The Sin of Ghība in Early Islamic Thought: Disciplining the Tongue in the Zuhd Tradition and Its Late Antique Background

Thesis Type:

PhD dissertation


This dissertation explores the form, substance and social context of pious exhortations in medieval Islamic history, focusing on ideas about gossip and slander. It is a study on a single concept of enduring significance in Islamic ethics, the notion of ghība or backbiting, defined as unwelcome statements of fact as opposed to false slander (buhtān). Prohibited by the Qurʾān, the mundane social vice of speaking ill about other people in their absence was a source of great moral concern, with ramifications in discourses of piety, religious ethics, ritual law, and eschatology. Early proponents of the isnād method for the authentication of ḥadīth had to frequently address the ethical quandary that their criticism of transmitters might be tantamount to sinful gossip. I demonstrate that the discourse on ghība stems from a broader ethics of “disciplining the tongue” among the early Muslim renunciants of the so-called zuhd movement. A major work by the Baghdadi scholar Ibn Abī l-Dunyā (d. 281 AH/894 CE), the Kitāb al-Ṣamt wa-ādāb al-lisān or “Book of Silence and Etiquettes of the Tongue” serves as a key point of departure for this study. I examine the traditions, stories and wise maxims on ghība in the context of zuhd, ḥadīth, tafsīr and fiqh sources, as well as their broader reception in pious ethics literature of the ninth and tenth centuries CE. Through close attention to motifs, I argue further that some early Muslim ideas about gossip and slander reflect older traditions of religious thought in late antiquity. The commonalities are evident especially in the Apophthegmata Patrum or Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Resonances can be traced as well through eschatological motifs common to Jewish, Christian and Zoroastrian apocalyptic literature and Islamic imaginations of hell, in which the sin of backbiting is met with severe punishments. In contrast to conventional ancient punishment motifs for slander, Islamic eschatology introduces new types of scenes informed by the Qurʾānic metaphor of ghība as eating the flesh of another. Early Muslim ethical discourses thus interpreted a universal moral concern through a combination of inherited traditions and original elements.

Publisher's Version