I learnt the hard way that backbiting was wrong early on in life. Sat on the doorstep of my aunt’s house in Morocco one sweltering summer; munching on a jammie dodger, my younger cousin and I were discussing matters attuned to a 7 and 8 year old’s line of thinking. Two girls of similar age walked past us who I had recognised from the local farm next to my grandparent’s house.
Not yet out of earshot, my cousin, deep in focus extracting the jam from her biscuit, said a mean word or two, somewhat to the effect of ‘who does she think she is?’, and then a moment of pure terror shot through my spine as the girl, with strong muscle built from working the farms turned around…and looked at me.
I should probably mention appearance here before I continue. My cousin was cute and chubby, with a look of innocence permeated on her little cherub face.
I on the other hand was tall, skinny and hadn’t quite figured out how to smile. I only thought to relax my facial muscles when in my teenage years; a friend admitted the reason for befriending me was that I looked like a bully who could protect her. Anyway I digress.
The girl edged towards me, with eyes firmly locked in mine and asked me what I had said. I tried to look over at my cousin, but found her still busy extracting the jam from her dodger. As I meekly whispered that I had said nothing; her eyes glanced towards my prized possession on my wrist; a watch with a dolphin icon as the dial. She firmly gripped my arm, looked at the watch, back at me and then the watch, before mercifully deciding ‘only because it would be rude’. She dropped my arm and walked off into the distance.
My cousin, who seemed completed unphased by the near theft of my watch and that I was blamed for her action, had now finished her biscuit and was about to make another comment. I don’t quite remember what I did, but I would like to think I momentarily clasped my hand over her chubby little face and muffled her speech.
I think back to this event a lot; it’s a good example of just how pointless talking about others is, and how a number of things can result from meaningless chatter- hurt feelings, conflict, confusion, unfair assumptions, ill feeling towards others and good time wasted that could be better spent, like thinking up different filling ingredients for jammie dodgers (my cousin and I could have been on to a winning invention).**
Spreading rumours, backbiting, slander and thinking ill of others is vilified in most societies, and yet it can be a real struggle to tread what can sometimes be a very delicate line. The Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) once asked his companions what backbiting is and said it is ‘saying something about your brother that he dislikes’. Someone then asked, “What if what I say about my brother is true?” The Prophet responded ‘If what you say is true then you have backbitten about him, and if it is not true, then you have slandered him’.
While a number of sins that we engage in may be private and we are ashamed of them, the sin of ill speech, ill thought and encouraging ill thought in others is shared with company. It can sometimes be so subtle, that we don’t even notice we are doing it. In a society where information about a person is readily available, and sometimes actively shared; it is also very easy for assumptions to be made about a person and their character based on very minute details. While not technically backbiting, not thinking the best of our fellow humans and not making 70 excuses for them all contribute towards a heart that does not wither at the point that someone is talked about, for good reason or none. God tells us in the Quran ‘Do not follow blindly what you know not to be true: ears, eyes and heart you will be questioned about all these’ (17:36). In an age where a video is released or an argument ensues between individuals, and we all flock to our timelines and phones to criticize, belittle or shame one another- are we prepared to be questioned about that which we thought to be true or considered so significant as to have an opinion on it?
Is it worth it? To make a comment about some else; a celebrity or politician or next door neighbour enters us into a dark abyss ready to assume a position of arrogance unknowingly, similar to a black ant on a black stone on a dark night. ‘Believers, no one group of men should jeer at another, who may after all be better than them; no one group of women should jeer at another, who may after all be better than them; do not speak ill of one another; do not use offensive nicknames for one another…Believers, avoid making too many assumptions- some assumptions are sinful- and do not spy on one another or speak ill of people behind their backs: would any of you like to eat the flesh of your dead brother? No you would hate it. So be mindful of God’ (49:11-12).
God likens speaking badly of our fellow human being as though we are eating their flesh-just consider the savagery and brutality of that act, and how it is achieved in gossiping form. The final part of the verse ‘so be mindful of God’ is telling. If we are truly conscious of God, we have no need or matter to be meddling into the affairs of others, or making judgements or speaking unnecessarily. This state of consciousness is also important in not relaying to an individual if we have heard someone speak ill of them so as to not cause conflict as well as not listening to ill conversation even if we are not participating.
In essence we should be working towards having no interest in the private matters of others, unless it is to help them grow and with that comes context and approach, for instance privately advising a person with kind and sincere words.
Trying to navigate myself towards this path of ‘thinking and assuming good’ needs action, and this journey needs reminders:
- Try and have good intentions when meeting company.
- Before speaking, ask yourself three questions: ‘ Is this true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?’
- Ask loved ones to remind you when you edge near the slippery slope of ill speech.
- Politely change the subject if conversation is negative and targeted at a person not present.
- Politely ask the person speaking if the topic of discussion is not backbiting/ slander?
- Momentarily walk away from a large group busy in negative discussion.
- Unfollow a person on social media whose updates may bother you and therefore increase your ill thought of them.
A while ago, I found my watch with the dolphin icon as a dial, and I recounted the story, and how perhaps had we not started on a wrong foot, that little girl from the local farm may have ended up a friend, or a third partner in what could have become an alternative jammie dodger enterprise.
** As this post relates to talking about others, I feel a disclaimer as to including the story about my cousin and I is necessary. I have included the anecdote as it is a story that I feel I can learn from and hope others can too. The fact that the incident refers to us as children whose actions are not accounted for was a deciding factor for inclusion.