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Quranic Community #18 | Suspicion, Spying and Backbiting: a Natural Progression

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Al-Ḥujurāt has dealt with a collection of interpersonal social ills including ridicule, fault-finding, insult, and using derogatory nicknames. Unlike the universal Qur’ānic code, human legislation can only go as far as to deal with sensible manifestations of evil conduct. Al-Ḥujurāt vividly demonstrates the transcendence of Islam’s social code. Rooting out evil is beyond its tangible materialisation, but starts at what is harboured in the metaphysical human dimension; in the heart and mind. Although some will dub this as ‘controlling’, Islam’s regulation of the inner is made to protect humans from the ‘secret’ and ‘private’ evils of one another before they have a chance to develop into the physical realm.

Verse 12

يا أَيُّهَا الَّذينَ آمَنُوا اجتَنِبوا كَثيرًا مِنَ الظَّنِّ إِنَّ بَعضَ الظَّنِّ إِثمٌ ۖ وَلا تَجَسَّسوا وَلا يَغتَب بَعضُكُم بَعضًا ۚ أَيُحِبُّ أَحَدُكُم أَن يَأكُلَ لَحمَ أَخيهِ مَيتًا فَكَرِهتُموهُ ۚ وَاتَّقُوا اللَّهَ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ تَوّابٌ رَحيمٌ

You who have Iman, avoid most suspicion. Indeed, some suspicion is a crime. And do not spy and do not backbite one another. Would any of you like to eat his brother’s dead flesh? No, you would hate it. And have Taqwa of Allāh. Allāh is Ever-Returning, Most Merciful.[1]

Before and immediately after Allāh the Most Merciful’s exhortation to not call one another derogatory names, He tenderly furnishes us with a final and intense appeal to our most eminent name: “you who have Iman”. He will be the first to implement that highest legislation. He appeals to our Iman for the sake of distinction and importance, urging us to adopt those covert and internal actions and ethics due of a believer towards others. It begins with an address to those who believe in Allāh and His Messenger (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) to not come near to a lot of suspicion, for much of it is evil. This is not to forbid suspicion completely, because He enticed us to suspect good of one another, like when He says:[2]

لَّوْلَا إِذْ سَمِعْتُمُوهُ ظَنَّ الْمُؤْمِنُونَ وَالْمُؤْمِنَاتُ بِأَنفُسِهِمْ خَيْرًا وَقَالُوا هَـٰذَا إِفْكٌ مُّبِينٌ

Why, when you heard it, did you not, as men and women of the believers, instinctively think good thoughts (Dhann) and say, ‘This is obviously a lie’?[3]

They are encouraged to utter their good suspicions, even if unsure of their veracity, but are forbidden against even harbouring evil suspicions, let alone to utter them. The believer is automatically leant the privilege of being thought good of. Other types of suspicion may even be necessary, such as in times of war. A lot of suspicion should thus be avoided to be on the safe side, just in case it leads to a person falling into suspicion of that which is entirely forbidden. ‘Umar (rady Allāh ‘anhu) is reported to have said:

Only suspect good of any word uttered by your brother, if it is remotely possible to interpret it to have meant good.[4]

The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said:

 إِيَّاكُمْ وَالظَّنَّ, فَإِنَّ اَلظَّنَّ أَكْذَبُ اَلْحَدِيثِ

Beware of suspicion because suspicion is the most untrue of all speech.[5]

This is does not imply avoiding any naturally occurring suspicion in your mind, as this is beyond one’s control. Rather, it commands that suspicion needs to be scrutinised, even if in the mind. If you are unable to establish the veracity of your suspicion, belie yourself and struggle against it until you manage to overcome it.[6]

And do not spy”. Do not actively look for one another’s faults or investigate one another’s secrets in pursuit of finding one other’s faults. Reason and conclude with what is immediately apparent to you.[7] Use the apparent (Dhahir) to praise or censure, not by what you discover. Tajassus is not only to look through a keyhole, as per the typical image of ‘spying’, but also to scrounge and search for your brother or sister’s flaws and to build judgements on what you have gone out of your way to find.

