Gheebat (backbiting) is such a ubiquitous affliction of human beings’ inner-self that these days hardly anyone is completely safe from it. Almost everyone is involved in it in one degree or another. This is such a severe illness that the words Noble Qur’an has used for this illness have not been used for any other illness. The Noble Qur’an says;

“…and do not backbite one another. Does one of you like that he eats the flesh of his dead brother? You would abhor it…” (49:12)

In this verse Gheebat (backbiting) has been equated to eating the meat of one’s deceased brother. Firstly, eating the meat of a human being, then eating the meat of one’s brother, and that too deceased brother, any human being who has even a morsel of humanity left in him cannot even imagine to commit such an act, let alone actually commit it. And yet the Noble Qur’an says that committing Gheebat is the same as eating the meat of one’s deceased brother. This highlights the severity of the sin of Gheebat, it is a major sin (گناہِ کبیرہ), it is not a minor sin.

The severity of the sin of Gheebat (backbiting)
Gheebat is a sin just like stealing, committing robbery, or eating pork. In fact, Gheebat is a more serious crime than all of these because eating pork pertain to rights of Allah Ta’ala (حقوق اللّٰہ). It is a sin relating to a person’s own self, it does not affect rights of other people (حقوق العباد). Whenever a person becomes mindful and remorseful of the rights of Allah Ta’ala he has violated, and performs Taubah (repentance), his sin of eating pork will be forgiven. However, Gheebat belongs to the category of rights of people, and the principle for violation of rights of people is that until and unless the victim forgives the perpetrator, regardless of how many times a person performs Taubah or how many Nafl (supererogatory) prayers he performs, the sin of violating rights of people is not forgiven.

Allah Ta’ala says that I will forgive violation of rights due towards Me, but if you harm a person’s life, or harm his property, or attack his honour, or if you violate any of his rights, then I will not forgive you till he forgives you, or you have fulfilled all his rights due towards you. The matter of violating other people’s rights is so grave, but in our daily lives we hardly pay any heed to it. Gheebat is also included in rights of people.

What constitutes Gheebat?
Saying things about a person in his absence that if he hears them will hurt his feelings constitutes Gheebat. Gheebat is a major sin. Now we should reflect on whether we commit Gheebat or not when we engage in talking the whole day. Some people say, “I can say this to his face”, probably believing that it is only Gheebat if one says things behind a person’s back that they cannot say to their face. It doesn’t matter whether a person can say whatever they said to the other person’s face or not. If what they said is hurtful to the other person it becomes Gheebat and they have eaten the meat of their deceased brother. May Allah Ta’ala keep us all safe from it. Aameen

Difference between Gheebat (backbiting) and Bohtaan (slander)
Once a Sahabi (companion) asked the Holy Prophet ﷺ, “O Prophet of Allah! If I am doing Gheebat about someone but what I am saying is true, is it still a sin?” The Holy Prophet ﷺ replied, “If what you are saying bad about a person is true and you are telling the truth, then it is Gheebat. But if what you are saying about him is not true and you are telling a lie, then you are also committing the sin of Bohtaan in addition to Gheebat.”

Like for others what you like for yourself
(Many people commit Gheebat only because they enjoy it. They get a perverse pleasure in putting other people down and this makes them feel superior to others.) But they are only focusing on their own fun and pleasure. They do not reflect on how would I feel if someone else did the same to me that I am doing to others. In a Hadith, the Holy Prophet ﷺ has told us a remedy that can only come from a Messenger of Allah. If we follow this advice it would lead to peace and harmony in our society and abolition of all conflicts. That remedy is

احب لا خیک ما تحب لنفسک
واکرہ لغیرک ما یکرہ لنفسک

It means that “like for your brother what you like for yourself, and dislike for your brother what you dislike for yourself.” We have created double standards that what we like for ourselves is different from what we like for other people. This is what is creating all the conflicts and disharmony in our society. Whenever you are about to deal with another person always think, how would I have felt if another person had treated me the same way I am about to treat him. If we make a habit of putting ourselves in other people’s shoes before we deal with them, and then treating them the way we would have liked others to treat us or our family members, then we would never mistreat another human being and never violate other people’s rights.

Therefore, before starting to do someone’s Gheebat just think for a moment, if I was in this person’s place, if same things were being said about me in a gathering, or if someone was saying the same things about me that I intend to say about this person, how would have I felt? Would I have liked it, or not? If I would not have liked the same things being said about me, then this is Gheebat and we must refrain from it.

People say that we can’t stop ourselves from committing Gheebat. I reply that Gheebat is an intentional act, a person chooses to say such things, it is not involuntary. And when committing Gheebat is under our control, then refraining from it is also under our control, therefore, we must stay away from it.

