Allah T'ala says in the Holy Quran:
O you who have believed, avoid much suspicion, for some suspicions are sins. Do not spy, nor should any one backbite the other. Is there any among you who would like to eat the flesh of his dead brother?' Nay, you yourselves abhor it. Fear Allah, for Allah is Acceptor of repentance and All-Merciful. (49:12)
Gheebat (back-biting) has been defined thus: "It is 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 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 Gheebat as follows:
"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 replied: "If it is present in him, it would be Gheebat; 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 Gheebat? 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 make it plain that uttering a false accusation against a person in his absence is calumny and describing a real defect in him Gheebat; 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 a donkey lying rotting. The Holy Prophet stopped, called the two men and said: "Come down and eat this dead donkey." They submitted: "Who will eat it, O Messenger of Allah?" The Holy Prophet said: "A little before this you were attacking the honor of your brother: that was much worse than eating this dead donkey."
The only exceptions to this prohibition are the cases in which there may be a genuine need of speaking in 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, thus: "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 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 desert Arab came and offered his Prayer under the leadership of the Holy Prophet, 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 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 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.
Two of the Companions, Hadrat Mu`awiyah and Hadrat Abu Jahm, sent the proposal of marriage to a lady, Fatimah bint Qais. She came to the Holy Prophet and asked for his advice. He said: "Mu`awiyah is a poor man and Abu Jahm beats his wives much." (Bukhari, Muslim). In this case, as there was the question of the lady's future and she had consulted the Holy Prophet for his advice, he deemed it necessary to inform her of the two men's weaknesses.
One day when the Holy Prophet was present in the apartment of Hadrat 'A'ishah, a man came and sought permission to see him. The Holy Prophet 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 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 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 warned Hadrat `A'ishah telling her that he was a bad man of his tribe.
Once Hind bint 'Utbah, wife of Hadrat Abu Sufyan, came to the Holy Prophet and said: "Abu Sufyan is a miserly person: he does not provide enough for me and my children's needs. " (Bukhari, Muslim). Although this complaint from the wife in the absence of the husband was backbiting, the Holy Prophet pemitted it, for the oppressed has a right that he or she may take the complaint of injustice to a person who has the power to get it removed.
From these precedents of the Sunnah of the Holy Prophet, the jurists and traditionists have deduced this principle: 'Gheebat (backbiting) is permissible only in case it is needed for a real and genuine (genuine from the Shari'ah point of view) necessity and the necessity may not be satisfied without having resort to it". Then on the basis of the same principle the scholars have declared that Gheebat is permissible in the following cases:
(1) Complaining by an oppressed person against the oppressor before every such person who he thinks can do something to save him from the injustice.
(2) To make mention of the evils of a person (or persons) with the intention of reform before those who can do expected to help remove the evils.
(3) To state the facts of a case before a legal expert for the purpose of seeking a religious or legal ruling regarding an unlawful act committed by a person.
(4) To warn the people of the mischiefs of a person (or persons) so that they may ward off the evil, e g. it is not only permissible but obligatory to mention the weaknesses of the reporters, witnesses and writers, for without it, it is not possible to safeguard the Shariah against the propagation of false reports, the courts against injustices and the common people or the students against errors and misunderstandings. Or, for instance, if a person wants to have the relationship of marriage with somebody, or wishes to rent a house in the neighborhood of somebody, or wants to give something into the custody of somebody, and consults another person, it is obligatory for him to apprise him of all aspects so that he is not deceived because of ignorance.
(5) To raise voice against and criticise the evils of the people who may be spreading sin and immorality and error, or corrupting the people's faith and persecuting them.
(6) To use nicknames for the people who may have become well known by those names, but this should be done for the purpose of their recognition and not with a view to condemn them. (For details, see Fat-h al-Bari, vol. X, p. 362; Sharah Muslim by An-Nawawi; Riyad us-Salihin; al-Jassas, Ahkam al-Qur an; Ruh al-Maani commentary on verse wa a yaghtab ba 'dukum ba 'dan).
