Calumny
(buhtān, namīma, ifk)

Muhammad Mushtaq

The wider concept of calumny encompasses any fabricated statement, whether in matters of belief or acts, against Allah Most High or humans. As such it includes, inter alia, ascribing partners to Allah (Q 6:14-24), the false claim of having received revelation (Q 6:93), and declaring the prohibited or prohibiting permissible (Q 16:116). It commonly denotes false allegations.

Definitions and Usage

The most common Qurʾānic word for calumny is buhtān, from the verbal root b-h-t, conveying the meaning of astonishment (bahita wa buhita idhā taayyara) (Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān). The one who is confounded is called mabhūt. Abū-l-Faḍl Jamāl al-Dīn Muḥammad Ibn Manẓūr (d. 711/1312) explains:

Bahat al-rajul yabhatuh bahtan wa bahatan wa buhtānan fa-huwa bahhāt: he ascribed to him what [the latter] did not do; hence, he is confounded (mabhūt). Bahatah bahtan: came upon him unawares (akhadhahum baghtatan), as in the Mighty Revelation: Nay, it will come upon them unawares so that it will confound them (bal taʾtīhim baghtatan fa-tabhatuhum)… Buhtān means fabrication (iftirāʾ). (Lisān)

The verb buhita is used in Q 2:258 to express the meaning of being confounded (Rāghib, Mufradāt): Ibrāhīm said: “Allah causes the sun to rise from the east; cause it, then, to rise from the west!” Thereupon he who denied the Truth was confounded (fa-buhita alladhī kafar). Abū Jaʿfar Muḥammad b. Jarīr al-Ṭabarī (224-310/839-923) says: “Buhtān means fabrication and falsehood (firya wa kadhib); it is a false statement that astonishes people because of its gravity” (Tafsīr, sub Q 4:20). 

Buhtān appears in six verses, five of which allude to allegations of adultery or fornication (Q 4:20, 156; 24:16; 33:58; 60:12) (see Adultery and Fornication); the sixth to any false allegation: And he who commits either a fault (khaīʾa) or a sin (ithm), and then casts (yarmi) the blame for it upon an innocent person, lays upon himself the burden of calumny (buhtān) and a flagrant sin (Q 4:112). Most exegetes hold that khaīʾa denotes a wrong committed unintentionally and ithm a wrong committed intentionally (Ṭabarī and Rāzī, Tafsīrs; Ālūsī, Rū). In Q 33:58 buhtān is called a “flagrant sin” (ithm mubīn): And those who malign believing men and believing women who have done no wrong surely lay upon themselves the burden of calumny and a flagrant sin; it is the “gravest of lies” (afash al-kadhib) (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr). The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, distinguished calumny from backbiting by saying: “If he is actually as you say, then you have committed backbiting against him (ightabtah); but if [what you say is] not in him, you have calumniated him (bahattah)” (Muslim, Birr wal-ṣila, taḥrīm al-ghība).

False accusation presupposes a fabricated statement (iftirāʾ, from f-r-y). Thus Q 60:12, referring to falsely ascribing children to those not their real fathers (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr): They will not bring forth a calumny which they have fabricated between their hands and feet. The phrase fabricated between their hands and feet alludes to the birth of the child who at the time of his birth is found between the hands and feet of the mother (Ālūsī, Rū). It also implies the prohibited nature of fabricated tales (namīma) (Rāzī, Tafsīr). More generally, the Qurʾān uses derivatives of the verbal root f-r-y for falsely ascribing a statement to Allah, often used in conjunction with kadhib (falsehood) (cf. Q 3:94; 6:21; 29:68) or ifk (an astonishing, false accusation) (Q 25:4; 34:43) (see Falsehood). The noun ifk (from the root ʾ-f-k, turning away; Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān), is used twice (Q 24:11-12) for the false accusation against ʿĀʾisha, Allah be well-pleased with her (see below and Wives of the Prophet). “Ifk is the gravest type of fabricated and false statement; it is also said that ifk is buhtān which is something that you do not anticipate until it comes upon you unawares” (Rāzī, Tafsīr). Q 25:4 quotes the pagan allegation about the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace: Those who do not believe say: This is nothing but a great lie (ifk) which he has forged (iftarāhu), and Q 34:43 quotes their claim that the Qurʾān is a “forged falsehood” (ifk muftarā). In the same tone, the Qurʾān calls ascription of a son to Allah Most High a “falsehood”: Indeed it is one of their falsehoods (min ifkihim) that they say: Allah has begotten. And indeed they are liars! (Q 37:151-152). Q 46:28 applies the same term to the false beliefs of the people of ʿĀdThis was their lie (ifkuhum) and what they had fabricated (wa mā kānū yaftarūn). Elsewhere, affāk (liar) occurs twice in conjunction with athīm (sinner) (Q 26:222 and 45:7).

