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Conflict resolution – suspicion, backbiting and our roots: lessons from Surah al Hujuraat

Sūrat al-Ḥujurāt is the most concise and comprehensive surah in regards to conflict resolution and building cohesive communities, starting with our manners with the Prophet (SAW), then the believers, then with evildoers. If we focus on aayaat 12-13  alone, we learn

يَـٰٓأَيُّهَا ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُواْ ٱجۡتَنِبُواْ كَثِيرٗا مِّنَ ٱلظَّنِّ إِنَّ بَعۡضَ ٱلظَّنِّ إِثۡمٞۖ وَلَا تَجَسَّسُواْ وَلَا يَغۡتَب بَّعۡضُكُم بَعۡضًاۚ أَيُحِبُّ أَحَدُكُمۡ أَن يَأۡكُلَ لَحۡمَ أَخِيهِ مَيۡتٗا فَكَرِهۡتُمُوهُۚ وَٱتَّقُواْ ٱللَّهَۚ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ تَوَّابٞ رَّحِيمٞ

O you who have believed, avoid much suspicion.
Indeed, some suspicion is sin.
And do not spy or backbite each other.
Would one of you like to eat the flesh of his brother when dead?  You would detest it.
And fear Allah;
Indeed, Allah is Accepting of repentance and Merciful.

In this ayah, Allah(SWT) tells us that suspicion is NOT forbidden generally, but excessive suspicion and following every kind of suspicion is sinful. So what is excessive suspicion?

عَنْ أَبِي هُرَيْرَةَ أَنَّ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ قَالَ إِيَّاكُمْ وَالظَّنَّ فَإِنَّ الظَّنَّ أَكْذَبُ الْحَدِيثِ وَلَا تَحَسَّسُوا وَلَا تَجَسَّسُوا وَلَا تَنَافَسُوا وَلَا تَحَاسَدُوا وَلَا تَبَاغَضُوا وَلَا تَدَابَرُوا وَكُونُوا عِبَادَ اللَّهِ إِخْوَانًا
The Prophet (ﷺ) said, “Beware of suspicion,
for suspicion is the worst of false tales;
and do not look for the others’ faults and
do not spy,
and do not be jealous of one another,
and do not desert (cut your relation with) one another,
and do not hate one another;
and O Allah’s worshipers! Be brothers (as Allah has ordered you!”) Sahih al-Bukhari 6064

Al-Hasan al-Basri said: “The believer reserves judgement until the matter is proven.” 

‘Umar (RA): “Beware fitnah, for a word at the time of fitnah could be as devastating as the sword.” 

Ali (RA) is reported have said:
“Do not be quick to expose anothers sin, for he may be forgiven for it.
And do not feel yourself safe even from a small sin, since you may be punished for it.
Every one of who who comes to know the faults of others should not expose them in view of what he knows about his own faults, and should remain busy in gratitude that he has been saved from that in which others have been indulging”

Imam Al-Nawawi (rh) said: Some of the scholars said that tahassus with letter HA, ‘snooping’ means listening to other people’s conversations, and tajassus with letter JEEM, ‘spying’ means seeking out other people’s faults. it was also suggested that tajassus means looking for secrets. The word is mostly used in the sense of evil. The Jasūs ‘spy’ is the one who seeks out secrets for evil purposes and the nāmūs is the one who seeks out secrets for good purposes.

Nameemah is a major sin – it means telling some people what others have said about them in order to cause trouble among them. The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allaah be upon him) said: “No person who spreads nameemah will enter Paradise.” According to another report, “No eavesdropper (qattaat)…” Narrated by al-Bukhaari, 6056; Muslim, 105.

Ibn Mājah recorded a ḥadīth from Ibn ‘Abbās ( رضي الله عنه ) that the prophet ( صلّى الله عليه وسلّم ) said: Whoever conceals the faults of his Muslim brother, Allah will conceal his faults on the Day of Resurrection. And whoever exposes the faults of his Muslim brother, Allah will expose his faults even by revealing those he committed in (the privacy of) his home.[Abū Dāwūd (no. 4880) and Imam Aḥmad.]

مَنْ سَتَرَ عَوْرَةَ أَخِيهِ الْمُسْلِمِ سَتَرَ اللَّهُ عَوْرَتَهُ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ ، وَمَنْ كَشَفَ عَوْرَةَ أَخِيهِ الْمُسْلِمِ كَشَفَ اللَّهُ عَوْرَتَهُ حَتَّى يَفْضَحَهُ بِهَا فِي بَيْتِهِ

It is reported that some of the Salaf said something similar: “I have met people having no shameful faults but they began to mention the faults of others, so the people began discovering their faults. And I met people who had faults, yet they used to conceal other people’s faults, so their own faults were forgotten.”

