Backbiting – mere words – but they are words that bring upon the one who utters them shame and ignominy and that consign him to the Fire. Such a person has given in to his vain desires and succumbed to his destructive tendencies.
The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “A man might speak a word without thinking about its implications, but because of it, he will plunge into the Hellfire further than the distance between the east and west.” [Sahîh al-Bukhârî (6477) and Sahîh Muslim (2988)]
A Muslim utters a word whereby he describes his brother Muslim in a negative way – either explicitly or implicitly – and it plunges the speaker into clear and evident loss. And what could be a greater loss than for a person to say something that does nothing for him but rob him of his blessings and of the rewards for his good deeds? Then, if his good deeds run out, the sins of the one he has backbitten are taken from that person and foisted upon the speaker until he is hurled by them into Hell.
A Muslim utters a mere word upon his tongue thoughtlessly, without any consideration, and without thinking that he will be taken to task for it. Indeed, it is something about which many people are heedless.
Once Mu`âdh b. Jabal, the illustrious Companion, asked the Prophet (peace be upon him) to inform him of some good work that would admit him into Paradise and distance him from the Hellfire. The Prophet (peace be upon him) mentioned to him the virtues of many good deeds, then said: “Shall I inform you of the foundation of all of that?”
Mu`âdh said: “Certainly.”
The Prophet (peace be upon him) took hold of his own tongue and said: “Restrain yourself from this.”
Mu`âdh then asked: “O Prophet of Allah! Are we held to task for the things that we say?”
The Prophet (peace be upon him) replied: “May your mother be bereaved of you, O Mu`âdh! Does anything topple people headlong into the Hellfire save the harvests of their tongues?” [Sunan al-Tirmidhî (2616) and Sunan Ibn Mâjah (3973)]
The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “Whoever can guarantee to me what is between his two lips and what is between his two legs, I can guarantee for him Paradise.” [Sahîh al-Bukhârî (6474)]
The Prophet (peace be upon him), when he said “what is between his two lips” was alluding to the words that a person speaks. To guarantee it means to only speak what Allah is pleased with. When he said “and what is between his legs” he was alluding to sexual relations, meaning that the person guarantees that he will not engage in any unlawful sexual activity that is prohibited by Allah.
Backbiting can be defined as the utterance of words whereby one mentions his fellow Muslim in a bad way or mentions him in a manner that he would be displeased with. It is called backbiting because a person generally berates another person in that person’s absence.
The Prophet (peace be upon him) defines backbiting in the following way, and his definition is preferred over any other:
He said: “Do you know what backbiting is?”
They said: “Allah and His Messenger know best.”
He said: “It is to mention about your brother something that he would dislike having mentioned about him.” [Sahîh Muslim (2589)]
Al-Nawawî comments [al-Adhkâr]:
Mentioning about your brother something that he would dislike includes what concerns his body, his religious practice, his worldly station, his physical appearance, his moral character, his wealth, his parents, his children, his spouse, his servant, his clothing, his activities, his smiles and frowns and anything else that pertains to him. It does not matter if you mention it explicitly by word or implicitly by indication or a gesture… This includes the likes of saying “O Allah, pardon us all!” “O Allah, forgive us!” “Allah keep us safe!” All of this is backbiting.
The Prophet goes on in the same hadîth to explain the difference between backbiting and slander. He said: “It is to mention about your brother something that he would dislike having mentioned about him.”
Someone enquired: “O Messenger of Allah! How do you see it if what I said about him is true?”
He replied: “If what you said about him is true, then you have backbitten him. If what you said about him is false, then you have slandered him.” [Sahîh Muslim (2589)]
Slander is a false statement of enormous sinfulness deserving of severe punishment. Allah says: “And those who malign believing men and women undeservedly bear upon themselves the guilt of slander and a manifest sin.” [Sûrah al-Ahzâb: 58]
Al-Hasan al-Basrî said: “Backbiting has three manifestations, all of which are discussed in Allah’s Book. They are: backbiting, tale-telling, and slander. As for backbiting, it is to say about your brother something that is true about him. Tale-telling is to say something that you have heard about him. Slander is to say about him what is not true.”
The prohibition of backbiting
Backbiting is prohibited in Islam. This is a point of consensus among all Muslims, as mentioned by al-Nawawî. Al-Qurtubî says that it is agreed upon that backbiting is a major sin, because of the severe threats of punishment levied by the Qur’ân and Sunnah against the one who perpetrates this sin.
The evidence prohibiting backbiting is considerable.
