Ghibah is the verbal noun (masdar) of ghaba and also that of ightiyab means backbiting. Jawahari writes, “It is said ighatabahu ightiyaban when one falls into backbiting. The noun is al-ghibah, and it means saying such things about an absent person. If it is true it is called ghibah and if false, buhtan (slander).” The Koran specifies the varieties of evil speech, which violate the dignity of others and seek to expose their weakness. In the following text the believers are instructed on this theme: “O believers! Let not people ridicule other people, perchance the latter may be better than the former, not let women ridicule other women, perchance the latter may be better than the former. Neither find fault with each other, nor insult one another with derisive nicknames” (49:11). This is immediately followed by another passage, which singles out backbiting (ghibah) and depicts its enormity in particularly striking terms: “Spy not and defame not others behind their backs. Would any of you like to eat the flesh of his dead brother? (Surely) you would abhor it” (49:12). Elsewhere in the Koran is the chapter bearing the title, “The Slanderer” (al-Humazah), begins with a clarion denunciation of every slandering defamer (104:1). The whole of this chapter is devoted to a rigorous condemnation of backbiting.
The Prophet often warned the believers against ghibah. It is related that once he asked his Companions, “Do you know what ghibah is?” To this they replied, “God and His Prophet know best.” The Prophet then said, “It is to mention your brother in a way that he would dislike.” The Prophet was asked, “What if that which I say concerning my brother is true?” The Prophet replied, “If what you say is true then you have defamed him (by ghibah), and if he is innocent of what you say, then you have slandered him.” The Prophet said, “The havoc wrought by ghibah on the believers faith is swifter than the one wrought by the disease of aklah (a disease that consumes the flesh) in the side of his body.” He also said, “To sit in the mosque waiting for the prayer is worship, so long as one does not commit a misdeed.” When asked, “What is misdeed?” He replied, “Backbiting” (al-Kafi, 2:1).
The ghibah is committed by words of mouth, by signs, by betraying secrets, or by any form of expression that comprises the basic concept of defaming others. The Prophet said, “Abstain from ghibah, for it is the food of the dogs of hellfire” (Wasa’il al-Shi’ah, 8:163). He also said, “Ghibah is a graver sin than adultery, because a man commits adultery and repents and God accepts his repentance, but ghibah is not forgiven until it is forgiven by its victim” (Ibid.). A’isha narrates, “A woman came to visit us, and when she returned, I made a gesture by my hand to indicate that she was short of height. Thereupon, the Prophet said, “You have committed her ghibah” (Jamal al-Sa’adat, 2:294).
The Prophet is also reported to have said, “No fire is faster in consuming dry wood than ghibah in consuming a devotee’s virtues” (al-Mahajjat al-Bayda, 5:264). Once the Prophet said that a person shall be made to halt in front of God and handed over his book of deeds. On not seeing his good deeds therein, he shall say, “My God, this is not my book of deeds, for I don’t see my good virtues in it.” He shall be told, “Verily, your deeds are gone for your backbiting of the people.” Then another person shall be brought and handed over his book of deeds. He will find in it many virtuous deeds and he will say, “My God, this is not my book of deeds, for I have not performed these deeds.” He will be told, “So and so committed your ghibah and so his good deeds have been awarded to you” (Jami al-Akhbar, p. 171). It implies that one who commits ghibah, his virtuous deeds are transferred to the account of the victim, and that is why Kabir once said, “Ninda hamari je kar’e mitr hamara ho’i, sabu lev’e ganth’ka mel hamara do’i” means “One who commits my ghibah, he is my friend because he buys a soap by his own pocket and wipe out my sins.”
Among the kinds of ghibah is listening to it with amazement, for such a person expresses his amazement in order to make the backbiter more and more lively in his descriptions and his amazement encourages the latter in his act of ghibah. For instance, he will say, “This really makes me amazed!” or “I didn’t know that!” or I didn’t know he would do such a thing.” These expressions are meant to affirm the backbiter’s reports and to encourage him subtly to add something more fact or fictitious. Anyhow the affirmation of backbiting is also ghibah, or rather to listen to it or even to keep silent on hearing it is also ghibah. Imam Jafar Sadik said, “Whoever encounters Muslims with two faces and two tongues, he will come on the day of resurrection with two tongues of fire” (al-Kafi, 2:1). Sometimes, a person speaks of “such and such a thing happened to our friend or neighbour,” and then adds, “May God forgive him and us.” This person in reality makes pretence of sympathy and friendliness and perpetrates ghibah under the cover of prayer. But God knows the wickedness of his heart and the viciousness of his intention. He does not know that God is more wrathful toward him than the ignorant man who commits ghibah openly.