْفِهِ حَقَّهُ مِنْ عِنْدِكَ
O God, if there is a servant from among Thy servants whom an ill visits on my account, a harm touches from my direction, or a wrong overtakes through me or because of me, and should I fail to take care of his right or go before him [in death] with his complaint, bless Muhammad and his Household, satisfy him toward me through Thy wealth, and give him his full right from Thyself!
Is It Ever Allowed?
Islam being a complete way of life has taken into consideration every circumstance and situation for ever act that is ordained for us. Backbiting is also open to a few exceptions and there are times it is not only allowed, but perhaps is even the better course of action to take.
رسولُ اللهِِ (صَلَّيَ اللهُ عَلَيهِ وَ آلِهِ): أربَعةٌ لَيست غِيبَتُهُم غِيبَةً: الفاسِقُ المُعلِنُ بِفِسقِهِ، والإمامُ الكَذّابُ إن أحسَنتَ لم يَشكُرْ وإن أسَأتَ لم يَغفِرْ، والمُتَفَكِّهونَ بالاُمَّهاتِ، والخارِجُ عنِ الجَماعَةِ الطاعِنُ على اُمَّتِي الشاهِرُ علَيها بسَيفِهِ.
The Prophet (pbuh) said, ‘Four types of people are such that talking about them behind their backs is not considered backbiting: the immoral person who makes a public display of his immorality; the dishonest leader who, even if you were to be good to would not appreciate you and if you were to be bad to would not forgive you; those who joke about their [and others’] mothers; and one who is a dissenter, who defames my community, and draws his sword against it.’
The above narration by the Holy Prophet (pbuh) gives a few scenarios where it is permitted to backbite about someone. However, it is important to realize that one must be extremely confident that for example, a certain person makes a public display of his or her immorality. Furthermore, if in the instance of marriage a person comes for advice in regards to a potential candidate, it is permitted to backbite about them only in regards to something that one believes may really affect the marriage or harm the person. This does not mean that one can start nitpicking and exposing every little detail they know about a certain individual.
The exceptions to backbiting though are not as many, still exist. While on the contrary, there are more than enough reasons not to backbite at all. Excuses and finding loopholes is pointless when it comes to gheeba and it is high time that we all take a strong step towards fighting this disease. We as a community have become so synthesized to gheeba that we do not even realize at times that gheeba is being done or that we ourselves are even engaging in it. Let us all educate ourselves in trying to determine what gheeba is and let us all try to prevent those groups of people or individuals who engage in backbiting from committing this act. And if they do not change, then disassociate ourselves from such environments all together to get the seriousness of our point across.
Further reading & resources:
*The name was randomly picked and has no reference to any real life Huma
 Kanz al-`Ummal, no. 8024
 Al-Kafi, v. 2, p. 358, no. 6
 Al-Hurr al-`Amili, Wasai’l al-Shi`ah, vol. 8, hadith no. 16312
 Ghurar al-Hikam, no. 1171
 Al-Mahajjat al-Bayda’, vol. 5, p. 260
 Mustadrak ul-Wasa’il
 Al-Targhib wa al-Tarhib, v. 3, p. 511, no. 24
 Sahifa Sajjadiya – Supplication in seeking Pardon and Mercy – Du’a 39
 Bihar al-Anwar, v. 75, p. 261, no. 64