Is criticizing someone in his presence or absence regarded as coming under the heading of backbiting (also known as Gheebah). What if the person was not present when the criticizing was done and what does it mean if the words were said when he was absent?
Glory and praises are to Allah (SWT).
To know what criticizing someone means, it’s best to look into the word of Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) as he gave the clear definition of backbiting. He (PBUH) said:
“Do you know what backbiting is?” They said: Allah and His Messenger know best. He said: “When you say about your brother something that he dislikes.” They said: What if what I say about my brother is true? He said: “If it is true then you have backbitten about him and if it is not true then you have told a grave lie about him.”
Narrated by Muslim (2589).
To note, you should know that in the hadith above the prophet (PBUH) is directing the questions to the Sahabah.
Similarly, in a hadith classed as Saheeh by Shaykh al-Albaani in as-Silsilah as-Saheehah (1992), Maalik narrated in al-Muwatta’ (3/150) that a man asked the Messenger of Allah (sa) (PBUH): What is backbiting?
The Prophet (PBUH) said: “When you say about your brother something that he does not like to hear.” He said: O Messenger of Allah, even if it is true? The Messenger of Allah (blessings and peace of Allah be upon him) said: “If you say something untrue, then that is a grave lie.”
Backbiting Refers to Speaking Ill of a Person in His Absence
For you to be more clear, when someone is present and you speak ill of that person, that’s backbiting. However, criticizing someone in his presence is also Haraam, because it falls under the heading of insulting and reviling. So it’s something you should refrain from.
That said, the proof for that is the word of Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) which says: “Insulting a Muslim is an evil action and fighting him is disbelief (kufr).”
Narrated by al-Bukhaari (48) and Muslim (64).
In the same sense, the prophet (PBUH) said: “Do not envy one another, do not artificially inflate prices, do not hate one another, do not turn away from one another, do not undercut one another. Be, O slaves of Allah, brothers. The Muslim is the brother of his fellow Muslim. He does not wrong him, let him down or despise him. Piety (taqwa) is here” – and he pointed to his chest three times. “It is sufficient evil for a man to despise his Muslim brother. The whole of a Muslim is sacred to another Muslim, his blood, his wealth and his honour.”
This was Narrated by Muslim (2564).
To add up, Al-Haafiz Ibn Hajar (may Allah have mercy on him) said:
Ibn at-Teen said: Backbiting (gheebah) means saying about a man in his absence that which he dislikes. This was also stated by az-Zamakhshari and Abu Nasr al-Qushayri in at-Tafseer, and by Ibn Khamees in a book on this topic, and by al-Mundhiri and more than one of the scholars, one of the last of whom was al-Kirmaani. He said: Backbiting means saying behind a man’s back what he would dislike if he heard it, even if it is true. From Fat-h al-Baari (10/469).
In accordance with that, Al-Jirjaani said: Backbiting means saying bad things about a person in his absence when they are true; if they are not true, then it is a grave lie, and if it is said to his face, then it is reviling or insulting.
From at-Ta‘reefaat (p. 163)
In conclusion, criticizing someone in his presence or absence is something you should not go for, because, (1) saying what he dislikes in his absence is a form of backbiting, (2) If you say something untrue, then that is a grave lie. And some other reasons outlined above.
So by now, you should have a clear mind on what it means to criticize someone, with the proof from Prophet Muhammed (PBUH). It’s also advisable to take what you learn here into action and seek the guidance of Allah.
Allah knows best and may He (SWT) guide our intuition.