Backbiting-free Conversation

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As a new Baha’i, there were many principles of the Faith which I came across which leave me thinking and sometimes lost for words. One of the principles that first left me pondering was the Baha’i prohibition on backbiting. Baha’u’llah says:

Backbiting quencheth the light of the heart, and extinguisheth the life of the soul. Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah

Backbiting can be defined as malicious talk about someone when they are not present. It comes under the same umbrella as gossip, spreading rumours or tittle-tattling. It refers to any word used in a critical and negative manner to undermine a person. Growing up, I was always taught not to speak ill of anyone. We were always instructed by parents or teachers not to backbite.  But in a world where there are entire industries built on the act of backbiting (such as the media), it is easy – as creatures of our environment – to become blinded and think that such behaviour is acceptable.

Refraining from backbiting is not a concept that is unique to the Baha’i Faith.  In fact, there are many writings from many of the world religions that take the same moral stance. The Bible states:

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. Ephesians 4:29

I remember being dumbfounded when I first learnt that backbiting is seen as a sin comparable to murder in the Baha’i Faith. What took me aback was knowing that there was a large group of individuals that view backbiting so negatively and hold to such a high moral standard – something I had not experienced being actively practised in my day-to-day life. Baha’u’llah says:

Ye have been forbidden to commit murder or adultery, or to engage in backbiting or calumny; shun ye, then, what hath been prohibited in the holy Books and Tablets. Kitab-i-Aqdas

What do people talk about if they’re not talking about anyone? How would they be able to interact with the general public – at work, university or any other social setting? And even if you are not the one backbiting, how do you navigate such conversations without offending anyone or ostracising yourself? There were the thoughts that flooded my mind.

Over the next couple of months, I did a lot of observation and reflection.  I realised how seemingly harmless comments and criticism can be so damaging and undermining. So how do we overcome this?

Some people try and avoid all situations where people are backbiting and just avoid engaging in those conversations. Others will try turning to redirect attention to a person’s positive attributes instead of harping on the negative.

Now, whenever a friend or colleague complains to me about another person, I urge them to approach the person they are upset with. I always try to imagine that I am the person being talked about and ask myself how I would prefer to have the situation play out. Faced with choosing between being approached by someone who is upset with you and being spoken about without your knowledge, I’m sure most people will prefer the former situation.

Even though I have these standards to be guided by, refraining from backbiting remains as somewhat of a challenge to me. However, understanding the harm it causes, backbiting is something I will continually strive to avoid and encourage my loved ones to avoid.

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Discussion 24 Comments

  1. Backbiting is something I often struggle to deal with too. Some situations are really difficult to navigate! What do you do if someone asks you whether there are any particular things they should be mindful of when dealing with a particular person or business? Is telling them of a shortcoming and how to navigate it considered backbiting?

    I really appreciated reading your thoughts so far on this one 🙂

  2. Thanks for the great post Falen!

    I find it really hard to define where the line is in the workplace. ie: between backbiting with co-workers vs. discussing certain work related situations or feedback. I guess in a lot of workplaces there are the correct channels to discuss certain issues which may arise, so that’s probably the right avenue to use.

    I also find that sometimes talking about someone in a positive way too much can also backfire at times. I’ve been in situations where I was going to introduce certain friends to each other, and I’d have spoken so much about the other person in such a positive way, that when they finally met them, they felt like their expectations weren’t meant, sort of like hearing so much hype about a movie that you feel let down, even though you probably would have loved the movie if you hadn’t heard so much hype about it….

  3. Hey Japh,

    Thanks! That IS a tough situation to navigate. Naysan you’re right in saying that there are the correct avenues for certain discussions. So if it is possible to keep it within that framework that would be the best solution. I would certainly avoid making blatantly negative and personalised comments or criticisms unless it is in a consultative process. I guess every situation is different so it is difficult to give a blanket answer. If you did not feel the person/business was suitable for a certain task I would suggest alternatives and say the benefits of that alternative person/business.

    Hope that helps!

  4. Hi Falen,

    Thanks for the article. I too thought it was surprising that Baha’u’llah considers backbiting to be on a par with murder. But as I found out, calumny is also considered murder in the Old Testament. It just goes to show how many times humanity has to be told before we get the message!

    http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=65&letter=C#ixzz0cLWOKVRv

    “As this affects every part of the body, so does the slanderer wound the soul of mankind. As the serpent’s venom injures from a distance, so calumny may be hissed forth by one living in Rome to slay one living in Syria. The slanderous tongue is called ‘telitai’ [threefold], as being a threefold murderer. It ruins the slanderer, the listener, and the maligned.”