Derivatives of the root r-m-y (lit. “throwing,” as in casting stones or arrows) are used when such a fabrication is ascribed to someone (Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān). Verses Q 24:4, 6, and 23 use these derivatives for ‘leveling false sexual allegations,’ while Q 4:112 uses the verbal form of both ramy and buhtān: And he who commits a fault or a sin and then throws (yarmi) the blame thereof on an innocent person lays upon himself the burden of a false charge (buhtān) and a flagrant sin.

Another related word is qadhf, which also signifies ‘throwing’ as well as ‘accusing’ and ‘ascribing’, but connotes greater force than ramy (Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān, sub q-dh-f). That is why, although none of the nine Qurʾānic occurrences of words from this root conveys the meaning of allegation (Q 20:39x2, 87; 21:18; 33:26; 34:48, 53; 37:8; 59:2), qadhf is the preferred juridical term for false allegations of illicit sexual intercourse, the gravest of all allegations because it destroys a person’s integrity (see below) (Ibn ʿĀbidīn, Radd al-mutār 6:79-80).

Closely related to buhtān is the term namm/namīma, literally meaning to present a false statement as if it were true. The Qurʾān mentions it among the characteristic features of the pagan leaders: the fault-finder (hammāz) who goes around slandering (mashshāʾ bi-namīm) (Q 68:11). Nammām is used for the one who cannot keep talk to himself, and passes it on to others (alladhī lā yumsik al-aādīth wa lam yafa) (Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān, sub n-m-m). The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, said: “It suffices for someone to be a liar that he talks about everything that he hears” (Muslim, Muqaddima, al-nahy ʿan al-ḥadīth bi-kull mā samiʿa).


Against Maryam, upon her peace

The Qurʾān denounces all the false statements fabricated against previous Prophets, upon them peace, whether by their opponents or followers; hence its appellation muhaymin, the ‘watcher’ or ‘protector’ over previous Scriptures (Q 5:48).Al-Muhaymin is also one of the Divine Names mentioned in Q 59:23 (see Beautiful Names of Allah). Exegetes state that the word carries the meanings of protection and overseeing (al-if wal-raqāba); just as Allah is Watcher and Protector over everything, so is His Book for the previous Scriptures,in that it nullifies their corruption and interpolations and thus preserves their true message (seeTampering) (Rāzī, Tafsīr; Ālūsī ).The Qurʾānic affirmation of the virgin birth of Prophet ʿĪsā, upon him peace, and its denouncement of allegations against Maryam, Allah be well-pleased with her, exemplify its providential function as the protector of truth against calumny:

Then she came to her people, carrying him. They said:O Maryam,you have committed a monstrous thing! O Sister of Hārūn,your father was not an evil man, nor was your mother a harlot. Thereupon she pointed to the child. They exclaimed: How can we speak to one who is in the cradle, a mere child?Said the child:Verily I am Allah’s servant. He has granted me the Book and has made me a Prophet and has made me blessed wherever I may be, and has enjoined upon me prayer (alāh) and alms (zakāh) as long as I live; and He has made me dutiful to my mother; He has not made me oppressive, nor unblessed.; Peace be upon me the day I was born, the day I die, and the day I am raised up alive.(Q19:27-33)

The Qurʾān mentions this among the grievous crimes of the Israelites which incurred Divine wrath: And because of their disbelief and because of uttering against Maryam a grievous calumny… (Q 4:156). Al-Ṭabarī explains: “They fabricated against her a false accusation of fornication, which is a grievous calumny (buhtān ʿaīm) because they accused her without proof or evidence and despite her innocence; and they astonished her with their false accusation”(Tafsīr).Fakhr al-Dīn Muhammad b. ʿUmar al-Rāzī (543-606/1148-1209) further explains why this allegation also constituted disbelief (kufr) and why it was declared a “grievous calumny”:

