5 Misconceptions of Backbiting and How To Respond To Them
Backbiting is one of those Islamic topics that often gets sidelined. Appearing as one of the frequent tarbīyyah topics in common circles and gatherings, the issue may be forgotten or ignored. This is severely problematic, as backbiting is one of the most devastating sins a person can ever commit, and not keeping ourselves reminded about it can lead to grave consequences. To make it fresh in our minds again, let’s tackle the issue in a practical way. Here are 5 common misconceptions that we ourselves or others you encounter may have about backbiting, what is misunderstood, and how to respond to them.
1) I’m not backbiting, I’m just saying:
When people respond with, “I’m just saying,” they’re telling themselves that what they’re mentioning is not something so bad as backbiting, it’s just “saying” things as they are. In other words, they’re trivializing the act, and telling themselves that backbiting isn’t really all that bad. But backbiting is no walk in the park. It’s one of the most disgusting acts one could ever commit. That’s why Allah asks those who backbite:
يَـٰٓأَيُّہَا ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُواْ ٱجۡتَنِبُواْ كَثِيرً۬ا مِّنَ ٱلظَّنِّ إِنَّ بَعۡضَ ٱلظَّنِّ إِثۡمٌ۬ۖ وَلَا تَجَسَّسُواْ وَلَا يَغۡتَب بَّعۡضُكُم بَعۡضًاۚ أَيُحِبُّ أَحَدُڪُمۡ أَن يَأۡڪُلَ لَحۡمَ أَخِيهِ مَيۡتً۬ا فَكَرِهۡتُمُوهُۚ وَٱتَّقُواْ ٱللَّهَۚ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ تَوَّابٌ۬ رَّحِيمٌ۬
“O ye who believe! Shun much suspicion; for lo! some suspicion is a crime. And spy not, neither backbite one another. Would one of you love to eat the flesh of his dead brother? Ye abhor that (so abhor the other)! And keep your duty (to Allah). Lo! Allah is Relenting, Merciful” (Surah Ḥujurāt 49: 12) Allah Himself is comparing backbiting to something vilely rancid, so no one is fooled to think it’s not an inhuman act like that of murder or rape. The imagery of you eating the dead carcass of the person you’re talking about really paints a clear picture. Not only that, Allah is asking us if we would love eating that flesh. It’s as if He is saying not only is backbiting as disgusting as eating that person’s dead flesh, when we backbite, it’s as if we enjoy eating it, too. Response: Describe to them how disgusting an act backbiting really is: “You’re not, just saying. You’re going to that person’s body after their janāzah, ripping off their thigh, chewing it up, and enjoying it, too.”
2) I’m not backbiting, everyone already knows about this person, anyway:
If a person is mentioning things about someone already known, not only are they still backbiting, they’re following the footsteps of hypocrites. The hypocrites of Medina spread rumors about Ayesha (RA), and as a result were cursed by Allah to the depths of Hellfire. Hellfire, which was intensified by Allah for thousands of years, turning its flame from orange to red to yellow to black3, and burns 70 times worse than Earth’s fire (minimum 210th degree burns?)4. The same Hellfire where those who spread lies about others get hooks pierced into their cheeks and slammed back to rip off their faces, and are given scalding hot puss to drink as relief. If everyone already knows about it, why spread it and potentially go to the horror that is Hell? And if not the Hellfire, then being punished in the grave with copper nails repeatedly scratching your face and chest off? The risk simply isn’t worth it.
Response: Remind them about the punishment of backbiting and how it makes spreading rumors not worth the risk. Mentioning what everyone already knows about somebody is a dangerous path to Hellfire. Is spreading the news so important that it’s worth living with black fire that’s 70 times hotter, boiling puss drinks and having your cheeks ripped off your face?”
3) I’m not backbiting, I’m warning others about a person’s mistakes:
Human beings have a natural desire to warn others about harm. That’s why when they see something wrong with someone else, they’ll personally identify those characteristics as a problem, make a decision to be careful about it for themselves, and naturally want to notify others about it as well. But that’s where the problem comes in. We want to naturally talk about someone else’s faults, but if we do, it’s backbiting. How can we get past this natural desire that’s so troublesome? Simple, first we need to realize which of these natural tendencies is okay and which isn’t. It’s completely okay to be adverse to the faults of others. However, telling others about those mistakes, while naturally easy, is the major sin of the two.
Rasulullah (SAW) said backbiting is “talking about your brother in a manner which he does not like.” (Muslim) That means saying anything about the person that they wouldn’t want you to counts as backbiting. If you know the person you’re talking about wouldn’t like what you’re saying about them, don’t say it. If we feel the desire to go out and warn someone about it, do so on the person with the faults in the first place in a kind and sincere manner. Our problem as Muslims is that we talk a lot about people behind their backs but never confront them in person. Secondly, on an encouraging note, remember that by not backbiting, we get closer to guaranteed Paradise. Rasulullah (SAW) said: “whoever guarantees control over what is in between their thighs and their jaws, he will guarantee them Paradise.” (Bukhari)
This guarantee is awesome in two ways. Not only makes not backbiting easier because of the amazing goal attached to it, it comforts us in the fact that our religion understands. Notice Rasulullah (SAW) asked for whoever guarantees control, showing that he knows it’s natural to lose control. But at the same time, he’s encouraging us to take that control and work towards Paradise.
