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Blank slates: Why Islam mentions backbiting and spying together, and why they are both forbidden

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A New Life

Imagine a man who has done many wrong things in his life. One day he decides to change course and become a better man. But people around him continue to judge him as if he is the same man as before. For this reason he moves to another town to start a new life.

In the new community, people treat him kindly, ready to accept him as a good man, as if he has no bad past. This creates joy in his heart and motivates him to be better each day.

But what if someone from this new community decides to spy into this person’s past? The man’s past bad deeds become known, and the spy will start to treat him differently. And if our spy decides to commit the other sin, backbiting, the bad news of the man’s past become widespread, and people in the community start to treat him like a bad man. His feelings of joy will disappear, to be replaced with depression, dislike for his community, and a desire to escape from it.

This is why Islam forbids backbiting and spying, and why it mentions them together in the same verse:

O you who have attained to faith! Avoid most guesswork [about one another] for, behold, some of [such] guesswork is [in itself] a sin; and do not spy upon one another, and neither allow your­selves to speak ill of one another behind your backs. Would any of you like to eat the flesh of his dead brother? Nay, you would loathe it! And be conscious of God. Verily, God is an accep­tor of repentance, a dispenser of grace! (Quran 49:12)
Islam wants to enable people to change, and wants society to forgive and forget and give people second chances.
Islam wants a person’s current and past misdeeds to be unknown. Because when you treat a person, regardless of how bad they are or have been, as a good and acceptable human being, it creates a good change in them. It creates a motivation in their heart to change for the better, to become the person you think they are.
But if society loves to find out bad things about others, it will start to treat people badly, even if they have changed for the better. And the prejudice creates a motivation in the heart for these people to be as bad as society thinks they are. It creates dislike and hatred in both parties. It is a loss for everyone involved, and prevents many great things and blessings that could exist otherwise.
The worst thing is that in many Muslim societies the backbiting continues to hurt for generations. A person is considered bad an un-marriageable because their grandfather was so an so.
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It is not backbiting if …

Someone spoke ill of a particular person because he neglected his daughter. Knowing the said man, I mentioned that since we do not know what is in this man’s heart, and since we do not know what burdens and troubles he has, it is unfair to focus on just one negative part of his personality and defame him for it.
Her reply? It is not backbiting if it is true.
My reply:
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This, sadly, is how many Muslims seem to think. 
In case it is unclear, it is backbiting only if you think it is true or might be true. If the bad things you say about someone are false and you know them to be false (or you know that they have a high likelihood of being false), this becomes another sin called ramyi or qadhf (calumny or defamation in English), which the Quran speaks much more severely about. For example, people who make up stories about other people’s virtue are cursed by God in 24:23.

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Backbiting and spying: two sins, similar effects

Both backbiting and spying enable people to find out negative information about their target. Both of them are means of gathering intelligence. They are different activities and require different skills, but the end result is the same: the information gathered gives spy or backbiter the power to harm and destroy people’s lives. People who engage in this get a big rush out of doing it because humans do not normally have much power to cause good or harm. To knowledge that you can do harm without suffering any harm to yourself creates a momentary feeling of great power and can be quite addicting.

Humans love power, whether it is the power to do great good or  to do harm. When a person does not have the power to do good but finds an opportunity to safely cause harm to others (through spying or backbiting), the opportunity can be too tempting to resist. We are designed to enjoy the feeling of power; our bodies do not care where the power comes from. This is why so many otherwise nice people can become guilty of backbiting and spying; they enjoy it, and they do not care to think too much about the harm it may cause.

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Reading someone’s diary

A classic example of spying that many may not realize is reading a person’s diary (or other secret writings and creations) without the person’s knowledge. It can be very tempting to go inside a person’s head and find out their deepest thoughts. But you have not earned the right to do so, and doing so enables you to find out negative information about the the person that can forever harm your relationship with them.

Islam wants to protect people’s dignity and wants to give people the ability to renew their lives. Finding out secret information about them through spying or backbiting blocks this process. Negative knowledge about a person becomes permanent in our minds, and we end up treating them with less love and consideration than we would otherwise. In some cases finding out secret information about a person can lead to downright dislike and aggression in a relationship that may have had a great future otherwise.

Therefore if you ever had the chance to learn about a person’s secrets, do not fall for the temptation.

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Be nice, but use common sense

Islam’s ideal is that we should give people second chances and to think the best of others. We should avoid negative suspicion about others, whether it is about members of our family or acquaintances, and we should ignore any suspicions we have instead of spying on people to confirm them.

Islam wants us to believe that people can change, even though change usually happens extremely slowly. If a person says they want to be good and that they have changed, we should treat with sincere acceptance and ignore our suspicions that the person may still be the same. When you treat someone as if they are good, it creates a small change in them. Even if that person becomes 1% better every week through your acceptance, in a year or two they could become some of the best people you know.

The practical lesson from all of this is that we should think the best of others (even though it can be difficult at times), treat them as if they are good people regardless of what you know or have heard about them, we should not gossip or spy, and we should forbid others from gossiping in our presence.

This does not mean that we should treat people as if the world is perfect and nobody is bad; you shouldn’t give a person the key to your home just because you want to think the best of them. Trust is built over time, over years. As a person starts to change for the better, you can trust them more. And if a new person enters your community and appears to be a saint, you can be kind and accepting towards them without putting yourself at risk. They may be a good person, or a government agent wanting to entrap you, or a person with a severe mental illness who may be able to bring some harm to you. Only time will tell.

Islam doesn’t require you to be a saint, it doesn’t want you to put yourself at the mercy of others. What it wants is that you should follow its guidelines, then use your common sense to decide what to do, and if your own knowledge fails you, use the advice of others more experienced than you. You can be nice and polite and non-judgmental with others without putting yourself at risk. You do not have to learn about all of their bad deeds to decide how to treat them. Always treat with kindness and acceptance, trust with the amount of trust that common sense requires, and leave it to God to judge people.
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