Apart from these exceptions it is absolutely forbidden to speak ill of a person behind his back. If what is spoken is true, it is Gheebat; if it is false, it is calumny; and if it is meant to make two persons quarrel, it is slander. The Shari'ah has declared all these as forbidden. In the Islamic society it is incumbent on every Muslim to refute a false charge made against a person in his presence and not to listen to it quietly, and to tell those who are speaking ill of somebody, without a genuine religious need, to fear God and desist from the sin. The Holy Prophet has said: If a person does not support and help a Muslim when he is being disgraced and his honour being attacked, Allah also does not support and help him when he stands in need of His help; and if a person helps and supports a Muslim when his honour is being attacked and he is being disgraced, Allah Almighty also helps him when he wants that AIlah should help him. (Abu Da'ud).
As for the backbiter, as soon as he realizes that he is committing this sin, or has committed it, his first duty is to offer repentance before Allah and restrain himself from this forbidden act. His second duty is that he should compensate for it as far as possible. If he has backbitten a dead person, he should ask Allah's forgiveness for the person as often as he can. If he has backbitten a living person, and what he said was also false, he should refute it before the people before whom he had made the calumny. And if what he said was true, he should never speak ill of him in future, and should ask pardon of the person whom he had backbitten. A section of the scholars has expressed the opinion that pardon should be asked only in case the other person has come to know of it; otherwise one should only offer repentance, for if the person concerned is unaware and the backbiter in order to ask pardon goes and tells him that he had backbitten him, he would certainly feel hurt.
In the verse, Allah by likening backbiting to eating a dead brother's flesh has given the idea of its being an abomination. Eating the 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 honour 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 remain unaware throughout his life that somebody had attacked his honour 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 honour would in any case be sullied. Therefore, this act in its nature is not any different from eating the flesh of a dead brother.
Abdullah ibn Amr narrated:
"Allah's Messenger (s.a.a.w.) neither spoke in an insulting manner nor did he ever speak evil intentionally. He used to say, 'The most beloved to me among you is the one who has the best character and manners.'" (Narrated by Al-Bukhari)
AbuHurayrah narrated that the Prophet (s.a.a.w.) said:
"The most Perfect believer in respect of faith is he who is best of them in manners." (Narrated by Abu-Dawood)
Qatadah ibn Malik narrated that Zayd ibn Ilaqah related on the authority of his uncle, Qatadah ibn Malik, that the Prophet (s.a.a.w.) would supplicate:
"O Allah, I seek Your protection against undesirable manners, acts, and desires." (Transmitted by Al-Tirmithi.)
Anas ibn Malik narrated:
"I was walking with the messenger of Allah (s.a.a.w.) and he was wearing a mantle of Najran with a thick border. A Bedouin met him and pulled the mantle so violently that I saw this violent pulling had left marks from its border on the skin of the neck of the Messenger of Allah (s.a.a.w.). And he (the Bedouin) said: Muhammad!, command that I should be given out of the wealth of Allah which is at your disposal. The Messenger of Allah (s.a.a.w.) turned to him and smiled, and then he ordered for him a provision."
