يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا اجْتَنِبُوا كَثِيرًا مِّنَ الظَّنِّ إِنَّ بَعْضَ الظَّنِّ إِثْمٌ ۖ وَلَا تَجَسَّسُوا وَلَا يَغْتَب بَّعْضُكُم بَعْضًا ۚ أَيُحِبُّ أَحَدُكُمْ أَن يَأْكُلَ لَحْمَ أَخِيهِ مَيْتًا فَكَرِهْتُمُوهُ ۚ وَاتَّقُوا اللَّهَ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ تَوَّابٌ رَّحِيمٌ
“O you who believe! Avoid much suspicions, indeed some suspicions are sins. 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 (swt). Verily, Allah (swt) is the One Who accepts repentance, Most Merciful.” (Al-Hujurat 49:12)
This verse teaches us how to deal with people who are not present with us. It addresses the believers and points out three things.
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا اجْتَنِبُوا كَثِيرًا مِّنَ الظَّنِّ إِنَّ بَعْضَ الظَّنِّ إِثْمٌ
- Avoid suspicion. ‘Ijtanibu’ means ‘to avoid or abstain from something’. Allah (swt) orders us to stay away from ‘much’ of suspicion. Suspicion is not totally forbidden because doubt can sometimes be good. The word ‘Dhan’ in Arabic actually means ‘to assume or think’. Therefore, ‘Dhan Al-Khayr’ means to think well about fellow Muslims. You may not be sure about them, but you should think well about them from what appears to you. This is allowed and also recommended. You deal with them, according to what you see of them; do not worry about their heart and what they may be hiding from you.
Then there is also ‘Dhan Al Su’ which is thinking badly of people. There are two parts to this: one is allowed/recommended and the other is forbidden.
- Allowed: Sometimes you see that people are negative and do questionable actions; in this case, it is allowed to doubt and be suspicious of them. For example, a person is just standing there and staring at you; in order to protect yourself, you have to be wary and suspicious of the person’s intentions.
- Forbidden: Someone is doing something positive but you still doubt their actions. For example, you see a person praying, yet you doubt his or her faith and say that he or she is praying only to show off. This is Haram.
- Do not spy. Spying is secret listening or looking at what is meant to be concealed from you. The verb is mentioned in plural form; hence, it is collectively addressed to all the believers. This starts from Dhan. The person who has suspicions will then keep thinking about it, until he or she starts to spy.
Everybody has defects or imperfections that need to stay covered; we should not uncover these private matters and invade people’s space.
The Messenger (sa) told his companions not to bring him news of what people say and do, because he wanted his heart to be pure when he met them. His advice was to deal with people in the way they appeared.
When you spy on people, your judgement becomes clouded and you cannot view them the same way anymore. The Messenger (sa) dealt with the hypocrites as normal Muslims, based only on how they appeared.
وَلَا يَغْتَب بَّعْضُكُم بَعْضًا
- Do not backbite. Think before you speak. If someone backbites in front of you, be sure that he or she will backbite about you. Therefore, you cannot trust a person who talks about people behind their backs.
There are permissible situations for backbiting, such as at the time of a marriage proposal. In such a case, if you know the person about whom somebody is asking, then you are obliged to tell them the facts and the absolute truth that you know about him or her. For example, if a man is stingy or has a temper, you have to mention it.
Backbiting is permissible also in the case of an Amanah (trust). For example, if an oppressed person speaks to the authorities about an oppressor, he is allowed to speak the truth and uncover all the evil things the oppressor has done. Likewise, a person can relate a situation to his sincere friend and ask for Naseeha and advice; however, care must be taken not to share more information than necessary.
At the time of the Messenger (sa), there was a woman whose husband was very stingy and would not feed her and her son. She went to him for advice and he asked her to take what was sufficient for her and her son. She did not take more than what she needed for sustenance. (Bukhari)
A Parable about Backbiting
Allah (swt) draws a picture in the Quran for two major sins, in order for us to understand the seriousness of the matter and how dangerous these sins are for us. Allah (swt) says:
أَيُحِبُّ أَحَدُكُمْ أَن يَأْكُلَ لَحْمَ أَخِيهِ مَيْتًا فَكَرِهْتُمُوهُ
“Would one of you like to eat the flesh of his dead brother? You would hate it (so hate backbiting).”
The four keywords to note here are: eat, flesh, dead, and brother. A person eats with desire and out of hunger. The image of a person eating flesh is disgusting in itself, even more so, if he is eating the flesh of a dead human, and that too of his dead brother. Moreover, it is human nature to dislike dead bodies; so how can a person relish the flesh of a dead brother?
Allah (swt) uses the word ‘brother’ because there is a relationship between you and the person you are talking about: he is your brother in Islam and this is a relationship established among you by Allah (swt). You are insulting the relationship that Allah (swt) has placed between you; this means you are mocking and insulting Allah (swt).
ۚ وَاتَّقُوا اللَّهَ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ تَوَّابٌ رَّحِيمٌ
“Fear Allah (swt) and repent, because He is the One who accepts a person’s repentance and is Merciful.”
There’s a combination of hope and fear in this verse, which draws parallels with how a Mutaqqi is. He is fearful of Allah’s (swt) punishment and, therefore, eager to rush to Allah’s (swt) mercy.
Transcribed and adapted by Shaheera Vakani (Jeddah).