On Backbiting non-Muslims
In the Name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
Praise be to Allah, Who sent His messenger with the Guidance and the religion of truth, in order that He might make it prevail over all religions, though the pagans may be averse. Blessings and peace be upon the Messenger of Allah, who was sent to perfect the noble traits of character.
To proceed : May Allah guide you to felicity! You have asked about the permissibility of a Muslim’s backbiting a non-Muslim. A possible source of confusion here is that the Qur’anic verse prohibiting backbiting is addressed to the believers, and says, in translation,
‘O you who believe! Avoid much suspicion; indeed, some suspicions are a sin. And do not spy, nor backbite one another.’ [Qur’an, 49:12]
Hence, one may mistakenly conclude that backbiting non-Muslims is permissible. However, one should beware of relying on first impressions, and especially in matters related to the Sacred Law, one should refrain from pronouncing one’s own, unlearned opinion on a matter based on one’s own impressions. The Qur’anic and hadith texts prohibiting speaking without knowledge, and censuring those who pronounce verdicts (fatwa) rashly, are numerous, and we will not mention them here. The verdict here requires consideration of the evidence and texts in their totality, for only such can yield a full picture of the situation.
Firstly, the fact that the address is made to the Muslims, rather than to mankind in general, is understandable when one takes into consideration that the unbelievers, although also subject to all of Allah’s commands, and technically obligated to follow them, (as evidenced by the clear texts of the Qur’an, and backed by the consensus of Muslim scholars) are first and foremost called upon to believe. This is because rectitude of doctrine is a prerequisite for the acceptability of a good deed, and without belief in Allah and all His Messengers, deeds are rendered worthless, like floating dust or scattered ashes, not earning their doer any reward in the Hereafter. It is only by accepting the message of Allah, and all his Prophets, that one can ‘validate’ one’s good deeds so as to earn reward for them in the Hereafter. This includes those who followed the message of a previous Prophet, and they shall receive a double reward upon embracing the Final Message.
`Those to whom We gave the book before it, they believe in it. And, when it is recited to them, they say, ‘We believe in it. Indeed, it is the truth from our Lord. Indeed, we were, [even] before it, Muslims’. They will be given their reward twofold, because they persevered.
’ [Qur’an, 28:52-54]
Furthermore, there are some orders and prohibitions (or all, according to the epistemology of the Ash`aris) whose goodness or baseness can be known only through scriptural communication, such that an unbeliever would not be likely to obey them without first embracing faith.
That the address is made to the believers does not rule out its applicability to unbelievers; i.e. the command, `Do not backbite one another,’ does not, logically, imply a permission to backbite others. For example, Allah says, (translated),
‘O you who believe! Devour not your wealth amongst yourselves by falsehood, except if it be by trade, by mutual consent amongst yourselves.’ [Qur’an, 4:29]
This verse does not give permission to consume the wealth of the Dhimmis (non-Muslim subjects of the Islamic state). It is reported that the Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) said,
‘Does any of you, while reclining on his couch, imagine that Allah has prohibited only that which is to be found in this Qur'an? By Allah, I have preached, commanded and prohibited various matters as numerous as that which is found in the Qur'an, or more numerous. Allah has not permitted you to enter the houses of the people of the Book without permission, nor to beat their women, nor to eat their fruits when they give you that [tax] which is imposed on them.’ [Narrated by Abu Dawud]
And it is reported in another narration that he
(peace and blessings be upon him and his Household) said: ‘Indeed, whoever wrongs a person of the contract (i.e. a Jew or a Christian), or deprecates him, or imposes upon him [something] beyond his capability, or takes anything from him without his consent, I shall be his adversary on the Day of Arising.’
[Narrated by Abu Dawud; al-Mundhiri said : it contains unknown narrators.]
This latter hadith is explicit regarding the prohibition of deprecating a Dhimmi, but its isnad contains weakness, and so it cannot be used as a proof. However, the evidences to follow establish the prohibition of backbiting, and in their light, the above hadith can serve as supporting evidence.
The human being should realize that all his/her words are witnessed by Allah, and recorded by the angelic scribes.
