Answered by Ustadh Abdullah Anik Misra
Question: What is to be said about backbiting historical or famous figures such as George Washington, Napoleon, Paris Hilton, etc.?
Also, is backbiting a non-Muslim just as evil as backbiting a Muslim?
Lastly, in what cases are we permitted to speak negatively about someone behind their back? For example, if a spiritual/religious leader in the community is doing something or plotting to do something that goes against the Sharia’ for the sake of, say, apologetically appeasing non-Muslims in power, would it be permitted to discuss such wrongdoings among one’s friends who are also troubled by this?
Answer: In the Name of Allah, Most Merciful and Compassionate,
As salamu alaikum,
Thank you for your question. Backbiting [Ar: gheeba] is a reprehensible sin and impermissible, except in certain cases we will outline below.
Backbiting, or slander, is to mention anything concerning a person that they would dislike, whether regarding their religion or worldly life (including their body, personality, clothing, family, background and lineage, status, or anything else connected with them). Backbiting can be done through speaking, writing, gesturing or imitating. [NHM Keller, Reliance of the Traveler]
This applies to whether the disparaged person is dead or alive, liked or disliked, famous or little-known, as long as the identity of the person being backbitten is known to those listening. Listening to slander and backbiting is just as impermissible as committing it, and it is a duty to speak out against it if one hears it and is able to condemn it.
Backbiting A Non-Muslim
Regarding backbiting a non-Muslim, Imam Ibn Hajr al-Makki quotes Imam al-Ghazali, who says: “And as for the non-Muslim fellow citizen, then it is similar to the ruling of the Muslim [ie. impermissible] in what returns to the prohibition on causing harm to others, because the Shari’ah has safeguarded their honor, life and wealth… and as for an enemy of war, then it is not a question of being unlawful due to [causing harm], but rather it is disliked due to [belittling what Allah has created and wasting one’s time with that which does not concern one.” [al-Makki, al-Zawajir]
When is it Permissible to Mention A Person’s Flaws?
There are 6 exceptional cases in which mentioning another person’s flaws is permissible, and that too, only that flaw which is relevant to the cause for exception, to the extent needed to convey the information, and only to the concerned party. Those cases are:
1) To redress the grievances of someone who is wronged to a ruler, judge or someone with authority who can help one.
2) To stop a wrong-doing by telling someone who can correct it, with the intention of using the necessary measures to eliminate that wrong. [AM: Sound religious knowledge of the matter in question and of the rules of forbidding the wrong is required first]
3) Asking an Islamic scholar for a legal opinion involving someone else, though if their identity can be made anonymous, it is better.
4) To warn Muslims of evil , or of something disadvantageous to them if one’s advice is sought in matters of marriage, business relationships, entrusting someone, in which case it is obligatory to advise honestly. If this can be done without going into detail, such as saying “This is not in your best interest” then one should suffice with this, unless need to elaborate presents itself.
5) Someone who openly does sin or oppression and is not concerned with hiding it, that matter can be discussed [AM: though it is sinful to discuss sinful things or falsehood without a valid reason].
6) To identify someone who is known by a certain nickname [such as “Skinny” or “Chubby”], as long as the intention is not to point of their deficiencies, and using another name is better if possible. [NHM Keller, Reliance of the Traveller; al-Khadimi, al-Bareeqa al-Mahmudiyya]
Specific Case: Discussing a Community Leader’s Flaws
Regarding your question of discussing a religious leader’s flaws with others, the permissible conditions usually do not obtain in these cases.
People must refrain from suspicion and conjecture about another’s motives and actions (which is impermissible), and turn to sound Islamic scholarship to differentiate between what is wrong and what could be a difference of opinion.
Hence, this would be impermissible, as it would not only harm the person slandered, but also cause discord and division in the community.
The best thing to do is to approach a trustworthy, mainstream scholar to give a ruling on the actions in question, and offer a suggested solution (if any), or go to a board or council with the concern if they have authority in this case.
Of course, matters of legality or public safety should be taken to the local police authorities. And Allah knows best.
Abdullah Anik Misra
Checked & Approved by Faraz Rabbani
Slander, Backbiting and Talebearing