By Kumar Sajad Ahmad
Ghibat (back-biting) has been defined as “saying on the back of a person something which would hurt him if he came to know of it”. This definition has been reported from the Holy Prophet(SAW) himself. According to a tradition which Muslim, Abu Da’ud, Tirmidhi, Nasa’i and others have related on the authority of Hadrat Abu Hurairah, the Holy Prophet defined ghibat as “It is talking of your brother in a way irksome to him.” It was asked: “What, if the defect being talked of is present in my brother ?” The Holy Prophet(SAW) replied: “If it is present in him, it would be ghibat; if it is not there, it would be slandering him “.
In another tradition which Imam Malik has related in Mu’watta, on the authority of Hadrat Muttalib bin `Abdullah, “A person asked the Holy Prophet: What is ghibat? The Holy Prophet replied: It is talking of your brother in a way irksome to him. He asked: Even if it is true, O Messenger of Allah? He replied: If what you said was false, it would then be a calumny.” These traditions suggest that uttering a false accusation against a person in his absence is calumny and describing a real defect in him ghibat; whether this is done in express words or by reference and allusion, in every case it is forbidden. Likewise, whether this is done in the lifetime of a person, or after his death, it is forbidden in both cases.
According to Abu Da’ud, when Ma`iz bin Malik Aslami had been stoned to death for committing adultery, the Holy Prophet on his way back heard a man saying to his companion: “Look at this man: Allah had concealed his secret, but he did not leave himself alone till he was killed like a dog!” A little further on the way there was the dead body of an ass lying rotten. The Holy Prophet stopped, called the two men and said: “Come down and eat this dead ass.” They submitted: “Who will eat it, O Messenger of Allah?” The Holy Prophet(SAW) said: “A little before this you were attacking the honor of your brother: that was much worse than eating this dead ass.”
The only exceptions to this prohibition are cases in which there may be a genuine need of speaking of a person on his back, or after his death, and this may not be fulfilled without resort to backbiting, and if it was not resorted to, a greater evil might result than backbiting itself. The Holy Prophet has described this exception as a principle that “The worst excess is to attack the honour of a Muslim unjustly.” (Abu Da’ud). In this saying ,the condition of `unjustly” points out that doing so “with justice” is permissible. Then, in the practice of the Holy Prophet (SAW) himself, we find some precedents which show what is implied by “justice” and in what conditions and cases backbiting may be lawful to the extent as necessary.
Once, a Bedouin Arab came and offered his Prayer under the leadership of the Holy Prophet(SAW), and as soon as the Prayer was concluded, walked away saying: “O God, have mercy on me and on Muhammad, and make no one else a partner in this mercy beside the two of us.” The Holy Prophet (SAW) said to the Companions: “What do you say: who is more ignorant: this person or his camel? Didn’t you hear what he said?” (Abu Da`ud). The Holy Prophet (SAW) had to say this in his absence, for he had left soon after the Prayer was over. Since he had uttered a wrong thing in the presence of the Holy Prophet, his remaining quiet at it could cause the misunderstanding that saying such a thing might in some degree be lawful; therefore, it was necessary that he should contradict it.
One day when the Holy Prophet (SAW) was present in the apartment of Hadrat ‘A’ishah(RA), a man came and sought permission to see him. The Holy Prophet(SAW) remarked that he was a very bad man of his tribe. Then he went out and talked to him politely. When he came back into the house, Hadrat `A’ishah(RA) asked: “You have talked to him politely, whereas when you went out you said something different about him”. The Holy Prophet said, “On the day of Resurrection the worst abode in the sight of Allah will be of the person whom the people start avoiding because of his abusive language.” (Bukhari, Muslim). A study of this incident will show that the Holy Prophet (SAW) in spite of having a bad opinion about the person talked to him politely because that was the demand of his morals; but he had the apprehension lest the people of his house should consider the person to be his friend when they would see him treating him kindly, and then the person might use this impression to his own advantage later. Therefore, the Holy Prophet(SAW) warned Hadrat `A’ishah telling her that he was a bad man of his tribe. From these precedents of the Sunnah of the Holy Prophet(SAW), the jurists and traditionalists have deduced this principle that ‘Ghibat (backbiting) is permissible only in case it is needed for a real and genuine (from the Shari’ah point of view) necessity and the necessity may not be satisfied without having resort to it”.
The verse of the Quran (49:12) that likens backbiting to eating a dead brother’s flesh has given the idea of its being an abomination. Eating dead flesh is by itself abhorrent; and when the flesh is not of an animal, but of a man, and that too of one’s own dead brother, abomination would be added to abomination. Then, by presenting the simile in the interrogative tone it has been made all the more impressive, so that every person may ask his own conscience and decide whether he would like to eat the flesh of his dead brother. If he would not, and he abhors it by nature, how he would like that he should attack the honor of his brother-in-faith in his absence, when he cannot defend himself and when he is wholly unaware that he is being disgraced. This shows that the basic reason of forbidding backbiting is not that the person being backbitten is being hurt but speaking ill of a person in his absence is by itself unlawful and forbidden whether he is aware of it, or not, and whether he feels hurt by it or not. Obviously, eating the flesh of a dead man is not forbidden because it hurts the dead man; the dead person is wholly unaware that somebody is eating of his body, but because this act by itself is an abomination. Likewise, if the person who is ` backbitten also does not come to know of it through any means, he will retrain unaware throughout his life that somebody had attacked his honor at a particular time before some particular people and on that account he had stood disgraced in the eyes of those people. Because of this unawareness, he will not feel at all hurt by this backbiting, but his honor would in any case be sullied. Therefore, this act in its nature is not any different from eating the flesh of a dead brother.
—The author is a Post Graduate in Islamic Studies. He can be reached at : firstname.lastname@example.org