Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, the prominent Muslim scholar, states: “Islam prohibits backbiting (ghibah): ‘And do not backbite one another.’ (Al-Hujurat: 12). The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) wanted to drive home the meaning of backbiting to his Companions through questions and answers. He asked them, ‘Do you know what backbiting is?’ They replied, ‘Allah and His Messenger know best’. He said, ‘It is saying something about your brother which he would dislike’. Someone asked, ‘What if I say something about my brother which is true?’ The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) replied, ‘If what you say of him is true, it is backbiting and if it is not true you have slandered him.’ (Reported by Muslim, Abu Dawud, At-Tirmidhi, and An-Nasa’i)
When a person dislikes someone, he is likely to find faults in his appearance, behavior, lineage, and anything else which pertains to him. `A’ishah narrated that she said to the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him), ‘Do you see that Safiyyah (another wife of the Prophet) is such and such?’, meaning that she was short. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) replied, ‘You have spoken a word such that, if it were mixed in the water of the ocean, it would darken it.’ (Reported by Abu Dawud, At-Tirmidhi, and Al-Bayhaqi)
Backbiting is nothing but a desire to belittle people, to slander their honor, and to deride their accomplishments in their absence. Since this is stabbing in the back, it is an expression of narrow-mindedness and cowardice. Backbiting is a negative trait, and only those engage in it who themselves are not achievers. It is a tool of destruction, for one who is addicted to it leaves no one without throwing a dart at him and wounding him.
It is no wonder then, that the Qur’an paints such a repulsive picture of this vile habit as would make people shrink from it in horror: ‘And do not backbite one anther; would any of you like to eat the flesh of his dead brother? You would abhor that.’ (Al-Hujurat: 12)
Since one feels sick at the very thought of eating human flesh, how much more revolting it is to think of eating the flesh of one’s dead brother?
Whenever an opportunity arose, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) stressed this Qur’anic imagery in order to imprint it on peoples’ hearts and minds. Ibn Mas`ud narrated, ‘We were sitting with the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). Then a man got up and left. Whereupon another person spoke ill of him. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) told him, ‘Pick your teeth.’ The man replied, ‘Why? I haven’t eaten any meat.’ The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) replied, ‘You have eaten your brother’s flesh.’ (Reported by At-Tabarani)
Jabir narrated, ‘While we were with the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) the wind brought a foul odor in our direction, whereupon the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, ‘Do you know what this odor is? It is the odor of those who backbite the Believers.’ (Reported by Ahmad)
All these textual quotations demonstrate the sanctity and dignity which is accorded to Man in Islam. However, scholars have listed some exceptions, necessarily limited to certain circumstances, when talking about a person in his absence is permitted. Among these exceptions is the instance of a person who has
been wronged and who complains about the wrongdoer. While he must then speak about what the other dislikes, it is his right to do so in order to secure justice; consequently, he is given permission to describe the wrong he has suffered. Allah the Almighty says: ‘Allah does not like the announcing of evil in public speech except by one who has been wronged; and Allah is Hearing, Knowing.’ (An-Nisa’: 148)
If someone wants to investigate the character or suitability of a person with whom he wants to enter into partnership, who has asked for his daughter in marriage, or who is seeking employment with him, it is permissible for those who have been asked to give their frank and honest opinion. Here there is a conflict between two obligations: one, to give good advice to the person who seeks the information, and two, to protect the honor of the person about whom the opinion is sought. But the first obligation takes precedence over the second, as it is more important and more sacred. Fatimah bint Qays asked the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) about two men who had asked for her hand in marriage. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) told her about one of them, ‘He is good for nothing and has no property,’ and about the other, ‘He does not put his stick down from his shoulder,’ meaning that he frequently beats the women of his household.
It is also permissible to speak about a person without his knowledge if a legal opinion or religious ruling is required concerning him or if help is needed to combat some evil he may be causing, or to refer to him by a name, title, or characteristic which he dislikes but without which he cannot be identified, as for example, ‘the lame person’ or ‘the person with one eye.’ Likewise, cross-questioning a witness or criticizing the reporters of hadiths and news is permissible.
The general rule concerning the permissibility of speaking about someone in his absence is governed by two considerations: (1) the need and (2) the intention.
(1) When there is no compelling need to mention the third person in a manner in which he would dislike, one must refrain from violating the sanctity of his personality and honor. If there is a need to mention him but the need can be met by an indirect reference, one must not be explicit. If a general discussion is sufficient, the mentioning of specific persons must be avoided. For example, in seeking a juristic opinion, one can phrase the question as, ‘What would your opinion be if someone did such and such a thing?’ rather than, ‘This person is doing such and such. What do you think about it?’ Again, if one must identify the person, he must mention only what is true, since ascribing anything false to him is prohibited.
(2) In any event, the intention is the decisive factor. The speaker knows his own motives better than anyone else —whether it constitutes a genuine complaint against wrongdoing or mere spite, an inquiry concerning an issue or a slander, a scholarly criticism or envious backbiting, piece of good advice or the spreading of a rumor. It is said in this connection that the Believer is a sterner judge of himself than a tyrannical ruler or a greedy partner could be.
Islam has decreed that the listener is the partner of the one who is absent, and he must defend his absent brother by repudiating the slander being spoken.
The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) said, ‘If anyone defends his brother who is slandered in his absence, it will be (his) due from Allah to set him free from the Fire.’ (Reported by Ahmad)
And again, ‘If anyone defends his brother’s honor in this world, Allah will shield his face from the Fire on the Day of Resurrection.’ (Reported by At-Tirmidhi)
If a person does not have the courage to speak out in defense of his brother against malicious tongues, the least he can do is to withdraw from such company until they turn to some other topic; otherwise, the verse, ‘Truly, you would then be like them.’ (An-Nisa’: 140) would apply to him.”