Situations in which Gheebat is allowed
However, it is permissible to do Gheebat in situations where the primary purpose is to save a person from coming to some sort of harm. For example, a person comes to you and asks that someone wants to marry his daughter, and asks you if you know what kind of person that man is. If you know something about that person which is important in relation to this marriage proposal, then if you tell that person about it with the intention that he and his daughter will be saved from coming to harm, then this is not included in Gheebat. Or, for example, if you know that someone is a fraudster and scams people into handing over their money to him, and you tell someone that beware of doing any financial transaction with this person as he is not very trustworthy, then this is also not included in Gheebat if the intention is to save the other person from harm.

So, if a person needs to warn another person so that he doesn’t come to harm at someone else’s hands, then telling about someone’s actual bad traits or behaviour is not included in Gheebat.

Doing Gheebat of a sinner
People think that it is okay to do Gheebat of a person who is engaged in some sinful activities. That is not completely correct. In fact, just like it is not permissible to do Gheebat of a pious person, it is not permissible to do Gheebat of a sinner. The only exception is that if a person commits a sin openly and proudly, to the extent that if someone mentioned it behind his back and he heard about it, it would not hurt his feelings, then it is okay to mention that he commits that act. However, if he commits another sin which he wants to hide from people and he does not like that act to be associated with him, and it would hurt his feelings if he heard that someone has told other people about it, then it is a sin to tell people about it. It would constitute Gheebat even if it is the truth and saying it would be Haraam (unlawful). It is Haraam to listen to Gheebat just like it is Haraam to do Gheebat.

Avoid talking about other people
That is why Hazrat Thanvi (may Allah Ta’ala) used to say that it is much safer that a person doesn’t talk about other people behind their back, neither saying anything good, nor bad. Even if such a discussion starts with a person’s praises, but often it leads to someone saying something like “yes he is a good person but he also has this weakness”. That is why it is better that a person doesn’t talk about another person at all behind their back.

Worry about your own weaknesses
What need is there to discuss other people? We should just worry about our own flaws. If a person truly worries about what sins he is engaged in, and that he will be held to account before Allah Ta’ala for these sins unless he succeeds in giving them up before he dies, then he will have no time to find flaws in others. If a person gets seriously sick, then he does not have any interest in finding out if other people are also afflicted with some illness or not. Once a person develops an insight into the need to finding out his own flaws and correcting them, then he does not dare to do other people’s Gheebat. May Allah Ta’ala grant us the motivation to look for the flaws on our own Nafs (inner-self) and become aware of them. Aameen

Listening to Gheebat is also Haraam
Hazrat Thanvi (may Allah Ta’ala bless him) said;

“If a person commits Gheebat or some useless conversation in front of a Salik (a disciple on the path of purification of inner-self) and he does not have the power to stop him from doing so, then he should leave that sitting, and he should not care about hurting the other person’s feelings, because not harming one’s own Deen is far more important than hurting someone’s feelings. If he is not able to leave that sitting openly then he should make some excuse to get up, or change the topic away from Gheebat.”

As was said a little while earlier, just like doing Gheebat is Haraam, listening to Gheebat is also Haraam. So, what should a person do if someone starts committing Gheebat in a gathering? Hazrat Thanvi (may Allah Ta’ala bless him) says that if a person has the power to stop people from committing Gheebat, then he should do so. There are two ways of doing it. The first is to say plainly that “look, the way you are talking about this person will lead to Gheebat, so lets leave this topic.” If he is unable to say it like that, then he should try to change the topic and start another discussion so that people stop committing Gheebat. However, if he is unable to do both of these, then he should leave that gathering and not participate in such discussions any more.

Participating in Gheebat to avoid hurting feelings
Thus, Hazrat Thanvi (may Allah bless him) has outlined a principle that one should not contravene the laws of Shariah, as in continuing to participate in Gheebat, just so he does not hurt anyone’s feelings by asking them not to do it. We are people of extremes. On the one hand, we have become so neglectful of rights of people that we freely engage in abusing people’s rights whether they be financial rights, physical rights, or right to honour, without thinking twice about it. On the other hand, we are so mindful of other people’s rights that we are prepared to engage in a major sin like Gheebat so that we do not hurt the feelings of the person who is committing it. It does not even occur to us that at that very moment we are engaged in violating the rights of the person whose Gheebat is being performed.

It is Fard (Compulsory) to pray Salah on time
For example, a doctor’s wife told me that “my husband is a very good person but he does not pray Salah during clinic timings. I say to him that when the Salah time comes during clinic hours, just pray it then. But he replies that ‘I am serving people and this is part of Huqooq al-Ibad (rights of people). How can I start praying when patients are sitting in clinic?’ Therefore, when he comes home at night after finishing the clinic, then he prays Asr, Maghrib and Isha all at the same time. He says, ‘I am serving humanity, and if you Qada (delay beyond prescribed times) Salah because you are serving human beings, then there is no harm in it.’”

