Select Page

 

The Baha’i Writings are clear on this point – backbiting is the worst human quality and the “most great sin”.

The worst human quality and the most great sin is backbiting.  (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Lights of Guidance, p. 88)

So if there is one fault we need to most focus on, this would be a great place to start!

But what about news reporting?  Where does that fit?

Recently one of my readers wrote:

One topic of the Baha’i Faith that has really shown its power to me, is the concept of refraining from backbiting. Sometimes it can seem so innocent, but even so, look how much damage it can do!

I am currently stuck on a topic that I find hard to understand. I’ll give an example.  As you no doubt know, there was a Mayor of a large city who was videotaped doing crack cocaine.  The local newspaper reported it; the story went viral and the city was made a laughing-stock!

Of course it was true, but was it backbiting? After all, the Mayor did use drugs in his own private time, not during his duties as a mayor. But to most voters, a mayor isn’t someone who just does their job, but a role model in the community.  We want our Mayor to be someone whom their children can look up to.

Is there any guidance on where to draw the line on backbiting? Also, is this an example of backbiting?  The local newspaper brought something to people’s attention with the intent of providing transparency into the character of a mayor, knowing full well that the consequences would be damaging to his person.

I personally believe, that what newspaper did was – OK to a large extent. Putting forward facts (while it can be damaging to someone) should not be considered backbiting, if it is done openly which they did. It gave the Mayor a chance to come clean and it informed the citizens of the character of the person they elected. I read all the stuff there is on backbiting, but haven’t found anything YET that talks about backbiting vs news reporting.

I replied: 

In a Bahá’í world, which we are all working towards, I think the spiritual principal that applies in this situation is contained in these quotes:

O SON OF MAN!

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.  (Baha’u’llah, The Arabic Hidden Words 27)

The condemnation of backbiting could hardly be couched in stronger language!

Bahá’u’lláh says in Hidden Words; ‘Breathe not the sins of others so long as thou art a sinner. Shouldst thou transgress this command ACCURSED ARE THOU.’ The condemnation of backbiting could hardly be couched in stronger language than in these passages, and it is obviously one of the foremost obligations for Bahá’ís to set their faces against this practice. (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 87)

Baha’u’llah is pretty clear on this matter!  If we can’t breathe the sins of another, one to one, how much more damaging are the effects when the whole world is privy to our faults via the news?  And do we as individuals or as reporters really want to be “accursed of God”?

Shoghi Effendi clarifies that even if what is said is true the mentioning of faults to others still comes under the category of backbiting:

The condemnation of backbiting could hardly be couched in stronger language than in these passages, and it is obviously one of the foremost obligations for Bahá’ís to set their faces against this practice. Even if what is said against another person be true, the mentioning of his faults to others still comes under the category of backbiting, and is forbidden.  (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 87)

Stories repeated about others are seldom good:

Remember, above all, the teaching of Bahá’u’lláh concerning gossip and unseemly talk about others. Stories repeated about others are seldom good. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in London, p. 125)

In a Baha’i world, we’re likely to see only good news stories!

Before we go any further, let’s look at the meaning of the two words, often found together in the Baha’i Writings.  The dictionary defines them as follows:

Gossip:  talk, chat, conversation, chatter, blather, natter, blabbermouth, tattle, rumourmonger, scandalmonger, tell-tale, bigmouth and hearsay.

Backbiting: vicious, spiteful, unkind remarks, backstabbing, badmouthing and infighting.

So on the one hand, our very conversations with others are laden with gossip, which makes it much harder to identify we’re doing anything wrong.  It’s easy to think “I’m not badmouthing anyone”, but if we’re mentioning a fault, it has to stop. 

The Standard

The problem of backbiting is even worse if it comes from the believers of God, who should presumably know better:

As regards backbiting, i.e. discussing the faults of others in their absence, the teachings are very emphatic. In a Tablet to an American friend the Master wrote: ‘The worst human quality and the most great sin is backbiting, more especially when it emanates from the tongues of the believers of God.  (’Abdu’l-Baha, Star of West, Vol. IV. p. 192)

Not only are we supposed to stop backbiting and gossip, we’re supposed to stop listening to it too!

