Keeping People’s Faults Secret
Uqbah said: ” I heard the Prophet as he said, ‘Whoever keeps secret a shameful deed done by a Muslim, God will grant him His cover on the Day of Judgment.’”
Sometimes we are faced with a situation where quoting an incident or a person’s behavior may serve a good purpose. Is it acceptable, from the Islamic point of view, to give such a report, or does that come under backbiting, which is forbidden in Islam? This is a question that we are often faced with in a wide variety of situations. Because backbiting is strongly repudiated in Islam, good Muslims hesitate to say anything about other people, even when what they have to say does not detract from the person so spoken of in any way.
Abdullah ibn Masoud reports: “When the Prophet divided the spoils of war after the Battle of Hunain, people were overcrowding the place at Ji’irranah. The Prophet said: ‘Once God sent one of His servants to a certain community, but they rejected him, accused him of lying and injured him on his forehead. He wiped the blood off his forehead and said, ‘My Lord, forgive my community for they do not know (the truth).’” Ibn Masoud adds: ‘I can almost see the Prophet imitating the man and wiping his forehead.’ (Related by Al-Bukhari in Al-Adab Al-Mufrad, Ahmad, Ibn Majah and others).
This is a simple report which the Prophet felt useful to quote in that particular situation when people did not pay attention to the fact that they were hurting the Prophet in their scrambling for their shares of the booty. He reports to them that earlier prophets suffered ill-treatment at the hands of their people, to the extent that a prophet might be physically assaulted and injured. This was a subtle hint by the Prophet Muhammad to those who hurt him, so that they might desist.
What the Prophet told his companions was that it was often the lot of a messenger of God to be hurt. Like this prophet he mentioned, he himself was subjected to much abuse, both mental and physical, on several occasions. When he went to Taif to call on its people to accept Islam, he was chased by slaves and boys who threw stones at him and he suffered injuries. Enduring such hostility is a common occurrence among those who call on people to believe in God.
What is surprising about this Hadith is that Al-Bukhari relates it under a heading which has nothing to do with suffering adversity. The heading given to it is, ‘Seeing nothing wrong with transmitting a report.’ Al-Bukhari was very scholarly in his classification of Hadiths. He sometimes mentions a Hadith which does not appear to be relevant to the heading, because he wants to alert the reader to a subtle relevance. Here we can say that he gives this heading to alert us that when we transmit a report, we should make sure that it contains nothing unacceptable from the Islamic point of view. It cannot be a report of backbiting, or something to be ashamed of. When a report is likely to make public something that is better left secret, then reporting it is wrong.
It is reported that some people visited Uqbah ibn Amir, a companion of the Prophet, and said, ‘We have neighbors who drink and do other deeds: should we report them to the governor?’ He said, ‘No. I heard God’s Messenger saying, ‘Whoever sees a defect in a Muslim and overlooks it is like one who saves a young girl who has been buried alive.’ (Related by Al-Bukhari in Al-Adab Al-Mufrad and Ahmad).
This is an important Hadith which defines the attitude a Muslim should take when he sees something wrong done or practiced by a fellow Muslim. What we are talking about here is a practice that constitutes disobedience to God, but does not injure or constitute an injustice to anyone else. In this case, the best thing to do is to keep the matter secret and not to publicize it. The reason is twofold:
For one thing, publicity of people’s faults puts them in a defensive position. Some people may think that such publicity gives them a chance to boast about what they do, even though if it is unworthy of a Muslim. The fact that it has become known encourages them to boast about it in defiance of the accepted Islamic norms. Thus, instead of encouraging them to mend their ways, publicity hardens their attitude.
On the other hand, publicity may encourage others to follow such people’s example, particularly if the practice involved is associated with pleasure, desire gratification, material gain or the like. Thus, publicity tends to help make forbidden practices commonplace in a Muslim community. For this reason, Islam wants its community to refrain from indulgence in gossip.
From another point of view, keeping someone else’s faults secret allows us a chance to talk to them about it, counseling them to mend their ways, or giving them advice on how to get rid of such fault. We will be able to help them in this way. We must not forget that a person who commits an error is always likely to receive God’s forgiveness once he repents and resolves not to repeat sinful actions. To encourage someone to repent and seek God’s forgiveness requires that we keep secret what that person has done.
The encouragement the Prophet provides to keep other people’s faults secret is such that he likens it to saving a poor girl buried alive from certain death. The Arabs in pre-Islamic days used to bury young girls alive, for fear of poverty or shame. Islam put an end to this abhorrent practice. Saving such a girl is highly commendable. Hence the Prophet likens overlooking other people’s faults to such savior.
We should add here that Abu Ayoub, a companion of the Prophet, used to travel to meet other companions to ask them about a Hadith they might have heard from the Prophet.
This Hadith is one of these. It is reported that Abu Ayoub traveled to Egypt to meet Uqbah ibn Amir, the first reporter of this Hadith. When he arrived at the home of Maslamah ibn Makhlad, the governor of Egypt, he came out to receive him and hugged him assuring him of a warm welcome. He then asked him about his business in Egypt so that he might facilitate it for him. Abu Ayoub said, ‘I have come to meet Uqbah ibn Amir and ask him about a Hadith, he and I are the only survivors among those who heard the Prophet saying it. Could you please send someone with me to guide me to his home.’
The governor did that, and when Uqbah heard of Abu Ayoub’s arrival, he came out to give him a very warm welcome. Abu Ayoub said: “I have come to ask you about a Hadith concerning keeping secret other people’s errors. You and I are the only survivors of those who heard it.” Uqbah said: “Indeed, I heard the Prophet as he said, ‘Whoever keeps secret a shameful deed done by a Muslim, God will grant him His cover on the Day of Judgment.’” Abu Ayoub said, ‘This is true.’
Abu Ayoub thus finished his business in Egypt and started on his return journey to Madinah. The governor inquired after him, but he was told that he had already left. He sent some of his men with a gift, but they did not catch up with him until he reached El-Arish. This gives us an idea about the care early Muslims took to ascertain the reporting of every Hadith.