And do not backbite one another”. Do not say something about another person in their absence that they would despise to be told upfront.[8] Realise that it is about what ‘they’ would despise to be told, not what ‘you’ would hate to tell them.[9] The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) asked his Companions:

أَتَدْرُونَ مَا الْغِيبَةُ‏.‏ قَالُوا اللَّهُ وَرَسُولُهُ أَعْلَمُ ‏.‏ قَالَ ‏”‏ ذِكْرُكَ أَخَاكَ بِمَا يَكْرَهُ ‏”‏ ‏.‏ قِيلَ أَفَرَأَيْتَ إِنْ كَانَ فِي أَخِي مَا أَقُولُ قَالَ ‏”‏ إِنْ كَانَ فِيهِ مَا تَقُولُ فَقَدِ اغْتَبْتَهُ وَإِنْ لَمْ يَكُنْ فِيهِ فَقَدْ بَهَتَّهُ”

Do you know what backbiting is?” They (the Companions) said: “Allāh and His Messenger know best.” Thereupon he (the Prophet) said: “Backbiting implies your talking about your brother in a manner which he does not like.” It was said to him: “What if I actually find (that failing) in my brother which I made a mention of?” He said: “If (that failing) is actually found (in him) as you state, you have in fact backbitten him, and if not, you have slandered him.[10]

The companion ‘Abdullah b. Mas’ud (rady Allāhu ‘anhu) says:

No morsel of food is worse than backbiting your brother. Would any of you like to eat his brother’s dead flesh? No, you would hate it.

Would one of you desire to eat his brother’s flesh” after his death? Just as you would wholly despise to eat from a rotting corpse – not least that it is impure and Haram – you should despise your speaking ill of your brother behind his back whilst he is alive.[11] Equate the feeling you have towards both actions. The validity of this Qur’ānic resemblance, metaphorically speaking, can be viewed in three ways:

1) The backbiter is ‘consuming the flesh’ through defaming another’s reputation – thereby eating into their presence and honour.

2) The victim is his ‘brother’ (or sister) in Islam.

3) It is ‘in a state of his (or her) death’ through it being in their absence and their inability to defend themselves at the moment of that defamation, much like if they were lifeless.[12]

And have Taqwa of Allāh” by avoiding his prohibitions, including evil suspicion, searching for your sibling’s faults, exposing what Allāh has hidden, backbiting, as well as other divine prohibitions. “Allāh is Ever-Returning, Most Merciful”. He returns to His servant what that servant wants from Him if that servant returns to his Lord what his Lord wants of him. And Allāh is Rahīm, never punishing after repentance.[13]

Injunctions that Imply the Opposite

The prohibitions outlined in these verses of Al-Ḥujurāt imply their opposite.[14] To not ridicule others would imply speaking highly of, and encouraging one another. If ridicule demoralises the victim, a Muslim should exhibit behaviours that moralise their siblings. To not find fault with one another would imply searching for one another’s competencies. This also means to speak of where your siblings in Islam excel rather than where they fall short, to overlook their human flaws and find justifications for their failures.

To not insult each other with derogatory nicknames implies to use honourable and inspiring titles. Recall how the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) addressed his companions with hugely uplifting names. Hamzah is the ‘Lion of Allāh’, and Khalid is the ‘Sword of Allāh’. Abu Bakr is ‘the Siddīq’, ‘Umar is the Fārūq, Talha is the living martyr, ‘Uthman is the one whom the angels are shy of, and al-Zubair is the Prophet’s ‘Hawāri’ (disciple) and so on. The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said:

إِنَّ لِكُلِّ نَبِيٍّ حَوَارِيًّا، وَإِنَّ حَوَارِيَّ الزُّبَيْرُ بْنُ الْعَوَّامِ

Every prophet used to have a Hawāri, and my Hawāri is Al-Zubair b. Al-`Awwām.[15]

One can argue that the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) was simply stating truths. Imagine, however, the effect these labels had on the Companions and the encouragement and zeal such titles planted in their hearts. Now imagine if they had been defined and labelled by their mistakes which they no doubt made, and how this would have instead diffused their passion and weakened their resolve.

