Whenever the Shaikh or Maulana touches on the topic of Gheebat (backbiting) from the pulpit, many of us display so many new and never before seen facial expressions, it's as though we are all innocent and being wrongfully found guilty of a heinous crime! This is usually followed by the audience giggling, people's faces turning bright red, and then a mini-gossip fest at the Islamic center where we all take turns retelling a story of how so-and-so is known for committing Gheebat and is a big trouble creator in the community – by the way, that was just more Gheebat.
This problem of Gheebat/backbiting/back-stabbing/black-mouthing/whatever-we-want-to-name-it is not new. When the Holy Qur'an was revealed, verses were also dedicated towards warning the believers against any and all forms of Gheebat. For example, Allah says, "Nor let some of you backbite others. Does one of you like to eat the flesh of his dead brother? But you abhor it." (49:12) This verse isn't unfamiliar to most of us, yet we continue to talk about others in an ill way behind their backs. But the question is: why?
The only logical explanation as to why so many Muslims openly partake in Gheebat (despite it being so strongly forbidden) is that a) we may not know what Gheebat is and when we commit it; b) we fail to even partially comprehend the negative effects that Gheebat has on our lives; c) we underestimate or forget the promised punishment of willingly committing Gheebat; or d) we want to avoid Gheebat, but simply don't know how. So, let's talk some Gheebat!
What Is Gheebat?
Although for some of us identifying Gheebat is perhaps as difficult as rocket science, our Prophet (peace be upon him and his progeny) has given us a simple definition: "Gheebat is remembering your brother in a way he dislikes." (Makasib Muhrima) In his book Greater Sins, Martyr Ayatollah Dastghaib Shirazi talks about different types of Gheebat in light of the traditions of the Ahlul Bayt (peace be upon them).
"For crying out loud! Everyone thinks Sukaina is soooo smart, but my mum works at her school and she told me that Sukaina failed three subjects last year!" If we know the deep dark secret or defect of someone we dislike or are jealous of, the urge to reveal this secret to intentionally defame the person is at times overpowering. For some of us, Shaitan guides us to feel an unsolicited degree of satisfaction when others know that someone is less than perfect in one way or another. Regarding this type of Gheebat, Imam Ja'far as-Sadiq (peace be upon him) has said, "Gheebat is exposing that aspect of your brother which Allah had concealed." (Al-Kafi)
"We should never have migrated here! First Brother Ahmed's teenage son started dating Brother Haider's daughter. Yesterday I looked over the backyard fence and saw that twenty-year-old boy Najeeb with a non-Muslim girl in the house! Next it will be our kids! Let's go back to Pakistan!" This type of Gheebat is not done to intentionally expose the shortcomings and secrets of others, but rather to prove a point, express concern, or to cite an example. Regardless of the intent, publicizing such private facts is still classified as Gheebat.
"Remember how we found out Hajj Malik doesn't pray and listens to music? I still can't believe he managed to become the head of our Islamic center!" Although not agreed upon by all Religious Authorities (but we will err on the side of caution), this type of Gheebat is when we repeat, remind, mention or discuss a defect to a person who is already previously aware of it. Although all parties have previously acquired the knowledge of the concerned person's defects, it is considered backbiting since it is classified as "causing grief and humiliation to a fellow believer."
As though there aren't enough classifications of backbiting already, say hello to the non-verbal type of Gheebat! A sister who is suffering from bulimia walks by, and as soon as she is gone, the other sisters standing there all stick their fingers in their mouths and pretend to throw up. Little did we know that expressing a private defect or fact by way of hand gestures or physical notions which is understood by others (makes an allusion) is also Gheebat!
Listening to Gheebat
In our communities, we often find people believing that it's quite halal to listen to someone defaming another in their absence, as long as we don't take part. Technically, we are not the ones talking ill about that person...right? But according to the Holy Prophet of Islam, "The one who listens to Gheebat is one of those who do Gheebat." (Mustadrak al-Wasail)
Please note there are certain situations in which Gheebat is permitted. In his book Al-Makasib, Shaikh Murtadha Ansari mentions four instances: 1) when a person openly indulges in sin, 2) when there is an inquiry about the person for legitimate marriage and/or business partnership purposes (of course, only to the extent that is necessary and relevant), 3) when complaining about an oppressor, provided that the complaint is directed to someone who is in a position to redress the oppression. and 4) to discourage the person from engaging in that evil activity, provided that we have certainty that telling others about a person's sin would stop him/her from committing it. For a more detailed discussion on each of these, please click here.