‘He does not utter a [single] word, except that there is, with him, [an angel] watching and waiting [to record it].’ [Qur’an, 50:18]
Imam al-Nawawi says, ‘It is obligatory for every sane adult to guard his tongue against talking, except when it contains a clear benefit. If talking and remaining silent are of equal benefit, it is sunnah to abstain, for permissible talking might lead to something undesirable or forbidden, as in fact is very often the case, and nothing matches safety.’
Allah does not love the loud utterance of harsh/hurtful words, except by one who has been wronged. And Allah is Seeing, Hearing.’ [Qur’an, 4:148]
The Prophet (may Allah bless him and his Household and grant them peace), has said,
‘Whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day should say something good, or should remain silent.’ [Narrated by Bukhari, Muslim, Ahmad, Tirmidhi, Ibn Majah]
Al-Nawawi says, ‘This hadith is quite explicit that it is imperative to not talk unless the speech is good, which is that wherein there is some benefit. If a person is in doubt as to whether there will be any benefit, then he should remain silent.’
And, the Prophet (may Allah bless him and his Household and grant them peace) said,
‘Treat people with good character.’ [Narrated by Tirmidhi, who said it is a good hadith; Nawawi quoted it in his ‘Forty Hadith.’]
The Muslim is not insulting, nor cursing, nor obscene, nor shameless. [Riyad al-Salihin]
From the above Qur’anic and hadith texts, it becomes clear that a Muslim should only speak if there is some benefit in his words, and in particular, it does not become him to engage in harsh or hurtful speech. This forms a basis for not engaging in backbiting, even if it be against a non-Muslim. If we consider the underlying reasons and implications of this, our idea is reinforced. The motive for backbiting is often anger and a thirst for revenge, whereas the believer is supposed to control his anger. Or, it may be intended to degrade the one being backbited and to thereby exalt oneself, which tends to indicate a feeling of arrogance, and arrogance is prohibited by clear scriptural texts. Furthermore, the enmity and other such bad consequences of backbiting are detrimental to society and its smooth functioning. In general, a Muslim is supposed to deal well with people, except if there is some justifying misconduct from the opposite party.
‘Allah does not prohibit you from being kind and equitable to those who have not fought you on account of your religion, nor driven you from your homes. And Allah loves those who are equitable.
’ [Qur’an, 60:8]
Al-Haskafi, the Hanafi jurist, says in "al-Durr al-Mukhtar,
" about the dhimmi, "Backbiting him is prohibited, just like [backbiting a Muslim]." Ibn `Abidin remarks in his marginal annotations "Hashiyat Radd al-Muhtar,
" And, it has been said : Backbiting a dhimmi is more severe [than backbiting a Muslim]."
All this having been said, it should be pointed out that although backbiting in general is prohibited, there are certain circumstances which make it permissible. At this point, it is useful to distinguish between two types of misdemeanors and sins of unbelievers :
- deeds which they do openly and shamelessly, because they maintain that they are permissible according to their religion, or because they have little modesty or concern for public opinion. Mentioning such misdeeds of an unbeliever is not considered backbiting, just as in the case of a sinful Muslim who sins in public with impunity.
- evil deeds which they do covertly and in hiding, due to their admitting their evil nature. It is not permissible to backbite them regarding these.
Backbiting a non-Muslim is also permissible in the other cases where backbiting a Muslim is justified, viz. To redress an injustice, to seek help to change an evil, asking for a fatwa, accepted nicknames, and warning people against evil.
We conclude with the following hadith, which mentions the punishment for backbiting people (without distinguishing between believers and unbelievers; it therefore serves as support for the verdict we have mentioned).
Abu Dawud has reported that the Prophet
(peace be upon him) said, ‘When I was taken up to heaven (i.e. during the Mi`raj) I passed by people who had nails of copper with which they were scratching their faces and their breasts. I said, ‘Who are these [people], O Gabriel?’ He replied: ‘They are those who consumed the flesh of people [i.e. backbite them] and aspersed their honor.’
And Allah, the Exalted knows best.