And know that people or are two types in this regard:

A) People whose faults are not know to others in that they may have committed them in private but nothing of their sins is known. If they make a mistake or sin, it is not permissible to reveal or expose it or even speak about it. That would be the forbidden type of back-biting that has been condemned in the texts. Regarding this, Allah (عزّ وجلّ) said:

إِنَّ الَّذِينَ يُحِبُّونَ أَن تَشِيعَ الْفَاحِشَةُ فِي الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا لَهُمْ عَذَابٌ أَلِيمٌ فِي الدُّنْيَا وَالْآخِرَةِ
Indeed, those who like that immorality should be spread and publicized among those who believe, there will be for them a painful punishment in this world and in the hereafter.[25]

Some righteous officials used to instruct those who enjoin good upon people saying, “Try to conceal the sinners, for publicizing their sins is a means of showing the faults of the people of Islam, and the most important thing is to conceal people’s faults.”

Likewise, if a remorseful person comes repenting and admitting his crime, he is not to be exposed or inquired about. Rather, he is ordered to return and conceal his affair as the prophet ( صلّى الله عليه وسلّم ) instructed Mā’iz and a Ghāmīdee woman. [26]

Similarly, there has come a ḥadīth in which the prophet ( صلّى الله عليه وسلّم ) said:
أَقِيلُوا ذَوِي الْهَيْئَاتِ عَثَرَاتِهِمْ إِلاّ الْحُدُودَ
Pardon those of prestigious character of their faults except the prescribed punishments. [28]

b) The second type of people with respect to sins is those who are well-known for their sins, those who openly and publicly commit them. They themselves are neither concerned at all with the sins they commit, nor with what people say about them. Regarding such people, there is no problem with inquiring about their affairs in order to establish the prescribed rulings against them. Some of our companions have explicitly stated this using (SAW) request to Unays ( رضي الله عنه ):
وَاغْدُ يَا أُنَيْسُ إِلَى امْرَأَةِ هَذَا فَإِنْ اعْتَرَفَتْ فَارْجُمْهَا Go in the morning, Unays, to the wife of this man (she was accused of adultery) and if she confesses, stone her.[29]
Also, regarding this type of people, intercession is not to be made on their behalf when taken to account even if the news has not reached the leader. 

One kind of conjecture is that which is morally approved and laudable, and desirable and praiseworthy from religious point of view, e.g. a good conjecture in respect of Allah and His Messenger and the believers and those people with whom one comes in common contact daily and concerning whom there may be no rational ground for having an evil conjecture.

The second kind of conjecture is that which one cannot do without in practical life, e.g. in a law court a judge has to consider the evidence placed before him and give his decision on the basis of the most probable conjecture, for he cannot have direct knowledge of the facts of the matter, and the opinion that is based on evidence is mostly based on the most probable conjecture and not on certainty. 

The third kind of conjecture, which is although a suspicion, is permissible in nature, and it cannot be regarded as a sin. For instance, if there are clear signs and pointers in the character of a person (or persons), or in his dealings and conduct, on the basis of which he may not deserve to enjoy one’s good conjecture, and there are rational grounds for having suspicions against him, the Shariah does not demand that one should behave like a simpleton and continue to have a good conjecture about him. The last limit of this lawful conjecture, however, is that one should conduct himself cautiously in order to ward off any possible mischief from him; it is not right to take an action against him only on the basis of a conjecture.

The fourth kind of conjecture which is, in fact, a sin is that one should entertain a suspicion in respect of a person without any ground, or should start with suspicion..

It does not behoove a believer that he should spy on the hidden affairs of other people, and should try to peep at them from behind curtains to find out their defects and their weaknesses. This also includes reading other people’s private letters, listening secretly to private conversation, peeping into the neighbor’s house, and trying to get information in different ways about the domestic life or private affairs of others. This is grave immorality which causes serious mischief in society. That is why the Prophet (peace be upon him) once said in an address about those who pry into other people’s affairs:

يَا مَعْشَرَ مَنْ آمَنَ بِلِسَانِهِ وَلَمْ يَدْخُلْ الإِيمَانُ قَلْبَهُ ، لا تَغْتَابُوا الْمُسْلِمِينَ وَلا تَتَّبِعُوا عَوْرَاتِهِمْ ، فَإِنَّهُ مَنْ اتَّبَعَ عَوْرَاتِهِمْ يَتَّبِعُ اللَّهُ عَوْرَتَهُ ، وَمَنْ يَتَّبِعْ اللَّهُ عَوْرَتَهُ يَفْضَحْهُ فِي بَيْتِهِ

Oh you who have believed with your tongues but faith has not yet entered your hearts, do not back-bite Muslims. Do not seek to discover their faults, for whoever seeks after their faults, Allah will seek his faults. And if Allah seeks after someone’s faults, he will expose him for even (what he committed) in his home. [Abū Dāwūd (no. 4880) and Imam Aḥmad.]