The Negative Effects of Gheebat
The minute we feel as though we may have some serious or life-threatening illness or disease, there's only one thing on our mind: survival. Our Holy Prophet has said: "Slander acts quicker against the faith of a Muslim believer than leprosy does against his body." (Al-Kafi) It makes us wonder, does that instinct wanting "survival" of the faith even exist in the gossiping believers, or are we perfectly fine with our faith being eaten away every time we backbite?
An accountant's worst nightmare is to issue a transaction which allows for the exchange of a profit for a loss. But what's worse is when we do this while dealing with the treasures which will benefit us in the afterlife. Backbiting indeed annihilates good deeds! Imam Sadiq has said, "Gheebat is prohibited for all Muslims, and there is no doubt that Gheebat destroys good deeds like fire destroys wood." (Ibid)
To top things off, Gheebat not only increases our sins, but it also invalidates our previously fulfilled religious duties. Our Prophet has said "Whoever backbites a Muslim spoils his fasts and breaks his Wudhu." (Wasail al-Shia) It is stated in other traditions that the good deeds of the backbiter are transferred to the victim of his backbiting, and the victim's sins are transferred to the scroll of deeds of the backbiter!
The Promised Punishment for Gheebat
Let's give all brothers and sisters who are keen on Gheebat the benefit of the doubt. The Holy Qur'an says, "Surely (as for) those who love that scandal should circulate about the believers, they shall have a grievous chastisement in this world and the hereafter; and Allah knows, while you do not know." (24:19) Perhaps our fellow Muslims are simply unaware of the promised punishment for defaming and backbiting others.
Unless those whom we have slandered and committed Gheebat against are our best friends and are extremely kind and forgiving to us, we are in big trouble. Backbiting is such a dangerous sin that only the person who we have defamed has the authority to forgive us. The Prophet once said to his companion Abu Dharr: "O Abu Dharr! Beware of backbiting, for backbiting is graver than adultery." Abu Dharr said: "Why is that so, O Messenger of Allah?" The Prophet replied: "That is because when a man commits adultery and then repents to God, God accepts his repentance. However, backbiting is not forgiven until forgiven by its victim." (Wasail al-Shia)
If we are guilty of having committed Gheebat of a person, it is imperative for us to repent and seek the forgiveness of the victim if this is possible without any chance of severe reaction; otherwise, we must pray for the person and ask Allah to make him/her happy with us, as is outlined in the Du'a for Monday.
Regardless of our level of piety, we all love sporting fresh breath at all times. But for those of us who backbite, unless there's an unlimited supply of free Mentos on the Day of Judgment, we will be in big trouble. The Noble Messenger of Islam has said: "Whoever backbites a Muslim shall come on the Day of Resurrection with his mouth's stench more putrid than a carcass, and it shall irk those who are with him in his station. If he dies before repenting, his death is like that of one who dies while considering permissible that which is prohibited by God, the Exalted and the Glorious." (Ibid)
To those backbiters who remain silent when others speak ill of a fellow brother or sister, our Prophet once said to Imam Ali: "O Ali! When someone hears the backbiting of his Muslim brother committed in his presence, yet he does not rally to his assistance despite being capable of doing so, God shall humiliate him in the world and in the Hereafter." (Ibid)
Practical Tips on How to Avoid Gheebat
If someone brings up a person you dislike or are not exactly on best terms with, change the topic to ensure that you do not feel the urge to blurt a defect about them or end up humiliating them in some other way. If you know a person always backbites others while socializing, then try explaining how you do not appreciate what they are doing, and if they persist, leave or kick that person out of your social circle! (Insha'Allah soon they will realize why you no longer enjoy their company!) If you are unexpectedly caught up in a Gheebat-fest (as often is the case), then do something to make it known that you do not feel comfortable with anybody tainting the reputation of a fellow Muslim.
According to Islam, the first and foremost preferred response to a Gheebat scenario is to refute the backbiting and defend the victim. Prophet Muhammad has said about such a person, "God shall save him from a thousand kinds of evils in this world and in the Hereafter. And if he does not do so despite his ability to refute it, on him shall be the burden of one who commits his backbiting seventy times." (Ibid) If we cannot refute, we must speak up and stop the Gheebat. If we cannot do this, then we should signal the backbiter perhaps by way of a hand gesture to stop. If we can't do this either, than as a last resort we should leave the gossiping group, for listening to gossiping is considered just the same!
If you're suffering from Severe Gheebat Syndrome, and despite reading the numerous abovementioned traditions of the holy personalities and the divine words of the Quran still feel as though you need that extra bit of motivation, please spend a few minutes pondering upon the precious words of the Prophet: "The abandoning of backbiting is more valuable to Allah, Almighty and Glorious, than the performance of ten thousand units of recommended prayers." (Bihar al-Anwar)