The Writings are fortunately very clear on what back-biting is:
If any individual should speak ill of one who is absent…1
It simply says “speaking ill”, not whether what is being said is true or not, whether it is already known to the hearer or not, whether it is a public figure being spoken of, etc. It is just “speaking ill” – the opposite of “speaking well”.
Further, back-biting is speaking ill of one who is “absent”. It does not clarify if this refers to deceased persons, simply people who are not “present”.
As an example of this, `Abdu’l-Bahá counsels us not to discuss even the faults of our rulers:
Except to speak well of them, make thou no mention of the earth’s kings, and the worldly governments thereof.2
Additionally, the House of Justice has provided clarification which makes it possible to engage in necessary consultation (this is found in Lights of Guidance, page 90):
You ask in your letter for guidance on the implications of the prohibition on backbiting and more specifically whether, in moments of anger or depression, the believer is permitted to turn to his friends to unburden his soul and discuss his problem in human relations. Normally, it is possible to describe the situation surrounding a problem and seek help and advice in resolving it, without necessarily mentioning names. The individual believer should seek to do this, whether he is consulting a friend, Bahá’í or non-Bahá’í, or whether the friend is consulting him.
`Abdu’l-Bahá does not permit adverse criticism of individuals by name in discussion among the friends, even if the one criticizing believes that he is doing so to protect the interests of the Cause. If the situation is of such gravity as to endanger the interests of the Faith, the complaint, as your National Spiritual Assembly has indicated, should be submitted to the Local Spiritual Assembly, or as you state to a representative of the institution of the Counsellors, for consideration and action. In such cases, of course, the name of the person or persons involved will have to be mentioned.3
When considering if something you might say is back-biting or not, I ask whether it is important enough even to risk it. Back-biting is so horribly destructive to community life, it is often wiser just to leave the opinion unsaid, rather than express it and find out afterwards it is indeed “speaking ill of one who is absent”. The Guardian’s secretary wrote on his behalf:
On no subject are the Bahá’í teachings more emphatic than on the necessity to abstain from fault-finding and backbiting, while being ever eager to discover and root out our own faults and overcome our own failings.
The Writings refer to back-biting as “the worst human quality and the most great sin”; Bahá’u’lláh gives its prohibition in the same sentence as murder, theft and adultery; states that it “quencheth the light of the heart, and extinguisheth the life of the soul”; `Abdu’l-Bahá describes it as “the leading cause among the friends of a disposition to withdraw”; and labels it and fault-finding “the destroyers of the foundation of man”.
Finally, `Abdu’l-Bahá emphasizes in Bahá’í World Faith:
It is particularly important to refrain from making unfavourable remarks or statements concerning the friends and the loved ones of God, inasmuch as any expression of grievance, of complaint or backbiting is incompatible with the requirements of unity and harmony and would dampen the spirit of love, fellowship and nobility… Whoever sets himself to do so, even though he be the very embodiment of the Holy Spirit, should realize that such behaviour would create disruption among the people of Bahá and would cause the standard of sedition to be raised.
I have not found anything in the Writings that links back-biting with intent. That is, back-biting is the action of complaining about others, and it does not depend on why you complaining, unless you are consulting about an issue of serious concern and refrain from using the individual’s name.
For example, in this quote:
It is obvious that if we listen to those who complain to us about the faults of others we are guilty of complicity in their backbiting.4
It does not refer to the heart of the complainer, but his action. But how, really, could there be a spiritual way of mentioning the faults of another? What use could that possibly serve the spiritual life of the Faith?
How couldst thou forget thine own faults and busy thyself with the faults of others? Whoso doeth this is accursed of Me.5
Question: The other problem I have is when we mention peoples faults on this public forums is that backbiting? If so why?
As for “backbiting”, if they aren’t absent, I don’t see how it could be. However, avoidance of backbiting and fault-finding are very often expressed together:
O ye Cohorts of God! 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, whether he is friend or stranger, believer or enemy.6
The friends must overlook their shortcomings and faults and speak only of their virtues and not their defects.7
On no subject are the Bahá’í teachings more emphatic than on the necessity to abstain from fault-finding and backbiting, while being ever eager to discover and root out our own faults and overcome our own failings.8
… Each of us is responsible for one life only, and that is our own. Each of us is immeasurably far from being ‘perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect’ and the task of perfecting our own life and character is one that requires all our attention, our will-power and energy. If we allow our attention and energy to be taken up in efforts to keep others right and remedy their faults, we are wasting precious time.9
I see the tendency to complain as a desire for perfection of the material world. However, our goal is not efficiency, or accuracy, or well-orderedness: The goal of the faith is to promote love and harmony amongst men.
