A person, when food is presented to him, abstains from it and says: “Today is Thursday” as if to imply that he always fasts on Thursdays. The Prophet (peace be upon him) instructed us that when food is presented to us, we should eat it if we are not fasting, and if we are fasting, we should make a small prayer for the one who offered us.23 A good prayer would be something like: “May Allah bless you in your food and drink and in what Allah provides for you.”
6. Conspicuous humility:
A person might make a show of deprecating himself, stating all the time how deficient he is. He says how he does no good works and how his deeds are not enough. All he means by all this is to make a display of his humility.
Whether or not he actually believes himself deficient, he goes on in this way until Satan makes him believe that he is free from showing off, when actually Satan has been accompanying him in his absurd display all along. What is needed for a person to be balanced, neither deprecating himself for public viewing, nor praising himself.
7. Bringing attention to the faults of others:
Satan can approach a person by way of the faults of others. By criticizing someone else’s mistake, a person implies that he is free from the same.
A man might say: “You know – God forbid! – so-and-so never gets up at night to offer prayers!” Translation: “I pray at night.”
“I never saw such-and-such fast a day in his life.” Translation: “I fast a lot.”
“Whats-his-name never gives in charity, though he has much more money than I have.” Translation: “I am not like him. I give in charity.”
If this person had any sense, he would say as a poet once said:
Because of myself I weep, not because of others,
For myself, from myself. Bother the people!
Or maybe he should say as al-Shâfi`î said:
Let not your tongue mention the shame of another,
For you yourself are covered in shame and all men have tongues.
If your eye falls upon the sins of your brother,
Shield them and say: O my eye! All men have eyes!”
Those who busy themselves with the shame of others have many specialized ways of backbiting at their disposal to help elevate them above those they criticize. Ibn Taymiyah,in his Fatâwâ24, mentions a number of these:
One strategy is to frame one’s slander in the form of concern for the religion and for reform. Statements of the following sort ensue:
“Now, it is not my general practice to say anything but good about other people. I hate backbiting and lying. I only wish to inform you about this person.”
“I swear by Allah, he is a good man, but he does such-and-such.”
“We must pray for him. O Allah! Forgive us and forgive him.”
With these statements, a person can ridicule another while at the same time seeking to deceive Allah about what he is doing, as if that was possible.
Then there are those who belittle others just to make themselves look good. A person like this might say: “If only I prayed for him yesterday, I would not have heard this horrible thing about him today.” To make himself appear clever, someone might say: “So-and-so, you must understand, has a weak intellect.”
Another person makes his slander of others appear in the form of jest, as if his only intention is to make others laugh. However, what he does to make his companions laugh is ridicule another person, belittle him, and mock him.
Another uses amazement and astonishment an excuse to say something bad about someone else. He might say: “I am startled that so-and –so does not do that!” or: “How it is that he can do such a thing!” In this way, the slanderer maligns the name of another with the excuse that he was overcome with amazement.
Someone else feigns concern or pity in order to get in his nasty remarks. He might say: “Poor so-and-so, I am so sorry about what happened to him. It is a pity what he got himself involved with.” Someone who hears this might think the speaker is genuinelydistraught about what happened to that person. In reality, though, he would probably increase that person’s miseries if he was able to do so. He might even say these words in front of that person’s enemies in order to give them the chance to take their revenge on him. This is a very serious sickness of the heart and a horrible form of deception. Then there is the person who makes a show of anger nd righteous indignation in order to backbite another. He may use the most eloquent words possible with the seeming intent of condemning an act of wrongdoing, but his true intentions are vile indeed.
8. Safeguarding one’s status and reputation:
When a person becomes known for righteousness and piety, he tends to love building his reputation further in the same manner. He begins to fear losing the esteem of others that he presently enjoys. He guards himself from any apparent laxity in his conduct. He makes sure to keep pace with others or to outdo them in the good works that he performs, or at least in what he shows to them. He does not do this out of any religious devotion, but merely in order to maintain their respect. He may speak to them, preach to them, and exhort them to do what is right, not because he feels that they need it but because he feels that they expect it from him. The meaning of what he says is not his concern. It is only his reputation and status that matter.
This trap is a subtle one and an easy one to plunge into. Actions are but by intentions. A person is either doing these things for Allah’s sake – for which he will be rewarded – or merely to save his reputation.
9. Speaking about matters in a way that alludes to the idea that one is engaged in them:
A person might say the following: “If a worshipper recites the Qur’ân a lot, it becomes easy on his tongue, and he reads with more fluidity, especially when he prays late at night.” Translation: “I did this act and had this experience.”
Likewise, a person might say: “Some people think fasting is tiring and difficult.” Translation: “I am in the habit of fasting.”
A person’s secret devotions can become public in this manner. A man says: “You know, so-and-so made the call for the Morning Prayer a half hour before its time.” In this way, he reveals to everyone that he is in the habit of getting up before this time.
Let us look at how the scholars of old handled a similar situation. Sa`îd b. Jubayr asked his fellows: “Which of you saw the shooting star that went across the sky last night?” Husayn b. `Abd al-Rahmân added: “I did.” Then he quickly added: “I had not been praying; I had been stung by a scorpion.”
The reason he mentioned that he had been stung by a scorpion was to dispel the obvious conclusion that his companions would come to: that he had been praying throughout the night. The early Muslims were very careful to avoid praising themselves and did not like mentioning their own virtues.
Those who mention such things in order to show off may earn the people’s praise, but their deeds lose all blessings. If, however, somebody makes such statements without the intention of showing off, then their secret devotions still become public. He will be rewarded for them, but the blessings of those devotions will be less.
10. Putting oneself on a pedestal:
A person embarks upon learning about a certain religious topic. He delves into it deeply, investigating every minor issue and every subtle detail. He commits whole texts to memory and learns the opinions of many authorities. Then, when he sits among a large number of people, he begins to speak. Of course, he speaks on that very topic that he investigated so thoroughly, rattling off the names of different scholars and what they had to say, giving every citation from memory, down to the page number. He pours out to them everything he has memorized. What is the reason for all of this? It is so people will point to him and call him a scholar.
He may have the pretension to use turns of phrase reserved for true people of knowledge.
He might say things like:
“I see the matter to be such-and such…”
“What is quite evident to me is that it is…”
“The stance that we take on this issue is…”
He has the audacity to speak in the manner of an authority in the field, while he is a mere beginner. A poet writes:
They say: “This is, in our opinion, impermissible”
Who are you, though, to have an opinion?
11. Refuting the people of knowledge:
A person may be incited by Satan to speak badly about the people of knowledge or to try to refute and contradict them. His purpose in doing so is to make himself visible by standing upon their shoulders. He wants people to say that he refuted or dumbfounded a certain scholar. He wants news to spread that he got into a debate with a certain prominent sheikh and overwhelmed him with his arguments.
23 Sahîh Muslim (1431). Musnad Ahmad (7691).
24 These strategies employed by people for backbiting others can be found in Majmû` al-Fatâwâ (28/237).