  5. I LOVE this post!!! thank you so much Falen! It’s a great topic for discussion and so current in all our lives!
    My Ruhi book 1 here in London loves the section dedicated to Backbiting and its negative effects and we are now in fact learning how to elevate conversations and transform these negative moments into spiritual and uplifting ones instead!
    Thank you for sharing this!

    lots of love xxx

  6. Hi Falen,
    thank you so much for this post.It’ interesting how it came just in a moment in which I’m paying attention to this movie-documentary called “The Secret” that was sent to me by a friend.
    Have you seen it?
    Well..it’s about a great Law….the law of attraction.

    I mention this cause this thursday, at a friend’s house we’re having a fire side and this friend asked me to prepare something to discuss about and I thought of sharing a part of this documentary cause I believe it connects very well with the concepts of positive thoughts mentioned by Abdu’l Baha’ and the power of a kindly tongue and of course, the law that forbids backbiting…
    and this gives plenty of argument to bring into the conversation!!!

    Thank you also for your suggestions about how to deal with people who practice backbiting. I am a person who has always liked to talk personally to people when I had a problem with them…. I don’t know why I didn’t suggest it before to my acquaintances to follow the same attitude….
    Although sometimes,although you try to stop it…it still is tricky…the other person doesn’t detain herself very easily….
    But I guess It’s a matter of exercise….;)

    Thank you again
    Love
    Samira

    ” I charge you all that each one of you concentrate all the thoughts of your heart on love and unity. When a thought of war comes, oppose it by a stronger thought of peace. A thought of hatred must be destroyed by a more powerful thought of love. Thoughts of war bring destruction to all harmony, well-being, restfulness and content. Thoughts of love are constructive of brotherhood, peace, friendship, and happiness.”

    (Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 29)

  7. Great post Falen! I love how you said “However, understanding the harm it causes, backbiting is something I will continually strive to avoid and encourage my loved ones to avoid.” I never thought about how people that feel that backbiting is acceptable are not immune to its harm.

    I wanted to add to what Naysan said about talking too much positive about someone. One of the things I’ve found is that talking about other people who are not present, even if I want to say something positive, leads to a backbiting situation. So in general I’ve found that just not talking about other people can help us avoid backbiting all together.

    Great job!

  8. Including four things in a sentence does not mean the writer is implying equivalence.
    Eg. “You should not eat pork, uncooked chicken or human babies.”

    This above example does not imply those three things are equally bad. Nor does it imply anything about the reasons why those things are in the list.

  9. I struggle on the occasions when Baha’i friends back-bite or gossip amongst eachother, but remind myself that if this was not an issue for us to deal with, Baha’u’llah would not have had to speak so firmly about it, and we are all so young and immature in our understanding and practice of the ideals of the Faith.

    There is an extraordinary verse which occurs in both the Kitab-i-Aqdas and in the Hidden Words, the former a book of law, the latter a book of spiritual principles which lends to me a significance beyond the obvious meaning: “Enter not another man’s house, except with his permission”.

    Looking at these words metaphorically, one interpretation of this verse may be that we do not have the right (permission) to presume upon (enter) another man’s house (business, beliefs, opinions) except with his permission (unless he wishes it so). This speaks directly to the question of back-biting as well as informs notably cross-cultural exchanges.

    The Universal House of Justice calls on us to engage more widely in elevated conversation especially regarding Baha’u’llah, and this verse also informs the need to seek permission to enter into such conversation (perhaps by gradual advances through an evolving dialogue or the circumstancs particular to the occasion, or by mutual acceptance that this is a subject that can be discussed). I always seek to steer conversation away from anything unsavory which is equally a way to seek permission to raise the moral bar and thus elevate the tone of the conversation, for once others sense the direction suggested, they will typically acknowledge and be more open to broader spiritual themes which might link words to attitudes to encouragement to happiness which are the builin blok of unity and betterment.

    While I continue to explore the resonances of this verse, without wishing to trespass on your own views (this being an example of how one might seek permission to enter into a discussion of spiritual matters with those who may hold different views or feel threatened by a spiritual opinion), I felt it worth sharing these thoughts.