Once at night Umar(RA) heard the voice of a person who was singing in his house. He became curious and climbed the wall. There he saw wine as well as a woman present. He shouted at the man, saying: O enemy of God, do you think you will disobey Allah, and Allah will not expose your secret? The man replied: Do not make haste, O commander of the faithful: if I have committed one sin, you have committed three sins: Allah has forbidden spying, and you have spied; Allah has commanded that one should enter the houses by the doors, and you have entered it by climbing over the wall; Allah has commanded that one should avoid entering the other people’s houses without permission, and you have entered my house without my permission. Hearing this reply Umar confessed his error, and did not take any action against the man, but made him to promise that he would follow the right way in future. (Abi Bakr Muhammad bin Jafar al- Kharaiti, Makarim al-Akhlaq). This shows that it is not only forbidden for the individuals but also for the Islamic government itself to pry into the secrets of the people and discover their sins and errors and then seize them for punishment. The same thing has been said in a Hadith in which the Prophet (peace be upon him) has said: When the ruler starts searching for the causes of suspicions among the people he corrupts them. (Abu Daud).

The Prophet is quoted as saying: “If you have doubts, do not investigate.” [Related by al-Tabarani] What this means is that people remain innocent, enjoying all their rights, freedom and status until it is absolutely clear that they have committed some offence. It is not sufficient just to suspect them of having committed something so they are then pursued with the aim of establishing whether they are guilty or not.

This verse shows us the limit to which Islam goes in protecting people’s freedom, integrity, rights and status. 

The Prophet is quoted as saying: “If you have doubts, do not investigate.” [Related by al-Tabarani] What this means is that people remain innocent, enjoying all their rights, freedom and status until it is absolutely clear that they have committed some offence. It is not sufficient just to suspect them of having committed something so they are then pursued with the aim of establishing whether they are guilty or not.

This verse shows us the limit to which Islam goes in protecting people’s freedom, integrity, rights and status. 

A’ishah reports that she said to the Prophet: “It is enough that Safiyyah [another wife of the Prophet] is so and so [referring to the fact that she is short].” The Prophet said to her: “You have said a word that would contaminate the entire volume of seawater.” She added that she imitated someone to him, but he said: “I would rather not imitate anyone, even if I would get so and so for it.” [Related by Abu Dawud.]

Anas ibn Malik quotes the Prophet as saying: “When I was taken on my ascension to heaven, I passed by people with copper nails, scratching their faces and chests. I said: ‘Gabriel, who are these?’ He said: ‘These are the ones who eat the flesh of others and detract from their honour.'” [Related by Abu Dawud.]

As Muslims we often forget how important someone’s honour is. We do not think twice before cursing someone, blaming someone, backbiting someone. Especially when it’s on social media. 

Al-Mustawrid reported that the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, said, “If anyone eats a meal at the expense of a Muslim’s honour, Allah will feed him a like amount of Hellfire. If anyone clothes himself with a garment at the expense of a Muslim’s honour, Allah will clothe him with a like amount of Hellfire. If anyone achieves a position of showing-off and hypocrisy at the expense of a Muslim’s honour, Allah will put him in a position of showing-off and hypocrisy on the Day of Rising. [Adaab Al Mufrad – Book 12, Hadith 3]

Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Do you know what backbiting is?” They said, “Allah and His Messenger know best.” The Prophet said, “To mention your brother in a way he dislikes.” It was said, “What if it is true about him?” The Prophet said, “If what you say about him is true, it is backbiting. If it is not true, it is slander.” [Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2589]

5 things to watch out for that can lead to backbiting

  1. Not understanding that backbiting is as simple as mentioning something about someone that they wouldn’t appreciate.
  2. Desire for revenge: “since they said something about me I’ll say something about them.”
  3. Peer pressure. Wanting to feel like part of the conversation by joining in the backbiting.
  4. Trying to raise one’s own status by putting someone else down.
  5. Jest and play. Trying to make others laugh or have a good time by making fun of someone.