He also narrated:
"Eighty men from the men of Makkah descended upon the Messenger of Allah (s.a.a.w.) from the mountain of Al-Taneem, in [full] armor, with the intent of doing battle with him. He (Muhammad, s.a.a.w.) captured them peaceably and then did not kill them" (Narrated by Muslim)
Allah T'ala says in Surah Al-Araaf, verses 11-23:
وَلَقَدْ خَلَقْنَاكُمْ ثُمَّ صَوَّرْنَاكُمْ ثُمَّ قُلْنَا لِلْمَلآئِكَةِ اسْجُدُواْ لآدَمَ فَسَجَدُواْ إِلاَّ إِبْلِيسَ لَمْ يَكُن مِّنَ السَّاجِدِينَ﴿7:11﴾ قَالَ مَا مَنَعَكَ أَلاَّ تَسْجُدَ إِذْ أَمَرْتُكَ قَالَ أَنَاْ خَيْرٌ مِّنْهُ خَلَقْتَنِي مِن نَّارٍ وَخَلَقْتَهُ مِن طِينٍ﴿7:12﴾ قَالَ فَاهْبِطْ مِنْهَا فَمَا يَكُونُ لَكَ أَن تَتَكَبَّرَ فِيهَا فَاخْرُجْ إِنَّكَ مِنَ الصَّاغِرِينَ﴿7:13﴾ قَالَ فَأَنظِرْنِي إِلَى يَوْمِ يُبْعَثُونَ﴿7:14﴾ قَالَ إِنَّكَ مِنَ المُنظَرِينَ﴿7:15﴾ قَالَ فَبِمَا أَغْوَيْتَنِي لأَقْعُدَنَّ لَهُمْ صِرَاطَكَ الْمُسْتَقِيمَ﴿7:16﴾ ثُمَّ لآتِيَنَّهُم مِّن بَيْنِ أَيْدِيهِمْ وَمِنْ خَلْفِهِمْ وَعَنْ أَيْمَانِهِمْ وَعَن شَمَآئِلِهِمْ وَلاَ تَجِدُ أَكْثَرَهُمْ شَاكِرِينَ﴿7:17﴾ قَالَ اخْرُجْ مِنْهَا مَذْؤُومًا مَّدْحُورًا لَّمَن تَبِعَكَ مِنْهُمْ لأَمْلأنَّ جَهَنَّمَ مِنكُمْ أَجْمَعِينَ﴿7:18﴾ وَيَا آدَمُ اسْكُنْ أَنتَ وَزَوْجُكَ الْجَنَّةَ فَكُلاَ مِنْ حَيْثُ شِئْتُمَا وَلاَ تَقْرَبَا هَـذِهِ الشَّجَرَةَ فَتَكُونَا مِنَ الظَّالِمِينَ﴿7:19﴾ فَوَسْوَسَ لَهُمَا الشَّيْطَانُ لِيُبْدِيَ لَهُمَا مَا وُورِيَ عَنْهُمَا مِن سَوْءَاتِهِمَا وَقَالَ مَا نَهَاكُمَا رَبُّكُمَا عَنْ هَـذِهِ الشَّجَرَةِ إِلاَّ أَن تَكُونَا مَلَكَيْنِ أَوْ تَكُونَا مِنَ الْخَالِدِينَ﴿7:20﴾ وَقَاسَمَهُمَا إِنِّي لَكُمَا لَمِنَ النَّاصِحِينَ﴿7:21﴾ فَدَلاَّهُمَا بِغُرُورٍ فَلَمَّا ذَاقَا الشَّجَرَةَ بَدَتْ لَهُمَا سَوْءَاتُهُمَا وَطَفِقَا يَخْصِفَانِ عَلَيْهِمَا مِن وَرَقِ الْجَنَّةِ وَنَادَاهُمَا رَبُّهُمَا أَلَمْ أَنْهَكُمَا عَن تِلْكُمَا الشَّجَرَةِ وَأَقُل لَّكُمَا إِنَّ الشَّيْطَآنَ لَكُمَا عَدُوٌّ مُّبِينٌ﴿7:22﴾ قَالاَ رَبَّنَا ظَلَمْنَا أَنفُسَنَا وَإِن لَّمْ تَغْفِرْ لَنَا وَتَرْحَمْنَا لَنَكُونَنَّ مِنَ الْخَاسِرِينَ﴿7:23﴾
(7:11) We initiated your creation, then We gave you each a shape, and then We said to the angels: 'Prostrate before Adam.') They all prostrated except Iblis: he was not one of those who fell Prostrate.
The narrative sheds light on the following significant points:
(i) Modesty and bashfulness are inherent in human nature. The primary manifestation of this instinct is seen in the sense of shame that one feels when one is required to expose the private parts of one's body in the presence of others. According to the Qur'an, this bashfulness is not artificial, nor an outcome of advancement in human culture and civilization. Nor is it something acquired as some misguided thinkers contend. On the contrary, modesty has been an integral part of human nature from the very beginning.
(ii) The very first stratagem adopted by Satan in his bid to lead man astray from the Right Path consisted of undermining man's sense of modesty, to direct him towards lewdness and make him sexually deviant. In other words, the sexual instincts of man were taken by Satan as the most vulnerable aspect of human nature. Accordingly, he sought to weaken man's natural instincts of modesty and bashfulness. This devilish stratagem is still followed by the disciples of Satan in our time. For them, progress is inconceivable without exposing woman to the gaze of all and making her strip before others in one form or another.
(iii) Such is human nature that man scarcely responds to an unambiguous invitation to evil. Those who seek to propagate evil are, therefore, forced to present themselves as sincere well-wishers of humanity.
