Ghazali on Backbiting – why people do it, when you can do it, how to stop doing it
Imam Ghazali’s book Kitaab Al-Arba’in Fi Usul ad-Din, The 40 Principles of the Faith is a summary of his great work, Ihya Ulumuddin which he wrote before he died.
In the chapter on the purification of the heart, he breaks down the traits we need to excise from ourselves, and begins by focusing on the evils of the tongue. He zooms in on 5 of the common diseases, out of 20 evils of the tonque he listed in the Ihya. These 5 are: lying (kadhib) كذب, backbiting (ghiba) غيبة, argumentation (marah) مماراة, praise (madih) مديح, and joking (mazah) مزاح.
Here we will examine backbiting.
Ghiba – eating the flesh of your dead brother
Backbiting (ghiba) is well known as being haram in all schools of thought. The evidence is overwhelming. Most memorably in Surat al Hujurat, Allah Almighty commands us not backbite one another:
O you who believe! avoid most of suspicion, for surely suspicion in some cases is a sin, and do not spy nor let some of you backbite others. Does one of you like to eat the flesh of his dead brother? But you abhor it; and be careful of (your duty to) Allah, surely Allah is Oft-returning (to mercy), Merciful. (49:12)
The fact that Allah Almighty likened backbiting to eating the flesh of your dead brother shows the extent to which is it detested by Him and prohibited. The Prophet (peace be on him) talked about the prohibition of ghiba, and even when he was delivering his Final Sermon, he mentioned this specifically as important advice part of his last will. Jabir bin Abdillah narrated the most details on that.
Human honour is sanctified
In two lines of that long speech, he said that one’s life, property, and honour your honour are protected, like the sanctity of that sacred day and the sacred city.
‘Ikrima (may Allah be please with him) narrated:
Ibn Abbas (may Allah be pleased with him) said: “Allah’s Apostle [peace be on him] delivered a sermon on the Day of Nahr, and said, ‘O people! (Tell me) what is the day today?’ The people replied, ‘It is the Forbidden (Sacred) day.’ He asked again, ‘What town is this?’ They replied, ‘It is the Forbidden (Sacred) Town.’ He asked, ‘Which month is this?’ They replied, ‘It is the Forbidden (Sacred) Month.’ He said, ‘No doubt! Your blood, your properties, and your honour are Sacred to one another like the Sanctity of this Day of yours, in this (Sacred) Town (Makkah) of yours, in this Month of yours.’[i] (Bukhari)
We see from this that human life and honour are more sacred than the Day of Arafah and Makkah itself. They are off limits. Talking behind someone’s back ruins their reputation, however you are not permitted to ruin someone’s honour which in Arabic includes their reputation (‘ird). We realise therefore the severity of the sin when it is an attack on what something that is even more sacred than the Ka’ba.
Fittingly the punishment for backbiting reflects how odious it is, to Allah and as a trait. And it was graphically apparent when the Prophet (peace be on him) undertook the Night Journey of Isra Wal Miraj. As narrated in Sunan Abi Dawood, he saw those who had engaged in backbiting scratching their faces and skin with copper nails.
On top of this, backbiting consumes your good deeds. Aisha (may Allah be pleased with her) narrated:
I said to the Prophet (peace be upon him): It is enough for you in Safiyyah that she is such and such (the other version than Musaddad’s has:) meaning that she was short-statured. He replied; You have said a word which would change the sea if it were mixed in it. (Sunan Abu Dawud)
Though Aisha (may Allah be pleased with her) is the Mother of All Believers, she was still a human being. Here, she was reprimanded for backbiting Safiyyah, and told that her words would pollute the whole sea, if they was dropped in it. Imam Nawawi said this is one of the greatest deterrents and shows you the severity of ghiba.
Definition of ghiba
Though the people of his time were familiar with the word ghiba, the Prophet (peace be on him) defined ghiba, making it clearer and added new dimensions to their understanding. He used to this often, for instance when he re-defined the meaning of bankruptcy:
Abu Hurayrah reported that the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) said, “Do you know who is bankrupt?” They said, “The one without money or goods is bankrupt.” The Prophet said, “Verily, the bankrupt of my nation are those who come on the Day of Resurrection with prayers, fasting, and charity, but also with insults, slander, consuming wealth, shedding blood, and beating others. The oppressed will each be given from his good deeds. If his good deeds run out before justice is fulfilled, then their sins will be cast upon him and he will be thrown into the Hellfire.” (Muslim)
Al-Muttalib ibin Abdullah said the Messenger of Allah said:
Ghibah (gossip, backbiting) means that a man mentions about a person something which is true, behind his back. (Al Suyuti, Zawa’id Al Jami from the report of al Khara’iti in Masawi Al Akhlaq. Malik in Mursal Isnad as mentioned in Al-Sahihah, No. 1992)
Abu Hurayrah narrated that Allah’s Apostle (peace be upon him) said: Do you know what is backbiting? They (the Companions) said: Allah and His Apostle (peace be upon him) know best. Thereupon, he (the Prophet) said. “Backbiting implies your talking about your brother in a manner that he does not like.” It was said to him, “What is your opinion about this that if I actually find (that failing) in my brother which I made a mention of? He said, “If (that failing) is actually found (in him) what you assert, you in fact backbitten him, and if that is not in him it is a slander.” (Muslim, Abu Dawud, Ahmad and Tirmidhi)
Backbiting and slander
We can see from these narrations that ghiba is saying anything which the person would not like said about them, even though it is true. Slander, which is also a sin, is saying something about them which is false. Either way, you are not permitted to talk about people behind their backs.
