Bismi Llahir Rahmanir Rahim
by Naielah Ackbarali
Once while on a journey, Mu’adh ibn Jabal (Allah be pleased with him) asked the Prophet ﷺ which actions would admit him into Paradise and which actions would distance him from the Hellfire.
The Prophet’s ﷺ initial reaction was to inform Mu’adh that he had asked about a weighty matter, but then remarked that “it is easy to achieve for the person for whom Allah makes it easy.”
Thereafter, the Prophet ﷺ proceeded to tell Mu’adh of the specific actions that must be done to enter Paradise: belief in Allah, prayer, zakat, fasting, and pilgrimage.
Next, the Prophet ﷺ directed Mu’adh to the voluntary doors of good, like giving in charity and praying in the night. Interestingly, the Prophet ﷺ did not immediately comment upon anything related to the Hellfire.
Until suddenly, the Prophet ﷺ asked Mu’adh whether he wanted to know which action is the foundational support that holds all of these good acts – meaning which deed in particular will make the reward of the aforementioned acts of obedience complete. Mu’adh curiously responded in the affirmative.
The Prophet ﷺ took hold of his own tongue and said, “Restrain this.”
Mu’adh inquired, “O’ Messenger of Allah, will we be taken to task for what we speak?”
The Prophet ﷺ replied, “May your mother be bereaved (an Arabic expression used to indicate the seriousness of a matter). Are people thrown onto their faces in Hell for anything other than the harvest of their tongues?” [Tirmidhi]
As believers, we must ponder about the great meanings behind this Prophetic narration.
Firstly, the Prophet ﷺ listed all the major acts of good in Islam – as well as several supererogatory forms of worship – and subsequently based the reward of their performance around a person’s ability to control their tongue. Scholars comment that this is proof that restraining the tongue is the root of all good, and whoever controls his tongue has controlled all of his matters and dealt with them correctly.
Moreover, the mere visualization of the Prophet ﷺ holding his own tongue gives a lot of food for thought. The tongue is extremely easy to move, and from its movement, much good can result. Yet, because the tongue never tires and is often left unrestricted, much harm can result too.
We spend our lives cultivating our book of deeds with what we say and do. This narration teaches us that on the Day of Judgment, everyone will be held accountable for what their tongues harvest.
Examples of reaping a good harvest could be speaking of what is beneficial, making dhikr, giving salawat, and performing da’wah – whereas accumulating a bad harvest could be pronouncing disbelief in Allah, giving false testimony, lying, cursing others, backbiting, talebearing, and the like.
Without a doubt, due to the loose nature of our tongues, it is a huge challenge to keep away from falling into the sins of the tongue, especially backbiting and talebearing. Humans are social creatures, and we are prone to talking or joking, mainly as a way and means to connect with others.
The effort that it takes to restrain the tongue from surpassing the limits of what is lawful can prove difficult for most. A person trying to be cautious in this matter is almost stirred to physically hold their tongue to stop it from going too far, like how the Prophet ﷺ demonstrated.
Conversely, this Prophetic injunction raises very practical questions:
Can we speak about the bad that someone does?
Does this mean that you must stay quiet when someone wrongs you?
Is counseling or seeking advice permissible?
Is being a good Muslim all about putting up and suffering in silence?
The short answer is that, alhamduliLlah, our religion is a perfect balance between protecting the honor of others and standing up against any apparent wrong.
Yet, amongst many Muslims, backbiting and gossiping has become the norm. From social media posts to private gatherings, people’s faults and personal business are often the topic of discussion and an avenue for expressing untamed anger, misgivings, and jealousy.
As believers, it is crucial that we understand the rulings which revolve around the topic of backbiting and gossiping. Our concern must be to speak in a way that is pleasing to Allah Most High and to avoid talking about matters which earn His displeasure, while also being aware of when exceptions apply.
Many Muslims are either unfamiliar with these details or unsure of how to apply them when speaking. InshaAllah, in this article the sins of backbiting and gossiping, along with exceptions and other related matters, will be explored.
What Does Revelation Say?
The Qur’an and sunna are filled with warnings about protecting a person’s honor. The following are merely a selection of what revelation contains:
1. Allah Most High says: “And do not backbite each other. Would one of you like to eat the flesh of his dead brother? You would detest it. And fear Allah; indeed, Allah is All-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” [Qur’an 49:12]
Backbiting is likened to eating the raw flesh of one’s dead brother, which is an action that is regarded as contemptible and disgusting. Moreover, just as a cannibal is despised and hated, so too is a person who backbites.
