by Ayesha Khan
It is not a coincidence that the word for beauty in Arabic is connected to the idea of goodness. And one of the best things we can do is have goodness in the way we carry ourselves, behave, treat others and what we say.
However, there is one sin that can wipe out all the goodness that might take us a lifetime to accumulate.
If I ask you to think of BIG SINS, you will might think of murder, stealing, adultery… what might not come to your mind is a sin most of us sitting here, including me, might be committing on a daily basis.
It is absolutely detested by God and so I believe it is very important that I cover it in one of my assemblies.
It is something that a lot of us will be doing without realizing it or appreciating how enormous the consequences of it are.
The sin that I want to discuss with you is talking about people behind their back.
There is a word to describe this, which is ‘backbiting.’
And because this is considered to be such a disgusting and awful thing to do, the reference to it in the Quran is very literal: saying something negative about someone behind their back is compared to actually chewing their dead flesh.
You might wonder why? What’s the big deal? If someone irritates you and you turn to a friend and say ‘aah she really gets on my nerves, she’s so…’. You might think there’s no harm in it. You are just getting it off your chest… and she didn’t hear you say it.
But I want you to think of a time when someone said something about you that upset you. Do you remember feeling like you were carrying a big wound around? That you were being haunted by it, by the words replaying themselves in your mind over and over again? Carrying the hurt around with you everywhere, it clouding everything else, and making you feel indignant.
Once we say something, we can’t take it back. It lingers in the air and if it was hurtful it lingers in the heart for a very long time – sometimes never becoming erased at all.
We have been warned on multiple occasions to be careful what we say on social media and in emails. You will have heard of people who have lost their jobs because of silly things they have said on Twitter, or pictures they have put on Facebook.
The tricky part about the web, is that it takes a second to send a message but once it’s sent you can’t recall it. It’s the same with speech.
Even worse is when someone is being discussed and everyone listening feels the need to add in their bit as well. So a criticism ends up being a mass discussion on how horrible someone is.
If we say something about someone and they did that, that is called backbiting. If we say something about someone and it isn’t true, that is slander.
Either way, it is a sin.
On average women say 4.7 million more words than a man in a year. So this is a problem that particularly concerns all of us here.
And I am including myself. Because I know how hard it is to keep something in when it bothers us.
So I want to tell you about my own experience this week.
On Monday I went to a meeting and I felt offended by something somebody said. It really upset me and I couldn’t stop thinking about and feeling annoyed by it all day. As a result everyone I came across I told them what that person had said and how dare she have said.
However, the thing is that it didn’t make me feel any better. I felt like the wedding guest in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which is a poem by Coleridge, where someone has a bad experience and then goes round telling everyone what it was and spooking them out, leaving them feeling bad.
So by telling the whole world how hard done by I was, didn’t make me feel any better. I got lots of people joining in and saying yes, what a terrible thing it was, but all I did was spread the news of something bad that someone had said.
Yesterday I sat down and sent the person who had offended me an email, and I explained that what she had said had upset me and what my perspective was.
From the minute I pressed the send button, it was as if a load had floated off my shoulders. And then I could even feel sorry for her, because I know that she said what she did because she was under pressure.
Countless things are said to us all the time, but what we really need is a pause button to reflect before we react. Because we don’t have the luxury of a rewind button.
I found that by whinging and backbiting, I didn’t gain anything at all. I should have tackled what the problem was in the first place.
Someone once said ‘the universe does not have space for whingers or complainers’. And you will find that the people who are successful in life are not the ones who constantly find something to moan about – starting with the weather and covering everything under the sun… Neither are they the ones who pass on gossip, and saying the first thing that comes into our head isn’t the cleverest thing to do either.
As Muslims, as everything we do and say in our life is being recorded it is of paramount importance that we consider what comes out of our mouth.
In Islam it’s not a case of you only live once, but you only live twice. And if every tiny atom of good or bad we do is counted, then we can’t disregard the impact of the things we say.
Not only can things we have said wipe out our good deeds, but those good deeds will be transferred to the person who we talked about.
The last thing we want is see our deeds before us on a set of scales and then find that not only are the good deeds removed for all the things we said but find ourselves giving our good deeds to the people who annoyed us in the first place and then find that our good deeds are outweighed our bad deeds in the final outcome.
It is the easiest thing in the world to make comments about other people. From the way they look, to how they behave and what their ‘real’ intentions were when they said or did something. If we constantly feel hard done by and bitter, or envious we are not going to say anything positive about anyone. Looking for the negative in others, doesn’t make us beautiful. But if we can try and think before we speak and check that what we are saying is worth saying, then the chances are that we will cut down the negative things we say without realizing it.
If you imagine that person is standing there when you are saying something about them, then you would be 100 times less likely to say it.
And the sin is not just for the person who says it but the person who hangs around to listen.
So if someone starts a conversation about someone else, either stand up for that person or leave.
Don’t expose other people’s faults, just as we wouldn’t want to expose us and embarrass us by telling the whole world what we said or did.
Muslims are supposed give people the benefit of the doubt. If they do something wrong, a Muslim is supposed to make excuses on their behalf and say, ‘okay he or she behaved badly but they were having a bad day.’
If someone does something to you that needs to be reported, obviously you have to tell someone or make a complaint, but generally making comments about other people’s appearances, or what they do or our opinion of them will get us in to very deep waters.
So the antidote to backbiting is to look for the good in people instead. In order to say good things we actually need to go a step further and think good thoughts.
Abu Musa said, ‘I said, “Messenger of Allah, whose Islam is best?” He said, “The one from whose tongue and hands the Muslims are safe.”’ [Bukhari]
The Prophet (peace be upon him)’s wife, Aisha, also said, ‘I once said to the Prophet, peace be upon him, “Such and such a thing of Safiyyah is sufficient for you (referring to her shortness)”. He replied, “You have made such a statement that if it were to be mixed in the water of the ocean, it would pollute the water.” [Abu Dawud]
Whatever you say can be of three kinds – beneficial, trivial, harmful.
So your challenge today is to try and not say anything bad about anyone – not a classmate, not a teacher, not your mum… and I want you see how you did by the end of the day.
Written by Ayesha Khan in 2013