What is Personal & What is Not? – The Islamic Perspective
“O you who believe enter not houses other than you own without first announcing your presence and invoking peace (salam) upon the folk thereof. That is better for you that you may be heedful…” (Holy Quran: 24:27).
There is a lot of debate about what should be personal/private matters of an individual and what are public matters. I have tried to discuss this issue in the light of Islam’s teachings
Private & Public Spheres
Private is that which one wishes to remain concealed—protected from, and inaccessible to others. The public sphere is one in which matters are neither concealed nor inaccessible. This domain is the sphere of influence of the state.
- All matters are assumed to belong to the private domain, unless and until they are proven to belong to the public sphere. Similar to the phrase ‘everyone is innocent unless and until proved guilty
- No one has the right to interfere in the private/personal affairs of an individual. Others interfering in matters of his or her concern require reasoning and justification. Matters relating to the individual are only that individual’s prerogative, and any investigation or interference in such matters is not allowed without the individual’s consent. Any inquiry into such matters should be based on legitimate reasoning in accordance with religious law.
- A sin against God committed in private, carries no obligation for the sinner to confess. It would be in the best interest of the religion for the sinner not to publicize his or her sin. Basic difference between a believer and a non-believer is that believer believes that Allah is witness to all his deeds.
A non-believer thinks that no one witnesses his or her deeds. Committing a sin of course goes against the requirements of the faith, and subjects the sinner to punishment. The believer stands to be punished, if he or she does not repent. If he or she repents, however, he or she will be absolved. Not every sin is necessarily punished in the temporal world: punishment may be handed out on the Day of Judgment.
Hazrat Ali (RA) admonished a man who confessed to adultery and advised that he “should have kept his sin to himself”
- No one should be subjected to punishment for subscribing to an opinion unless it is against the injunctions of the Holy Quran & Sunnah, is not against any religious personality including the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and his companions (RA) or it has harmful effects on a second or other person (s)
- Nobody has the right to impose piety on the people, or to force individuals to perform religious duties and obligations unless they are of a collective benefit to the society e.g. collection of Zakat, Ushr, taxes etc, for then they come under the PUBLIC sphere
- God admonishes the faithful to refrain from suspicion and skepticism toward others, and then to refrain from prying into the personal affairs of others. The Holy Quran clearly prohibits searching and investigating the private affairs of others
- The prohibition of search and investigation on one hand, and the prohibition of dissemination of personal information and matters of private sphere on the other. Both have been clearly stated in the Holy Quran (49:12).
- “O you who have believed, avoid much [negative] assumption. Indeed, some assumption is sin. And do not spy or backbite each other. Would one of you like to eat the flesh of his brother when dead? You would detest it. And fear Allah; indeed, Allah is Accepting of repentance and Merciful. (Holy Quran 49: 12)
9. In his verse, God admonishes the faithful to refrain from suspicion and skepticism toward others, and then to refrain from prying into the personal affairs of others. The prohibition expressed in this verse has legal implications. Our discussion is concerned here with the subjecting to search and investigation whatever an individual has chosen to conceal. The Qur’an not only admonishes against prying into each other’s personal spheres, but also forbids any dissemination of such information (24:19).
“Indeed, those who like that immorality should be spread [or publicized] among those who have believed will have a painful punishment in this world and the Hereafter. And Allah knows and you do not know.” (Holy Quran 24:19)
Whenever you receive important news bearing upon a vital matter, you should not accept it immediately but should first examine the man who has brought it
- A person in privacy is free to do whatever, even though it may be a sin, unless it may be causing harm to the public: theft, corruption, murder, rape, adultery (4 witnesses)
The three knocks agreement:
– Islam specifies that if you want to enter a house, you need to knock once. If you don’t get answer, try two more times. Then, if no one answers, you are instructed to go back home and don’t continue knocking even if you know they are inside.
– Also, it was clearly mentioned that, you should enter houses only from doors.
-Even if you are the man of the house and it is your house, if you are traveling, islam instructs you not to enter your house at night but wait somewhere in the city or outside till morning. Then, you can enter the house. (This will give both hasband and wife ample time to prepare and clean up to meet)
Respecting private times:
– Even children are requested to ask for permission to enter mom/dad’s room at these special timings: (at night, at dusk and after mid-day). See these times, are the potential times that a husband and wife comes together.
Respecting walls and privacy:
The individual, in his or her private space—which we call home—is on his own, and away from the public eye. There, he or she would be free to do whatever, even though it may be a sin. There is only one condition to this freedom, which is that it cannot be harming anyone else—that is all.