Once such a love exists, sincere and strong, this world will take on the attributes of heaven. If this is truly our goal, it can be seen how much criticism and complaint, however “true” or “appropriate”, are ultimately counter to our goal. They should applied like a powerful medicine, too much of which will harm far more than it heals. When love is the rule, with its sin-covering eye, then, mystically and mysteriously, solutions will present themselves.
I have found this to be true in my personal life, where I thought for certain the only way to solve something was direct confrontation. But, after much thought, and requiring tremendous sacrifice of my hopes, I chose a different path. I can only describe as miraculous the way things worked out. “And whoso maketh efforts for Us, in Our ways will We guide them.”
I’d like to share with you a nice story from `Attár on this subject:
A young man, brave and impetuous as a lion, was for five years in love with a woman. In one of the eyes of this beauty was a small speck, but the man, when gazing on the beauty of his mistress, never saw it. How could a man, so much in love, notice a tiny flaw? However, in time, his love began to dwindle and he regained his power over himself. It was then he noticed the speck, and asked her how it had come about. She said: “It appeared at the time when your love began to cool. When your love for me became defective my eye became so for you.”10
Question: In addition I would like to hear some input from the friends on whether an Assembly member is backbiting in bringing to the Assembly a report of a community members violation of laws or other bad behaviors?
Perhaps this will help clarify the point:
There is a clear distinction between, on the one hand, the prohibition of backbiting, which would include adverse comments about individuals or institutions made to other individuals privately or publicly, and, on the other hand, the encouragement to unburden oneself of one’s concerns to a Spiritual Assembly, Local or National (or now, also, to confide in a Counsellor or Auxiliary Board member). Thus, although one of the principal functions of the Nineteen Day Feast is to provide a forum for “open and constructive criticism and deliberation regarding the state of affairs within the local Bahá’í community”, complaints about the actions of an individual member of an Assembly should be made directly and confidentially to the Assembly itself, not made to other individuals or even raised at a Nineteen Day Feast.11
Question: Person A has a dastardly deed done to them by person B, confides in person C and maybe D, because it helps them to talk about it. Is this backbiting?
We are permitted to consult with others after trauma if we keep it nameless.
If we say that the above is not backbiting (even though B’s name is being mentioned), where does it stop? What if person A feels the need to talk to E, F, G, H, I, J and K as well? What if they never feel “resolved”, and keep spreading news of B’s misdeeds for years to come?
The Bahá’í standard is not an easy one. Nor is the eradication of backbiting easy. It requires sacrificing some of our cherished sources of emotional comfort, like retelling the wrongs done to us by others – usually to a spouse.
Yet this is a noble sacrifice we’re called to: An effort we’ll someday lay at the feet of our Beloved as a token of our love and faith. Each time you must swallow the pain, realize you are sharing Bahá’u’lláh’s pain, as He suffered untold indignities heaped upon Him by a cruel and corrupt nation.
Question: Person X warns person Y about dealings with Person Z because Person X has had very bad experiences with person Z and wouldn’t like personal harm to come to person Y.
We are permitted to bring issues of concern to an Assembly or Board Member, not to individuals.
In the case of individuals, the above is backbiting. Remember: If no exception is given to a Law, no exception exists. Unless the Writings allow us to relay the misdeeds of a person for the protection of another, we cannot. I am certainly open to anyone pointing out such an exemption, but in my studies have not found one.
Again, take it to the extreme degree: If Z has harmed X, and we allow X to complain to Y, where does it stop? Wouldn’t X start warning everyone who gets close to Z? Pretty soon, the whole community starts hearing about the misdeeds of Z, “for the protection of the community”. But such protection is the Assembly’s job, not the individual’s.
Furthermore, who gets to decide how “bad” a bad experience must be before it is shareable? If we take the issue to an Assembly, they can consult and decide; but if we allow ourselves that latitude, where does it stop?