(iv) Man is naturally, drawn towards lofty ideals such as the attainment of superhuman positions and the securing of immortality. Satan achieved his first victory in his bid to mislead man by appealing to the latter's inherent desire to attain immortality. Satan's most effective weapon is to promise man a more elevated position than his present one, and then set him on a course that leads instead to his degradation.
(v) Here the Qur'an refutes the fairly popular view that Satan first misled Eve and later used her as an instrument to mislead Adam. (See Ibn Kathir's comments on verses 22-3 - Ed.) The Qur'anic version of the story is that Satan attempted to mislead both Adam and Eve, and in fact both fell prey to his guile. At first sight, this might seem of trivial significance. However, all those who are acquainted with the impact of this version of Adam's fall on the moral, legal and social degradation of women will appreciate the significance of this Qur'anic statement.
(vi) There is hardly any basis to assume that the forbidden tree had certain inherent qualities which could result in the exposure of Adam and Eve's private parts as soon as they had tasted its fruit. Instead of the forbidden tree possessing any extraordinary qualities, it was rather man's disobedience to God which led to his fall from his original state. Initially, Adam and Eve's private parts had remained hidden on account of special arrangements made by God. Once they disobeyed, they were deprived of that special Divine arrangement, and were left to themselves to cover their nakedness if they so wished.
(vii) This was a way, of conveying to mankind for all time that whenever he disobeys God, he will sooner or later be exposed; that man will enjoy God's support and protection only so long as he remains obedient to Him. Once man transgresses the bounds of his obedience, he will be deprived of God's care and protection and left to his own self. This idea is also embodied in many traditions from the Prophet (peace be on him). According to a tradition, the Prophet (peace be on him) prayed:
'O God! I seek Your Mercy. Do not leave me to my own care even for the wink of an eye!' (Ahmad b. Hanbal, Musnad, vol. 5, P. 421 - Ed.)
(viiI) Satan wanted to prove that man did not deserve, not even for a moment, the superior status which had been granted to him by God. However, Satan failed in the very first round of his efforts to discredit man. Granted, man did not fully succeed in obeying God's command; rather, he fell prey to the machinations of his arch-enemy, Satan, and deviated from the path of obedience. Nevertheless, it is evident even in the course of this first encounter that man is a morally superior being. This is clear from many a thing. First, whereas Satan laid claim to superiority, man made no such claim rather a superior status was bestowed upon him by God. Second, Satan disobeyed God out of sheer pride and arrogance. But far from openly revolting against God out of his own prompting, man was disobedient under Satan's evil influence. Third, when man disobeyed God, he did so unwittingly, not realizing that he was committing a sin. 'Man was beguiled into disobedience by Satan ,who appeared in the garb of man's well-wisher. It was Satan who persuaded him to believe that in the fruit of the forbidden tree lay his good, that his action would lead him to the heights of goodness, not to the depths of evil. Fourth, when Satan was warned, rather than confessing his mistake and repenting, he clung even more adamantly to disobedience. But when man was told that he had sinned, he did not resort to continued transgression as Satan did. As soon as man realized his mistake, he confessed his fault, returned to the course of obedience and sought refuge in God's mercy.
This story draws a clear line between the way of Satan and the way that befits man. Satan's way is characterized by rebellion against God, by arrogantly persisting in that rebellion even after having been warned, and by trying to mislead the righteously disposed towards sin and disobedience. As opposed to this, the way that befits man is to resist the evil promptings of Satan and to be constantly vigilant against Satanic machinations. But, if in spite of all these precautions, a man does swerve from the course of obedience, he should turn, as soon as he realizes his fault, to God in penitence and remorse and make amends.
This is the lesson that God conveys to man through this anecdote. The Qur'an seeks to impress upon the opponents of the Prophet (peace be on him) that the way, they are following is the way of Satan. To become indifferent to God's Guidance, to take satans among men and jinn as their protectors and to persist in disobedience despite repeated warnings, amounts to adopting a Satanic attitude. It demonstrates that they have fallen prey to the snares of the arch-enemy and have been totally overpowered by him. This attitude will lead to their total undoing just as it led to Satan's undoing. Anyone who has even an iota of understanding should heed and emulate the example of his foreparents - Adam and Eve - who repented and made amends after their disobedience. (Tafheemul Quran)