Backbiting
(ghība)

Gibril Fouad Haddad

This article comprises the following sections: i. Definition; ii. Gravity of Backbiting; iii. Related Sins: Calumny, Ridicule, Taunt, Name-Calling, and Gossip; iv. A Sin of the Tongue; v. Possibly an Enormity; vi. Exceptions; vii. Causes and Remedies; viii. Bibliography.

 

Definition

Ghība, translated as backbiting, speaking ill, and slander, is mentioned once in its VIII-stem form in the Qurʾān and is generally defined as a truthful verbal or non-verbal reference to someone absent (hence the root gh-y-b denoting what is absent or unseen) but in terms they would dislike: And do not speak ill of one another behind your backs (Q 49:12) (Jawharī, Ṣiḥāḥ, sub gh-y-b). In explanation of this verse many of the exegetes have adduced the following Prophetic hadith:

Backbiting is saying something about your brother that he would dislike. If what you say of him is true, you have slandered him (i.e., it is backbiting), and if what you say of him is not true, you have calumniated him. (Muslim, Birr wal-ṣila wal-ādāb, taḥrīm al-ghība; Tirmidhī, Birr wal-ṣila, mā jāʾ fī-l-ghība; Abū Dāwūd, Adab, fī-l-ghība; Dārimī, Sunan, Riqāq, fī-l-ghība; Mālik, Muwaṭṭaʾ, Jāmiʿ, mā jāʾa fī-l-ghība; cf. Tafsīrs of Māwardī, Abū Ḥayyān, Qurṭubī, Bayḍāwī, Ibn Kathīr, Ibn ʿĀdil, sub Q 49:12)

“Saying something” in all of the above scenarios can be non-verbal:

“A short woman came to see the Prophet,” said ʿĀʾisha, “whereupon I gestured with my thumb thus—and I pointed my thumb to the Prophet; he said, ‘You have just slandered her (laqad ightabtīhā).’”  (Ibn Rāhūya, Musnad 3:495 §, 3:921 §1613; Abū al-Shaykh, Tawbīkh 1:204; al-Aṣbahānī, Targhīb 3:131 §2226)

Al-Naḥlāwī (d. 1350/1931) defined ghība thus:

It is the mention of your specific brother’s flaws whereby he is recognizable to the addressee as well as anyone that can hear you, or recounting these flaws and making them comprehensible, even by gesturing with the hand or any other limb, in the sense of an insult and aversion. It is categorically prohibited (ḥarām qaṭʿī); and, just as it can be committed with the tongue and the limbs, it can be committed in writing as well. (al-Ḥaẓr wal-ibāḥa p. 173)


Gravity of Backbiting

Backbiting is explicitly prohibited and denounced in the Qurʾān (Q 49:11-12), in the wake of related judgmental sins, as comparable to devouring the dead corpse of one’s brother:

Let not a group ridicule another group; it may be that the latter are better than the former. Nor should women mock other women; it may be that the latter are better than the former. Nor taunt one another, nor insult one another with epithets; evil is all imputation of iniquity after faith.... Avoid much suspicion, for some suspicions are sins. Do not spy. And do not speak ill of one another behind your backs. Would any of you like to eat the flesh of his dead brother? Nay, you would loathe it!  

The Prophet—upon him blessings and peace—warned that on the Day of Resurrection backbiters will be forced, to their own utter disgust, to perform such cannibalism as punishment: “On the Day of Resurrection a man who used to backbite people in life shall be brought and told: ‘Eat the flesh of your dead brother just as you ate it alive.’ Then, verily, he shall certainly eat it, and holler, and scowl!” (Ṭabarānī, Muʿjam al-awsaṭ 6:79 §5853 and al-Aṣbahānī, Targhīb 3:131-132 §2227 yuʾtā bil-rajul... kul laḥma akhīka maytan through trustworthy narrators, except that Ibn Isḥāq does not explicitly state direct transmission, cf. Haythamī, Majmaʿ 8:173-174 §13130). This graphic Qurʾānic simile has led to a lexical equivalency of the verb “to eat” (akala) and its feminine infinitive noun (akla) with backbiting in the Arabic language (al-Zamakhsharī, Asās, sub a-k-l). Another hadith states that backbiters will be in Hellfire, flaying their own chests and faces (Abū Dāwūd, Adab, ghība).

