On Backbiting and Hadith Criticism
When we talk about a specific narrator being adil (upright), isn’t it backbiting to label someone a liar or a sinner? How is this justified?
In the name of Allah, the Most Merciful, the Mercy-Giving.
The act of ghibah as it applies to speaking unfavorably of a person who is not present is without a doubt abhorrent, repugnant, and prohibited in the shari‘ah. Numerous verses of the Holy Qur’an as well as prophetic narrations clearly explicate the gravity of this sin, equating it even to consuming the flesh of a dead brother.
Similar to other rules in the shari‘ah, however, the general prohibition of backbiting is relaxed in specific cases. In fact, in certain situations, to openly mention the faults of a person in his absence is considered not only permissible but also obligatory (wajib), as explained by Imam Nawawi in his Riyad al-Salihin and Imam Ghazali in his Ihya ‘Ulum al-Din.
Imam ‘Abd al-Hayy al-Laknawi, in his al-Raf‘ wa ‘l-Takmil [pg. 52-56], mentions six specific cases in which the mention of a person’s faults, be he/she alive or dead, is not considered ghibah (backbiting) due to valid legal reason:
1. When the oppressed wishes to notify a capable authority, such as a judge or ruler, of the crimes of an oppressor. The condition in this case is that the authority in question should possess the capability to implement justice on the oppressed person’s behalf.
2. When a well-wisher intends to rectify the wrongdoing of an individual and expects that the rebuked, through the announcement of his sin, will heed the warning and further refrain from it.
For example, if a teacher rebukes a student in front of other students with the knowledge that only through public dissemination of his crime will the student realize the import of his sin and therefore repent accordingly, then mentioning his faults in the open, be it behind his back or in his presence, is permissible.
3. When an enquirer about a legal ruling (mustafti) seeks to understand the implications of an oppressor’s actions upon himself. In this case, he may state the crime of an individual to a qualified jurist (mufti) in order to discover its legal ramifications. If specific mention of the person’s name can be avoided, however, precaution must be taken in this regard.
4. When a person wishes to warn people about the true characteristics of an individual with the intention of aiding them in avoiding his evil.
For example, if one was to warn people of a particular trader’s deceptive practices, of a politician’s corruption, or of a witness’s tendency to lie so that they are not fooled by their business contracts, rulings, or testimony, then to reveal their deficiencies in such a manner that would suffice in conveying the message of caution to the people would be permissible. One must be careful, however, to avoid excessive discussion of a person’s faults, as only mention of that much that is necessary to avoid his evil is permissible in Islam.
Included in this category is the mention of a narrator’s deficiencies in relation to his:
- Integrity, and
- Precision, accuracy, and memory in relation to transmission of reports.
Due to the severity of the crime of false attribution to the Noble Prophet S, the scholars of hadith always exercised extreme caution in accepting the reports of hadith narrators. In order to safeguard the body of hadith literature from false attributions and fabricated narrations, it became absolutely necessary to criticize the integrity and accuracy of each individual narrator. Such criticism necessitated that they mention all the defects in a narrator’s character that dealt with moral integrity and accuracy in transmission in their biographical collections.
Such mention was deemed permissible by the consensus of the Muslim ummah. In fact, in these cases, it was not only considered permissible but fundamentally obligatory (wajib).
Hasan ibn ‘Ali ibn al-Hasan al-Iskafi states that he once asked Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (may Allah have mercy on them both) regarding the implications of ghibah. He stated, “[It is] when you do not intend to disgrace the man.”
Hasan replied, “[But sometimes] a man says: ‘So and so cannot hear properly’ or ‘So and so makes mistakes’.”
Imam Ahmad replied, “If people left this [practice], sound narrations would not be differentiated from others.” [Musawwadah Aal Taymiyyah fi Usul al-Fiqh, pg. 280. See al-Raf‘ wa ‘l-Takmil pg. 54]
‘Abd Allah ibn Ahmad, the son of Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, also narrates that Abu Turab al-Nakhshabi came to his father once (may Allah be pleased with him) when his father was saying: “so and so is weak” and “so and so is reliable”.