To avoid most suspicion would imply that a Muslim should suspect the best in other Muslims. Suspect in them what you would of yourself. “Do not spy” would imply that if your sibling has flawed in secret, find ways of keeping those flaws hidden. If you ascertain evidence that has come about through rummaging, assume to have not heard it or seen anything. “Do not backbite one another” would imply speaking well of one another in each other’s absence, particular those you have disparaged before. There is no risk of inflating egos by spreading the good reputation of one another and endorsing each other!

Evil Suspicion Leads to Spying Which Leads to Backbiting

How do spying and backbiting, mentioned second and third in the verse, relate to the evil suspicion that introduces verse 12? Think of the following example. Person ‘A’ sees person ‘B’ driving a very lavish car. Person B is known for being bankrupt. Person ‘A’ begins to harbour evil suspicions about person ‘B’, questioning where he got the money to afford such a car from. If not belied and resisted, person ‘A’ may choose to further investigate (i.e. spy) the private matters of ‘B’ to determine where he obtained all the money from. Person ‘A’ may perceive a dubious matter and may have already arrived at a preconceived judgement. Person ‘A’ will thus proceed to speaking ill about person ‘B’ in his absence (backbiting).

If enthused by his evil suspicion, person ‘A’ will use anything he discovers to validate his suspicion simply because he wants to interpret it in a particular way. Alternatively, he may actually discover something his victim had hidden. His suspicions may therefore prove to be true. But in such a circumstance, not only was his exposition through backbiting a sin, his covert investigation itself was a sin!

B. ʿĀshūr mentions that harbouring and nurturing evil suspicion is bound to cause it to seem like certain knowledge. Everything ones sees afterwards then ‘validates’ those forged ‘certainties’.[16] Recall Bani al-Mustaliq mentioned earlier. Al-Walīd b. ‘Uqbah (rady Allāhu ‘anhu) suspected that the tribe would display hostility and not pay the Zakāh. When they came intending to pay the Zakāh, al-Walīd saw their assemblage and weapons as a validation of his suspicion because he did not scrutinise it.

If Tajassus (spying) emerges from Dhann (evil suspicion), then if we take it back further, Tajassus and Dhann are two actions that are bound to ravage brotherhood (in the previous verse). Spying only takes place when there exists a lack of trust, and if discovered, the victim also ceases to trust the perpetrator, maybe even seeking revenge through fighting. Thus, we see how the messages of al-Ḥujurāt are meticulously sequenced and intensely intertwined.

As an important note, although it is necessary to not harbour suspicion against other Muslims, it is also important for us to not draw suspicious thoughts towards us. For example, if we are travelling or ill, there is no need to eat in public during Ramadan. If we are newly married, make it known that the person you are walking with is your wife or husband, and so on. Our mother Safiyyah (rady Allāhu ‘anhā) said:

I came to visit the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) while he was in the state of I’tikaf [seclusion in the mosque during the last ten days of Ramadan]. After having talked to him, I got up to return. The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) also got up with me and accompanied me a part of the way. At that moment two Ansāri men passed by. When they saw him, they quickened their pace. The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said to them: ‘Do not hurry. She is Safiyyah, daughter of Huyai, my wife.’ They said: ‘Subhān Allāh O Messenger of Allāh! (meaning you are far away from any suspicion).’ The Messenger of Allāh (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said: ‘Satan circulates in a person like blood (in the blood streams). I apprehended lest Satan should drop some evil thoughts in your minds.’[17]  

If this is the Messenger of Allāh, we are much more worthy of such caution and assisting the hearts of those around us.

How does a person repent from Ghībah?