2. Abu Huraira (Allah be pleased with him) narrates that he heard the Prophet ﷺ say: “A servant utters a word without pondering over its seriousness and in doing so slips into the Hellfire to a depth that is greater than the distance between the east and west.” [Muslim]
Quite often a single word is carelessly uttered, but this is sufficient to land a person into Hell without him realizing it. The fright that this may provoke in a believer should serve as an encouragement to think before speaking. Additionally, it should push one to learn more about which words Allah hates to hear so that one avoids speaking in a way that displeases Allah Most High.
3. Abu Musa (Allah be pleased with him) narrates: “I asked, ‘O Messenger of Allah! Who is the best Muslim?’ He replied, ‘The one whose tongue and hand other Muslims are safe from.’” [Bukhari & Muslim]
A true Muslim would never cause harm to others, whether verbally or physically. Every Muslim’s honor is sacred, and a sincere believer takes care to protect every Muslim’s good name. Scholars note that the tongue is mentioned first because the harm caused by it is more common than the other limbs. Backbiting, talebearing, slandering, false accusations, and lies all originate from the tongue. Thus, if the tongue is left unrestricted, it can cause great damage to oneself and others.
4. The Mother of Believers, Aisha (Allah be pleased with her) narrates: “I said to the Messenger of Allah ﷺ ‘Such-and-such in respect of Safiyyah is sufficient for you.’” Some narrators state that she referred to her being short. “The Prophet ﷺ replied, ‘You have said a word which would pollute the sea if it were mixed with it.’” [Abu Dawud]
The Prophet’s response ﷺ demonstrates how abhorrent her speech was to Allah Most High. Commenting about someone’s height is certainly offensive to the person, but the Prophet ﷺ informed her of something even greater. Allah Most High hates it, and to such an extent that by just throwing this phrase into the sea, the words would completely contaminate its vast waters.
5. The Prophet ﷺ also said: “Whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day, let him speak good or remain silent.” [Bukhari & Muslim]
Speaking about others is a slippery slope, and for this reason, scholars advise that it is incumbent upon every person to guard their tongue from saying anything other than what is beneficial. As for when the benefit and harm of speaking are of equal advantage, the sunna is to remain silent because what was originally permissible can easily slip into the unlawful or the offensive – as is the common norm – and there is no substitute for the safety of silence.
What Exactly Is Backbiting?
Backbiting (ghiba) is a sin of the tongue. It is unlawful to backbite anyone, regardless of whether they are Muslim, non-Muslim, dead or alive.
The Prophet ﷺ “Do you know what backbiting is?” The Companions answered, “Allah and His messenger know best.” He ﷺ said, “It is to mention something about your brother that he would dislike.” Someone asked, “What if he is as I say?” The Prophet ﷺ replied, “If he is as you say, you have backbitten him, and if he is not, you have slandered him.” [Muslim]
Based on this narration, scholars explain that backbiting is to mention anything about another person in their absence that they would dislike to hear if word were to reach them about it.
Even if what is said is true, it is still ruled as backbiting because the consideration is whether the person would feel offended by what is said. However, if what is said is not true, then it is considered slander and the sin is more severe because it involves lying.
Another condition for speech to be ruled as backbiting is that the listener knows who one is specifically talking about – or understands who one is intending if the person’s name is not explicitly mentioned. If the person’s identity remains unknown to the listener, then it is not backbiting.
What Are Examples Of Backbiting?
Backbiting includes mentioning the faults related to a person’s:
- body, such as “he is ugly” or “she is fat”
- lineage, such as “his forefathers were of a low caste”
- character, such as “he is stingy” or “she is arrogant”
- actions, such as “he sleeps too much” or “she does a sloppy job”
- intelligence, such as “he is stupid” or “she doesn’t use her brain”
- speech, such as “he stutters” or “she talks too much”
- religious practice, such as “he is a sinner (fasiq)” or “she doesn’t have enough taqwa”
- worldly life, such as “his clothes are cheap” or “her house is messy”
- marital relationship, such as “his marriage is dysfunctional” or “she’s a bad wife”
- or children, such as “his kid is disobedient” or “her child is a monster.”
