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The Flesh of My Dead Brother

Meltem Baykaner reflects on the depth of the Qur’anic metaphor associated with backbiting and contemplates the reasons why this habit is so difficult to abandon.

Since starting to practice Islam only mere months ago, my supportive family have patiently answered even my most bizarre and seemingly insignificant questions. Alhamdulillah, they always deliver their answers and advice with a quote from a respected scholar, reliable hadith or a Qur’anic verse to put my mind at ease and my heart to rest. However, there is one question that I fear my family have grown tired of answering…
The problem arises each time I relate an anecdote to them – be it on the topic of my day at work, the sisters circle I attend or a family issue. Immediately following my retelling of the story, I instinctively ask, “Oh no, was that backbiting?”
It is often the case that no names are mentioned in my story and, if they are, a conscious effort is made to not exaggerate what happened, say anything rude, cruel or unkind about anyone or unknowingly say something that is untrue. Nevertheless, I am always so self-conscious and anxious that I have accidentally backbitten without even being aware of it, perhaps because I know how weighty the issue of backbiting is in Islam.
Old Habits
There are many reasons as to why my anxiety about this heavy sin is often more prominent than my fear of committing any other. First and foremost, I am a new Muslim. When I try to think of the good deeds I had done before practising, it saddens me that I can barely name a handful. Unfortunately, what I did take from my days of ignorance are years of backbiting. Backbiting became not just a dangerous habit, but almost a necessity in my everyday conversations. I would tell my housemates about my colleagues, my family about my housemates and my friends about my family; and so it continued, spreading like wildfire; I was oblivious to what I was doing to my own soul.
However, it would be naive to think that only new Muslims have trouble with this issue and that my being new to the deen is the only reason I have trouble with it too.
The reason, I believe, that backbiting is so difficult to avoid, regardless of our age, gender or the amount of years we have been practising, is in our arrogance as humans. If someone is bothering us, we feel that it is our right to verbalise it, let it out before our frustration increases. Sometimes, biting our tongues and forcing these unkind words – even if they are true – to stay locked inside can feel like trying to swallow rubber: each time you force it down, it finds another opportunity to leap back up out of your throat, until all you want to do is let it out, choke it up, release it from your system.
This, of course, is exactly what we must avoid. We must try harder to fight the whisperings of Shaytan, fight our instincts and keep those words caged; afterall, once those words come out, you might have considered it a little thing, “while with Allah it was very great.” (An-Nur:15)
A Serious Subject
Although I have described backbiting as spitting something out of your mouth, backbiting is described far more powerfully in the Qur’an:
“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).” (Al-Hujurat:12)
I am sure many of us have heard this beautiful extract recited to us countless times, a potent reminder of how repulsive a thing it is to backbite. However, it was not until this morning that these words found a way into my heart and, though I cannot claim to be a scholar or educated in any way on the beautiful words of the Qur’an, I do think that I have finally understood this extract.
Allah I knows best and may He forgive me if I am mistaken, but I feel that there must be many reasons to why the metaphor of cannibalism is used to describe backbiting. Naturally this image of our dead brother’s flesh is abhorrent to us and therefore places great emphasis on how repellent backbiting should be to us too. In addition to this, the way in which our brother is dead indicates his silence, his inability to defend himself, his unawareness of what we are doing to him and his honour.
With this in mind, when we backbite, we are tearing our dead brother or sister apart with our words – does that not seem horribly cruel? Their absence from the conversation means that they are defenceless, and yet we continue to pick at their flaws like vultures, scratching at the meat of a carcass. When we think of it in this way, it is no wonder that the consequences of backbiting include a broken fast, a lost wudhu and severe punishment in the Hereafter; Allah (SWT) is just.
Try Harder
Nevertheless, we are only insan (human) – we are inherently forgetful and flawed, with downfalls that are deep and many.
So let us pray that we may be blessed with the strength to control our tongues and tempers…
Oh Allah, there is no ease other than what You make easy. If You please, You ease sorrow.
Meltam Baykaner graduated from the University of East Anglia in July 2012 with a Degree in English Literature. On moving back home to London after three years of studying in Norwich, she began practising Islam, and until recently, worked as a Teachers Assistant at an Islamic primary school in South East London. Her interests include fitness, reading classic novels and writing articles; her true aspiration is to be a writer.