Al-Jaṣṣāṣ (305-370/918-981) explained:

His saying Would any of you like to eat the flesh of his dead brother? Nay, you would loathe it! (Q 49:12) is emphatic to condemn backbiting and censure its commission from several perspectives. First, human flesh is prohibited for consumption; likewise backbiting. Second, human beings are instinctively averse to eating human flesh, “so let backbiting among you be just as detestable.” Its avoidance is also made incumbent by the imperative of reason, since the demands of reason are more deserving of being followed than those of instinct. He did not stop at mentioning a human corpse but made it one’s brother—the most extreme possible way to express condemnation and censure.

All of the above applies only to [speaking of] a Muslim who is outwardly upright and who has not manifested any behavior that demands branding him as depraved, just as it would be our duty to belie anyone falsely accusing him of it. However, if the accused is an overt profligate then it is not prohibited to mention the reprehensible acts he has committed. Nor is it obligatory for someone who hears them retold to rebuke the one who retells them. (Aḥkām al-Qurʾān 5:291)

 


Related Sins: Calumny, Ridicule, Taunt, Name-Calling, and Gossip

If untruthful, the disparaging reference is buhtān, calumny (q.v.), decried even more strongly in the Qurʾān (Q 4:20, 112, 156; 24:16; 33:58; 60:12), whence the plural adjective buht in the expression qawmun buht “a calumnious people,” by which the former rabbi and erudite Companion ʿAbd Allāh b. Salām—one of those promised Paradise—described his nation (Bukhārī, Manāqib al-Anṣār, bāb).

Other disparaging acts of the tongue are also condemned in the verse of Sūrat al-Ḥujurāt already cited:

  • ridiculing others (sukhriyya): as in Let not a group ridicule (yaskhar) another group (Q 49:11), the second most frequently mentioned verb for the scoffs of the tongue in the Qurʾān (Q 2:218; 6:10; 9:79; 11:38; 21:41; 23:110; 37:12, 14; 38:63; 39:52) after its explicit synonym mockery (istihzāʾ), mentioned in the Qurʾān under the cognates of the root h-z-ā (Q 2:15; 6:5, 10; 9:65; 11:8; 15:11; 21:41; 36:30);
  • taunting (lamz): Do not taunt one another (Q 49:11), a sin condemned in three other places in the Qurʾān (Q 9:58, 79; 104:1); and
  • name-calling (al-nabz bil-alqāb): nor insult one another with epithets (Q 49:11).

In books on morals and ethics—such as al-Aṣbahānī’s al-Targhīb wal-tarhīb, al-Naḥlāwī’s al-Ḥaẓr wal-ibāḥa, and the Sufi classics, among them Abū Ṭālib al-Makkī’s Qūt al-qulūb, al-Qushayrī’s al-Risāla, and al-Ghazālī’s Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-Dīn—backbiting is usually treated in tandem with another, closely related sin of the tongue, gossip (namīma), which is denounced in Q 68:10-11: And do not obey every wicked habitual swearer and scorner, going about with malicious gossip (mashshāʾin bi-namīm) and with which ghība is sometimes confused although namīma has a more public character. For example:

Gossip is the conveyance of someone’s state to someone else maliciously and without the first person’s approval, whether beknown to him or not, while backbiting is to mention him in his absence in terms unpleasing to him. So gossip differs in that it indicates a will toward malice, which is not a precondition of backbiting; and the latter specifically presupposes the absence of the person spoken of as opposed to gossip. They share all other characteristics. (Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb, Kabāʾir, Mā jāʾa fī-l-namīma)