Know that they accused Maryam of fornication because of their denial of the power of Allah the Exalted to create a son without a father.Anyone who denies the power of Allah to do so is a disbeliever (kāfir), as it is based on the presumption that ‘every person born has a father’ despitethere never having been a first [father]. Now, this necessarily implies belief in the eternity of the world and of time (qidam al-ʿālam wal-dahr) and the Freely-choosing Creator (al-āniʿ al-Mukhtār) being deficient.Hence, they undoubtedly first denied the power of Allah to create a son without a father and then accused Maryam of fornication. As such, [the phrase] because of their disbelief is a reference to their denial of the power of Allah the Exalted; and because of uttering against Maryam a grievous calumny is a reference to their accusing Maryam of fornication.(…) This accusation became a grievous calumny because at the time of the birth of ʿĪsā, upon him peace, strange events and miracles took place such as definitively proved her innocence on all charges. (…) No wonder, then, that Allah cursed the Jews for fabricating a grievous calumny against her, as He described in the same tone the hypocrites who fabricated a grievous calumny against ʿĀʾisha.As He said: Holy are You! This is a grievous calumny! [Q 24:16]. This implies that the Rawāfiḍ (lit. Rejectors, a pejorative appellation for Shīʿīs) who accuse ʿĀʾisha resemble the Jews who accused Maryam, upon her peace. (Tafsīr, sub Q 4:156)


Against ʿĀʾisha, Allah be well-pleased with her

The Qurʾān mentions the calumnious allegation of the hypocrites (see Hypocrisy and Hypocrites) against ʿĀʾisha, Allah be well-pleased with her, and declares her innocence (Q 24:11-26). She had accompanied the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, on the expedition against Banū al-Muṣṭaliq in Shaʿbān 6/627 (Suhaylī, al-Raw al-unf 4:13). She had gone out to answer the call of nature and when she returned to the camping place, she realized that her necklace was missing. She went back to search for it and the expedition left without her, not knowing that her howdah that was put on the camel was empty as she was not very heavy. Ṣafwān b. Muʿaṭṭal al-Sulamī al-Dhakwānī, who was deputed to look after anyone or anything that might have been left behind the army, found her and brought her to the rest of the expedition on his camel, walking in front of the camel (Bukhārī, Maghāzī, ḥadīth al-ifk). The hypocrites used this incident to spread slander against her. The Qurʾān refers to this incident as follows: "Surely those who invented this calumny are a band from among you. Deem it not bad for you; nay, it is good for you. Every one of them has accumulated sin in proportion to his share in this guilt; and he who has the greater part of it shall suffer a mighty chastisement." (Q 24:11)

A band from among you (ʿubatun minkum) is a reference to some of the Muslims who fell prey to this malicious campaign and who were later given the punishment for slander (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr). He who has the greater part of it is a reference to ʿAbdullāh b. Ubayy, the leader of the hypocrites in Madīna (Ālūsī. Rū). Al-Rāzī gives four reasons as to how this incident proved good for the Muslim community:

Firstly, the accused faced these allegations with patience seeking the pleasure of Allah Most High, and thus attained agreat reward from Him; and that is how believers face oppression against them. Secondly, had the accusers not expressed this calumny, some people might have kept it in their hearts; when they expressed it, their lie became manifest forever. Thirdly, this became good for the accused since this proved their honor and their esteemed status; for eighteen verses were revealed, each one of which alone was enough to prove the innocence of ʿĀʾisha; and AllahMost High testified that the accusers were liars, calling their allegation falsehood and cursing and condemning them; this is a great honor and distinction. Fourthly, her status became so high that faith or disbelief became dependent on appreciating or accusing her; this because once Allah Most High called this incidentfalsehood and explained in great detail why it was declared falsehood, anyone who doubts itsfalsenessthereby becomes definitively a disbeliever; that is a very high status. (Tafsīr)

The Qurʾān further instructs believers how they should have behaved:

