Ghiebah, or backbiting, is forbidden in the Glorious Qur’an where a person who commits it is given the similitude of a person who eats the flesh of his dead brother.
It is also condemned in the Sunnah. We read in a Prophetic hadith, “Verily, your blood (i.e., life), your property, and your honor are inviolable [and sacred] among you.” (Muslim)
On the authority of Abu Barzah Al-Aslami, the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) also said,
“O you who have believed [only] with their tongues while [true] belief has not visited their hearts! Do not backbite Muslims nor pursue their defects [and faults], because whomever pursues his brother’s defects [and faults] Allah pursues his defects [and faults] and disgraces him even though inside his house.” (Abu Dawoud)
Ghiebah is that a Muslim mentions his Muslim brother in a manner that the latter dislikes, whether by referring to a defect in his body, such as shortness or squint; or in his lineage, as to say, for example, that his father is immoral or indecent; or in his morality, as to say, for instance, that he is dirty.
This is found in a prophetic narration where the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) was asked about ghiebah, and he answered, “[It is] to mention your brother in a manner which he dislikes.”
Then he was asked, “What if my brother actually has [this failing] that I made a mention of?”
The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “If [that failing] is actually found in your brother, you in fact backbit him, and if that is not in him it is a slander.” (Muslim)
It is also worth mentioning that whatever involves the meaning of insulting is included in the concept of ghiebah, whether it is in the form of words, gestures, or writing.
Moreover, whoever listens to ghiebah is regarded as a participant therein unless he rejects it either with his tongue, or with his heart if he fears to do so in public.
One may also leave the place where it is being committed or turn the conversation into another subject. In all situations, he must reject backbiting. This is, of course, part of the Muslim’s duties towards his fellow Muslim brothers.
Causes Behind Ghiebah
There are many things that lead to ghiebah, including the following:
- Alleviation of or response to one’s anger. A person may be led by his anger with another person to backbite him.
- Compliance with one’s guests or fellows. By means of compliment, a person may share with his fellows or guests in backbiting others, thinking that this is a requisite of good social relations or that they may deny his act if he does not do so.
- Upgrading one’s position by degrading that of another person. For example, a person may say that so-and-so is ignorant or narrow-minded, aiming to show that he himself is knowledgeable and broad-minded and, consequently, better than the other.
- Joking and jesting. A person may backbite some people just for the sake of making some others laugh; this even represents a means of livelihood for some persons.
The backbiter should know that, by backbiting people, he subjects himself to the wrath and punishment of Allah the Almighty and that his good deeds will be paid to those whom he backbites; and if he has no good deeds, their evil deeds will be loaded on him. It is a very effective remedy for any backbiter to remember and comprehend these facts.
Furthermore, whenever one is about to backbite someone, he may think about his own shortcomings and how to rectify himself. In this way, he may feel ashamed of himself when realizing that he himself has defects that others can see.
Even if a backbiter thinks that he has no defects, he may show gratitude to Allah for His uncountable favors and bounties by not defiling himself with one of the ugliest flaws; namely, ghiebah.
Moreover and more important still, he should remedy ghiebah by overpowering the cause or causes leading to it. So, if he knows that he backbites someone because he is, for example, angry with him, he should suppress his anger, and so on.
Before moving to another point, it is worth highlighting that ghiebah may be committed by the heart, and this is what may be called thinking ill of others. A Muslim should not think ill of another Muslim unless he explicitly knows about him some evil thing that cannot be interpreted as meaning otherwise, especially if he has come to know it through a trustful, faithful Muslim.
Nevertheless, a Muslim is generally recommended not to respond to ill thoughts as regards his Muslim brothers. He may instead invoke Allah on their behalf whenever Satan pushes him to think evil of them, for this enrages Satan and drives him away, fearing that he may get accustomed to invocation through such evil whispers.
Legal Excuses for Ghiebah
In the Shari`ah of Islam, there are certain matters which drive away the sin of ghiebah. They may be presented as follows:
First, complaining about oppression or injustice. It is lawful for an oppressed or wronged person to mention the evil things committed against him by one who has oppressed or wronged him, in the presence of someone who is supposed to bring him his right back.
Second, seeking the help of others to change something wrong and bring an oppressor back to the way of righteousness.
Third, asking for a fatwa regarding a certain issue. However, it is recommendable for the person who wants to do so to use hints or indirect references when asking the mufti for his legal opinion concerning someone who has wronged him.
Fourth, warning a Muslim against some evil. One, for example, is permitted to warn a pious person against some wicked or immoral person whom he visits frequently without knowing about his wickedness or immorality. This is also recommendable in consultation regarding such matters as marriage and entrusting money and the like. However, if the consulted person here has to warn against some evil, he must do so out of sincere advice, not calumniation and slander.
Fifth, if a person is known with a special title such as “the lame” or “the blear-eyed,” it is not an act of ghiebah to call him as such. But if he can be recognized with another means, it is preferable to use this means instead of calling him with such a title.
Sixth, if a person commits immoral and indecent acts in public and does not feel shy of doing so, it is not an act of ghiebah to tell others about these acts.
Repentance and Regret
It should be known that a backbiter commits two sins: one is violation of Allah’s right, as he has committed something that He has forbidden him to do. The expiation for this sin is to repent and regret. The other sin is committed against the honor of the backbitten person; if the latter has known about the backbiter’s act against him, he should ask him for forgiveness. It was reported on the authority of Abu Hurayrah (may Allah be pleased with him) that the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) said,
“Whoever has wronged his brother, with regard to wealth or honor, should ask for his pardon [before his death], before he pays for it [in the Hereafter] when he will have neither a Dinar nor a Dirham.
[He should secure pardon in this life] before some of his good deeds are taken and paid to this [brother in compensation], or [if he has no good deeds] some of the bad deeds of this [brother] are taken to be loaded on him.” (Al-Bukhari and Muslim)
If, however, the backbitten person has not learned about the backbiter’s act against him, the backbiter should keep asking Allah to forgive the backbitten so that he may not know about it and thus become angry with the backbiter.
Ibn Qudamah Al-Maqdisi, Mukhtasar Minhaj Al-Qasidin, translated by Wa’il Shihab, (Al-Mansourah, Egypt: Dar Al-Manarah, 2002) pp. 186-191.