The Truth About Lying: Is It Sinful Or Not?

Bismi Llahir Rahmanir Rahim

by Naielah Ackbarali

In an extremely profound narration, the Messenger of Allah ﷺ said: “Truthfulness leads to righteousness, and righteousness leads to Paradise. And a man keeps on striving to tell the truth until he is recorded with Allah as very truthful. Lying leads to wickedness, and wickedness leads to the Hellfire, and a man may keep on telling lies until he is recorded with Allah as a grave liar.” [Muslim]

Indeed, being truthful is a virtue and a distinguishing quality of any Muslim. Truthfulness guides a person to perform good and sincere actions.

Lying is quite the opposite. Lying is one of the characteristics of the hypocrites, and it is a blameworthy trait which encourages a person to commit evil and indulge in sins.

If a person continuously speaks the truth, he will be recorded as a truthful person because truth becomes his second nature. His honest speech will lead him towards gaining Allah’s good pleasure and a place in Paradise. However, if a person consistently lies, lying becomes his second nature, which will only direct him towards Allah’s displeasure and being punished in the Hellfire.

Allah Most High says: “O you who believe! Fear Allah and be with those who are true.” [Qur’an 9:119]

Believers are encouraged to be truthful and keep the company of truthful people; inevitably, this produces a society filled with honest people. Truthfulness at a communal level brings about great benefits to society, whilst lying is one of the major elements of corruption and the cause of destruction for many nations.

Thus, due to the obvious harm that results from lying – for both the individual and society – it is an obligation upon every Muslim to understand what lying is and avoid it at all costs.

What Exactly Is Lying?

Lying is to relate something other than what it really is, whereas telling the truth is to relate something as it is such that it corresponds to reality. Allah Most High commanded truthfulness and forbade lying.

Consequently, lying on purpose is absolutely prohibited and sinful, except for specific situations that will be mentioned. If one mistakenly lies, it is excused.

What Is The Worst Type Of Lie?

The worst type of lying is slander (buhtan). It is of the greatest and most odious of sins. Slander means to fabricate lies or make false accusations against someone.

The worst type of slander to commit is:

1. To fabricate a lie against Allah Most High and the Prophet ﷺ.

Allah Most High says: “And who is more unjust than one who invents a lie about Allah.” [Qur’an 6:93]

The Prophet ﷺ said: “Whoever ascribes to me what I have not said, let him take his place in Hell.” [Bukhari]

In another version: “Do not tell a lie against me. Indeed, whoever tells a lie against me, he will surely enter the Hell-fire.” [Bukhari]

Hence, a person must be extremely careful when conveying matters of the deen, giving legal rulings, and narrating hadith from the Prophet ﷺ. To consciously attribute anything wrong to Allah Most High or the Prophet ﷺ is prohibited.

2. To bear false testimony, meaning to bear witness to seeing something that one did not actually see. Even if what happened is true, if one did not observe it with one’s own eyes, it is considered a false testimony.

Allah Most High says: “So avoid the uncleanliness of idols and avoid false statement.” [Qur’an 22:30]

Abu Bakra (Allah be pleased with him) relates that the Prophet ﷺ said: “Shall I not inform you of the greatest of major sins?” He repeated it three times. We said, “Yes, O Messenger of Allah” He said, “To join partners in worship with Allah and to be undutiful to one’s parents.” The Prophet ﷺ sat up after he had been reclining and then added, “And I warn you against forged statements and giving false testimony. I warn you against forged statements and giving false testimony.” He kept repeating it until we wished that he would stop (so that he did not tire himself from it).”  [Bukhari]

Other lies that are extremely loathsome to Allah Most High are:

1. To knowingly claim lineage to someone who is not one’s father. A person’s lineage entails certain rights, such as inheritance, maintaining family ties, and financially supporting specific relatives. Lying about it will cause one to receive rights they are not entitled to and deny rights from those who are entitled to them.

2. To falsely claiming to see a dream. Dreams are a portion of revelation, and good dreams are good news (bushra) from Allah Most High. One who narrates a false dream fabricates and attributes a lie to Allah Most High and deceives people at the same time.

3. To intend to break a promise at the time one makes it. This demonstrates a lack of loyalty in giving one’s word. As for when one makes a promise with the intention to keep it but breaks it later due to secondary circumstances, this is not lying.

4. To talebear (namima), which is to quote another person’s words in a way that worsens relations between people. Read this article for details.

5. To relate everything one hears. What one hears could be either true or false; therefore, one will inevitably relate lies. The Prophet ﷺ said, “It is enough falsehood for a man to speak everything he hears.” [Muslim] Scholars explain that this means it is incumbent to establish the truth of a matter before narrating it to others, and the one who conveys unverified matters is regarded as a liar.

Can A Muslim Tell A White Lie?

A white lie is a lie that is told in order to be polite or to stop someone from being upset by the truth. For example, a friend asks if she looks fat in her new dress, and one politely says ‘no’ in order to avoid hurting her feelings.