It must be noted that backbiting is not limited to speech. It can also be in the form of winking, hand gestures, writing, or other movements.
For instance, if one shifts one’s head when something good is mentioned about a person to indicate that others do not know about the reality of their bad state, this is counted as backbiting.
Another example can be through alluding, such as when a person’s name is mentioned, one says “Praise be to God, the One who relieved us from such and such quality.” What is understood by those present is that one is implying that the person possesses this blameworthy quality.
Likewise, imitating a person in the manner that they walk, such as by limping. In fact, scholars declare that it is the most odious form of backbiting because of its severity in depicting the person.
The upshot is that any speech or action whose purpose is understood to be for the sake of backbiting takes its ruling, and it is unlawful.
Can Vague Phrases Be Used?
Vague phrases can be used, and it will not be considered backbiting.
For instance, it is permissible to say, “Someone who passed by me today…” or “Someone who I saw…” – providing that the listener does not understand anyone in specific. If the listener comprehends who is being spoken about, it is considered backbiting.
Even worse, if those who are present think that they are being scrupulous because the person’s name was not explicitly mentioned – all the while knowing who the person really is – the scholars deem it to be hypocrisy (nifaq). Since the person’s identity is known, they are engaging in the sin of backbiting, while also deluding themselves that they are behaving righteously.
Another example is if one speaks about the people of a community or a country in general, it is not considered backbiting. For instance, “Americans are…” This is because one is not intending all the people in this area, but rather, only some of them. As such, it is unknown who one is referring to, and it is permissible to speak about others when their identity is unknown to the listener.
Are There Exceptions For Backbiting?
It is permissible to reveal the faults of others when there is an objective that is countenanced by the Sacred Law and it is unattainable by other means.
Scholars state the following as acceptable excuses. Therefore, if one mentions the fault of another within the parameters of any of these contexts, it is not considered backbiting.
1. Advising: One is asked about a person by someone who is seeking advice or counsel for the purpose of marriage, business, or the like.
For example, it is permissible to expose the faults of a prospective spouse, travel companion, business partner, neighbor, or keeper of a trust. In fact, it is obligatory to mention what one knows about the individual with the intention of giving sincere counsel (nasiha). Marrying a person or engaging in business with others are matters that can greatly impact the future of another person’s life or wealth. One must take this advisory role very seriously and be truthful.
If it is possible to forewarn the person without explicitly exposing the other person’s faults, then it is impermissible to say more. For example, if it suffices to simply say “Do not marry him” or “If you do business with someone else, it would be better for you,” then further details must not be given. However, if a vague phrase is inadequate and there is a need to elaborate, it is permissible to expose the person’s faults to the extent needed. Yet, one cannot mention faults unrelated to the issue at hand.
This category is also a clear proof that seeking counseling and coaching for one’s marital or family problems is permissible. On a similar note, some Muslims misunderstand the rulings related to counseling. One’s intention in exposing another person’s faults should be for the sincere purpose of gaining direction and clarity of how to resolve the situation – and not to use the sessions as a means to discreetly insult people or get things off one’s chest.
2. Warning: One is warning against another’s immoral behavior.
For example, one warns against a person who indulges in the unlawful and spreads his corruption to those around him, like sharing pornographic material, using drugs, drinking alcohol, or the like in blatant sins.
Another example could be of warning a student who is studying under a person involved in spreading innovations, and one fears that the student will be harmed by his teaching. It is necessary to warn the student of the teacher’s state, upon the condition that the objective is to give advice and it is not prompted by jealousy towards the teacher.
Likewise, one may reveal a person’s faults who is in a position of responsibility and does not fulfill his duties because he is either unfit for the job, corrupt, inattentive or the like. It is obligatory to inform the person who possesses authority over him, so that he may be removed and replaced with another person who will rightly uphold the position’s requirements.
3. Rectifying an injustice: One speaks to a judge, or anyone that possesses such authority, in order to claim one’s Sacred Law right due to an injustice incurred. For example, one says, “So-and-so has wronged me and denied me of my right.”
4. Seeking a legal ruling: One informs a mufti of one’s personal circumstance in order to obtain a legal verdict (fatwa). Scholars note that it is still better and more precautionary to avoid mentioning specific names.
