Gheeba (backbiting) is an act which is abhorrent in the eyes of Allah (swt) and condemned in the holy Quran:
إِنَّ الَّذِينَ يُحِبُّونَ أَنْ تَشِيعَ الْفَاحِشَةُ فِي الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا لَهُمْ عَذَابٌ أَلِيمٌ فِي الدُّنْيَا وَالْآخِرَةِ ۚ وَاللَّهُ يَعْلَمُ وَأَنْتُمْ لَا تَعْلَمُونَ [٢٤:١٩]
Surely (as for) those who love that scandal should circulate respecting those who believe, they shall have a grievous chastisement in this world and the hereafter; and Allah knows, while you do not know. (24:19)
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا اجْتَنِبُوا كَثِيرًا مِنَ الظَّنِّ إِنَّ بَعْضَ الظَّنِّ إِثْمٌ ۖ وَلَا تَجَسَّسُوا وَلَا يَغْتَبْ بَعْضُكُمْ بَعْضًا ۚ أَيُحِبُّ أَحَدُكُمْ أَنْ يَأْكُلَ لَحْمَ أَخِيهِ مَيْتًا فَكَرِهْتُمُوهُ ۚ وَاتَّقُوا اللَّهَ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ تَوَّابٌ رَحِيمٌ [٤٩:١٢]
O you who believe! Avoid most of suspicion, for surely suspicion in some cases is a sin, and do not spy nor let some of you backbite others. Does one of you like to eat the flesh of his dead brother? But you abhor it; and be careful of (your duty to) Allah, surely Allah is Oft-returning (to mercy), Merciful. (49:12)
A hadith on the grave consequences of backbiting:
Gheeba is worse than fornication because if a fornicator repents, Allah (Swt.) forgives him but He does not forgive the back-biter till the person about whom he has back-bited forgives.” Holy prophet Mohammed (sawws)
(Al-Makasib Vol. 3 page 310)
In order to stay away from this act, we need to have a full understanding of its meaning.
‘Al-Makasib’ is an important book which is studied at higher stages of hawza studies. It is written by a well known and respected Shia scholar, Sheikh Murtadha Al-Ansari. In of the chapters, he examines this subject extensively, trying to reach a definition for gheeba. In deriving this he refers to some hadiths from the Ahlul-Bayt (as), for eg:
“Gheeba is exposing that aspect of your brother which Allah had concealed.” Imam Al-Sadiq (as)
(Al-Kāfi Vol. 2 page 358)
Abu Dharr (ra) once asked the Prophet Muhammad (sawws): “O Messenger of Allah, what is gheeba?” He replied: “It is to mention about your brother that which he detests.”
Abu Dharr (ra) said: “O Messenger of Allah, what if that which is mentioned of him should actually be in him?” He (sawws) replied: “Know that when you mention that which is in him, you have committed his gheeba, and when you mention that which is not in him, then you have slandered him.”
[Al-Hurr al-`Amili, Wasai’l al-Shi`ah, vol. 8, hadith no. 16312
Sheikh al-Ansari studied the relevant hadiths, coming to the conclusion that gheeba is divided into three different categories:
Absolute Gheeba: exposing the defect(s) of a believer with a clear intention of defaming
Apparent Gheeba: Not for exposing but for other purpose. As an example to prove a point.
Implied Gheeba: Saying things which are already known about a person, with the intention of degrading or defaming that person. Some scholars have debated on whether this falls under the definition of gheeba, nevertheless it is unanimously agreed that it is haram and should not be said. As an example we find people calling someone by their nickname for laughter, this is very dangerous and could be insulting. The Quran admonishes this practice in Surat al-hujjurat.
The sheikh then goes on to explain what exactly falls under backbiting, and says: ‘it makes no difference whether the defect mentioned is of a physical nature, pertains to ones descent, a trait of one’s character or with regard to ones speech or actions, or whether it is with regard to religion or worldly aspects. Special mention is made of defects pertaining to ones dress, house, vehicle etc. Examples are cited for each of these. A physical defect is mentioned that, such and such is cockeyed, one-eyed, bald, short, tall, dark complexioned, yellow skinned etc.’
Regarding exclusions, the list is quite exhaustive, but the following are some of the most important ones:
1) Gheeba of a person whose defect is not hidden. It is known to all. Like the one who roams the streets with a bottle of wine on his lips. But this sin should be open and seen by all.
“One who sins openly is not worthy of respect and his gheeba is not Harām.
(Makasib page 27, Vol. 4)
2) Complaining against an unjust ruler
3) ‘Gheeba is allowed with the intention of Nahy Anil Munkar. For example you see a Muslim prone to an evil way and think that by doing Gheeba he’ll give it up. Gheeba is allowed in this case provided one is sure that it will have the desired effect. If there is doubt that the person has already given it up his Gheeba is not permitted. As in the previous case, we should take into consideration the harm of doing his Gheeba in comparison to the harm caused by his bad deed. That is, if the exposure of this Muslim is more serious than the sin he his committing, his Gheeba is not allowed, even if we are sure that by doing his Gheeba he would give up the act.’
4) Warning people of someone’s wrong preaching or innovation that would otherwise lead people astray.
5) A person who narrates a false hadith or narration should be exposed.
6) For the purposes of judicial rulings or being a witness to a crime for eg
7) For advice with regards to the integrity of an individual as far as marriage or another contractual relationship is concerned, eg business partnership.
In all the above we need to be careful not to transgress boundaries and fall into the trap of sin.
May Allah (swt) protect us from this and other diseases of the soul.