Here is an example of how my community dealt with a similar issue: Apparently, someone was slighted in the matter of a loan or debt. I never learned which. I only know because the Assembly, at Feast, announced that anyone considering a loan to or from another Bahá’í should consult with the Assembly first.
Why would they say this? Because someone had acted unjustly, but rather than point out the injustice, they asked everyone to clear their financial dealings with the Assembly, allowing them to protect the community from unwise agreements.
I thought this was an excellent way of protecting the community from injustice, without having to bring up anyone misdeeds. There are ways to cope with even difficult issues that do not involve accusation or retelling of faults. It requires patience, love, faith to find them, but they are there.
Statement: When it comes to backbiting, I do not believe that structure and rules are of much use. I believe backbiting is more about sincerity than it is about tangibles. Motivation and intentions I believe are very key. I believe this subconscious is very important in backbiting.
I would be interested if you would present guidance which supporting this view. I have heard it suggested before, yet nowhere have I read that back-biting is defined by one’s motivations and intentions.
Murder is certainly not, nor theft or adultery, or any other of the crimes listed in the Aqdas. Perhaps there is a tendency toward leniency with backbiting, because it is easier to fall into and harder to stop? And yet, the damage caused by backbiting is terrible:
For the tongue is a smouldering 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 endure a century.
Here are the quotes I see as denying us such speech:
If anyone should speak ill of one who is absent…
The tongue I have designed for the mention of Me, defile it not with detraction.
Speak no evil, that thou mayest not hear it spoken unto thee, and magnify not the faults of others that thine own faults may not appear great; and wish not the abasement of anyone, that thine own abasement be not exposed.
How couldst thou forget thine own faults and busy thyself with the faults of others? Whoso doeth this is accursed of Me.
Breathe not the sins of others so long as thou art thyself a sinner. Shouldst thou transgress this command, accursed wouldst thou be, and to this I bear witness.
Ascribe not to any soul that which thou wouldst not have ascribed to thee…
That seeker should also regard backbiting as grievous error, and keep himself aloof from its dominion, inasmuch as backbiting quencheth the light of the heart, and extinguisheth the life of the soul.
These quotes, to my eyes, describe actions, not intentions.
In our speech, we have been asked to eschew: conflict, contention, strife, harm to the feelings of another, excess criticism, detraction, slander, harsh words, unfavourable remarks, speaking ill of the world’s leaders, grievance against another…
Instead, Bahá’ís are called to remark to the world the bounties and attributes of God, and share that Light which alone can resuscitate the fortunes of the world.
The Great Being saith: One word may be likened unto fire, another unto light, and the influence which both exert is manifest in the world. Therefore an enlightened man of wisdom should primarily speak with words as mild as milk, that the children of men may be nurtured and edified thereby and may attain the ultimate goal of human existence which is the station of true understanding and nobility. And likewise He saith: One word is like unto springtime causing the tender saplings of the rose-garden of knowledge to become verdant and flourishing, while another word is even as a deadly poison.12
Of course, the observance of these Laws is ultimately determined by the conscience of each believer, since there is not – and I hope will never be – a police force to guard against backbiting. After all, obedience is one of the precious things we can offer God, to One Who is already the Possessor of All.
I leave this discussion with the following thought: When determining whether backbiting is forbidden, there are numerous quotations from each of the Central Figures on this matter. But as for justifying what appears to be backbiting, have you noticed that no quotations are ever given? Did no one pose these questions in the past? Or is it that the answer has always been the same?
Common sense is an excellent tool, and I hope we accord it the respect it deserves: but neither more nor less than this.
`Abdu’l-Bahá, from Lights of Guidance no.323↩
Selections from the Writings of `Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 92↩
From a letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an individual believer, September 23, 1975↩
From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to the National Spiritual Assembly of the British Isles, February 11, 1925↩
Bahá’u’lláh, Hidden Words, Arabic no.26↩
Tablets of `Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 45↩
Abdu’l-Bahá: Tablet to Dr. M. G. Skinner, August 12, 1913: Star of the West, Vol. IV, No. 11, p. 192↩
From a letter written on behalf of the Guardian to an individual believer, May 12, 1925: Living the Life, p. 3↩
From a letter written on behalf of the Guardian to an individual believer, May 12, 1925: Living the Life, pp. 2-3↩
Farídu’d-Dín `Attár, Conference of the Birds↩
Universal House of Justice, compilation on Study, July 2, 1996↩