Abu Turab thereupon stated, “O Shaykh! Do not slander (commit ghibah) the scholars.”
Imam Ahmad turned towards him and said, “Woe unto you! This is counsel (nasihah), not slander (ghibah).” [Tabaqat al-Hanabilah, Qadi Ibn Abi Ya‘la. See al-Raf‘ wa ‘l-Takmil, pg. 54]
The great jurist and traditionist ‘Abd Allah ibn al-Mubarak (may Allah have mercy on him) was once approached by certain Sufis who had heard him discrediting some narrators of hadith. They said, “O Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman! Are you not backbiting? He replied, “Keep silent, for if we do not clarify [the narrators’ conditions], how would the truth be separated from falsehood?!” [Al-Raf‘ wa ‘l-Takmil, pg. 54-55]
Therefore, if a man of knowledge observes that the unaware are seeking guidance from innovators, open sinners, or the ignorant, he is obliged to advise the people and inform them of their condition so as to safeguard the truth and protect the religion. His statements, however, should not be the result of jealousy or malice but should be genuine advice and based on a sincere concern for the welfare of the people.
Moreover, he must not overstep the boundaries of necessity and mention the sins of an individual that have no pertinence to the situation or bearing on the topic. Only that much mention of a person’s faults is permissible that meets the objective of warning. Special care must be taken in this regard, as the fine line between what is necessary and what is not is ambiguous to most people, especially to those poorly-versed in the principles of religion.
5. When the one whose faults are being mentioned is an open sinner or innovator and does not himself seek to hide his defects. In this case, it is permissible to mention those sins which he commits openly and in public and not those sins that he himself keeps secret.
6. When one is required to mention a person with a title or name by which he is well-known so that he is properly recognized. For example, some narrators of hadith were known by nicknames that described their physical ailments and defects, such as Imams A‘mash (the bleary-eyed), A ‘raj (the lame), Asamm (the mute), Ahwal (the cross-eyed), and A‘war (the one-eyed). Since these individuals and their conditions as narrators were not recognized amongst hadith scholars except through these titles, it became necessary in order to ascertain their validity as transmitters of prophetic narrations to describe them as such.
In these six cases, therefore, backbiting is permissible, but only if three conditions are met:
- Not exceeding that which fulfills the necessity
- Sincere intention
In other words, it is not permissible to mention a person’s faults in front of others simply on the suspicion or possibility of necessity; rather, the need must be clear and present. At the same time, when mentioning the faults of a person, one should not exceed the boundaries of necessity and mention those faults that bear no pertinence to the situation at hand. For example, if a person is consulted about an individual in regards to business dealings, it is not permissible to mention his defects that relate to his marriage or family life. Additionally, one’s intention should not be to insult or degrade the person being mentioned.
Allamah Murtada al-Zabidi narrates in his voluminous commentary on Ghazali’s Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din an incident that took place between the great Imam Taj al-Din ibn al-Subki and his father Imam Taqi al-Din al-Subki.
Taj al-Din al-Subki states: “I was once sitting in the anteroom of our home when a dog came upon us. I said to it, ‘Beat it, dog and son of a dog!’ Upon hearing this, my father reprimanded me from inside the home. I said, ‘Is it not a dog and the son of a dog?’ He replied, ‘The condition for the permissibility [of mentioning something’s defects] is the absence of intending insult.’ I said, ‘This is a useful lesson.’” [al-Raf‘, pg. 56]
Bilal Ali is a teacher of Islamic studies by profession and a researcher in the Islamic sciences. He currently serves as a full-time instructor of the Arabic language, Islamic law, Hadith, and Islamic Doctrine at the Institute of Islamic Education in Elgin, IL and teaches Islamic law and history part-time for Darul Hikmah. His fields of specialization include Islamic law, hadith, and education.