The friends should understand that they should not only cease backbiting and gossiping, but should cease listening to others who fall into this sin. (Universal House of Justice, NSA USA – Developing Distinctive Baha’i Communities)

When we listen to those who complain about the faults of others, we are guilty of complicity:

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. (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 93)

Exceptions to the Rule

We can turn to our friends to discuss our problems, and seek help and advice in resolving them, as long as we don’t mention names:

You ask in your letter for guidance on the implications of the prohibitions 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. (Universal House of Justice, Lights of Guidance, p. 90)

Taking a problem to an Institution or therapist to seek assistance with a problem is not backbiting – the motive is different:

While gossip and backbiting are explicitly prohibited by Bahá’u’lláh, taking a problem to a Bahá’í institution, to a relevant civil or social service agency, therapist, or counselor to seek assistance with the problem is not viewed as gossip or backbiting.  (National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States, Guidelines for Spiritual Assemblies on Domestic Violence, p. 55)

If the situation is of such gravity as to endanger the interests of the Faith, the complaint should be submitted to the LSA or to a representative of the institution of the Counsellors:

While it can be a severe test to a Bahá’í to see fellow believers violating Bahá’í laws or engaging in conduct inimical to the welfare and best interests of the Faith, there is no fixed rule that a believer must follow when such conduct comes to his notice. A great deal depends upon the seriousness of the offense and upon the relationship which exists between him and the offender.  If the misconduct is blatant and flagrant or threatens the interests of the Faith the believer to whose attention it comes should immediately report it to the Local Spiritual Assembly. (Universal House of Justice, NSA USA – Developing Distinctive Baha’i Communities)

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.  (Universal House of Justice, Lights of Guidance, p. 90)

Assemblies may appoint counseling committees to determine the best approach:

When necessary, a Spiritual Assembly has the prerogative to appoint individuals or committees to work on its behalf with the friends because it is obviously impossible for the body to meet with every believer on every matter, especially as the membership of the community grows. The Assembly may determine the best approach in each instance in order to ensure it has the necessary information to reach a decision and to satisfy the requirements that each situation presents. As to your questions about the implications of the prohibition on backbiting on the functioning of Spiritual Assemblies and the committees they appoint, it is suggested that you turn to your National Assembly for guidance.  (Universal House of Justice, to an individual, 14 June 2016)

None of this is backbiting:

When a friend is reporting to the Assembly on a matter of backbiting in the community, the act in itself is not backbiting. Indeed, the believer is doing his duty by reporting the matter to the Assembly.  (Universal House of Justice to a Local Spiritual Assembly, 9 October 1976)

Once it is in the hand of the Assembly the believer’s obligation is discharged and he should do no more than pray for the offender and continue to show him friendship and encouragement:

Once it is in the hand of the Assembly the believer’s obligation is discharged and he should do no more than pray for the offender and continue to show him friendship and encouragement — unless, of course, the Spiritual Assembly asks him to take specific action.  (Universal House of Justice, NSA USA – Developing Distinctive Baha’i Communities)

Reasons We Like to Gossip

Because of our immaturity, it seems easier to fall into the pattern we see around us, where gossip, trouble-making and criticism seem easier than the putting into practice virtues such as love, constructive words and cooperation:

Unfortunately, not only average people, but average Bahá’ís, are very immature; gossip, trouble-making, criticism, seem easier than the putting into practice of love, constructive words and cooperation.  (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 89)

Consequences of Backbiting

It devours and quenches the light of the heart, and extinguishes the life of the soul:

Material fire consumeth the body, whereas the fire of the tongue devoureth both heart and soul.  (Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 264)

Backbiting quencheth the light of the heart, and extinguisheth the life of the soul.  (Bahá’u’lláh: The Kitáb-i-Iqan, p. 193)

It poisons the relationship between people:

For the tongue is a smoldering fire, and excess of speech a deadly poison.  (Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 264)

We realize that a great problem is presented by gossip when it occurs in Bahá’í communities, and the poison it can instill into the relationship between the friends.  (Universal House of Justice, Lights of Guidance, p. 60)