Response: Explain to them what backbiting is and the reward of abstaining from it. “Talking about others negative traits in anyway shape or form is backbiting and none of your business, and if you stay away from it you’re working towards guaranteed admission to Paradise.”
4) I’m not backbiting, I’ll tell them later or I don’t care, I can say it to their face:
Some people justify backbiting by thinking if they inform the person later they were talking about them behind their back, it makes the act okay. But telling someone you backbit about them after the fact is a part of the process of repenting and making up for the sin. It has to be done sincerely, with regret and shame for the act, driven by a balanced fear of Allah’s punishment and a hope in His Mercy. Trying to justify backbiting by telling someone you backbit about them is like trying to justify believing Prophet Jesus, peace be upon him, as the son of Allah by saying you will just repent later. Not only is it an imbalance between fearing Allah and having hope He will forgive you, it doesn’t make the act okay to commit in the first place. What’s worse is when some people claim they, “don’t care” about backbiting and they supposedly can or will say what they backbit about someone to their. Not only is that even more of a misunderstanding than planning to tell them later, it just shows two things. One, they’re just a jerk. It isn’t bad enough that they’re backbiting, but they have to go and act “brave” by claiming they can tell the person the insult to their face. In addition to being a jerk, they also need to be careful when they say, “I don’t care.” Do they really not care? And what do they not care about? They don’t care about incinerating in that 70 times hotter black fire we mentioned before? And having their cheeks ripped off your face and having to drink searing hot puss afterward? Are they really sure they don’t care? Chances are no. Response: Backbiting about someone with the intention to tell them later doesn’t make it okay. It’s still backbiting. And claiming you, “don’t care” and can say it to their face shows that you’re a jerk and don’t care about the Hellfire.
5) I’m not backbiting, it’s true:
This, by far, is the most common misconception and response we find Muslims making when we warn them about backbiting. They think that backbiting is only when you mention bad things about people that aren’t true. Is that really the case? Going back to the definition of backbiting, Rasulullah (SAW) said: “Backbiting is to mention things about your brother (or sister) which they don’t like.” After the Companions heard this definition, one of them asked, “What do you think about if what I say about that person is true?”
“If (that) is actually found (in that person) what you claimed, you, in fact, backbit him. And if that’s not in that person, its slander,” Rasulullah (SAW) answered.
This shows that we’ve got it all wrong. Just because what we’re saying is true, doesn’t mean it’s not backbiting. In fact, it proves that we are indeed backbiting, because backbiting is true information. If it wasn’t true, we’d be doing something worse than backbiting, slander.
That makes a whole lot of things count as backbiting. That’s why when Ayesha (RA) said about Ṣafīyya (RA), the wife of Rasulullah (SAW) who was the daughter of a Jewish leader, that, “she’s short,” he got upset and said, “you have said a word that if were to be dropped into the sea it would contaminate it.” (Al-Tirmidhi)
Ayesha (RA) and Rasulullah (SAW) knew about Ṣafīyya (RA) height. So did everyone else who saw her in Medina and all the people from her tribe before she married the Prophet. In other words, what Ayesha (RA) said was as true as it gets. But the fact that it was true made it backbiting. And if something as small as what she said was poison to the entire sea, what about when we talk about how people may be gaining weight, undergoing a divorce, losing their hair, struggling to control their anger, failing to give up a public sin, or anything else they wouldn’t like said about them?
Response: Inform them about truth being backbiting and falsehood being slander.
“Yeah, you’re backbiting, because Rasulullah (SAW) if it’s true, which you’re saying it is, then it’s backbiting.”
Backbiting is no misdemeanor. It’s a federal offense. In fact, it’s more than that. It’s a universal act of ethical treason, the likes of which transcend this world and has severe consequences in the next.
We need to remember that when we signed up to become Muslim, we agreed to follow all of the rules, and one of the rules is that for anyone else who signed up for the contract of Lā ilāh ha illa Allāh, Muḥammmad al-rasūlullāh you can’t ever talk behind their back. Doing so is not only a horrible sin and a disgusting act, it’s one of the worst things you could ever do to your Muslim brother or sister.
While you may be fired up to use the responses to these misconceptions and are trying to think of people you could use them on, ask yourself if the person to respond to is none other than you. Do you have these misconceptions about backbiting? Have you ever made any of these five justifications or something similar to them? If so, give yourself the responses and work on yourself first, and eventually, you can work on correcting others, as well.