Lessons from the Qur'an Regarding Gossip and Backbiting

Gossip and Backbiting
A woman dials out on a phone, circa 1935. FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Faith calls upon us to bring out the best in ourselves and in others. Treating other people with integrity and respect is a sign of a believer. It is not permissible for a Muslim to spread rumors, gossip, or engage in backbiting of another person.

Teachings of the Qur'an

Islam teaches the believers to validate their sources, and not engage in conjecture. Repeatedly in the Qur'an, Muslims are warned about the sins of the tongue.

“Do not concern yourself with things about which you have no knowledge. Verily, your hearing, sight, and heart -- all of them will be called to account" (Qur'an 17:36).
"Why do not the believing men and women, whenever such [a rumour] is heard, think the best of one another and say, “This is an obvious falsehood”? . . . When you take it up with your tongues, uttering with your mouths something of which you have no knowledge, you deem it a light matter. Whereas in the sight of God it is an awful thing!" (Qur'an 24: 12-15).
"Oh you who believe! If a wicked person comes to you with any news, ascertain the truth, lest you harm people unwittingly, and afterwards become full of repentance for what you have done (Qur'an 49:6).
"O you who believe! Let not some men among you laugh at others; it may be that the (latter) are better than the (former). Nor let some women laugh at others; it may be that the (latter are better than the (former). Nor defame nor be sarcastic to each other, nor call each other by (offensive) nicknames. Ill-seeming is a name connoting wickedness, (to be used of one) after he has believed. And those who do not desist are (indeed) doing wrong.

Oh you who believe! Avoid suspicion as much (as possible), for suspicion in some cases is a sin. And spy not on each other behind their backs. Would any of you like to eat the flesh of his dead brother? No, you would abhor it...But fear Allah. For Allah is Oft-Returning, Most Merciful" (Qur'an 49:11-12).

This literal definition of the word “backbiting” is something that we don’t often think about, but it is notable that the Qur'an regards is as distasteful as an actual act of cannibalism.

Teachings of the Prophet Muhammad

As a model and example for Muslims to follow, the Prophet Muhammad gave many examples from his own life about how to deal with the evils of gossip and backbiting. He started out by defining these terms:

The Prophet Muhammad once asked his followers, “Do you know what backbiting is?” They said, “Allah and His Messenger know best.” He continued, “Saying something about your brother that he dislikes.” Someone then asked, “What if what I say about my brother is true?” The Prophet Muhammad responded: “If what you say is true then you have backbitten about him, and if it is not true, then you have slandered him.”

Once a person asked the Prophet Muhammad for a description of what kind of good work would admit him into Paradise and distance him from the Hellfire. The Prophet Muhammad began to share with him a list of many good deeds, and then said "Shall I inform you of the foundation of all of that?" He took hold of his own tongue and said, "Restrain yourself from this." Surprised, the questioner exclaimed, "Oh, Prophet of Allah!

Are we held to task for the things that we say?" The Prophet Muhammad replied: "Does anything topple people headlong into Hellfire, more than the harvests of their tongues?"

How to Avoid Gossip and Backbiting

These instructions may seem self-evident, yet consider how backbiting and gossip remain the main causes of the destruction of personal relationships. It destroys friendships and families and fuels mistrust among community members. Islam guides us in how to deal with our human tendency towards gossip and backbiting:

  • Recognize that Allah sees and knows all things, while our own understanding and view is limited.
  • Recognize that nobody is perfect; we are all lacking in some way.
  • Recognize that Shaytan seeks to fuel doubt and mistrust among believers.
  • Speak well or keep quiet. The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said: “One can greatly beautify himself with two habits--good manners and lengthy silence.” On another occasion, he said: “Let the one who believes in Allah and the Hereafter utter good words, or let him be silent.”
  • If you hear a rumor about someone’s misfortune, strive for compassion rather than continuing the gossip. Remind others not to gossip, and if they don't listen, walk away. Allah praised such action in the Quran: "If they hear gossip, they walk away" (Quran 28:55).
  • Avoid spying. Spying fuels the trading of secrets and misinformation, and it creates a climate of mistrust.
  • Seek to make excuses for others. If a person does something that you think is wrong in some way, try to look at the situation from other person’s point of view. If we do this, we are less likely to dwell on the negative and seek to talk about it with others.
  • Repent to Allah for any mistakes you make, and seek the forgiveness of the person you hurt.

Exceptions

There may be some situations in which a story must be shared, even if it is hurtful. Muslim scholars have outlined six situations in which one is justified in sharing gossip:

  • When making a complaint to a judge about an injustice that has been done, in order for one to reclaim his or her rights.
  • To seek help which will prevent a person from continuing to commit a certain sin.
  • To seek advice from a Muslim scholar about whether a particular action is allowed or disallowed. In this case, one may mention a certain situation without giving names, in order to obtain a judgment on the matter.
  • To identify a particular person.
  • If someone publicly declares his sins, openly, there is no harm in speaking about it.
  • To warn others about a certain person. For example, it is an obligation for us to warn others about a person who is known to cheat or steal.