The Baha’i teachings consider backbiting the worst human quality, because slandering another human being damages all of the souls involved.
Other religions also have clear thoughts on this subject. Backbiting is strongly condemned in all the religions that have come down to humankind in the six thousand years of recorded history. The Jewish Faith forbids tale-bearing. Christianity cautions that what the mouth speaks reveals a good or evil heart. Islam warns that a backbiter will find himself backbitten. Hinduism declares that backbiting betrays an empty heart.
So how do we define backbiting?
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, backbiting is defined as “saying mean or spiteful things about a person who is not present.”
Abu’l-Qasim Faizi (1906 – 1980), an educator, writer and widely-traveled Baha’i, described backbiting as a spiritual disease that leads to insanity and ruins relationships. He affirmed the origin of backbiting as a suspicion against someone. Suspicion may be engendered by someone else’s objectionable behavior. He encouraged his audience to find the courage to go to the person and explain the suspicion. In this way, perhaps the problem can be resolved.
Psychologist Dr. Agnes Ghaznavi in her book, Sexuality, Relationships and Spiritual Growth, points to Abdu’l-Baha as the best of counsellors in the matter of resolving conflict. He said:
… in case a circumstance causes a real offence between the two, they must not keep it in their hearts, but rather explain its nature to each other and try to remove it as soon as possible. – Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 6, p. 20.
Ghaznavi elaborates on what this means by saying:
Most people are not familiar with the secret workings of their feelings and emotions. Most of all, they are not aware what happens to negative emotions and how destructive they can be if kept in one’s heart without expressing the hurt or disappointment, the sadness or anger. If these feelings are repressed they create havoc in our emotions and our energy store: they feed on our energy and take the place of joy, happiness and love, and of the desire to reach out towards people and express what we feel for them. – p. 154.
Why do we backbite and when does it occur? Backbiting begins within the individual. We backbite to ourselves. Feeling offended by the behavior of or gossip against some private or public figure, we consequently feel resentment toward that person. Perhaps in a future encounter or conversation, we will recall that resentment to ourselves and to others.
Causes of backbiting may include anger, jealousy, ridiculing, contempt, calumny, slander and fault-finding. Backbiting typically occurs as a release after an individual reacts adversely to some real or imagined slight from an offending person. In the presence of a friend, an employer or family member, he or she proceeds to blame the alleged miscreant and, presenting him or herself as undeservedly injured, bond with a sympathetic listener.
Baha’u’llah described this emotional turmoil as the fire of self. He warned:
If the fire of self overcome you, remember your own faults and not the faults of My creatures, inasmuch as every one of you knoweth his own self better than he knoweth others. – The Hidden Words, p. 45.
In further condemning backbiting, Baha’u’llah declared:
How couldst thou forget thine own faults and busy thyself with the faults of others? … Breathe not the sins of others so long as thou art thyself a sinner. – Ibid., p. 10.
So how do we approach and deal with a backbiter? Baha’u’llah advised:
Do not argue with anyone, and be wary of disputation. Speak out the truth. If your hearer accepteth, the aim is achieved. If he is obdurate, you should leave him to himself, and place your trust in God. – Baha’u’llah, from a tablet translated from the Persian.
Abdu’l-Baha added: “Beware lest ye offend the feelings of anyone, or sadden the heart of any person, or move the tongue in reproach of, and finding fault with anybody.” – Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha, Volume 1, p. 44.
The Baha’i teachings remind us that by listening to complaints against others we become complicit to their backbiting. Abdu’l-Baha advised:
If any individual should speak ill of one who is absent, it is incumbent upon his hearers, in a spiritual and friendly manner, to stop him … – Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 230.
Abdu’l-Baha also said that true Baha’is:
… will shun completely backbiting, each one praising the other cordially and believe that backbiting is the cause of Divine wrath, to such an extent that if a person backbites to the extent of one word, he may become dishonored among all the people, because the most hateful characteristic of man is fault-finding. – Star of the West, Volume 3, p. 192.
Baha’u’llah explained the spiritual consequences of backbiting:
For the tongue is a smoldering fire, and excess of speech a deadly poison. Material fire consumeth the body, whereas the fire of the tongue devoureth both heart and soul. The force of the former lasteth but for a time whilst the effects of the latter endureth a century. – Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 265.
A century? Are we reaping those results now?
From a societal standpoint, backbiting may be fueled by cultural traditions, economic ascendancy, racial prejudice or political schism whose biases when shared enflame anger, alienate peoples and aggravate further conflicts. In the 20th century, the classic example of such propaganda involved brainwashing Germans into thinking of themselves as the master race whose dual destinies were to subjugate others and exterminate the Jewish people. In more recent times, Islamic terrorists kill and maim peoples they have deemed infidels; and mass media-driven backbiting played a major role in the Rwandan genocide. If we want these kinds of tragedies to end, we must stop backbiting, on both the individual and the societal levels.
Ultimately, Baha’u’llah provides us with the healing remedy for the pain that backbiting causes:
A kindly tongue is the lodestone of the hearts of men. It is the bread of the spirit, it clotheth the words with meaning, it is the fountain of the light of wisdom and understanding … – Ibid., p. 289.