- Right to privacy: “O you who believe enter not houses other than you own without first announcing your presence and invoking peace (salam) upon the folk thereof. That is better for you that you may be heedful…” (24:27).
“Do not spy’: Do not grope after the secrets of the people: do not search for their defects and weaknesses: do not pry into their conditions and affairs. Whether this is done because of suspicion, or for causing harm to somebody with an evil intention, or for satisfying one’s own curiosity, it is forbidden by the Shari ‘ah in every case.
It does not behove a believer that he should spy on the hidden affairs of other people, and should try to peep at them from behind curtains to find out their defects and their weaknesses. This also includes reading other people’s private letters, listening secretly to private conversation, peeping into the neighbor’s house, and trying to get information in different ways about the domestic life or private affairs of others.
This is grave immorality which causes serious mischief in society. That is why the Holy Prophet once said in an address about those who pry into other people’s affairs:
“O people, who have professed belief verbally, but faith has not yet entered your hearts: Do not pry into the affairs of the Muslims, for he who will pry into the affairs of the Muslims, Allah will pry into his affairs, and he whom Allah follows inquisitively, is disgraced by Him in his own house. ” (Abu Da’ud).
- This espionage on the life of the individual cannot be justified on moral grounds by the government saying that it is necessary to know the secrets of the dangerous persons. Though, to all intents and purposes, the basis of this policy is the fear and suspicion with which modern governments look at their citizens who are intelligent and dissatisfied with the official policies of the government.
- This is exactly what Islam has called as the root cause of mischief in politics. The injunction of the Prophet is: “When the ruler begins to search for the causes of dissatisfaction amongst his people, he spoils them” (Abu
Hadrat Mu’awiyah says that he himself heard the Holy Prophet say; `If you start prying into the secret affairs of the people, you will corrupt them, or at least drive them very near corruption. ” (Abu Da’ud).
In another Hadith he said: “When you happen to form an evil opinion about somebody, do not pry about it.” (AI-Jassas, Ahkam al-Qur’an).
– if you saw somebody spying from a hole at your house, you have the right to point his eyes with a stick.
According to still another Hadith, the Holy Prophet said: “The one who saw a secret affair of somebody and then concealed it is as though he saved a girl who had been buried alive.” (AI-Jassas).
An incident concerning Hadrat `Umar is very instructive. Once at night he heard the voice of a person who was singing in his house. He became curious and climbed the wall. There he saw wine as well as a woman present. He shouted at the man, saying: “O enemy of God, do you think you will disobey Allah, and Allah will not expose your secret?”
The man replied: “Do not make haste, O Commander of the Faithful: if I have committed one sin, you have committed three sins: Allah has forbidden spying, and you have spied; Allah has commanded that one should enter the houses by the doors, and you have entered it by climbing over the wall; Allah has commanded that one should avoid entering the other people’s houses without permission, and you have entered my house without my permission. ”
Hearing this reply Hadrat `Umar confessed his error, and did not take any action against the man, but made him to promise that he would follow the right way in future. (Abi Bakr Muhammad bin Ja`far al-Khara’iti, Makarim al-Akhlaq). This shows that it is not only forbidden for the individuals but also for the Islamic government itself to pry into the secrets of the people and discover their sins and errors and then seize them for punishment. The same thing has been said in a Hadith in which the Holy Prophet has said: `When the ruler starts searching for the causes of suspicions among the people he corrupts them” (Abu Da’ud).
Gheebat (back-biting) has been defined thus: “It is saying on the back of a person something which would hurt him if he came to know of it. ” This definition has been reported from the Holy Prophet himself. According to a tradition which Muslim, Abu Da’ud, Tirmidhi, Nasa’i and others have related on the authority of Hadrat Abu Hurairah, the Holy Prophet defined ghibat as follows:
“It is talking of your brother in a way irksome to him.” It was asked: “What, if the defect being talked of is present in my brother ?” The Holy Prophet replied: “If it is present in him, it would be ghibat; if it is not there, it would be slandering him. ”
In another tradition which Imam Malik has related in Mu’watta, on the authority of Hadrat Muttalib bin `Abdullah, “A person asked the Holy Prophet: What is ghibat? The Holy Prophet replied: It is talking of your brother in a way irksome to him. He asked: Even if it is true, O Messenger of Allah? He replied: If what you said was false, it would then be a calumny.”
