Analysis of the Verse
This verse too comprises injunctions relating to mutual rights and manners to be observed in social life. It prohibits three things: [ 1] ظن zann [ unfounded suspicion ], the details to follow: [ 2] تَجَسُّس tajassus [ spying, looking secretly into the faults of others ]; and [ 3] غِیبَہ ghibah [ backbiting, speaking in of a person behind his back which if he heard would hurt or injure his feelings ].
[ 1] Prohibition of Unfounded Suspicion
Zann primarily denotes assumption on probable evidence. In the first instance, the Qur'an sets down "Abstain from many of the suspicions.” and gives reason for that: "some suspicion are sins". This shows that not all types of suspicion are a sin. Thus it is incumbent on the readers to investigate which type is a sin, so that they may avoid it. If the uneasy feeling and the conviction that something is wrong, someone is guilty, or some danger is afoot is based on partial evidence, and not confirmed by out-and-out evidence, it is not permitted to act on it. Scholars and jurists have given a detailed account of it. Qurtubi says that in this context Zann connotes "accusation", that is, a charge of wrongdoing, as with guilt, crime, offense or blame without any strong evidence. Imam Abu Bakr Jassas (رح) in Ahkam-ul-Qur'an gives the following details. Zann is divisible into four categories. [ 1] prohibited; [ 2] imperative; [ 3] recommended, desirable; and [ 4] permissible. Distrust of Allah or suspecting His trust is prohibited. For instance, it is not permitted to think ill of Allah in that He will punish him or keep him in calamity all the time without forgiving him or showing mercy to him, thus despairing of His grace. Sayyidna Jabir ؓ reports that the Holy Prophet ﷺ " said:
لا یموتنّ احدکم اِلَّا وھو یحسن الظنّ باللہ
"None of you should die without having favourable thoughts about Allah."
According to another hadtth, Allah Ta` ala says:
اَنَا عند ظنّ عبدی بی
"I treat my servants the way they think about me."
This shows that holding favourable thoughts about Allah is compulsory and thinking ill of Him is prohibited. Likewise it is prohibited to entertain suspicion, without rational grounds, about Muslims whose outer conditions show that they are good and noble.
Sayyidna Abu Hurairah ؓ reports that the Holy Prophet ﷺ said:
ایّاکم و الظّنّ فانّ الظّنّ الکذب الحدیث
"Avoid suspicion, for suspicion is the worst of false talks...".
In this context, Zann by common consent of scholars stands for thinking ill of a Muslim without any concrete proof. However, if there is a matter in which it is necessary to take a decision in either way, and there is no absolute and clear-cut proof based on the Qur'an and Sunnah for that particular situation, it is imperative to act on the strength of the best possible assessment, termed in Islamic jurisprudence as ''A -zann-ul-ghalib' This is the approved practice in cases that come to the law-courts for settlement. In a court of law, a judge has to deliver his decision on the basis of the principle of "the best possible assessment" relying on the testimony of people worthy of confidence, even though there is the possibility that one of the witnesses at that particular moment might have lied. The testimony of the witness is based on "best assessment" and not on "absolute certainty". The judge does not have direct knowledge of the facts of the matter, nor is there a transparent text of the Qur'an and Sunnah. In cases like these where one or the other decision has to be taken, and the absolute knowledge of the reality cannot possibly be attained, there is no way out but to formulate a judgment on the basis of best possible assessment.'
Likewise when the direction of qiblah is not known, nor is there a person that can show one the direction of qiblah, it is compulsory for him to determine it on the basis of "best possible assessment". If a person has destroyed a valuable thing of someone, and a compensation has been imposed on him, he is liable to pay the value of it on the basis of 'best possible assessment'.
The example of permissible Zann is like that of a person performing prayers and in the course of it suspects whether he has performed three rak'at or four, he is permitted to apply the 'best possible assessment' and complete the prayers accordingly. If, however, he does not wish to apply this principle, but wishes to act on the principle of 'certainty', thinking that he has certainly performed three rak'at, and thus completes the fourth one, that too is possible.
And desirable Zann refers to having favourable thoughts about every Muslim. That is rewardable [ condensed from Jassas ].
Qurtubi quotes the Qur’ anic verse
لَّوْلَا إِذْ سَمِعْتُمُوهُ ظَنَّ الْمُؤْمِنُونَ وَالْمُؤْمِنَاتُ بِأَنفُسِهِمْ
'...why, when you (0 believers,) heard of it, did the believing men and women not think well on their own selves - [ 24:12] '.
This verse emphasizes to have good thoughts about the believers. The following aphorism apparently seems contrary to this rule:
انّ من الحزم سوء الظّنّ
"It is prudence to have ill thoughts about every person."
