Backbiting is a major sin in Islam and should never be taken lightly.
The clear warnings against backbiting in both the Quran and Sunnah are severe enough to make us take heed of every word, facial expression and even gesture we make.
Some of us are oblivious to exactly what constitutes backbiting while many consider it as something insignificant. The Prophet (ﷺ) straightforwardly said, “A Qattat (backbiter) will not enter Paradise.” (Bukhari 6056)
So what exactly is considered backbiting? Let us together shed some light on the types of backbiting we should avoid at all costs.
1. The Common Backbiting
The messenger of Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) once asked the Companions:
“Do you know what backbiting is?”
They said, “Allah and His Messenger know best.” He said, “Saying something about your brother that he dislikes.” It was said, “What if what I say about my brother is true?” He said, “If what you say is true then you have backbitten about him, and if it is not true, then you have slandered him.” Sahih Muslim 2589
This is the most common and direct form of backbiting and in most cases, is accompanied by slandering and gossiping, both of which are undoubtedly grave sins.
Gheebah (backbiting) means that you speak about your Muslim brother in his absence in a manner which he would not like to hear or have it mentioned had he been present. It is attributing to that person his faults or shortcomings in order to belittle or speak ill of him. This includes statements said about his/her physical appearance, traits, manners, behavior, religious commitment, lineage, dress, habits (i.e. sleeps too much) etc.
Slandering on the other hand is saying something about your brother which is not true.
Both these actions are strictly forbidden and in the Quran, Allah (Subhaanahu Wa Ta’ala) has likened backbiting to eating the flesh of your dead brother:
“neither backbite one another. Would one of you like to eat the flesh of his dead brother? You would hate it (so hate backbiting). And fear Allah. Verily, Allah is the One Who forgives and accepts repentance, Most Merciful” [49:12]
‘Aishah (RadiaAllahu Anha) said:
“I told the Prophet (ﷺ) about a man, so he said: ‘I do not like to talk about a man, even if I were to get this or that (for doing so).” She said: “I said: ‘O Messenger of Allah! Safiyyah is a woman who is …” and she used her hand as if to indicate that she is short – “So he said: ‘You have said a statement which, if it were mixed in with the water of the sea, it would pollute it.” Jami` at-Tirmidhi Hadith 2502
‘Aishah ((RadiaAllahu Anha) did not utter a single word, rather it was a mere gesture she made to describe the stature of Safiyyah, which constituted a form of backbiting. The idea here is that this kind of gesture was meant as something bad due to some jealousy, and although many of us may have deemed it as insignificant, the Prophet (ﷺ) clearly criticized Aishah ((RadiaAllahu Anha) for her action.
3. Facial Expression
Backbiting isn’t necessarily restricted to verbal expression. Even mere expression of the face can convey to others a shortcoming about your brother. This can be conveyed through expressions of annoyance, resentment, and suspicion whenever a particular person is mentioned. Examples include: rolling your eyes, giving unpleasant looks, or showing doubt.
4. Implicit Backbiting
Talking about a particular individual without mentioning his/her name can also constitute backbiting if those listening have understood who is being implied by the statement. Accordingly, it is best to avoid speaking about an individual if giving a description would easily hint the identity of that person.
Another form of backbiting includes mimicking or imitating a person by the way they talk, walk or act for the purpose of mocking or making others laugh. This is absolutely prohibited and far from the traits of a true believer.
6. Showing Interest to the words of the backbiter
Another subtle form of backbiting is displaying your interest and amazement while the backbiter is speaking. The more excited and interested the audience of listeners are, the more they are encouraging the backbiter to speak. So making expressions such as “Are you serious?”, “Wow, didn’t know that!”, and the likes, indicates to the speaker that what he/she is saying is of interest, therefore encouraging him to backbite more.
7. Mass backbiting
Talking negatively and disparagingly about a specific group of people based solely on their race, ethnicity, nationality, tribal affiliation, political orientation & creed is a dangerous form of backbiting that should be avoided. It unjustly targets a large number of people and you will be taken into account for every single person you backbit/slandered.
Punishment of backbiting
The Prophet (ﷺ) said: When I was taken up to heaven I passed by people who had nails of copper and were scratching their faces and their breasts. I said: Who are these people, Gabriel? He replied: ‘These are the people who ate flesh of others (by backbiting) and trampled people’s honour.” . Sunan Abi Dawud 4878
The Prophet (ﷺ) said : “..a slave (of Allah) may utter a word (carelessly) which displeases Allah without thinking of its gravity and because of that he will be thrown into the Hell-Fire.” [Al-Bukhari].
The Prophet (ﷺ) said, “He who has done a wrong affecting his brother’s honour or anything else, let him ask his forgiveness today before the time (i.e., the Day of Resurrection) when he will have neither a dinar nor a dirham. If he has done some good deeds, a portion equal to his wrong doings will be subtracted from them; but if he has no good deeds, he will be burdened with the evil deeds of the one he had wronged in the same proportion”.