Backbiting is mentioning a person in a manner that he dislikes, whether by referring to a defect in his body such as shortness or squint; or in his lineage such as that his father is immoral or indecent; or in his morality such as that he is dirty.
All this is involved in the Prophetic hadith reporting that when the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) was asked what backbiting means, he answered, “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 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.” (Reported by Muslim)
It is also worth mentioning that whatever involves the meaning of insulting is included in backbiting, whether it is in the form of words, gestures, or writing. Additionally, whoever listens to backbiting is regarded as a participant in it unless he denies it either with his tongue or with his heart if he fears to do so in public. He may also leave the place where it is being committed or turn the topic to another subject. In all situations, he must deny backbiting. This is, of course, part of the Muslim’s duties towards others.
The Causes and Remedy of Backbiting
There are many things that lead to backbiting, 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.
Conformity with one’s guests or fellows. As a 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 reject 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 is knowledgeable and broad-minded and, consequently, better than he.
Joking and jesting. A person may backbite someone just for the sake of making some others laugh; this even represents a means of livelihood for some persons.
As for the remedy, 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 he 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, i.e., backbiting. Moreover and more important still, he should remedy backbiting by overpowering the cause or causes leading to it. So, for example, if he knows that he backbites someone because he is angry with him, he should suppress his anger, and so on.
Here, it is worth noting that backbiting may be committed by the heart, and this is what may be called thinking ill of the others. A Muslim should not think ill of another person unless he explicitly knows about him some evil thing that cannot be interpreted as meaning otherwise, especially when he knows it through a trustful, faithful Muslim. Nevertheless, a Muslim is generally recommended not to respond to ill thoughts as regards others. 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 be accustomed to invocation through his evil whispers.