Safeguarding the Good Name of Others

Musa Kâzım GÜLÇÜR

The Qur’an enjoins believers to refrain from indulging in unfounded suspicion, searching for faults, and speaking ill of others:

“O you who believe! Avoid much suspicions, indeed some suspicions are sins. And spy not, neither backbite one another. Would one of you like to eat the flesh of his dead brother? You would hate it (so hate backbiting). And fear Allah. Verily, Allah is the One Who accepts repentance, Most Merciful.” (The Chambers, 49:12)

The Holy Qur’an points to at least three basic prohibitions in this verse:

1. One should not presume bad things about others or think poorly of them.

2. One should not pry into the private business of others.

3. One should not say negative things about others behind their backs—in other words, one should not gossip about them.

Now let us try to understand these three major ideas in the verse, one at a time.

1. Assuming the Best: There are different types of assumptions. In Islam “assuming someone is good,” or having a good opinion and thinking well of others is known as husn al-zann, while “assuming someone is bad,” or thinking bad about others is called su’ al-zann. Husn al-zann, or having good thoughts about others, should be our goal; we should think good of, first of all, God, then God’s Messenger, and then all the believers, and even all human beings. On the other hand, it is sinful to have negative thoughts about others without proof, or to nurture su’al-zann, which means disregarding a person’s good side and thinking badly about them.

In Islamic teaching it is essential to view others as good unless or until we have seen definite evidence to the contrary. Any person must be presumed good, even if incorrect behaviour or bad characteristics are suspected; this is true unless such suspicions are confirmed by evidence. In fact, this is the same principle that guides the legal formula, “innocent until proven guilty,” where the burden of proof lies with the accuser, and the accused is blameless until incontrovertible evidence proves them to be guilty. Since the burden of proof is on the accuser, those who cannot prove their assumptions engage in “presumption” or conjecture, which is wrong in both religious and civil laws. The Messenger warned the believers, “Desist from saying ‘I think (such-and-such about so-and-so).’ For conjecture is the most deceptive (form) of talk.” [Bukhari, Adab, 57–58]

2. Avoiding Meddling and Prying: Safeguarding personal dignity and not prying into the faults of others are important manners that should be observed in social life. In relation to this, God has commanded, “Do not spy on one another.” In the aforementioned verse, the Arabic word tajassus, derived from the verb jassa, is used. The meaning of this verb is to dig for information about something, to think about it and to try to comprehend its hidden face. [Ibn Manzur, Lisan al-Arab, 6/38]

God decrees, “Do not search out shameful things.” This is a sensitive subject. Indeed, the Messenger of God warned us about the punishment for such actions: “O you who profess faith with your tongues but do not confirm it with your hearts! Do not torment Muslims, do not pry into their private lives. If you try to uncover the secrets of your Muslim brother, God will uncover your secrets. And whoever seeks for shameful things in others, even if they are in their own house, God will bring them to shame before people.” [Tirmidhi, Birr, 85]

Finding people’s hidden faults, bringing them into the open and publicizing them naturally provokes shame in the one who does this, and that shame is a signal from God. The result is that such a person will begin to do publicly things that they used to feel compelled to hide. From the perspective of akhlaq, this is an undesirable position. The Prophet said, “If anyone covers the faults of a Muslim, God will cover his faults on the Judgment Day.” [Ibn Maja, Sunan, Vol. II, Hadith no. 2547]

Thus, we should not pry in an attempt to find out the faults or private affairs of others, but rather strive to conceal their faults.

3. Avoiding Backbiting: Islamic scholars agree that backbiting is haram (prohibited). It is compared to eating the flesh of a human being: “…do not backbite (against one another). Would any of you love to eat the flesh of his dead brother? You would abhor it!” (Hujurat 49:12).

The Companions once asked the Messenger of God, “What if the fault we speak of is one our brother truly has?” He replied, “If the person truly has the fault you speak of, then you are backbiting. And if he does not, then you have slandered him.” [Muslim, Birr, 70; Tirmidhi, Birr, 23]

Clearly, then, to say something about someone that would upset them if they heard it is backbiting, a great sin. However, if it is not true of them, then it is slander, an even greater sin.

Just as it is prohibited to speak negatively about other people, the person who does not protest when hearing such conversations has also committed a wrong act. If a believer violates this rule but another keeps silent and allows it, that silence is also a form of transgression. Basically, one must not allow oneself to be found in such circumstances, and one should refuse to listen to gossip. The promise of the Messenger of God must not be forgotten: “One who guards the honour and reputation of a sister or brother in Islam in their absence will be rescued by God from the fire of Hell.” [Ibn Hanbal, Musnad, 6/461]

Translated by Jessica ÖZALP

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