Sitting with my mother on the sofa with a remote control in my hand, I had the honor of watching an incredibly powerful and deeply moving lecture. This opinion might not be shared by everyone, but my life changed within the thirty minutes of the scholar speaking about two of the Major Sins which we might find ourselves indulging in every day: Backbiting and Gossiping. I must be honest, the many times I have heard these two words, distinguishing between them was a difficult task. Backbiting and gossiping seemed to blend into the same definition. Although I can not recall the name of the female scholar, her message now echoes in the following statements.
Gossiping, tahmah, refers to an action in which a person makes up false statements about a person who is not present. Such false statements lead to a person committing slander, buhtan, a bigger sin, which would be the case when the accusations are proven false. Backbiting on the other hand, gheebah, refers not to making up false information, but rather speaking of a negative truth about a person. When one commits a sinful act or shows deficiency in character and another shares that action to the public, then he has been involved in the action of backbiting. On the scale of Islam, backbiting weighs heavier in sin than gossiping since it encompasses the qualities of backbiting as well. However, both are under the category of the Major Sins, gunah-e-kabirah.
To delve further into the understanding of backbiting, we must consider the greatest source, the Holy Qur’an, in which Allah (SWT) states:
O you who believe! Avoid much suspicion, in deed some suspicions are sins. And spy not neither backbite one another. Would one of you like to eat the flesh of his dead brother? You would hate it (so hate backbiting). And fear God, verily, God is the one who accepts repentance, Most Merciful.[49:12]
While this verse defines the sinful nature of a suspicion without any basis, it also defines backbiting. The comparison “to eat the flesh of his dead brother” was used to demonstrate that because the person being backbitten is not there to defend him or herself, it is as if he or she is being eaten in the unlawful gathering because the damage is deep and likely permanent. Furthermore, by engaging in such an act, we are maligning the sanctity of a human being that Allah (SWT) has granted each one of us. Defaming them morally is something that can never be defended.
To explain further, Prophet Muhammad (SAW) defined backbiting in the following hadith:
Prophet Muhammad (SAW) asked his Companions,”Do you know what is meant by backbiting?” The Companions said, “Allah and His Messenger know best.” He (SAW) said, “To say something about your brother which he dislikes.” One asked, “Even if what I say is true about my brother?” He (SAW) replied, “If such defects you say are true about him, then you have backbitten him, and if he doesn’t have what you say, then you have committed slander against him.” [Muslim, Abu Dawood, and Tirmidhi]
Backbiting is not only speaking ill of another, but also making fun of a person. It is reported that a woman once visited Aisha (RAA) and when the woman got up to leave, Aisha (RAA) nonverbally indicated the short stature of her visitor. The Prophet Muhammad (SAW) immediately chastised her, saying, “You have backbitten!” (Tirmidhi.)
A clear way of distinguishing whether one has committed such an act is to evaluate if one would be able to say so if that person was standing in front of oneself while the statement was being said. In addition, if that is the case, then consider whether the other person would be hurt if they were to hear the statement being made about him or her. There is a hadith of when the Messenger of Allah (SAW) was asked, “Who is the best Muslim?” He (SAW) replied, “He is the one from whom Muslims are safe from the evil of his tongues and hands.” This not only applies to Muslims, but to the general brotherhood of humanity as well.
While reading the brief information regarding the prohibitions and resulting damage of backbiting, it is important to explain when speaking of another person is acceptable. If the information is meant to teach another, if the situation is so pressing that it is not wise to avoid expressing it, then one should divulge what needs to be shared without transgressing the boundaries. It is the responsibility of each Muslim to make the judgment when the situation arises. However, be certain to review the above criteria lest you find yourself committing such a grave sin as gossip or backbiting, or worse, slander.
Allah (SWT) has reminded us in the aforementioned verse of His Mercy (49:12). If you have done the actions in the past, you should not dwell for long on your past actions and instead ask Allah (SWT) to forgive you for your past sins. It is better to amend ourselves before it is too late. He (SWT) accepts all sincere repentance until the moment of our death. We should hasten in doing so for we do not know when that moment will arrive. The Prophet (SAW) said, “On the Day of Resurrection, Allah will deflect fire from the face of one who defends his Muslim brother’s honor in the latter’s absence” (Tirmidhi). So, even when you hear a Muslim being backbitten it is wise to defend them or remind whoever is committing the act that it is not right. Prophet Muhammad (SAW) was sent as a mercy to mankind (Qur’an, 21:107), and we are to follow his example.
There is not a better way to end this article than to share this profound hadith, which emphasizes the importance of our character over our deeds:
The Prophet Muhammad (SAW) asked one company of companions, “Do you know who the bankrupt person is?” They said, “A bankrupt person amongst us is the one who has neither money nor property.” The Prophet (SAW) said, “The bankrupt person of my nation is he who would come on the Day of Resurrection with prayer and fast and giving great amounts in charity. And at the same time, he would come having abused this one, and slandered that one, and consumed the wealth of the other unlawfully, and shed the blood of yet others and having beaten others. Then any person whom he has wronged will be given from his good deeds on that Day. And if his good deeds are exhausted until he clears the account concerning all of the people he has oppressed, the sins of those people whom he has wronged will be thrown unto his account and after that, he will be thrown into the hellfire.” [Muslim]