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Understanding the Parable of the Backbiter

Imām Ibn al-Qayyim

A discussion surrounding the Quranic verse likening the backbiter to the one who preys on his dead brother.

Allāh—the Most High—said:

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا اجْتَنِبُوا كَثِيرًا مِّنَ الظَّنِّ إِنَّ بَعْضَ الظَّنِّ إِثْمٌ ۖ وَلَا تَجَسَّسُوا وَلَا يَغْتَب بَّعْضُكُم بَعْضًا ۚ أَيُحِبُّ أَحَدُكُمْ أَن يَأْكُلَ لَحْمَ أَخِيهِ مَيْتًا فَكَرِهْتُمُوهُ ۚ وَاتَّقُوا اللَّهَ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ تَوَّابٌ رَّحِيمٌ ‎﴿١٢﴾‏

“O you who believe! Avoid much suspicions, indeed some suspicions are sins. 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). And fear Allāh. Verily, Allāh is the One Who accepts repentance, Most Merciful.”
(Al-Ḥujurāt, 49:12)

Imām Ibn al-Qayyim comments:

This verse contains the most exemplary analogization. It likens the violation of the honour of one’s brother in Islām to violation of the meat of his corpse. Due to the backbiter additionally choosing to violate the honourable standing of his brother in his absence, he is likened to one who desecrates his body while his soul is absent due to death. As the victim of this backbiting is unable to defend himself from what is being said, he is likened to a corpse whose flesh is cleaved. All the while he is completely incapable of fending off those who have chosen to desecrate his dead form. The attributes of brotherhood, mutual compassion, support and triumph all stipulate the very opposite of the backbiter’s speech that consists of blame, displaying the faults of another and insults. As such, it is likened to the backbiter cleaving the flesh of his brother even though the brotherhood they share demands protection of his honour, maintaining and cultivating it, and defending him. Instead, the backbiter has gleefully taken advantage of his brother’s absence, enjoyably engaging in his disparagement and taking pleasure in it. So he is likened to one who engages in the actual consumption of his brother’s dead flesh. That is, such consumption is beloved to him, which is greater than mere consumption. Then, mere consumption represents a higher degree than merely rending the flesh of his dead corpse. So thoroughly contemplate this parable and the comparison that is being made, the perfection in its formulation, and the complete consistency that exists between the action from an intellectual standpoint, to the physical condition it has been likened to.

Contemplate also the way it informs regarding the backbiter himself hating that someone should consume the flesh of his dead brother, attributing this hate to him at the end of the verse, describing his staunch objection to a person having love for such consumption. So, just as such an act is naturally contemptible, how can one love engagement with that which is comparable to it; its equal? Here, evidence is raised in opposition to this act using what is most detestable to dissuade from an act that is beloved [backbiting]. This beloved act is likened to the most detestable, contemptible action, from which one possesses the strongest aversion. One’s own intellect, innate disposition and wisdom all demand, therefore, possessing the same contempt for that which is comparable to it.

And with Allāh belongs true guidance.

Source: Al-Amthāl: 224-226
Translated by: Riyāḍ al-Kanadī

Published: February 24, 2024
Edited: February 24, 2024

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