Because it makes the unreal and false seem real, namīma has been identified with siḥr, as illustrated by the hadith “Shall I not inform you what consists of sorcery (al-ʿaḍh, also read al-ʿiḍa)? It is gossip and talebearing among people” (Muslim, Birr wal-ṣila wal-ādāb, taḥrīm al-namīma; Abū ʿUbayd al-Harawī, Gharībayn, sub ʿ-ḍ-w). Confirming the close link between the two sins of talebearing and backbiting, al-Bukhārī (194-256/810-870) narrates the hadith about two Muslims being punished in their graves for two “non-major sins” (wa-mā yuʿadhdhabān bi-kabīr)—the first being gossip (“As for the first one, he used to hasten to gossip”) and the second neglect of hygiene—in the chapter headed “punishment in the grave because of backbiting and urine” (Bukhārī, Janāʾiz, ʿadhāb al-qabr min al-ghība wal-bawl).


A Sin of the Tongue

All such sins—backbiting, calumny, gossip, ridiculing, taunting, and name-calling—for the most part involve the tongue and are therefore implied in every Qurʾānic injunction to guard it (Q 60:2, cf. 33:19), as tongues shall bear witness against their owners on the Day of Judgment (Q 24:24). The paragons of the scrupulous use of speech are the Prophets, who have been granted “a tongue of truthfulness” (lisān ṣidq, cf. Q 19:50, 26:84).

The onus of backbiting is equally shared by both speaker and the wilful listener (al-Haytamī, al-Zawājir, Kabīra p. 248-249; al-Naḥlāwī, al-Ḥaẓr p. 176). Hence such sins are also implied in the Qurʾānic and hadith references to the proper use of one’s hearing, first and foremost the Prophet Muḥammad’s—upon him blessings and peace—attribute of udhun khayr or “ear of goodness” in Q 9:61. Ibn Abī al-Dunyā (208-281/823-894) gathered various prescriptions on this chapter in his “Book of Silence and the Ethics of the Tongue” (Kitāb al-ṣamt wa-ādāb al-lisān). The book features, among other chapters, “Backbiting and its Condemnation,” “Backbiting Explained,” and “Permitted Backbiting,” which form the core of his monograph known as Dhamm al-ghība wal-namīma. Backbiting and gossip have been described as “the ugliest of all ugly things and the most widespread among people, so that very few are those that are free of them” (al-Nawawī, al-Adhkār, Taḥrīm al-ghība wal-namīma).

 


Possibly an Enormity

There is a difference of opinion as to whether backbiting constitutes one of the enormities (kabāʾir). Al-Ḥakīm al-Tirmidhī (d. 320/932) in his catalogue of the 162 prohibitions in Islam described it as a virtual violation of monotheism(tawḥīd): “The pure monotheist (muwaḥḥid) is under the cover (satr) of monotheism...so if you mention something bad about him you have exposed something which was safe under the Divine cover; the cover of Allah Himself has been rent asunder” (al-Manhiyyāt p. 47). Al-Bardījī (ca.230-301/845-914), however, did not list it in his book al-Kabāʾir, nor did al-Dhahabī (673-748/1275-1437) in the treatise of the same title attributed to him, nor did the late Mutawallī al-Shaʿrāwī (1911-1998) in his. Al-Naḥlāwī numbered it 59th in his detailed discussion of 133 “detestable traits” (ṣifāt dhamīma) that begins with unbelief and ends with witchcraft (al-Ḥaẓr p. 174-176). Among those who explicitly included backbiting among the enormities are:

  • al-Ḥajjāwī (895-968/1490-1561) in his very concise poem on kabāʾir in which he says,
  • False witness, then impiety to a parent / and the backbiter’s backbiting, /and the trouble-maker’s gossip (al-Dhahabī, al-Kabāʾir p. 516-517)
  • al-Haytamī (909-973/1503-1565), who in his monumental encyclopedia of enormities, al-Zawājir ʿan iqtirāf al-kabāʾir, asserts consensus that it constitutes an enormity if targeting a scholar or someone who has memorized the Qurʾān (Kabīra 248); and
  • Muḥammad b. ʿAbd al-Wahhāb (1115-1206/1703-1791), who in his Kabāʾir adduced as evidence of its being an enormity a portion of the “Farewell Sermon”  of the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace: “Truly your lives, your property, and your honor are absolutely inviolable to you, just as this day of yours in this month of yours in this country of yours are inviolable.... Have I conveyed this well to you? O Allah, bear witness!”—and the Prophet repeated it three times (Bukhārī, ʿIlm, li-yuballigh al-ʿilm al-shāhid al-ghāʾib; Muslim, Qasāma, taghlīẓ taḥrīm al-dimāʾ wal-amwāl wal-aʿrāḍ); and “the Muslim is he from whose tongue and hand the Muslims are safe” (Bukhārī, Īmān, al-Muslim man salima al-Muslimūn min lisānih wa-yadih; Muslim, Īmān, bayān tafāḍul al-Islām wa-ayy umūrih afḍal).
 


Exceptions

The Sacred Law has mentioned allowances for and conditional exceptions to the prohibition of backbiting on the basis of such evidence as the verses, Allah does not like the announcing of evil in public speech except by one who has been wronged; and Allah is Hearing, Knowing (Q 4:148) and If any iniquitous person comes to you with a [slanderous] tale, use your discernment, lest you hurt people unwittingly and afterwards be filled with remorse for what you have done (49:6). Mālik (93-179/712-795) mentioned that it is narrated from Prophet ʿĪsā, upon him peace : “Three have no [immunity from] backbiting: a tyrant, a reprobate, and an innovator” (Ibn Rushd, al-Bayān wal-taḥṣīl 17:575). According to al-Jaṣṣāṣ:

Describing someone “in a way which he would dislike” is of two kinds: the first is to mention his evil deeds and the second his physique, even if he is being disparaged out of contempt and belittlement, not in order to blame them or reprove their commission. An example would be what we narrated from al-Ḥasan [al-Baṣrī] in his description of al-Ḥajjāj as hideous. It may also be permissible to describe a whole people in terms that would constitute prohibited backbiting if a specific person were being thus described; but it would not be backbiting to describe the collectivity by it in order that they be recognized, just as Abū Ḥāzim narrated from Abū Hurayra, namely, that a man came to the Prophet—upon him blessings and peace—and said, “Messenger of Allah, I have married a woman.” He asked, “Have you looked at her? For there is something in the eyes of the Anṣār” (Muslim, Nikāḥ, nadb al-naẓar ilā wajh al-marʾa; Nasāʾī, Nikāḥ, idhā istashār rajul rajulan fī-l-marʾa). Such is not backbiting.  (Aḥkām al-Qurʾān 5:291)

It is in view of such exceptions that Mālik (d. 179/795) identified two contexts in which prejudice is required by default as “a gauntlet of truth”: being a judge (in which ill opinion of witnesses is required until proven reliable) and hadith narration (in which ill opinion of narrators is required until proved reliable). “It is imperative for the qāḍī and the commender (al-muʿaddil) to be wary of people through ill opinion (bi-sūʾ al-ẓann)” (ʿIyāḍ, Tartīb al-madārik, sub Abū ʿUthmān al-Maʿāfirī). Such and other types of permitted backbiting are subject to the severest restrictions and preconditions, which the scholars have discussed both in more extensive works such as al-Nawawī (631-676/1234-1277) in several of his works—Sharḥ Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, Riyāḍ al-ṣāliḥīn, and al-Adhkār, under the rubric “What has emerged concerning backbiting”—or in monographs dedicated to the subject, among them al-Haytamī in his Taṭhīr al-ʿība min danas al-ghība and al-Shawkānī (1173-1250/1760-1834) in his Rafʿ al-rība bi-mā yajūz wa-mā lā yajūz min al-ghība, both in print, all of them indebted to Ibn Abī al-Dunyā’s framework in his Dhamm al-ghība wal-namīma already cited.