The first stage of repentance is to stop backbiting the victim. The next step is to sincerely intend to not backbite them again. One should embody a sense of regret for what was said in the past. Finally, one should seek the victim’s forgiveness. It could be that informing the victim will cause more upset than if the sin were to be kept secret. Many scholars have said that instead of informing the victim, you should try to undo the sin by praising that person in a similar setting to the one you censured them in. One may also strive to protect that person from the backbiting of others. Their defence will, in shā Allāh, serve to make up for their initial backbiting.[18]

The Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) said:

مَنْ حَمَى مُؤْمِنًا مِنْ مُنَافِقٍ‏.‏ أُرَاهُ قَالَ: بَعَثَ اللَّهُ مَلَكًا يَحْمِي لَحْمَهُ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ مِنْ نَارِ جَهَنَّمَ وَمَنْ رَمَى مُسْلِمًا بِشَىْءٍ يُرِيدُ شَيْنَهُ بِهِ حَبَسَهُ اللَّهُ عَلَى جِسْرِ جَهَنَّمَ حَتَّى يَخْرُجَ مِمَّا قَالَ‏.‏

If anyone guards a believer from a hypocrite, Allāh will send an angel who will guard his flesh on the Day of Resurrection from the fire of Jahannam, but if anyone attacks a Muslim saying something by which he wishes to disgrace him, he will be restrained by Allāh on the bridge over Jahannam until he is acquitted of what he said.[19]

Covering the faults of a believer is in fact one of the divine attributes of Allāh. The characteristics of Allāh that extend to others usually come in pairs. Allāh is the One Who gives life (al-Muhyī) and the One the Who gives death (al-Mumīt); the One Who extends (al-Bāsit) and the One Who withholds (al-Qābid); and so on. However, His absolute names that do not extend to others do not have opposites. Al-Hayy, for instance, which means the Ever-Living, does not have an opposite. One of Allāh’s names is al-Sittīr (the One Who covers), meaning the One Who absolutely covers the faults of His slaves without a befitting opposite. This emphasises how much He dislikes that the faults of His slaves are exposed. For a sinner to wish that their sin was hidden proves that he or she still possesses a glimmer of Iman, enough to beget a sense of shyness![20]

And Allāh knows best.



[1] Al-Qur’ān 49:12

[2] Jami’ al-Bayān fi Ta’wīl al-Qur’ān, Imam al-Tabari

[3] Al-Qur’ān 24:12

[4] Tafsir al-Qur’ān al-‘Athīm, Ibn Kathīr

[5] Bukhari and Muslim

[6] Tafsir Al-Taḥrīr wa al-Tanwīr, Ibn ʿĀshūr

[7] Jami’ al-Bayān fi Ta’wīl al-Qur’ān, Imam al-Tabari

[8] Jami’ al-Bayān fi Ta’wīl al-Qur’ān, Imam al-Tabari

[9] Some will say “I would tell them to their face” as if this undoes the backbiting. The question is not what you would be willing to tell them to their face, but rather, would they like to hear it being told to their face at the point you said it in their absence?

[10] Muslim

[11] Jami’ al-Bayān fi Ta’wīl al-Qur’ān, Imam al-Tabari

[12] Tafsir Al-Taḥrīr wa al-Tanwīr, Ibn ʿĀshūr

[13] Jami’ al-Bayān fi Ta’wīl al-Qur’ān, Imam al-Tabari

[14] Tafsir Al-Taḥrīr wa al-Tanwīr, Ibn ʿĀshūr

[15] Bukhari

[16] Tafsir Al-Taḥrīr wa al-Tanwīr, Ibn ʿĀshūr

[17] Bukhari and Muslim

[18] Tafsir al-Qur’ān al-‘Athīm, Ibn Kathīr

[19] Sunan Abī Dāwūd

[20] Tafsir al-Ḥujurāt by Sheikh Mohammad Metwali al-Sha’rāwi

About Ahmed Hammuda

Ahmed Hammuda is a regular contributor at Islam21c. His interests lie in Qur'anic Tafsir and the field of Middle East Affairs and how they reflect on Muslims living in the West. He is an Electrical Engineer by trade and has been involved in various Da'wah activities over the course of his education and working life. He has transferred the same analytical approach required in engineering into a careful and measured approach in his views and positions.

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