Discussing a third, absent person negatively with others is a common habit among all and sundry, but more so among women. Women are emotional by nature, so when someone wrongs them or treats them unfairly, they easily become hurt and angry. Being naturally expressive and talkative, they can usually not restrain themselves from venting their frustrations to people close to them. This gives rise to the vicious and destructive habit of backbiting, one that ruins social relationships and makes a person more enemies than friends.
However, that is not to imply, in any way, that backbiting about others is exclusively a women's domain! At offices in the corporate world, at coffee shops and restaurants, at malls and retail stores, it is not uncommon to behold groups of employees engaged in animated discussions or comical fun-making of others, discussing details about "juicy tidbits" of incidents in the latter's lives. There are gossip-sessions after meetings and during Happy Hour. Conversations that may innocently start out as discussions of the "latest happenings" in other's lives may become malicious exchanges of others' hidden secrets and bouts of targeted slander. Loyalties are relinquished, promises of secrecy are broken, and people are maligned with enthusiastic ferocity.
"Did you know that she deliberately stole so-and-so's idea for her latest presentation that everyone loved?"
"Did you see her shoes? You'd think she could force herself to have better taste, considering the amount of money she's making by sucking up to the top management!"
"Yes, she was over yesterday. You can see why that should leave me in the bad mood that I'm in right now."
"Wow, isn't she pretty?" "Yeah sure. And she knows it."
It's not just these parties that thrive on news of marital conflicts, illicit liaisons, relationship break-ups and celebrity gossip. Even among the youth - the teenagers and twenty-something people - at high schools and colleges, where youngsters inevitably form groups of like-minded friends, and where being "cool" and popular rank highest on the list of requirements for social acceptance, targeting other "groups" - particularly those having nerds and ‘losers' - with malicious jibes and false rumors is the norm.
How does one refrain from backbiting about others? There are some effective steps that, when applied to one's life over a long period of time, eventually ensure that one stops this habit of maligning others before people:
- If you are a Muslim, always remind yourself that backbiting is prohibited by Allah, and that it incurs His wrath:
Muslims should always be on guard about this social evil, because it facilitates the destruction of amiable human relationships; it exposes people's hidden faults, misdeeds and bad habits; it impedes the inclination to 'forgive and forget', by initiating reminders to decades-old hurtful incidents, enticing those who were wronged to perpetually harbor enmity and malice in their hearts, against those who wronged them. Islam has prohibited backbiting in its entirety: even a disdainful smile or facial expression, a scornful look or mocking gesture is disallowed.
Allah says in the Qur'an:
"And spy not, 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."
[Surah Al-Hujurat 49:12]
What is the meaning of "gheebah" (backbiting)? A narration of Prophet Muhammad [Allah's peace and blessings upon him] gives a clear explanation:
It was reported from Abu Hurairah that the Messenger of Allah [peace and blessings of Allah be upon him] said:
"Do you know what gheebah is?"
They said: "Allah and His Messenger know best".
He said, "(It is) when you mention something about your brother that he does not like."
It was said, "What do you think if what I say about my brother is true?"
He said, "If it is true, then you are backbiting against him, and if it is not true, then you are slandering him."
[Sahih Muslim, 4690; Al-Tirmidhi, 1857]
It was reported from Abu Hurairah [may Allah be pleased with him] that the Prophet [peace and blessings of Allah be upon him] said:
"The Muslim is the brother of another Muslim; he does not betray him, lie to him or forsake him. The whole of the Muslim is sacred to his fellow Muslim - his honour, his wealth and his blood. Taqwa (piety) is here (pointing to his chest). It is sufficient evil for a man to despise his brother."
[Sahih Muslim, 4650; al-Tirmidhi, 1850]
It was reported that Anas [may Allah be pleased with him] said: the Messenger of Allah [peace and blessings of Allah be upon him] said:
"When I was taken up into the heavens (the Mi'raaj), I passed by some people who had nails of copper with which they were scratching their faces and chests. I said, ‘Who are these people, O Jibreel?' He said, ‘These are the ones who used to eat the flesh of the people and slander their honour.'"