But this means to be as precautious when dealing with others as one would deal in suspicious cases: e.g. one should not hand over one's thing to anyone without strong reliance. It does not mean that he should regard anyone as a thief or run him down. In brief, one should take precautionary measures in the predicament one is placed in without labeling people as thieves or perfidious.
[ 2] Prohibition of Spying
The second social evil that is prohibited in the verse is tajassus, spying or prying secretly into the faults of others. An alternative reading of تَجَسُّس tajassus [ with "J"] is tahassus [ with "H"]. In a hadith recorded in Sahihain on the authority of Abu Hurairah ؓ the Holy Prophet ﷺ said:
لا تَجَسَّسُوا ولَا تَحَسَّسُوا
"...do not spy on one another; do not look for other's faults...".
The two words in Arabic are near-synonyms. Akhfash draws attention to the nuances or subtle differences in their meaning: tajassus connotes looking into the affairs of people which they have kept hidden, whilst tahassus connotes searching in general as in the following verse of the Holy Qur'an.
تَحَسَّسُوا مِن يُوسُفَ وَأَخِيهِ
'...search for Yusuf and his brother' - [ 12:87]
However, the term tahassus [ searching ], like tajassus [ spying ], could have an evil connotation in which case the Holy Prophet ﷺ has prohibited it. The verse signifies that one may take into account what is presented in evidence, but it is not permitted to search for faults that are not overt. The Holy Prophet ﷺ says:
لا تغتابوا المسلمین ولا تتّبعوا عوراتھم فان من اتبّع عوراتھم یتبع اللہ عورتۃ و من یتّبع اللہ عورتۃ یفضحہ فی بیتہ (قرطبی)
"Do not speak ill of Muslims behind their backs, and do not search out their faults, for he who searches out their faults will have his faults searched out by Allah, and he whose faults are searched out by Allah will be exposed by Him, even though he should be in the interior of his house" [ Qurtubi ].
Bayan-ul-Qur'an interprets that tajassus [ spying ] and tahassus [ searching ] include the sense of listening to people without their permission when they are talking, or eavesdropping at their doors. However, if there is an apprehension that some member of the Muslim community may be harmed by some mischief-makers, it is permitted for others to spy to protect the innocent and peaceful people, and search furtively for the intentions and conspiracies of such people who are a danger to the society.
[ 3] Prohibition of Backbiting
The third social evil this verse prohibits is ghibah [ backbiting ]. This connotes speaking ill of a person behind his back which if he heard would hurt or injure his feelings, even if what was said about him was the truth; if what was said about him was untruth, it is slander or false accusation. The prohibition of slander is prohibited elsewhere in the Qur'an. In the definition of backbiting the phrase "behind his back / in his absence" appears. This does not mean that it is permissible to say hurtful things in the presence of somebody. This may not be backbiting, but it certainly falls under lamz which is prohibited in the preceding verse.
أَيُحِبُّ أَحَدُكُمْ أَن يَأْكُلَ لَحْمَ أَخِيهِ مَيْتًا
(Does one of you like that he eats the flesh of his dead brother? - 49:12)
This verse sternly warns against disgracing a Muslim and compares it to eating the flesh of a human being. If the victim of disgrace is present before the offender, it is like eating the flesh of a living person, and the Holy Qur'an has termed it as 'lamz' which is prohibited in verse 11, as well as in another Surah by saying,
وَيْلٌ لِّكُلِّ هُمَزَةٍ لُّمَزَةٍ
'Woe to every backbiter, derider [ 104:1] '
And if the victim is not present, and someone speaks ill of him in a way that he is insulted, then it is like eating the flesh of a dead human being. Just as it does not cause any physical torture to a dead body, backbiting does not hurt the victim when he is not aware of it, but just as eating the flesh of a dead body is an extremely inhuman act, so is the backbiting. Both are prohibited. Otherwise also, speaking ill of someone in his absence is an unkind, mean and malicious act; it is not an act of valour and bravery.
This verse prohibits three social evils: unfounded suspicion, unjustifiable search for faults and backbiting. However, backbiting is most severely and harshly condemned. It is compared to eating the flesh of a dead Muslim, thus bringing out the gravity of its prohibition, unkindness and meanness. The wisdom of it lies in the fact that saying hurtful things to the face of someone is prohibited, but the man, being present, will be able to defend himself. Further, for fear of defense not everybody will have the courage to utter hurtful things to the face of someone, and usually it does not last long. It is unlike backbiting where there is no one to defend it, and thus the most mean person would pluck the courage to backbite the greatest of men. Because it is not defended, generally the ball keeps rolling, and more and more people get involved. Therefore, backbiting is prohibited most severely and harshly. It is necessary for the general body of Muslims to defend their brother, if possible, when people speak ill of him in his absence. If that is not possible, they should at least abstain from listening to it, because listening to it willfully and intentionally is like backbiting itself.