Evidence from the Qur’ân
1. Allah says: “O you who believe! Shun much suspicion; for lo! some suspicion is a crime. And spy not, neither backbite one another. Would one of you love to eat the flesh of his dead brother? You would abhor that. And keep your duty (to Allah). Lo! Allah is Relenting, Merciful.” [Sûrah al-Hujurât: 12]
Ibn `Abbâs comments on this verse, saying: “Allah prohibits backbiting a believer with the least thing, just as he prohibits eating carrion.”
Abû Ya`lâ discusses the comparison that this verse makes between backbiting and eating carrion, saying: “This emphasizes just how prohibited backbiting is. Eating the flesh of the dead is severely proscribed. It is also something for which people have a natural abhorrence, and people should have the same loathing for backbiting as they have for eating such flesh.”
2. Allah says: “O you who believe! Let not some men among you deride others who may be better than they (are), nor let women (deride) women who may be better than they are; neither defame one another, nor insult one another by nicknames. Evil is a bad name after faith.” [Sûrah al-Hujurât: 11]
Ibn Kathîr, in his commentary on this verse, says about Allah’s words nor defame one another:
Sneering and defamation of people is condemnable and accursed behavior. Allah says: “Woe to every sneering defamer.” [Sûrah Humazah: 1] Sneering is carried out through one’s actions and defamation is carried out through one’s words.
Al-Shinqîtî says: “Sneering is by way of action, like rolling one’s eyes or making a show of contempt or derision. Defamation takes place by way of one’s words and includes backbiting.”
3. Allah says: “Woe to every sneering defamer.” [Sûrah Humazah: 1]
We have already discussed its meaning. We should note that he verse starts off by proclaiming woe upon those people. The Arabic word used here is wayl. It is a word that implies a threat, conveying the meaning of debasement, punishment, and perdition. Wayl is also the name of a valley in Hell that Allah has set aside for sinners who are obstinate in their sinfulness and for unbelievers who are also wanton sinners.
4. “Neither obey thou each feeble oath-monger; detractor, going about with slander.” [Sûrah al-Qalam: 10-11]
Al-Shawkânî describes the “detractor” mentioned in the verse to mean one who goes about backbiting people.
Ibn Taymiyah says about this verse: “(It tells us) that the liar and oath-invoker are not to be obeyed, telling us by implication not to conduct ourselves in the same manner. Indeed, prohibiting the acceptance of the words of those who exhibit shameful moral conduct is a more eloquent and emphatic reprimand than to merely prohibit the conduct itself.”
Evidence from the Sunnah
1. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “Your blood, your property and your honour are sacred to you like the sacredness of this day in this place in this month.” [Sahîh al-Bukhârî (1741) and Sahîh Muslim (1679)]
Ibn al-Mundhîr makes the following observation: “The Prophet (peace be upon him) had prohibited backbiting in his farewell address to his followers, linking its prohibition to the prohibition of transgressing against another’s life or property. Then he emphasized how prohibited it is by declaring its prohibition to be as the sacredness of the sacred land and the sacred month.”
2. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “One of the greatest of the major sins is to stretch out one’s tongue without right against the honor of a Muslim.” [Sunan Abî Dâwûd (4877)]
3. `Â’ishah relates that she said to the Prophet (peace be upon him): “It should tell you enough about Safiyyah that she is short.”
To this he replied: “You have said a word that if it was to be mixed with the water of the sea, it would contaminate it.” [Sunan al-Tirmidhî (2502) and Sunan Abî Dâwûd (4875)]
Al-Mubârakfûrî, in his commentary on this hadîth, writes: “It means that backbiting, if it were something that could be mixed with the water of the sea, it would noticeably contaminate it in spite of the vast and copious amount of water that the sea contains. How then is it going to be when it is mixed with our paltry good deeds?
4. Two Companions once criticized a man who had been punished for committing adultery. The Prophet (peace be upon him) was traveling and he passed by the carcass of a donkey. He said: “Where are those two people? Get down and eat from the flesh of this donkey!”
They said: “O Prophet of Allah! Who would eat this?”
He said: “What the two of you have recently done by defaming the honor of your brother is far worse than eating from this.” [Sunan Abî Dâwûd (4428)]
Some words of the Pious Predecessors
`Amr b. al-`Âs, while traveling with his companions, once passed by the dead, rotting body of a mule and said: “I swear by Allah, it is better that one of you should eat from this until he fills his stomach than for him to eat the flesh of a Muslim.”
Ka`b al-Ahbâr said: “Backbiting nullifies a person’s good deeds.”
Al-Hasan al-Basrî said: “I swear by Allah, backbiting is swifter in consuming the religion of a Muslim than a gangrenous infection is in consuming the human body.”