If it wasn’t reflecting what happened then it is slander (behatta)
Setting limits on what you can say
Why is backbiting a problem? Backbiting is not restricted to one sex. Both men and women are prone to backbiting, some more than others.
It is easy to bad mouth someone when you dislike them. This is why the Prophet (peace be on him) was settling limits on what you can and cannot say about others in their absence. When there are no limits, you get flooded. You cannot contain it. Backbiting is one of these floods. This is why you have to have barriers for protection.
Reasons why people backbite
1. Cowardice and hypocrisy
It is two faced to talk about someone in their absence. What did you not say this to the person? They could have explained it and offered their explanation. To wait for them to leave the room to talk about them is a low quality. The Prophet (peace be on him) wants us to have good qualities.
One of the reasons for talking about someone in their absence, is jealousy. They are better than you, and you hate them, but pretend you don’t hate them. You should face up to them and tell them what you think.
When you ruin someone’s reputation, you are saying that you are better than them. You feel an unspoken rivalry and you want to a shortcut to destroy your opponent, to make yourself feel superior. This is a disease.
4. Learned behaviour and ignorance
Sometimes people backbite without ill feeling but simply because they have grown up in an environment where backbiting is the norm. It might be their parents, siblings, playground/workplace and community and they do not realise that it is a sin.
Ghiba is destructive
Though they are backbiting out of absolute ignorance, they might destroy someone’s life and bear the dreadful consequences of it. The Prophet (peace be on him) said:
A person may utter a word that he thinks harmless, but it results in his falling in Hellfire [the depth of ] 70 years [in travel]. (Tirmidhi and Ibn Majah)
A word that you said without intending to cause harm, could be devastating for someone but once said, it is too late. It is not uncommon that people can destroy someone’s life by a thoughtless comment, stupidity or ignorance. This is why the Prophet (peace be on him) prohibited backbiting in so many different hadith on so many occasions. It is a very common disease.
Backbiting through gestures unconsciously
Ghiba can also be conveyed through your eye movements and hand gestures, for instance when you are defining someone by an unflattering characteristic like by motioning with your hand to indicate that they are short or fat. This is also backbiting. Be very careful not to do this inadvertently.
Insulting through praise
Another form of backbiting is when it is concealed beneath praise. Ghazali gave an example of saying that someone ‘is not like us. He is better than us. Way better.’ In reality they are mocking him and mean the opposite
Backbiting under the guise of sympathy
A statement like ‘Oh my heart goes out to so-and-so. You know what happened to him?’ You might want to give the impression that you are sympathetic towards someone, but actually you are revelling in their misfortune and enjoying spreading it. This is veiled backbiting.
Backbiting is not a solitary pastime. The one who thinks he is not part of it because he has said nothing, should beware that he is actually giving tacit approval to the backbiter and encouraging them to say more by giving them their attention. If you said, ‘Excuse I don’t want to hear this’ or changed the topic or left, the backbiting would end there. Therefore the one who is listening is a partner in the backbiting, though they said nothing.
If you are listening to backbiting, you are a partner in the sin. There is no backbiting with out an audience.
This is very common in the work environment. If a new manager is appointed, often people will flock to him to fill his ears with criticism of other people in the team. If the manager does not put a stop to this, and even encourages it as a form of spying on his team, it will rapidly become a toxic environment. With competitiveness, cattiness and backstabbing, rather than trust and cooperation. The manager should be firm and say, ‘There is zero tolerance for abuse. Focus on your work, Don’t be rude about others.’
The secretly interested party
Sometimes you might act as if you don’t want to hear any backbiting, but inside you might actually be secretly pleased to hear it and want to hear more. This is hypocritical. Your inward has to be inline with your outward. Work on your heart, so that you genuinely detest hearing others being backbitten.
Remember that whoever backbites about others to you, will backbite about you to others. It might be your neighbours or friends. Even inside the mosque, people do not refrain from backbiting others.