For example, one could ask, “What is the ruling concerning a person that does such-and-such?” –instead of explicitly saying “My father/my wife/my brother/my cousin does such-and-such to me.” However, if it would further aid the scholar in giving the verdict, it is permissible to mention the name.
5. Identifying a person: One calls someone by a defect, like so-and-so the blind. This is upon the condition that the person is known by this nickname and one does not intend to demean him when using it. However, if one is able identify him in another way, it is better.
6. Seeking aid to change a wrong: One seeks aid to change an ongoing wrong and return the wrongdoer back to the right path by informing someone who is capable of rectifying the wrongdoer. For example, one says “So-and-so did this evil deed, so reprimand him concerning it.” Yet, the intention in this situation must be to eliminate the wrong; otherwise, it is unlawful.
7. Pointing out the sins of an open sinner: One remarks upon the faults and bad traits of a person who openly commits major sins and oppression towards others, such as a person who fornicates, drinks wine, or engages in usury. However, one is only permitted to mention what he publicly commits from corruption and injustice. As for mentioning his hidden faults to people, it is deemed backbiting and it is impermissible.
8. Impugning: One alerts others about unreliable ḥadīth narrators, court witnesses, and authors. In fact, it is obligatory to do so for the sake of preserving the deen from falsehood. For example, a scholar advises his students against books written by ‘so-and-so’ because the author does not possess sound Islamic knowledge.
What Is Talebearing / Gossiping?
Talebearing (namima) is another sin of the tongue, and it is unlawful. The Prophet ﷺ said: “A talebearer will not enter Paradise.” [Muslim]
A talebearer is commonly known as someone who quotes another person’s words in a way that worsens relations between people. For example, person A tells person B about the faults of person C, and then person B reveals to person C that “Person A said this about you.”
However, scholars mention a more general definition for talebearing. Namely, talebearing is disclosing anything that a person would dislike being disclosed. Simply put, talebearing is gossiping!
For instance, one seeks advice from another person about their private affairs, and the advisor then tells others about what one said. Another example is that person A shares a secret with person B. Thereafter, Person B tells Person C the secret; this transmission of secrets from one person to the next is talebearing.
Moreover, it makes no difference of whether the tale was conveyed by means of speech, indication, or writing. Thus, the same ruling applies for spreading tales via a spoken word, a social media post, a tweet, or an email.
In order to avoid talebearing, scholars say that it is incumbent to not discuss what one sees from the circumstances of people except if speaking about it will benefit another Muslim, prevent disobedience, or stop harm from occurring. In such a situation, one chooses the least of the two harms and the lesser of the two evils.
Is It Sinful To Listen To Someone Backbiting Or Gossiping?
We must protect our ears from listening to sin. Allah Most High says: “Indeed, the hearing, the sight and the heart – about all those (one) will be questioned.” [Qur’an 17:36]
Scholars state that the person who listens to sin – like someone backbiting or talebearing – is sinful.
However, if one condemns it, one is not sinful. If the person does not stop after being reprimanded or after trying to change the subject, one is obliged to leave. For more details, read this article about enjoining the good and forbidding the wrong.
If one is forced to remain in the gathering and cannot leave, then it is unlawful to listen to what is said. One should make dhikr or engage in anything that would distract one from listening to it.
Upon hearing any backbiting or talebearing, one must also:
- hate the wrong act for Allah Most High’s sake,
- disbelieve what was said,
- avoid spying or investigating about the matter,
- restrain oneself from relating what was said to other people,
- and in the case of talebearing, not think badly of the person whom the words were supposedly related from.
What Is The Atonement For Backbiting?
Those who indulge in backbiting are oblivious to the fact that they are only harming themselves. On the Day of Judgment, both the wrongdoer and the wronged will stand before Allah, and He will give the good deeds of the wrongdoer to the wronged person in accordance to the wrong that was done against their good name.
As for atonement in this world, the answer depends upon whether the person finds out about what was said. Scholars mention this detailed breakdown:
1. If the one who was backbitten is unaware of what the backbiter said about him, the matter remains a private sin between the backbiter and his Lord. Thus, it is sufficient for the backbiter to feel remorse for his bad deed (nadm), ask for Allah’s forgiveness (istighfar), and repent by resolving to leave the act and not return to it (tawba).