Some Issues Related to Backbiting
Sayyidna Maimun ؓ says that once he saw in a dream that there is a dead body of a Negro. A caller addressed him and said: "Eat this." Sayyidna Maimun ؓ says: "I said: '0 servant of God! Why should I eat this?" The caller replied: "Because you have been backbiting a certain person's Negro slave." Sayyidna Maimun ؓ said: "By God, I did not do that." The caller replied: "Yes, you did: you listened to people backbiting him and remained silent as if you were in agreement with them." After this dream, Sayyidna Maimun ؓ composed himself and he himself stopped backbiting and he did not allow anyone else in his presence to backbite.
In a narration of Sayyidna Anas Ibn Malik ؓ relating to Holy Prophet’ s ﷺ experience of Mi` raj, the Messenger of Allah ﷺ said: "When I was taken up to the heaven, I passed by people who had fingernails of copper and were scratching their faces and breasts violently. I asked Jibra'il: 'Who are these people?' He replied: 'They are those people who were given to backbiting their brothers and who aspersed their honour.' [ transmitted by al-Baghawi as cited in Mazhari ]. Sayyidna Abu Said and Jabir ؓ report that the Holy Prophet ﷺ has said:
"Backbiting is worse than adultery. The noble Companions ؓ inquired: 'How so, Messenger of Allah?' He replied: 'A person may commit fornication, repent of it and his sin is forgiven. But the sin of backbiting is not forgiven unless the injured party forgives." [ Transmitted by Tirmidhi and Abu Dawud, as cited in Mazhari ].
This hadith indicates that backbiting is not only a violation of the Divine right, but also a violation of human right. Therefore, it is necessary to seek the forgiveness of the injured party. Some of the scholars express the view that backbiting does not become a human right unless the injured party comes to know about it. Therefore, seeking his pardon is not necessary [ Quoted in Ruh-ul-Ma’ ani from Hasan, Al-Khayyati, Ibn-us-sabbagh, An-Nawawi, Ibn-us-Salah, Az-Zarakshi, Ibn ` Abd-ul-Barr from Ibn-ul-Mubarak ]. This is quoted in Bayan-ul-Qur'an and explained as follows: If the victim of backbiting is not aware that someone has spoken ill of him, it might not be necessary for the backbiter to beg pardon of the victim, but it is necessary that he falsifies himself before the person whom he addressed when backbiting, or at least confesses his guilt before him. If the victim is dead or has disappeared, the atonement is recorded in a narration of Sayyidna Anas ؓ where the Holy Prophet ﷺ has said:
ان من کفَّارۃ الغیبۃ ان یستغفر لمن اغتابہ تقول اللَّھمّ اغفرلنا ولہ
"The atonement of backbiting is to invoke forgiveness of Allah for the victim in the following words: 0 Allah, forgive our sins and his sins". [ Transmitted by Baihaqi and cited in Mazhari ].
Ruling [ 1]
It is prohibited to backbite children, insane and non-Muslim citizens of an Islamic state, because hurting them is prohibited. Hurting harbi infidels who are the inhabitants of Dar-ul-Harb [ hostile country ] is not prohibited. However, backbiting them, on account of wastage of time, is makruh, and reprehensible.
Ruling [ 2]
Backbiting does not only connote speaking ill of a person behind his back, but it also connotes an action or pointed reference to him, as for instance if someone imitates the limp or uneven walking of a lame person to make fun of him, it is not permitted.
Ruling [ 3]
Some narrations show that the general prohibition of backbiting in the verse is subject to exceptions in special cases and specific circumstances. It is permitted if the need for backbiting is real and genuine from the Shari` ah point of view. Examples are as follows:
[ a ] Complaining against a tyrant before a person who can relieve him from the tyranny and injustice.
[ b ] Complaining about the wife and children to the father and husband who can put them right.
[ c ] Giving a full account of the case in order to obtain a fatwa (ruling of Shari’ ah)
[ d ] Warning the Muslims of the mischief of a mischief-monger so that they may ward off the evil.
[ e ] When someone consults another person in any matter, it is obligatory for him to apprise him of all aspects, including weaknesses, so that he is not deceived because of ignorance.
[ f ] If a person commits sins openly and publishes his ungodly behaviour himself, it is not prohibited to make mention of his bad deeds. However, it is abominable and reprehensible to indulge in it on account of wastage of time [ Bayan-ul-Qur'an with reference to Ruh-ul-Ma’ ani ].
But the necessary condition for invoking these exceptions is that speaking ill of someone is not with the intention of insulting or disgracing him, but only to fulfill a genuine need.