  10. Telling the ‘truth’ to the right persons is not backbiting, i.e. those rightly implicated into the matter.
    But adding to that truth is.
    Telling it in order to diminish a person is also.
    One can feel the difference in the heart.
    The outcome is an increase or a decrease in the spiritual energy;
    a jumpimp forward or a setback (quenching the light).
    A moment comes when faced with this hard test in the ascent.
    One must become aware of the motives behind any word or action.

  11. Well spoken Lady. There are times of course when it would be manifestly unjust to conceal someone’s faults, such as when being asked for a professional opinion of someone’s skills: you can recommend where their strengths might be an advantage, rather than where weaknesses might cause issues, but if someone asks you a speicific question, then you simply have to be honest.

  12. I find it very difficult to know the best way of acting when confronted with backbiting. Often, it seems that highlighting it, even very mildly, could make me come across as self-righteous- an attitude we all of course want to avoid! But conversely, many of the other ways of handling it (such as just not saying anything or highlighting the person in question’s good points) seem a little too indirect for my liking, and so I find myself struggling to find that middle ground.

    Saying that, I really liked your idea Falen of suggesting the person approach the person in question with their problem as it’s direct, but at the same time not self-righteous. 🙂 I also agree with Neysan and Charles’ comments- elevating conversations and avoiding speaking of others when they are absent are 2 really good ways to prevent backbiting. The law against backbiting is one of my favourite things about being a Baha’i- I think it is one of the most strongest shields we have been blessed to have been given. Consciously striving to avoid it makes me feel so much more positive. And although some of my friendships from school have unfortunately not been strong enough to survive without it, it has given me so many stronger, deeper friendships with people from both my school days and elsewhere.

    I also find it easier to slip into backbiting (and generally superficial talk for that matter) when I’m in an homogenous environment with people similar to myself. In cases where I am surrounded by people of different ages, genders, occupations, personalities, races and religions, I find our conversation naturally goes to a higher level. I guess it’s because we don’t have any superficial similarities, our similarities are at a more “elevated” level. “Unity in diversity” in action I guess!

    “We must be united. We must love each other. We must ever praise each other. We must bestow commendation upon all people, thus removing the discord and hatred which have caused alienation amongst men.”

    – Abdu’l Baha (Promulgation of Universal Peace, p.410).

  13. Thanks for your comment Sonia. I understand your concerns with being self-righteous. Even when I wrote the article I was scared I would come off as being self-righteous. The truth is we all need reminding from time to time because its so easy to say those words in the moment. Not in a condescending way, but in a loving way.

  14. There is no Baha’i Writing that equates backbiting with murder that I could find.

    The fact that backbiting is listed in the same verse of prohibitions in the Baha’i Writings as murder is not the same as saying backing is equal or greater than murder.

    This has been a common mis-interpretation by the friends over many years.

    Rob

    1. Thanks for reminding us to find the actual quote (i.e. that backbiting is equal to murder). I haven’t found it anywhere, but some Baha’is continue to use their inference as though it is an actual quote from the Writings.

  15. I would rather walk away and get it over with it, but I agree with you. It is hard.
    Like you, I am recently new to the faith and I am grateful in regards to what I have learned and come to be aware of.

  16. If we already knew how to avoid back-biting in our everyday lives, then there would have been no need for Baha’u’llah to give us this guidance.
    We should remember that we are brand new at practicing the Faith, even if we have been Baha’is for decades.

    One can practice by dissociating the “event” from the person connected with it: make it a game to be able to describe things in the third person:
    Not “Wasn’t it awful how Dave shouted at Susan…” but “It must have been awful for Susan to have been shouted at”.
    Then see how long you can go without referring to youself: Not “I think it would be grat if…” but “Wouldn’t it be great if…” (It’s fun!)

    Focussing on the issue, not the personalities helps clarify why such behaviour or actions are unacceptable.
    All of us are under huge stress and pressure from time to time an often we don’t even realise that we have hurt someone in our actions and words.

    Keep focussed on the issue, not what you think it might be – there is NO CONSPIRACY.
    And when folks see that you seek to understand issues BEFORE assigning responsibility, they feel safe and trust you.

  17. Perhaps gossip and backbiting are another kind of avoidance behaviour. By talking about other people we don’t have to really open our heart to the person we are with. If our focus is really on connecting more deeply, more truthfully, less of these situations will happen.

