The books of seerah (biography of Prophet Muhammad) report that the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) saw examples of people of Hellfire and different ways of their punishment when he was ascending through the heavens with Angel Jibreel (Gabriel). One can recognize from the scenes narrated in the story that the punishments he witnessed are all punishments for sins of immorality.
These are sins that lead to the destruction of the public well-being. Nowadays, they are widespread in many Muslim communities. As we remember the story of Al-Israa‘ and Al- Mi`raj (Arabic for the Night Journey and the Ascension of Prophet Muhammad), we would like to remind ourselves and others of the dangers of these sins. We should forbid ourselves and others from falling into such sins. In this series, we will take a close look at the scenes that the Prophet saw and elaborate on each sin and its punishment.
In the first scene, the Prophet saw the backbiters being punished. He told us about what he saw:
“When I was taken up into the heavens, I passed by some people who had nails of copper with which they were scratching their faces and chests. I said, ‘Who are these people, O Jibreel?’ He said, ‘These are the ones who used to eat the flesh of people and slander their honor.'”
Such people shall receive a punishment that is similar to the nature of their sin. As they used to eat people’s flesh during life, they shall torment their own flesh in the hereafter. In explaining the nature of backbiting and shedding light on its danger, Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, president of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, said,
“Islam prohibits backbiting. Almighty Allah says,
[And spy not, neither backbite one another.] (Al-Hujurat 49:12)
The Prophet wanted to transfer the meaning of backbiting to his Companions through questions and answers. He asked them, “Do you know what backbiting is?” They replied, “Allah and His Messenger know best.” He said, “It is saying something about your brother that he would dislike.” Someone asked, “What if I say something about my brother that is true?” The Prophet replied, “If what you say about him [or her] is true, it is backbiting, and if it is not true, then you have slandered him [or her]” (Muslim).
A person who dislikes another is likely to look for defects in the appearance, behavior, lineage, or anything else pertaining to the person that he or she dislikes. So, backbiting is nothing but a desire to belittle people, slander their honor, and deride their accomplishments in their absence. As this is considered stabbing in the back, it is a manifestation of narrow-mindedness and cowardice.
Backbiting is a negative attribute; those who indulge in backbiting are not achievers. Backbiting is a tool of destruction, for those who are addicted to it spare none. They throw darts at everyone and wound everybody.
It is no wonder then that those who are addicted to this vile habit are described by a repulsive picture in the Qur’an. This repulsive picture aims at making people tremble in horror when they imagine the enormity of this sin. Almighty Allah says,
[And spy not, neither backbite one another. Would one of you love to eat the flesh of his dead brother? You abhor that (so abhor the other)!] (Al-Hujurat 49:12)
Anyone would feel sick at the thought of eating human flesh, so what would be more repellent than to think of eating the flesh of one’s dead brother?
Whenever there was an opportunity, the Prophet stressed this Qur’anic imagery so as to imprint it on people’s hearts and minds. Ibn Mas`ud narrated, “We were sitting with the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). Then a man got up and left, whereupon another person spoke ill of him. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) told him, ‘Pick your teeth.’ The man replied, ‘Why? I haven’t eaten any meat.’ The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) replied, ‘You have eaten your brother’s flesh'” (At-Tabarani).
Jabir narrated, “While we were with the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), the wind brought a foul odor in our direction, whereupon the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, ‘Do you know what this odor is? It is the odor of those who backbite the believers'” (Ahmad).”
This being mentioned, one can extract the wisdom of the strong warning against falling into backbiting. We are strongly warned against it because it is not just a common social evil — it is also an abhorrent sin that impairs the well-being of the community and gives rise to other major sins. Spread of backbiting in a community means that slandering, insulting, defaming, and vilifying will be a daily routine for the individuals living in that community. No sound relationships will be built and no friendships will endure.
As human beings, we are in a dire need to have a social life. It is said that humans are sociable in nature. Backbiting is a sin that wipes away this human natural instinct. It leads people’s social life to destruction at the expense of mutual understanding and respect. Those who backbite others hurt their feelings and harm their emotions, and Islam is definately against hurting others by stabbing them in the back through backbiting.
It is easy to imagine the feeling of resentment that the victims of backbiting experience.It is also easy to imagine the amount of hatred and hostility that might result in reaction to backbiting. Unfortunately, not everyone pays attention to this. In their article “A Social Comparison Account of Gossip,” Sarah R. Wert and Peter Salovey of Yale University said,
When people make negative evaluations of others, they are, implicitly or explicitly, presenting themselves as better than those they are talking about. It may be the collective effect of all members making themselves look good that threatens the well-being of the community. Of course, as they gossip, individuals may not consider such hazards to the community.
As Muslims, we should consider such hazards whenever we engage in a conversation. To please Almighty Allah and also save our communities from many dangers, we should abstain from backbiting.
Finally, it is important to say that if a person has indulged into backbiting, he or she can still repent to Almighty Allah. Those who are sincere enough in their efforts to fix the sin of backbiting will have their repentance accepted by Almighty Allah and will be rewarded according to their intentions. In this regard, Shaikh Al-Islam Ibn Taymiyah said in Majmoo` Al-Fatawa (Arabic for: The Sum of Fatwas),
Whoever wrongs a person by slandering, backbiting, or insulting him or her and then repents will have his or her repentance accepted by Allah. But, if the one who was wronged knows about it, then he or she has the right to settle the score. However, if he or she doesn’t know about it, then the person who committed the sin of backbiting should speak well of the person who was backbitten in his or her absence just as he or she spoke ill of this person in his or her absence. Al-Hasan Al-Basri [a prominent Successor of the Prophet’s companions] said, “The expiation for backbiting is praying for forgiveness to be bestowed upon the person who was backbitten.”
Compiled by Ahmed El Azhary **