Even though society considers white lies to be acceptable, a Muslim must not tell any lie, including white lies.

Instead, one can give an indirect answer or a vague statement, such as “I like the color on you” or “You have such good taste! That dress is beautiful.” Sometimes people are only looking for a compliment or support, and a loving word is all they need.

Are There Exceptions For When It Is Permitted To Lie?

In very specific cases, lying can be obligatory or permissible in order to serve a greater purpose of either gaining benefit or preventing harm.

As for when lying is obligatory, the example given by scholars is when an oppressor intends to kill or hurt someone who is innocent that is in hiding, and one knows where they are. If asked by the oppressor for the whereabouts of the person in hiding, one lies. The praiseworthy objective of saving someone’s life far outweighs the wrong of lying, and this is why lying is obligatory.

As for cases when lying is permissible, it is based upon narrations of the Prophet ﷺ.

The Messenger of Allah ﷺ said: “It is not lawful to lie except in three cases: Something a man tells his wife to please her, to lie during war, and to lie in order to bring peace between the people.” [Tirmidhi]

It is also narrated that the Messenger of Allah ﷺ said: “A liar is not one who tries to bring reconciliation amongst people and speaks good (in order to avert dispute), or he conveys good.” [Muslim]

Thus, it is understood from these narrations that lying is permissible in:

  • war as a tactic to overpower one’s enemy;
  • making up between two people, such as by saying to the other person that his friend loves him and was asking about him so that it causes their hatred for each other to disappear;
  • or making one’s spouse pleased in order to increase the love and affection, such as by saying that ‘you are the most beloved person to me’ even if one does not entirely feel this way in one’s heart.  

There are other examples mentioned by scholars that are derived from these narrations, but they will not be stated for the sake of brevity and relevancy.

It is important to note that one would only resort to lying in the aforementioned situations whenever the objective cannot be completed without the use of lying. If the objective can be obtained without lying, then it is not permitted to lie and rather, one must tell the truth.

The most cautious and preferred position to follow is what scholars like Imam Ibn Abidin (Allah be pleased with him) state, which is that what is meant by lying being permissible in these circumstances is not lying itself, but rather, speaking with misleading impressions since explicit lying is unlawful. A misleading impression is a statement that implies multiple meanings, and one intends other than what could be understood by the listener from the actual words used. Thus, according to this group of scholars, it is never permissible to lie due to the threats mentioned in revelation about those who do, which shows that there is no goodness and success in lying. Instead, one uses statements that give a misleading impression, the details of which are forthcoming.

In summary, the safest path is that the door of lying remains closed except in situations of dire necessity so that one does not become habituated to lying. Thus, whenever one is posed with such a matter, one must be certain that what is being sought is really more important to obtain in the Sacred Law than upholding honesty. One must weigh between the two and choose whichever one proves weightier. If they are both of equal consequence, one leans towards telling the truth because resorting to the permissibility of lying should only be for situations of necessity or matters of importance.

What Is A Misleading Impression?

It is permissible to use misleading impressions (ma’arid) if there is a need countenanced by the Sacred Law or it is used as a substitute for lying in the aforementioned scenarios of permissibility.

A misleading impression is a statement that implies multiple meanings, and one intends other than what could be understood by the listener from the actual words used.

For example, when one is invited for food, one says “I already ate,” but what one really means is that one ate yesterday. Yet, from the words used, the listener understands that one ate earlier that day.  

However, the words used must carry the possibility of what one is intending, and it is not sufficient to say something explicitly false and intend differently. For example, a visitor asks to see one’s mother and one replies, “My mother is not home.” If one’s mother is truly in the house, it is deemed a lie, even if one intended differently.  

Rather, one could say “She’s not here” and intend the exact space that one is standing in. The listener understands from the words used that one’s mother is not home, even though she is home. The point is that one is not telling an explicit lie.

If statements that give misleading impressions are used for a noble objective, like joking to warm the heart of another, it is permissible.

Otherwise, it is unlawful to use misleading impressions without a need because it bears resemblance to lying, even if in wording it is not a lie. Some scholars deemed it to be disliked in the situation where there is no need. Nevertheless, there is agreement amongst scholars that if these statements are used to suppress another person’s right or obtain something unlawful, saying them would be unlawful.

Can A Muslim Lie When Joking?

It is not permissible to tell lies while joking or jesting. When telling a joke, one must still tell the truth.

The Prophet ﷺ had a light sense of humor. Abu Huraira (Allah be pleased with him) narrates: Some of the Companions said to the Prophet ﷺ, “O Messenger of Allah, you joke with us?” He ﷺ replied, “(Yes) but I only tell the truth.” [Tirmidhi]

From analyzing the Prophet’s ﷺ jokes, scholars deduce that it is permissible to use statements of misleading impression when joking – providing that the intention in doing so is noble, such as to warm hearts.