  18. As Baha’is are we to refrain from venting? Is venting considered backbiting?

    Advice given by a psychiatrist: Don’t give advice initially since the person usually won’t hear anything you are saying. Rather, let them vent. When they finish ask these 3 questions:

    1. What are you most frustrated about?

    Pick any of their words that had a lot of emotion attached (those spoken with a high inflection). Ask them to say more about those words.

    2. What are you most angry about?

    When they finish have them go deeper. Ask them to “Say more about __ .” Don’t take issue or get into a debate. Just know that they really need to get this off their chest.

    3. What are you really worried about?

    It’s the core of their emotional wound. If you have listened they will tell you what they’re really worried about. Push them to go deeper. Ask them to “Say more about _.” After they finish respond with, “Now I understand why you are so frustrated, angry and worried. Since we can’t turn back time, let’s put our heads together to check out your options”.

    In summary, after they get their feelings off their chest, that’s when they can then have a constructive conversation with you and not before.

    When we feel upset with someone and want to vent, perhaps we could look inward and try to answer these questions ourselves without venting to someone else.

    “Don’t take things personally” is the advice given in the 4 Agreements by Miguel Ruiz.

    Psychology tells us that people sometimes project their own shortcoming on to us.

    Abdu’l Baha says,“Love the creatures for the sake of God and not for themselves. You will never become angry or impatient if you love them for the sake of God. Humanity is not perfect. There are imperfections in every human being, and you will always become unhappy if you look toward the people themselves. But if you look toward God, you will love them and be kind to them, for the world of God is the world of perfection and complete mercy. Therefore, do not look at the shortcomings of anybody; see with the sight of forgiveness. The imperfect eye beholds imperfections. The eye that covers faults looks toward the Creator of souls. He created them, trains and provides for them, endows them with capacity and life, sight and hearing; therefore, they are the signs of His grandeur. You must love and be kind to everybody, care for the poor, protect the weak, heal the sick, teach and educate the ignorant.”

    Sometimes people are suffering from mental illness or are under a lot of stress. Other times it is out of concern for us that people give what they consider constructive criticism or worthwhile advice. Sometimes their advice is worthwhile.

    People sometimes exaggerate when they say things like you are disturbing others not just me and sometimes we really are disturbing others. too. Should we change? That all depends. We don’t all share the same values or perspective and we aren’t all at the same spiritual level either.

    Other helpful writings…

    TAKING OFFENSE, GIVING OFFENSE…

    “Act in such a way that your heart may be free from hatred. Let not your heart be offended with anyone. If someone commits an error and wrong toward you, you must instantly forgive him. Do not complain of others. Refrain from reprimanding them, and if you wish to give admonition or advice, let it be offered in such a way that it will not burden the bearer. Turn all your thoughts toward bringing joy to hearts. Beware! Beware! lest ye offend any heart.” (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace pg. 453)

    If, however, a person setteth about speaking well of another, opening his lips to praise another, he will touch an answering chord in his hearers and they will be stirred up by the breathings of God…” ••• ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p.230-231.

    Scroll down to Page 88 II. BACKBITING, CRITICISM, FAULT-FINDING, GOSSIP, LIES, SLANDER, ETC. at this link to learn: http://bahai-library.com/hornby_lights_guidance&chapter=1

    Actually found the answer to my question: see number 311. at the above link.

    309 tells us what to say when someone is backbiting.

  19. Oops this is what we should say … If any individual should speak ill of one who is absent, it is incumbent on his hearers, in a spiritual and friendly manner, to stop him, and say in effect: Would this detraction serve any useful purpose? Would it please the Blessed Beauty, contribute to the lasting honour of the friends, promote the holy Faith, support the Covenant, or be of any possible benefit to any soul? No, never! On the contrary, it would make the dust to settle so thickly on the heart that the ears would hear no more, and the eyes would not longer behold the light of truth.” (‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Selections From The Writings of Abdu’l-Bahá, pp. 230-231)

  20. “The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice; …
    By its aid thou shalt see with thine own eyes and not
    through the eyes of others,
    and shalt know of thine own knowledge and not
    through the knowledge of thy neighbor.
    Ponder this in thy heart; how it behooveth thee to be.
    Verily justice is My gift to thee and the sign of My loving-kindness.
    Set it then before thine eyes.”

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