According to al-Nawawī, the Law stipulates six exceptions to the prohibition of backbiting:

  • Complaining of injustice, in which case one may accuse one’s victimizer by name;
  • Seeking aid to change something reprehensible and impel the transgressor to correct himself by telling the authorities, “So-and-so is doing such-and-such, so scold him,” or something to this effect;
  • Asking for a fatwa, in which case one is allowed to mention the necessary details of one’s situation even if that means mentioning individuals disparagingly;
  • Warning the Muslims of an evil. This comprises several scenarios:
  • cautioning about narrators in hadith narration, witnesses, and authors of books. All this is permissible by consensus; indeed, it is obligatory for the maintenance of the Religion;
  • mentioning a flaw of one’s own if consulted about the eventuality of dealing with it;
  • mentioning a flaw in merchandise to the buyer if the latter is unaware of it;
  • cautioning a student not to visit a depraved teacher or an innovator lest they be harmed; and
  • mentioning to the authorities the fact that an appointee to a post is unqualified for it, so that he may be replaced by someone qualified.
  • When the transgressor himself publicizes his own transgression, then it is permissible to mention it, but only whatever he himself has mentioned first and not other, unmentioned transgressions of his;
  • Using disparaging epithets that have become innocuous nicknames or even the main names by which someone is identified, such as al-Aʿmash (Bleary-Eyed), al-Aʿraj (Cripple), al-Azraq (Blue-Eyed), and the descriptive al-Aʿmā (Blind) by the last of which the Companion Ibn Umm Maktūm was identified in the Qurʾān and the Sunna (al-Nawawī, al-Adhkār, Bayān mā yubāḥ min al-ghība).

Al-Shawkānī analyzed the following six exceptions in his monograph Rafʿ al-rība, agreeing with the first and fourth (i) in absolute terms, and the second conditionally, but disagreeing with everything else and contending that what was related from the Prophet—upon him blessings and peace—in support of permission was exclusive to him rather than a paradigmatic Sunna. Al-Naḥlāwī, however, endorsed them all and added a seventh, “Anonymity (jahāla): Thus, if he backbites the townspeople it is not backbiting because he does not mean every single one of them but only one or some of them who remain unknown; and backbiting unidentified individuals is permitted” (al-Shawkānī, Rafʿ p. 16-40, 47-48; al-Naḥlāwī, al-Ḥaẓr p. 176).


Causes and Remedies

Al-Ghazālī (450-505/1058-1111) discusses backbiting at length as the fifteenth of the banes of the tongue in his Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-Dīn, where he shows that it is often committed by ostentatious religious people (al-qurrāʾ al-murāʾīn) uttering the best things imaginable, such as mention of Allah, remembrance of Him, and supplication—all turned to the wrong uses. He then analyzes what he sees as the eleven causes of backbiting, the first eight of which are invariably found among common people—venting anger, conformism, pre-emptive backbiting, self-justification, self-aggrandizement, envy, jest, and scorn—while the last three are characteristic of the learned and the elite—censure, solicitude, and anger for Allah. He then mentions its remedies, among them the remembrance of Allah, remembering that backbiting may be the one sin that tilts the balance of one’s deeds toward Hellfire, and abandoning the causes themselves as a precaution against the result. He then turns to what he calls the “Exposition of the prohibition of backbiting in the heart,” a section devoted to the dangers of ill opinion (sūʾ al-ẓann) of other Muslims. He concludes with a section on the licit types of backbiting and another one on the expiation for backbiting, which consists in forgiving those of whom one spoke ill even if they wronged us and praying for them, in keeping with the Divine instruction to keep to forgiveness, and enjoin kindness, and turn away from the ignorant (Q 7:199) (Ghazālī, Iḥyāʾ, Āfāt al-lisān, 15: al-ghība).


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al-Shawkānī, Muḥammad b. ʿAlī. Rafʿ al-rība bi-mā yajūz wa-mā lā yajūz min al-ghība. Ed. Aḥmad Shūḥān. Dayr al-Zūr (Syria): Maktabat al-Turāth, 1414/1993.

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See also

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