Sufyân b. `Uyaynah said: “Backbiting is worse than a debt. A debt can be paid out, but backbiting cannot.”
`Ali b. al-Husayn once heard two people engaged in backbiting and said: “Keep away from backbiting, for it is the broth of the mongrels among people.”
Reasons why people fall into the sin of backbiting others
1. Weakness of faith and impiety make a person likely to speak thoughtlessly and carelessly and transgress against others when he speaks.
When `Â’ishah was accused of impropriety, her co-wife Zaynab bint Jahsh was asked about her. Zaynab said: “O Messenger of Allah! I safeguard my hearing and my sight. I know nothing but good.”
`Â’ishah later commented: “She was my rival among the wives of Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him). Allah restrained her by way of her piety.” [Sahîh al-Bukhârî (2661)]
2. Another reason that people participate in backbiting is on account of the company they keep. They backbite people to please their peers and acquaintances. Allah says, conveying to us the words of the denizens of Hell: “We used to speak in vain with those who speak in vain.” [Sûrah al-Mudaththir: 45]
3. Another reason is hatred, enmity, and envy towards others. Ibn Taymiyah says: “Some people are inspired by envy to backbite, and in doing so, combine between two ignoble traits: backbiting and envy.”
4. Love of the world and the pursuit of status and power make people backbite others. Fudayl b. `Iyâd said: “No one has ever loved leadership without envying, transgressing, tracking down the faults of others, and loathing to hear anyone else mentioned in a good way.”
How to rid ourselves of this ignoble trait
1. We can protect ourselves from speaking ill of others by cultivating our fear of Allah and our sense of shame before of our Lord. This can be achieved by reflecting often upon the verses of the Qur’ân and the hadîth of our Prophet (peace be upon him) that speak about Allah’s punishment, that encourage us to repent, and that warn us against evil deeds.
Allah says: “Or do they think that We do not hear their secrets and their private counsels? Indeed we do and our messengers are by them to record.” [Sûrah al-Zukhruf: 80]
The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “Feel shame before Allah as you ought to feel shame before him. So guard the head and what it contains, guard the stomach and what you put in it, and think upon death and returning to dust.” [Sunan al-Tirmidhî (2458)]
2. We can reflect upon just how much we lose every time we utter some bad words about another person.
The Prophet (peace be upon him) once asked his Companions: “Do you know who is bankrupt?”
They replied: “The person among us who is bankrupt is the one who possesses neither money nor provision.”
The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “The one who is bankrupt from among my followers is he who comes on the Day of Resurrection with prayer, charity, and fasting to his credit. However, he had insulted this person, struck that person, and seized the wealth of another, on account of which his good deeds will be taken from him. Then, if his good deeds are exhausted, the sins of those whom he wronged will be taken from them and foisted upon him and then he will be cast into the Fire.” [Sahîh Muslim (2581)]
3. A beneficial remedy that can help us to rid ourselves of this evil habit is to reflect upon our own shortcomings and work to improve ourselves. If we preoccupy ourselves with our own faults, we will not find time to worry about the faults of others. We should fear that if we speak about someone else’s shortcomings, that Allah might punish us by afflicting us with the same.
Al-Hasan al-Basrî said: “We used to remind one another that whoever faults his brother on account of a sin and he had repented for it will be punished by Allah by falling into it himself.”
Abû Hurayrah said: “One of you sees the dust in his brother’s eye but fails to see the crud in his own.”
4. Keeping to the company of righteous people and avoiding bad company helps us to avoid backbiting.
The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “The likeness of a good companion and a bad companion is that of a person carrying musk and another who works the bellows. The person carrying musk might give you some of it or at the very least you will enjoy the pleasant scent. The person with the bellows will either singe your clothing or at least make you suffer from the bad smell.” [Sahîh al-Bukhârî (2101) and Sahîh Muslim (2628) and the wording is that of Muslim]
Al-Nawawî writes, commenting on this hadîth: “It discusses the virtues of keeping the company of the righteous and people who carry out good works and possess good manners… It prohibits us from the company of people who engage in bad deeds and innovations, those who backbite others, and those who are habitually sinful and idle.”
5. A person who has a habit of backbiting others needs to make a firm and determined resolution to stop.
We can look at the example of Rasûl b. Wahb who said: “I swore an oath that for every time I backbite someone, I would fast a day. This just wore me out, since I would backbite and fast. Then I resolved that for every time I backbite someone, I would spend one silver coin in charity. Then, for the love of money, I gave up backbiting.”