Tuesday, November 17, 2009


A few years ago there was, for some odd reason, an increase in the amount of backbiting in my community. We never did figure out what the reason was, but does it really matter? The fact was that there was a lot of hurt hearts and the Assembly, that blessed institution, acted swiftly and with confidence.

How did they act? Again, your perspicacity astounds me, dear Reader.

They began by collecting information, seeing who was being backbitten about (is that even a phrase?), where it seemed to stem from, looking at the Guidance, and so on. Let me assure you, however, that they did not bring anyone in to meet with them, nor send accusing letters, and they never once considered the "brute squad" (I just love The Princess Bride for wonderful reference points).

For the purposes of education and guidance, let's see what the Writings say about this horrid practice, and then I'll tell you what this wise institution did to help guide our community, guidance that was so rich I feel impelled to share it with you many years later.

First, and most important, in the Kitab-i-Aqdas, the Blessed Beauty not only condemns backbiting, he does so in the following manner:

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.

Why do I say this is such a high condemnation? You may recall that I do not believe anything in the Writings is accidental, and that every word is exactly what it needs to be. So why is backbiting put into the very same parasgraph as murder and adultery? And what, exactly, is calumny?

Once again, I need to make the standard disclaimer that this is, of course, only my own opinion, and not an authorized interpretation of the Writings. That being said, let's go on.

First, I think that if I were to write a list such as this, I would make it a crescendo, going from the least bad to the worst. It makes a dramatic sort of sense to me. But here, the Blessed Beauty seems to have put it in a reverse order.

Or has He?

Murder, I realized upon meditation of this verse, is the killing of an individual. Adultery is the murder of a family. Despite what we may think with our "modern values", doesn't that make adultery worse than murder?

So what about backbiting? And we still haven't addressed what calumny is.

Backbiting, from what I have seen, kills the bonds of trust within a community. It is a form of murder on one of the grandest scales.

And calumny? Well, backbiting is when you say things that are actually true. They may be hurtful, nasty, cruel and so on, but they are true. Calumny is when it is a deliberate lie. It has all the evil effects of backbiting, plus it's a deliberate lie, calculated to have these effects.

When we look further in the Writings, we find other mentions of backbiting, including the following:

Baha'u'llah tells us that "backbiting quencheth the light of the heart, and extinguisheth the life of the soul."

The Master informs us that "backbiting is divisive, it is the leading cause among the friends of a disposition to withdraw."

The Universal House of Justice even speaks about "the corrosive effects of backbiting".

I could go on and on, but really, isn't that enough?

Going back to my own community, the Assembly knew that the friends were aware of these quotes. So why, they asked, were they doing it? Obviously, because the friends weren't aware that what they were doing was backbiting. In their collective wisdom, the Assembly decided to act on the presumption that the friends were not aware of what they were doing, and therefore decided not to accuse anyone.

They chose, instead, to engage in a community-wide deepening on the definition and effects of backbiting.

And they chose the Feast as their forum.

I have to tell you, it was one of the most fun Feasts I have ever attended.  They had four people get up in front of the community and read a series of examples of possible situations to see if they constituted backbiting or not.

Now, my wife and I were asked to write those scenarios, and we had a blast doing it.  We put forth about ten that we knew absolutely were backbiting.  We had about six examples we knew for certain were not backbiting.  And we had a few that we were not sure about.

Then we went to the Feast.

Everyone agreed that the above-mentioned ten were backbiting.  They included things like telling your spouse about something bad regarding a friend, or spreading rumours at work about someone.  They were fairly obvious.

The six that we knew were not backbiting?  It turned out that a few of them were.  I can't recall them offhand, but upon consultation, some of the friends pointed out how those situations could be considered backbiting.

As for the ones we were not sure about, it turned out most of them were backbiting, too.

I wish that I had saved those examples, but I didn't.  Either way, it really made me re-think what I thought I knew (I think that makes sense) about backbiting.  Backbiting is a far broader thing than I had imagined.

One thing that was pointed out by someone at the Feast was to look at the effects of an action.  If the effects matched that of backbiting, chances are that it was backbiting.

This consultation also helped raise the awareness of backbiting within the community without inadvertantly condemning anyone, and solved the problem far more smoothly than anything I would have imagined possible.  Consultation is such a wonderful gift that we have in the community.

Oh, and just in case anyone reacted like I did with the statement in Ruhi Book 1, quoted again above, (you know, the one that says if you have backbitten, the light of your heart is quenched and the life of your soul is extinguished?), don't worry.  Baha'u'llah solves this problem for us (did you ever think otherwise?) in Unit 2 of Book 1: the one about prayer.

He tells us to:

Intone, O My servant, the verses of God that have been received by thee, as intoned by them who have drawn nigh unto Him, that the sweetness of thy melody may kindle thine own soul, and attract the hearts of all men.

When you kindle something, it either increases the flame that is already there, or if there is no flame, ignites it.
So, me?  I just try to be more careful in the future not to backbite, even by accident, and at the same time, I say a lot more prayers.


  1. I wish you had those examples at hand I know I would really use them tomorrow when I have to face my coworkers and approach the whole topic without hurting anyone's feelings!! Thank you for the idea though!! :)

  2. If someone, because of selfish motives, secretly harms another and the harmed one tells others about the bad things the former has done to him, is this considered backbiting, or defending oneself, or seeking justice or else? What are the differences between these things?

    1. That's a great question, and I think I'll post it in another article, rather than answer it poorly here. (Of course, I'll probably respond poorly there, too, but let's find out.) Anyways, it's a great question you pose. Thanks.

    2. From Seremban Malaysia with love. Thank you..will share with some of the friends in my community and see how our community can be made aware of these corrosive effects

  3. Hi Mead, have you posted a response as noted above on November 12, 2013.

    1. Thank you so much for bringing this back to my attention. No, I don't think I ever did. I will work on it later this week. Thanks for the reminder.

  4. In response to the question above, from 12 November 2013, it seems to me that the most appropriate way to answer it is actually here in the comments, as opposed to another article.

    The question is whether or not it is ok to tell others about someone who harmed another, due to selfish motives. Well, quite simply, I think this is backbiting, and should be avoided.

    But what to do about it? Just let it sit? No.

    The first thing is to look at the severity of the issue. If it is a legal issue, you go to the authorities. If it is a community issue, and those involved are Baha'i, you go to the Assembly.

    However, if neither of those are appropriate, then you can talk to those involved about the importance of trust, and learning about character. These are always good things to talk about, but not in a manner that condemns another.

    This may not be as satisfying as watching someone get condemned by those around them but it will more likely build up the trust in the community, and give people the tools to be aware of the motives of others.