When you heard of it, why did the believing men and women not think well of their own folk and say: “This is a manifest lie (ifkun mubīn)”? Why did they not bring four witnesses to prove it? Now that they have brought no witnesses, it is indeed they who are liars in the sight of Allah. Were it not for Allah’s Bounty and His Mercy toward you in the world and in the Hereafter, a grievous chastisement would have seized you on account of what you indulged in; when you welcomed it with your tongues and uttered with your mouths something you knew nothing about. You counted it a trifle while it was most grave in the sight of Allah. And why, no sooner than you had heard it, did you not say: “It is not for us to speak of this; Holy are You! This is a grievous calumny!”? Allah admonishes younever to repeat the like of what you did, if you are believers. (Q 24:12-17)


A Grievous Sin

Calumny runs contrary to the very foundation of virtuous character, for Muslims are obliged to bear testimony to truth in every aspect of life (Q 4:135; 5:8);hence the attention given this sin by Muslim scholars. Ibn Abī al-Dunyā (d. 281/891), for instance, accumulated more than one hundred and fifty traditions about calumny and backbiting in his Kitāb al-Ghība wal-namīma. The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, counted calumny among the seven destructive sins (see Sin):

“Avoid seven destructive sins.” People asked:“Messenger of Allah,what are they?” He said:“Associating others with Allah asdivine; magic; taking a life Allah has made inviolate, except by right; consuming usury; consuming the wealth of an orphan; fleeing from the battle field while fighting an enemy; and accusing chaste, unwary, believing women.” (Bukhārī, Muḥāribīn, ramy al-muḥṣanāt)

In another hadith, the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, said: “One who spreads false accusations shall not enter Paradise (lā yadkhul al-jannata nammām)”—in one narration, qattāt is reported in place of nammām(Bukhārī, Adab, mā yukrah min al-namīma; Muslim, Īmān, bayān ghilẓ al-namīma). The lexicographers note, “Qattāt is someone who secretly listens to people’s conversations, whether he spreads them or not” (Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān, sub q-t-t). Hence, the prohibition is against not only spreading false accusations but also spying on the weaknesses of others (tajassus) (Q 17:36; 49:12) (see Spying). Other immoral acts closely related to (and generally leading to) calumny and backbiting (ghība) are mocking others (sukhr) and suspicion (ann) (Q 49:11). Sukhr may also take the form of slandering (hamz) or traducing (lamz) (Q 9:58; 104:1) (see Gossip;Mockery;Suspicion).

The Qurʾānalso mentions abstainingfrom slander as part of the pledge taken by women when they migrated to Madina:

O Prophet,when believing women come to you and pledge to you that they will not associate aught with Allah, that they will not steal, that they will not commit illicit sexual intercourse, that they will not kill their children, that they will not bring forth a calumny which they have fabricated between their hands and feet, and that they will not disobey you in any just matter, then accept their allegiance and ask Allah to forgive them; surely Allah is Forgiving, Merciful. (Q 60:12)

The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, would also take this pledge from women at the time of their embracing Islam (Suhaylī, al-Raw al-unf 4:177; Ibn Kathīr,Tafsīr, sub Q 60:12). Some Traditions report him having taken the same pledge from male Companions, Allah be well-pleased with them (Suhaylī, al-Raw al-unf 2:248-251).


Legal Consequences

Calumny is not only a sin but also a legally punishable offence, particularly when theaccusationconcerns illicit sexual intercourse (qadhf). The Qurʾānprescribes a punishment of eighty lashes for such a claim and disqualifies the calumniator from appearing as a witness in any future legal proceeding:Those who accuse chaste women [of fornication] but do not produce four witnesses, flog them with eighty lashes, and do not admit their testimony ever after; they are indeed rebellious(Q 24:4).Most exegetes hold that this verse was revealed before the slander against ʿĀʾisha, Allah be well-pleased with her, which was why Muslims were admonished for not following the rule laid down in this verse (Jaṣṣāṣ, Akām al-Qurʾān; Ālūsī,Rū). Jurists hold by consensus that the verse applies equally to accusations against men (Rāzī, Tafsīr; Jaṣṣāṣ, Akām al-Qurʾān).Its qualification of chastity (iḥṣān)implies that for the punishment to apply the accused must be Muslim, adult (bāligh), sane (ʿāqil), free (urr), and not proven to have committed zinā.Thus a person who commits qadhf against someone who is not Muslim, insane, or a slave is liable to a discretionary punishment (taʿzīr) instead of the one prescribed in the verse (Kāsānī,Badāʾiʿ al-anāʾiʿ 9:217-220; Rāzī, Tafsīr).

