Concealing the Faults and Weaknesses of Others
abridged from "Freedom of Expression in Islam" by Kamali
Avoiding harm to others and concealing the weakness of one's fellow human beings is a prominent theme of the moral teachings of the Quran and the Sunnah. The message here is conveyed in a variety of forms, context and ideas, all of which are indicative of Islam's emphasis on the honour and dignity of the individual, and of his or her right to privacy safe from the encroachment of others.
Thus according to a hadith:
"If a person conceals the weakness of another in this world, Allah will conceal their weakness in the hereafter" [Al Nawawi, Riyad al Salihin p 135, Hadith no 245; al Ghazali, Kitab Adab p 344]
A variant version of the same message is reported in another hadith, which states:
"Whoever protects the honour of his brother, will have Allah protect his countenance from the fire on the Day of Judgement" [Al Nawawi, Riyad al Salihin p 488, Hadith no 1530]
In yet another hadith we read:
"Do not harm Muslims, and do not revile them, nor pursue their imperfections. For verily, whosoever pursues the imperfections of his brother shall have his own imperfections pursued by Allah" [Sunan of al Tirmidhi, as quoted in Principles of State and Government in Islam, p 85]
Concealing the faults of, and respecting the privacy of others is again the theme of the following hadith:
"The Muslim who helps another when the latter's honour and dignity are under attack, shall be helped by Allah, Glorious and Sublime is He! - at a time when he would wish for Allah's help. But he who forsakes a Muslim whose dignity is under attack, shall have Allah forsake him at a time when he would wish for Allah's help" [Al Ghazali, Ihyaa Ulum al Din; Kitab Adab al Suhbah p 369]
It was reported that one night when Caliph Umar was patrolling Medina, he saw a man and a woman committing adultery. The following day the caliph informed other Companions and asked them whether he should enforce the prescribed penalty (hadd) for zina (fornication) on the basis of his own observations. To this Ali replied that the law of Allah stated clearly that four witnesses were required to prove zina, and that this provision was to be applied equally to the caliph. Other companions are also reported to have concurred with Ali's opinion.
While quoting this report, al Ghazali observes that this is strong evidence that the shariah demands the concealment of sins (satr al fawahish); it also discourages spying on or reporting the private affairs of others. [Kitab al Adab p 345-6]
It is noted that concealment (satr) is recommended only with regard to persons who are not generally known to engage in corrupt and harmful activities. As for those who are notorious, it is recommended that their evil is not concealed and that the matter is reported to the authorities.
Exposing the faults of others by casting aspersions, or spying on them, is particularly reprehensible. Thus according to a hadith, people are warned:
"Beware of suspicion. For suspicion is the most untrue form of speech; and do not spy upon one another and do not revile one another." [Sahih Muslim, Kitab al birr wal silah, Bab al nahy an al tajasus]
Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal was once asked about the correct meaning of the following hadith:
"When you hear something form or about your brother, ascribe to it the best interpretation until you can no longer do so"
To this, he replied:
"Find an excuse for him by saying, 'Maybe he said this, or maybe he meant such and such'"
It is further reported in another hadith:
"Whoever is offered an apology from a fellow Muslim should accept it unless he knows that the person apologising is being dishonest" [Mishkat al Tabrizi, Vol III Hadith no 5052]
Commenting on these hadiths, Tuffah has rightly observed that, despite the occurrence of the word brother (akh) therein, they are of general import, and their scope is not confined to Muslims, the reason being that in Islam justice and benevolence (adl wa ihsan) are not confined to Muslims alone. The question of the way people treat fellow citizens in society, their brothers and sisters in humanity, is closely linked with the Quranic concepts of adl and ihsan, and these do not admit if any restriction that would compromise their objective application. [Tuffah, Masadir pp 89-90]
This indeed is the main point of the following Quranic text:
"And let not the hatred of a people harm you into being unjust. Be just, for it is closet to piety (taqwa)" [Surah 5: verse 8]
Furthermore, Hasan, the son of Ali is reported to have said:
"If a man abuses me in one ear and then apologises to me in the other, I shall accept his apology" [Al Maqdisi, al Adab, I p 341]
Thus it is evident that silence takes priority over speech when it comes to exposing the faults and weaknesses of others.
'One should not talk about the defects of others even if one is asked about them. One must try to avoid prying and asking personal questions about the private lives of others" [Al Ghazali, Kitab Adab pp 242-43]
For tolerance and forgiveness are necessary in order to encourage an atmosphere of fraternity in the community.