It’s hard to be a friend to someone when we look at only their faults:

If, however, we look at people from the standpoint of their faults, then being a friend to them is a formidable task.  (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 168)

We may become dishonored in the community:

. . . 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. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Star of the West, Vol. IV, No. 11, p. 192)

It strikes at the very unity of the Bahá’í community:

You are quite correct in your understanding of the importance of avoiding backbiting; such conduct strikes at the very unity of the Bahá’í community. (Universal House of Justice, Lights of Guidance, p. 89)

It causes disputes:

. . . failing in this is a fertile cause of disputes among Bahá’ís as it is among men and women in general.  (Universal House of Justice, Lights of Guidance, p. 89)

It dampens the zeal of the friends and makes them indifferent:

If any soul speak ill of an absent one, the only result will clearly be this: he will dampen the zeal of the friends and tend to make them indifferent. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Selections From The Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, pp. 230-231)

It causes people to withdraw:

For backbiting is divisive, it is the leading cause among the friends of a disposition to withdraw.  (‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Selections From The Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, pp. 230-231)

It can wear us down, as this story how ‘Abdu’l-Baha refrained from backbiting, even when He had a good reason to talk about someone behind His back:

One of those ‘unspiritual people’ was at that moment a member of Abdul-Bahá’s party, Dr. Amin Fareed, who had already tried to fraudulently get money out of her [Phoebe Hearst].  It was probably during ‘Abdul-Bahá’s stay at the Hearst residence that His signet ring disappeared.  That theft and some of other activities of Dr. Fareed were described by Marzieh Gail in her book, “Arches of the Years”:

Abdul-Bahá’s signet ring disappeared during his Western journey.  The Master had confided His loss to Florence and Khan, and named the thief but He did not wish them to speak of it.  We in the family always thought that it took place during his stay at the Hacienda… Thereafter the Master signed all his tablets instead of using a seal, capitalizing neither abdu’l nor abbas but only Bahá.

Fareed’s efforts to destroy the Master (who had seen to his education from childhood) make a page of triple darkness . . . Fareed was capable of whispering to the rich in the United States that although Abdul-Bahá needed funds He would not openly accept them, but if they would pass over the money to him, Fareed, he would deliver it to the Master . . . After returning to the holy land Abdul-Bahá sent Dr. Baghdadi a Tablet, and directed that copies be distributed to every community so that all could read it.  The Master wrote here that during his stay in America he had forgiven a certain member of his suite four times, but that he would forgive the man’s misdeeds no longer. Abdul-Bahá returned to Haifa, he proceeded directly to the room with His wife, Munirih Khanum, and said in a feeble voice, “Dr. Fareed has ground me down!”  (Earl Redman, Abdul-Bahá in Their Midst, p. 228)

And the effects can last a century:

The force of the former [material fire] lasteth but for a time, whilst the effects of the latter[the fire of the tongue] endureth a century.  (Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 264)

Learning not to concern ourselves with the faults of others seems to be one of the most difficult lessons for us to master:

Learning not to concern oneself with the faults of others seems to be one of the most difficult lessons for people to master, and that failing in this is a fertile cause of disputes among Bahá’ís as it is among men and women in general.  (Universal House of Justice, Lights of Guidance, p. 89)

But master it we must if we want to avoid the consequences, and the wrath of God!

Benefits of Overcoming Backbiting

It’s worthwhile overcoming this fault, knowing that our example and spiritual strength really helps the Cause:

In a letter written to an individual believer on behalf of the Guardian it is stated: “If we are better, if we show love, patience, and understanding of the weakness of others, if we seek to never criticize but rather encourage, others will do likewise, and we can really help the Cause through our example and spiritual strength.”  (Universal House of Justice, Lights of Guidance, p. 89)

Our efforts will be blessed:

How blessed are these aims, especially the prevention of backbiting! (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Lights of Guidance, p. 91)

The teachings of Bahá’u’lláh would be spread and the human world would attain to everlasting felicity:

If some means were devised so that the doors of backbiting could be shut eternally and each one of the believers of God unsealed his tongue in the praise of the other, then the teachings of His Holiness Bahá’u’lláh (Bahá’u’lláh) would be spread, the hearts illuminated, the spirits glorified and the human world would attain to everlasting felicity.  (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Lights of Guidance, p. 91)

When we see only that which is worthy of praise in every human being, we can be a friend to the whole human race:

One must see in every human being only that which is worthy of praise. When this is done, one can be a friend to the whole human race.   (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 168)

A Final Note on Confidentiality

Every believer must know that he can confide a personal problem to an institution of the Faith, with the assurance that knowledge of the matter will remain confidential:

Every believer must know that he can confide a personal problem to an institution of the Faith, with the assurance that knowledge of the matter will remain confidential.  (Universal House of Justice, NSA USA – Developing Distinctive Baha’i Communities)

If a Bahá’í accepts confidential information, he is in duty bound to preserve that confidentiality:

Members of Assemblies, whether they are assistants [to Auxiliary Board members] or not, are obviously in a position to receive confidential information as individuals from several sources. It is an important principle of the Faith that one must not promise what one is not going to fulfill. Therefore, if a Bahá’í accepts confidential information either by virtue of his profession (e.g. as a doctor, a lawyer, etc.), or by permitting another person to confide in him, he is in duty bound to preserve that confidentiality.  (Universal House of Justice, NSA USA – Developing Distinctive Baha’i Communities)

Any information which comes to the notice of an Assembly member by reason of his membership on that Assembly must not be divulged by that member, even though the Assembly itself may later decide to share it:

Any information which comes to the notice of an Assembly member, solely by reason of his membership on that Assembly must not be divulged by that member, even though the Assembly itself may later decide to share it.  (Universal House of Justice, NSA USA – Developing Distinctive Baha’i Communities)

Assistants have the same duty to observe the confidentiality of its consultations, and of matters considered by the Assembly to be confidential, as does any other member:

Assistants who are members of a National Assembly or a national committee do not function as assistants in relation to that body, and they have the same duty to observe the confidentiality of its consultations, and of matters considered by the Assembly to be confidential, as does any other member.  (Universal House of Justice, NSA USA – Developing Distinctive Baha’i Communities)

If a member of the Assembly knows of a personal problem, and if he has not undertaken to keep it confidential, he may bring it to the Assembly’s attention if he feels it would be in the interests of the Faith for him to do so, but he is not obliged to:

If a member of the Assembly knows of a personal problem, and if he has not undertaken to keep it confidential, he may bring it to the Assembly’s attention if he feels it would be in the interests of the Faith for him to do so, but he is not obliged to.  (Universal House of Justice, NSA USA – Developing Distinctive Baha’i Communities)

Every institution in the Faith has certain matters which it considers should be kept confidential, and any member who is privy to such confidential information is obliged to preserve the confidentiality within the institution where he learned it:

Every institution in the Faith has certain matters which it considers should be kept confidential, and any member who is privy to such confidential information is obliged to preserve the confidentiality within the institution where he learned it. (Universal House of Justice, NSA USA – Developing Distinctive Baha’i Communities)

Where no confidentiality is involved the institutions must strive to avoid the stifling atmosphere of secrecy:

Where no confidentiality is involved the institutions must strive to avoid the stifling atmosphere of secrecy.  (Universal House of Justice, NSA USA – Developing Distinctive Baha’i Communities)

The Assembly must carefully consider which information should fall in the category of confidential information; which should not be shared with others, and which may be divulged under special circumstances, and how:

The Assembly must itself carefully consider which information should rightly fall in the category of confidential information and which should not be shared with others, and which information may be divulged under special circumstances, and how such information may be divulged.   (Universal House of Justice, NSA USA – Developing Distinctive Baha’i Communities)

Should confidential matters regarding personal problems be freely shared with others, the confidence of the believers in the Assembly and its members will obviously be destroyed:

Should confidential matters regarding personal problems be freely shared with others, upon application, the confidence of the believers in the Assembly and its members will obviously be destroyed. (Universal House of Justice, NSA USA – Developing Distinctive Baha’i Communities)

How has this helped you understand the topic better?  Post your comments below!