6 occasions when you can backbite
- If you are oppressed and you have to tell the court and judge what you know in order to bring about justice and remove harm.
- If you ask for help to change something that is impermissible as you can’t do it yourself, you can tell someone in authority what you have witnessed so they can help change the evil.
- To obtain a fatwah, for instance in the story of Hind, the wife of Abu Sufyan, who embraced Islam came to the Prophet (peace be on him) to seek advice about her husband. As he was a miser, she did not have enough to live on and needed a resolution to her problem. The Prophet (peace be on him) listened to her, and did not tell her to keep the details to herself. Without the details, he would not be able to issue a fatwah. He advised her that she could take money from her husband without his knowledge as long as it was not more than their basic needs.
- In some scenarios you might need to warn someone. For instance someone might receive a proposal from a family and come to you to ask you what you know about them. You would not conceal his history because backbiting is haram. If he is still involved in something which would harm the family, you have a duty to tell them. Unless this was in the past and he has started a new page. However, if he is addicted to alcohol or drugs or women or committing crimes, you have to reveal this as the future of the family depends on your reference. This does not mean that you reveal more than is necessary. You might know 2 bad things about them, but if are 2 sufficient to give the family enough idea about the person, then do not say more than that.
- If you refer to a person who is well known by a physical defect, such as being cross eyed or blind, because that is how the community knows him and they would not know who you are talking about if you used their name, it is not sin, but it is preferable to use another name if you can.
- If someone is openly sinning, and your mentioning will not be news to anyone, you can refer to it without being sinful, though it is preferable for you not to engage yourself in such talk.
3 reasons to stop yourself backbiting
Ghazali offers points to motivate us to watch what we say.
- Think about the consequences of backbiting. It is very hateful and eats your hasaant (good deeds). The Prophet (peace be on him) told us it was haram and human honour is sanctified.
- Think about your own faults rather than focusing on others’ mistakes. Then work on yourself to be better.
- Part of being a good Muslim means leaving what doesn’t concern you. Abu Hurayrah (may Allah be pleased with him) who said: The Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) said: “Part of the perfection of one’s Islam is his leaving that which does not concern him.” (Tirmidhi) Therefore if someone was wearing clothes that you did not like, there is no need for you to mention this. Why does it matter to you? Allah will not ask you about what they were wearing in the akhirah – why they chose those colours, or wore trainers with their suit. Focus on the things that you are accountable for. Such as why you were backbiting.
Giving away your good deeds
When you engage in backbiting you are passing your good deeds to the person you were backbiting for free. They will take your hard-earned deeds without any effort. And you will receive good deeds from those who were backbiting you.
Be grateful and improve your own mistakes rather than dwelling on others’ mistakes.
5 ways to make up for backbiting
- Istighfar – If you have been backbiting, you need to do a lot of istighfar, and ask the one you wronged for their forgiveness. Do not make the situation worse by telling them all the nasty things you said about them, instead ask for general forgiveness. If they forgive you, you will get your hasanaat back.
- If you cannot ask for forgiveness, praise the one you were backbiting in the same place you mentioned them in a bad way.
- Make dua for them. Ask Allah soften his heart to forgive me.
- Give charity on his behalf as a backup plan.
- Ask Allah to help you to keep control over your tongue.
Don’t go with the flow and backbiting. You will be asked about everything, but you will have no excuse.
Occupy your tongue with good things like the dhikr, istighfar, tasbih, darood, and reciting the Quran.
If you hear someone backbiting, gently remind them that they lose will hasanaat and they should not be involved in it.
Venting to a trusted person
There are times when you find yourself overwhelmed by what someone has done and you need to get it off your chest. It is permissible to share this with a trusted person. Be careful not to share it with someone who will then broadcast it to all and sundry as soon as they leave you.
Children – Find out what is happening while training them not to backbite
There is fine line between knowing what is going on in school and backbiting. You need to train them not to backbite their teachers and shape their thinking. You need them to open up first and then shape their thinking. Make dua for the people who they find annoying to become better and praise Allah for not making them like that.
[i] The Prophet [peace be on him] repeated his statement again and again. After that he raised his head and said, ‘O Allah! Haven’t I conveyed (Your Message) to them’. Haven’t I conveyed Your Message to them?’” Ibn Abbas (may Allah be pleased with him) added, “By Him in Whose Hand my soul is, the following was his will (Prophet [peace be on him]’s will) to his followers: It is incumbent upon those who are present to convey this information to those who are absent. Beware don’t renegade (as) disbelievers (turn into infidels) after me, striking the necks (cutting the throats) of one another.’”
Shaykh Haytham Tamim – The Thursday Al Ghazali Class
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- How to deal with people according to their status. Ghazali rule 9-11
- Dealing with gossip and arguments. How to deal with people: Ghazali’s rules 7-8
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