2. If what was said reached the person, the matter now involves the right of a slave and one’s repentance (tawba) is not complete without apologizing. Consequently, it is a condition for the backbiter to clarify everything said to the backbitten, along with asking for Allah’s forgiveness, repenting, and sincerely apologizing to the backbitten so that he may forgive the backbiter of his wrongdoing.
The great Hanafi scholar ibn Abidin states in Radd al-Muhtar, “One seeks his forgiveness by excessively praising him and showing love towards him so that he may pardon one. All of this is necessary in order that his heart be warmed to one once again. If his heart remains unmoved, then one’s seeking pardon and showing love towards him is noted as an act of good that will counter the wrong of one’s backbiting in the Hereafter. It is imperative that one is sincere in seeking his pardon for if one is not, then it is another sin and one’s wrong will possibly remain for retribution by his request in the Hereafter…Moreover, it is recommended that the one who was backbitten exonerate the backbiter of his wrong.”
3. However, if it is certain that apprising the backbitten of what was exactly said would cause discord, then the backbiter does not divulge the details, and in its place the backbiter seeks forgiveness from Allah, makes supplication, and repents. If it is also possible to say something vague like “Forgive me for any wrong that I have committed against you,” the apology counts.
4. If the one who was backbitten dies before the backbiter receives a chance to ask for pardon, then it is not incumbent upon the backbiter to seek exoneration from the inheritors of the backbitten, but instead the backbiter regrets his wrongdoing, seeks forgiveness and repents.
What Are Ways To Stop Backbiting & Gossiping?
Because backbiting and talebearing are sins, a true believer is concerned about the full implications of their speech and is inspired to avoid these sins out of love for their Creator. Try these tips:
1. Ask yourself what your intention is before you speak.
This would require that you become more mindful about your heart and its secret intentions. If what you want to say is out of genuine concern, then it is not backbiting. Rather, backbiting is mentioning the fault of another out of anger or egotistical motives in order to revile (sabb) or defame (qadh) the person.
So, check your intention. If deep down inside, you are angry or upset at the person, reassess why you want to talk. These emotions may make it difficult to keep a good intention for speaking, which leads to the next point.
2. Avoid speaking about others when you are upset.
Many people utter words in a state of anger that they later regret in a state of tranquility. Calm down first and think things through before opening your mouth. Do you really need to say this? Can you phrase it a different way? What is the benefit in speaking about it? Will mentioning it help your situation or the other person?
3. Ask others to help you.
Tell those who are close to you that you are trying to be more careful about how you speak. Educate them about the rulings related to backbiting and talebearing. Request that they stop you if you go too far.
4. Heed the warning.
If someone tells you that you are backbiting or gossiping, then listen up! Do not dismiss what they say or delude yourself into thinking that you are justified for voicing your opinion. Think it over before continuing to speak. Your Hereafter depends upon it.
5. Socialize less and make dhikr more.
Frequent socializing puts you in a position to talk more, whereas the dhikr of Allah Most High counters the effects of worldly speech. Swap how you spend your time. Excessive worldly speech causes the heart to become hard.
The Messenger of Allah ﷺ said: “Do not talk much without remembering Allah because much talk without the remembrance of Allah causes hard-heartedness, and those furthest away from Allah are those who are hard-hearted.” [Tirmidhi]
Islam is a religion of peace, love, and compassion. Backbiting and gossiping spreads enmity and discord amongst the Muslim ummah and leads to its destruction. It causes hostilities between people of the same household, as well as with in-laws, neighbors and friends.
Our religion demands that our interactions with others be based upon genuine sincerity and personal responsibility. We must have respect for the honor, reputation, and privacy of others. Controlling the tongue is a key aspect for supporting these principles.
The Messenger of Allah ﷺ said: “The one who guarantees me that he will safeguard what is between his jaws and what is between his thighs, I will guarantee him Paradise.” [Bukhari]
May Allah make us of those who take this pledge and stay true to it.
- Imam Ala al-Din Abidin, الهدية العلائية
- Imam ibn Abidin, رد المحتار على الدر المختار
- Imam Nahlawi, الدرر المباحة في الحظر والإباحة
- Imam Abu Sa’id al-Khadami, بريقة محمودية في شرح طريقة محمدية
- Imam Mulla Ali al-Qari, مرقاة المفاتيح شرح مشكاة المصابيح
- Imam Nawawi, المنهاج شرح صحيح مسلم
- Imam Nawawi, رياض الصالحين
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