Anas ibn Malik (Allah be pleased with him) relates that a person requested a riding mount from the Prophet ﷺ. The Messenger of Allah ﷺ replied, “The baby of a camel shall be given to you to ride.” The man said, “O Messenger of Allah! What shall I do with the baby of a camel?” The Prophet ﷺ replied, “Isn’t every camel a baby of a camel?” [Bayhaqi]

The man thought that he would really be given a baby camel, which would obviously be too small to carry him. However, the Prophet ﷺ was intending that every camel was once a baby camel in the past.

In another instance, an elderly woman came to see the Prophet ﷺ. She asked the Prophet ﷺ to make du’a for her. He ﷺ said to her, “Old women will not enter Paradise.” Upon hearing this, she turned away and started to cry. The Prophet ﷺ explained that she would not be old in Paradise, and he ﷺ recited the verses of Surah al-Waqi‘ah (35-37): “Indeed, We have produced the women of Paradise in a (new) creation. And made them virgins, devoted (to their husbands) and of equal age.” [Shamail al-Tirmidhi]

Thus, it is evident that lightheartedness and jokes are naturally part of a Muslim’s personality, but there are limits of what one can say and how far one can go. Lying whilst joking must be avoided.

Is Exaggerating A Lie?

Exaggeration has different degrees to it, and in some cases, it can be permissible.

A proof for the permissibility of exaggeration is from the Prophetic narration: “…As for Abu Jahm, his stick never leaves his shoulder…” [Bukhari & Muslim]

Obviously, Abu Jahm would put down his stick when sleeping and doing other matters, but the explanation given is that he was someone who would beat his wives and the Prophet ﷺ wanted to warn against marrying him.

If a person uses a customary exaggeration, like “I came a thousand times,” it is not considered lying because what is understood from the expression is not the actual amount of times a person came but that it had been many. However, if he only came one time, it is considered lying because he did not come more than once. Likewise, if he had come several times but it is not from the custom of people to say this expression, it is deemed to be lying.

Another exception is in poetry. For example, the saying: “I supplicate to you day and night and there is not a place where I am void of thanking you.” It is permitted to exaggerate like this because the goal of the poet is to demonstrate his poetic skill, rather than telling a true story in his poetry.

Can A Muslim Lie About Their Past Sins?

It is obligatory to conceal one’s sins, and sincere repentance wipes them out. Therefore, it is prohibited and sinful to talk about sins, whether current or past, unless there is a need that is countenanced by the Sacred Law.

Abu Huraira (Allah be pleased with him) reports that the Messenger of Allah ﷺ said: “Everyone from my nation will be forgiven except those who sin in public. Among them is a man who commits an evil deed in the night that Allah has hidden for him, then in the morning he says: ‘O people, I have committed this sin!’ His Lord had hidden it during the night but in the morning he reveals what Allah has hidden.” [Bukhari and Muslim]

If someone asks about a wicked act that one committed secretly, such as fornication or drinking alcohol, one may disclaim the act by saying, “I did not do it” because exposing one’s sin is counted as another sin.

It is best to leave the reply ambiguous by saying ‘it’ and not declaring the specific act – such as ‘I did not drink alcohol’ – so that it falls under the ruling of misleading impressions, which is safer than explicit lying. However, if an indirect answer like this does not come to one’s mind, some scholars say that it would be permitted to lie to deny it.

Allah hates sins and wants mankind to turn away from them. When people talk openly about sins, they lose their gravity and people begin to think that sinning is not bad. For example, if one missed a prayer, one should feel remorseful. This remorse will hopefully lead to repentance and a determination to not make the same mistakes again. However, if everyone is talking casually about how they miss their prayers, this sin would feel less grave. Eventually, it would become the norm to miss prayers.

How Does One Repent From Past Lies?

Repenting from a lie involves: feeling remorse for the bad deed, asking for Allah’s forgiveness, and resolving to stop lying and not return to it.

However, if one slandered someone, then the repentance involves the right of another person and one must seek their forgiveness. Therefore, one must:

1. Be determined to completely severe oneself from such an act and leave returning to it for the rest of one’s life.

2. Seek pardon from the person one slandered if the possibility exists, meaning that the person one slandered is still alive and doing so will not cause an argument or enmity.

3. Admit that one is wrong to those who actually heard the slander by saying: “Whatever I said concerning so-and-so has no basis.” It is not sufficient to only say this to the person one slandered and oneself, but one must say it in front of those who originally heard the slander.

Closing Remarks

One of the distinctive characteristics of the Prophet ﷺ is that he was trustworthy. A believer should strive to follow the footsteps of the Messenger of Allah ﷺ and be truthful with people in their words. Deceiving or falsifying facts is not from the noble qualities of a believer. A Muslim must be true to others. This is the way of righteousness, and this is the path that leads to Paradise.


References:

  • 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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