(Before reading the next paragraph it is important to understand the difference between different types of Fard [compulsory] commandments. There are two types of Fard commandments, the first one is Fard-e-Ain which means those commandments for which there is individual accountability, and the second is Fard-e-Kifayah for which there is collective or group accountability, meaning that if some people in that community carry it out then everyone’s responsibility has been fulfilled, e.g. praying Janazah Salah.)

Khidmat-e-Khalq (serving humanity) is not Fard-e-Ain in the same way that praying Salah is Fard-e-Ain, for example, it is not compulsory to do service to humanity exactly at a particular time every day. Also, there is no conflict between Salah and Khidmat-e-Khalq. If you take a 10 minutes break, pray Salah, and then start seeing patients again, what harm would it do to them? It is an excuse made by our Nafs (inner-self) that because I am doing Khidmat-e-Khalq it is okay for me to Qada (delay) my Salah. This is going outside the boundaries of Shariah because we don’t fully understand Deen. That is why Hadhrat Thanvi (may Allah bless him) says that it is not right to break rules of Shariah in order to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. That is why we should not care that if I stop someone from doing someone’s Gheebat (backbiting), or if we leave a gathering to avoid listening to Gheebat, then we will hurt the feelings of the person who is committing it. We are only accountable to avoid hurting the feelings of others within the bounds of Shariah. If someone is committing a sin and wants us to join him in committing that sin, then we should not do so just because we worry that we will hurt his feelings if we refuse to do so.

Ruining one’s own Aakhirah (Hereafter) for others’ Dunya (material world)
In a Hadith, the Holy Prophet ﷺ said that if a person ruins his Aakhirah (the Hereafter) for the sake of providing some benefit of Dunya (material world) to someone, then Allah Ta’ala imposes that person on his head in this world, that you ruined your Aakhirah to make his Dunya better, now he will ruin your Dunya too. It is a common observation that if a person engages in accumulating wealth through Haraam (unlawful) means to provide material comfort to his wife and children, then those same children cause him all sorts of grief in this world. This is because he displeased Allah Ta’ala to make his wife and children happy, then Allah Ta’ala imposes those same children on him in this world. Therefore, do not harm your Aakhirah to avoid hurting other people’s feelings.

Every important goal requires effort
In a Hadith the Holy Prophet ﷺ said;

لا طاعة لمخلوق فی معصیة الخالق

“There is no disobeying the Creator in obeying the creation”.

It means that we are neither meant to, nor permitted to, be so mindful of other people’s feelings that we start disobeying Allah Ta’ala. We are not allowed to obey any human being to the extent that it starts breaching Allah Ta’ala’s commandments.

Remember, no goal that is worthwhile can be achieved without working hard for it. If you want to achieve any significant objective in this life, you have to make some effort it, make some sacrifices for it. Therefore, if you truly believe that committing Gheebat is a major sin, and you truly believe that you will ruin your Aakhirah by continuing to commit Gheebat, then you will have to use your determination and willpower to stop committing it. When you begin to use your determination, then Allah Ta’ala will also help you and then it will become easier from you to abstain from this sin.

Making hurtful jokes is not permitted
Often times friends joke with each other and make fun of each other. But sometimes it happens that a friend is joking with another friend in jest and does not intend to hurt his feelings, but some people are more sensitive than others. They cannot tolerate having been made fun of and get irritated and unhappy as a result. Other friends then tease them even more and make even more fun of them and enjoy their getting irritated. In such situations, even though the other friends do not intend to hurt his feelings, and are saying these things as a joke, but because he does not like it and it hurts his feelings, such joking is not permitted. It is not permitted in Shariah to say anything to anyone which hurts his feelings, even if it is said as a joke.

However, if you have such a close friendship with someone that you are certain that if he hears what you are saying he won’t mind, rather he would laugh at it and enjoy it, then it is permitted to say such words both to a person’s face and behind his back.

In summary, there are three scenarios. The first is that you are certain that if the person hears these words he will feel upset, in that case it is not permitted in Shariah to say such words. The second scenario is that you are not sure but you suspect that if the person hears what you are saying, he will feel upset, then this is also not permitted. The third scenario is that you are absolutely certain that if the person hears what you are saying, he won’t mind, then this is permitted. May Allah Ta’ala grant us the determination and motivation to protect ourselves from Gheebat.

وآخر دعوا ان الحمد ﷲ رب العالمين