[Sahih Al-Bukhari, 6095; Abu Dawood, 4253]
- Remember that those who backbite about others to you, will definitely dish out the same favor to you:
Those who backbite habitually can just not help exposing the faults of others in social gatherings. It exposes their own flagrant weakness of character and morals; by lashing out at absentees with their tongues, they lose their own self-respect and dignity. Any wise person will be able to recognize the malice in such people, and abstain from mingling too much with them. The simplest way to think about this issue is, "If he/she can malign another before me, she can malign me before others when I am absent too." Therefore, one should not just avoid taking backbiters as friends, one should also avoid even sitting with them for too long.
- Remember that backbiters are eventually left with no friends:
Whenever you feel the urge to sling mud at someone with a 'friend' over coffee, remember that those who backbite can never have loyal friends - including you. This is because their backbiting screams to everyone, "I'm a disloyal person picking on any chance to defame others when they're not present. I'm also a coward, because I can not face others' shortcomings head-on, so I use the lowly, back-door way out for avenging their bad behavior." Backbiting gives out a warning to everyone that this person -- you -- can not be trusted. Hence, they hold back from befriending you, lest they - and their shortcomings - be on your next live broadcast.
- Consciously resist the urge to defame an absent person behind their back:
Restrain your tongue when you want to vent your anger and frustration at someone else, to your best friend, sibling, spouse or parent. If you must divulge the ill someone has done you to a close confidante, speak with objectivity and do justice. Avoid using curse-words, and try to look at both sides of the story.
- Maintain a personal journal to vent anger:
Write down how you feel in a personal journal. This should be done especially when your anger is at the highest level. Believe me, it really, really helps vent the negative emotions in a non-destructive manner! It also helps you get in touch with your feelings, and see the situation from an objective point of view.
- Counter negative, vindictive thoughts with excuses in favor of the aggressor:
As much as possible, put yourself in the other person's shoes and give them the benefit of the doubt. For example, if someone has rudely snapped at you in front of others, you could think, "Maybe she was having a very bad day", or "Maybe she didn't mean to do it, and I'm sure she must be regretting it by now". If your boss is overworked and gives you a hard time, try to think of the pressure he/she must be under to meet a project deadline. Then try to imagine yourself in their situation and admit the fact that you too, being human, would probably be as nasty to your subordinates as they are, given the circumstances. Such thoughts are extremely positive, and they have an amazingly pacifying impact on the person thinking them.
- Backbiting eats away at your good deeds:
If you don't want to lose all the good deeds you have done in the past, don't backbite. Bite your tongue, instead!
- Keep your self busy, because idleness and boredom makes one brood over past incidents:
A person who has no goal to achieve when they wake up in the morning, and they just idle away their time during the day, are more liable to pick up the phone and gossip with a friend. Such idleness makes them mull over all the bad things people have done to them in the past. It also encourages them to be curious about who is doing what. I have not seen this phenomenon in anyone as much as in older women. Since they are through with raising children, studying, and working at jobs, they can be found interfering in other people's lives, relaying news from one relative to another over the phone, keeping track of their children and grandchildren, and basically causing problems because of their lack of tactical goals in life. Hence, keeping busy in productive work is an imperative component of the process of eliminating the vice of backbiting from one's life.
- Stay away from negative people and avoid superficial, insincere friends:
Some identifiers of negative-minded people are that they always bring up past incidents in their conversations, harbor grudges against others over long periods of time, desert friends at the slightest pitfall because of their unforgiving nature, brood incessantly over trivial social mishaps, and mull over only the negative qualities of other people. Therefore, avoid such people. Also, try to find and keep loyal, trustworthy, benign and good-hearted people as friends, even if it means relinquishing an elite social circle or giving up a high-flying, glamorous lifestyle. There is more peace of mind for you if you have fewer but truly sincere friends in your life.
Backbiting is not something one cannot get over. If one is desirous of attaining the Pleasure of Allah, willing to conceal and overlook people's faults, and constantly alert to one's own mistakes, shortcomings and faults, one will eventually be able to eliminate this negative habit - and its proponents - from his or her life.
Sadaf Farooqi is a freelance writer based in Karachi, Pakistan. She writes regularly for the Islamic Family Magazine, Hiba. She has also recently self-published her first book.