The jurists consider this textual prescription to be a add punishment (see Boundaries of Allah;Legal Punishments),which according to the Ḥanafī jurists is a right of God (aqq Allāh)—meaning that neither the victim nor the community collectively has the authority to waive the punishment (ʿafw) or reach a compromise (ul) (Jaṣṣāṣ, Akām al-Qurʾān, subQ 24:4; Kāsānī, Badāʾiʿ al-anāʾiʿ9:248-250).Islamic law deems the allegation of adultery or fornicationto be a most serious claim against a person’s integrity, which is why it prescribes the strictest standard of proof for it alone. Abū Bakr Muḥammad b. Abī Sahl al-Sarakhsī (d. 483/1090) observes:

Four witnesses are not required for any other case, criminal or otherwise. The reason for this is no other than the fact that Allah the Exalted wants to conceal the sins of His servants and does not like the spreading of indecency. That is why He prescribed an extra number of witnesses in [cases related to] zinā. That is also why, as opposed to allegations of other crimes, He made the allegation of zinā against other women a cause for the add punishment and allegation of zinā against wives a cause of imprecation (liʿān), so that people conceal each other’s sins. (al-Mabsū16:134)

Mālikī, Shāfiʿī, and Ḥanbalī jurists hold that calumniators may repent and so become again eligible witnesses(Qurṭubī and Rāzī, Tafsīrs, sub Q 24:5; Ibn Rushd, Bidāyat al-mujtahid 2:443; Shirbīnī, Mughnī al-mutāj 4:584-586; Ibn Qudāma, Mughnī14:191).This is argued on the basis of the exception mentioned in the very next verse:except those of them that repent thereafter and mend their behavior. Truly Allah is Forgiving, Merciful (Q 24:5). However, Ḥanafī jurists hold that the disqualification is perpetual (abadan) and that the exception in the following verse instead pertains to Q 24:4 declaring themcorrupt (fāsiqūn) (Jaṣṣāṣ, Akām al-Qurʾān).

The rule about the penaltyforqadhf in its generality applies where a husband accuses his wife of adultery. Traditions report that when Hilāl b. Umayya, Allah be well-pleased with him, accused his wife of zinā, the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, told him: “Prove it, or a flogging on your back (al-bayyinatu aw addun fīahrika)” (Bukhārī, Shahādāt, idhā iddaʿā aw qadhafa fa-lah an yaltamisa al-bayyina).The next verses were reportedly revealed on that occasion (Wāḥidī, Asbābp. 326-328; Suyūṭī, Lubāb al-nuqūlp. 181-183) (see Occasions of Revelation):

As for those who accuse their wives [of zinā] and have no witnesses except themselves:the testimony of such a one is that he testify swearing by Allah four times, that he is truthful [in his accusation], and a fifth time that the curse of Allah be upon him if he belying. And the punishment shallbe averted from the woman if she were to testify, swearing by Allah four times that the man was lying, and a fifth time that the wrath of Allah be on her if he be truthful. (Q 24:6-9)

These verses and Traditions and precedents of the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, and his Companions, Allah be well-pleased with them, form the basis of the juristic concept of imprecation (liʿān). If the husband refuses to take the oath, a majority of jurists rule that he shall himself be given the punishment of qadhf (Qurṭubī, Tafsīr, sub Q 24:6-10), while the Ḥanafīshold that he must be imprisoned until he either takes the oath or accepts that his allegation was false (in which case he is given the qadhf punishment) (Marghīnānī, Hidāya2:270-271).Similarly, if the wife refuses to take oath, Ḥanafīsrequire that she be imprisoned until she either does so or confesses her guilt. The process of imprecation is also followed if a husband denies paternity of an unborn child (Hidāya 2:271).According to Shāfiʿīs, separation between spouses takes place as soon as the husband takes his oath (Mughnī al-mutāj3:498), while for Mālikīs it takes place once both spouses do so (Qurṭubī, Tafsīr, sub Q 24:6-10). Ḥanafīs, however, hold that separation requires a judicial decree after imprecation by both spouses (Hidāya 2:271)(see Marriage and Divorce).


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See also

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