As Ibn al-Qayyim explains (‘Paragons’ p. 70):

“Since the backbiter shreds his brother’s honour in his absence, he becomes like the one who tears his brother’s flesh apart once his soul has become absent through death. Just as the person being backbitten is unable to defend himself while absent, the deceased person whose flesh is being ripped apart is unable to defend his lifeless body.”

One righteous said: I swear by Allah it is difficult for a man to know his own intention, how can he judge others intentions.

We are excused for negative thoughts which we don’t talk about or act upon.

Find excuses for your brothers and always think good of others.

Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Verily, thinking well about Allah Almighty is a part of the excellent worship of Allah.” [Musnad Aḥmad 8694]

إِنَّ حُسْنَ الظَّنِّ بِاللَّهِ عَزَّ وَجَلَّ مِنْ حُسْنِ عِبَادَةِ اللَّهِ

Al Hasan al Basri (rh) would say “Verily a believer thinks positively of His Lord, and does righteous deeds. While an evildoer thinks negatively of His Lord, and does evil deeds.” This means that when making dua, think positively of Allah(SWT), trusting in His Wisdom and believing that He will forgive you and give you what you need.

Similarly, with the recall the status of the righteous who used to think well of their fellow Muslims and make excuses for them. They would say, “You should make seventy excuses for your brother.” Ibn Seereen (rh)  said, “If you come to know that a brother has harmed you with either a word or a deed, you should make an excuse for him; if you did not find one, you should say, ‘There may be an excuse that I do not know of.’” When you exert your utmost to make excuses for the words and deeds of others, you will save yourself the trouble of assuming and you will avoid blaming your fellows excessively.

Sa’id ibn Zayd reported: The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Verily, the worst act of usury is to attack the reputation of a Muslim without a just cause.” [Sunan Abī Dāwūd 4876]

إِنَّ مِنْ أَرْبَى الرِّبَا الِاسْتِطَالَةَ فِي عِرْضِ الْمُسْلِمِ بِغَيْرِ حَقٍّ

Abu Ad-Dardā’ (may Allah be pleased with him) reported that the Messenger of Allah (may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him) said: “Whoever protects the honor of his brother in his absence, Allah will protect his face from the Fire on the Day of Judgment.” [At-Tirmidhi]

The alternative to backbiting is for a Muslim to:

  • Protecting the honour of brothers and sisters
  • Thinking well of others and not finding faults
  • Forberance (hilm) and deliberation (anaa)
  • Justice
  • Politness

يَٰٓأَيُّهَا ٱلنَّاسُ إِنَّا خَلَقْنَٰكُم مِّن ذَكَرٍ وَأُنثَىٰ وَجَعَلْنَٰكُمْ شُعُوبًا وَقَبَآئِلَ لِتَعَارَفُوٓا۟ ۚ إِنَّ أَكْرَمَكُمْ عِندَ ٱللَّهِ أَتْقَىٰكُمْ ۚ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ عَلِيمٌ خَبِيرٌ

O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allāh is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allāh is Knowing and Acquainted.

The Prophet ﷺ said, “Truly, Allah loves the servant of His who is righteous, content, and unknown” [Reported by Muslim].

«إِنَّ اللَّهَ يُحِبُّ الْعَبْدَ التَّقِيَّ الْغَنِيَّ الْخَفِيَّ»

So strive to be a worshipper of Allah who:

1) has taqwā, and is conscious that he has to answer to Allah for all his actions

2) is thankful for what he has, not greedy for what he doesn’t, content with his blessings

3) not desiring fame or wanting to be the center of attention, for desiring fame corrupts the heart, and attention comes with a whole set of unnecessary problems

In this verse Allah SWT informs us that the whole point of us being created as different people and nations is to get to know each other.Yet Allah SWT knows that we would think that differences may cause us to think some people are better than others, so he reminds us that the ones who are best in the eyes of Allah SWT are the ones who are most fearful of Allah SWT (taqwa). And he knows some people will claim they are more fearful, so he reminds us that it is Allah SWT that is the all knowing of who among us are the best. Basically there is no way for us to claim superiority, so relax, get to know each other and leave judgment to Allah SWT.

Abu Hurayrah narrates that the Prophet (saws) said: “Learn your lineages to thereby maintain your family ties. Maintaining family ties spark love among family, increases wealth, and prolongs life.”

[Sound: Narrated by at-Tirmidhi (1979), and Ahmad (8868), and al-Hâkim (4/161)]




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