If what is spoken is true, it is ghibat; if it is false, it is calumny; and if it is meant to make two persons quarrel, it is slander. The Shari ‘ah has declared all these as forbidden. In the Islamic society it is incumbent on every Muslim to refute a false charge made against a person in his presence and not to listen to it quietly, and to tell those who are speaking ill of somebody, without a genuine religious need, to fear God and desist from the sin.
The Holy Prophet has said: If a person does not support and help a Muslim when he is being disgraced and his honor being attacked, Allah also does not support and help him when he stands in need of His help; and if a person helps and supports a Muslim when his honor is being attacked and he is being disgraced, Allah Almighty also helps him when he wants that Allah should help him. (Abu Da’ud).
The PUBLIC SPHERE
- In a society whose laws are based on shari‘a (the Islamic law), committing a sin in public domain is a crime, and subject to punishment.
- One cannot overlook that citizens of an Islamic society are bound to comply, at least in appearance, with Islamic teachings
- According to this Islamic principle, much emphasized in the Qur’an and throughout the Islamic tradition, all Muslims are required to speak out and act for what is right and against that which is wrong: it is a command covering every individual, party or government (rulers, sovereigns, etc.).
“Commending good and prohibiting evil” is also a decisive and powerful lever in the hand of Moslems for overseeing the government and confronting unjust rulers. So long as this principle is adhered to among the Moslems, corruption in government is held at bay, and in case it is overlooked, governments shall most certainly fall away from justice and fairness.
- Governments constantly aim to interfere with the private sphere of their citizens, under the pretext of national or public interest. However this should be kept to a minimum. Public interest is very sharp dagger that easily cuts through the fabric of the private sphere. In other words, shari‘a (the Islamic law) does not tolerate the individuals who do not respect the Islamic rules in the public sphere, and who insist on visible violations of the law.
- Although the religion of Islam has tried to put a stop on spying and prying into the lives of others and has classified these things as being very dangerous and of no benefit, however at the same time in limited circumstances in which the preservation and maintenance of the society is clearly at stake and rests on making known the particular aspects of the lives of people and their hidden deeds and acts, the religion has given the permission that in certain areas of a person’s life, it is permissible to conduct investigations.
- For example, if there is a young boy and girl who wish to get married to one another, of if two adults wish to enter into a business partnership with one another, or other such scenarios and it is imperative that the other side know the particulars of the life and actions of the other person, then as far as those things which are related to how the person would make his or her final decision are concerned, one is able to gather more information about the other party.
- Other exceptions from this Command are the special cases and situations in which spying is actually needed. For instance, if in the conduct of a person (or persons) some signs of corruption are visible and there is the apprehension that he is about to commit a crime, the government can inquire into his affairs; or, for instance, if somebody sends a proposal of marriage in the house of a person, or wants to enter into business with him, the other person can, inquire and investigate into his affairs for his own satisfaction.
- Scholars have declared that gheebat (backbiting) is permissible in the following cases:
(1) Complaining by an oppressed person against the oppressor before every such person who he thinks can do something to save him from the injustice.
(2) To make mention of the evils of a person (or persons) with the intention of reform before those who can do expected to help remove the evils.
(3) To state the facts of a case before a legal expert for the purpose of seeking a religious or legal ruling regarding an unlawful act committed by a person.
(4) To warn the people of the mischiefs of a person (or persons) so that they may ward off the evil, e g. it is not only permissible but obligatory to mention the weaknesses of the reporters, witnesses and writers, for without it, it is not possible to safeguard the Shari ah against the propagation of false reports, the courts against injustices and the common people or the students against errors and misunderstandings.
Or, for instance, if a person wants to have the relationship of marriage with somebody, or wishes to rent a house in the neighborhood of somebody, of wants to give something into the custody of somebody, and consults another person, it is obligatory for him to apprise him of all aspects so that he is not deceived because of ignorance.
(5) To raise ‘ voice against and criticize the evils of the people who may be spreading sin and immorality and error, or corrupting the people’s faith and persecuting them.
(6) To use nicknames for the people who may have become well known by those names, but this should be done for the purpose of their recognition and not with a view to condemn them. (For details, see Fat-h al-Bani, vol. X, p. 362; Sharh Muslim by An-Nawawi; Riyad us-Salihin; al-Jassas, Ahkam al-Qur an; Ruh al-Ma ani commentary on verse wa a yaghtab ba ‘dukum ba ‘dan).
Apart from these exceptions it is absolutely forbidden to speak ill of a person behind his back.
Compliance Inspectors: The inspection authority is among the institutions of the Islamic government, which actively enforces the principle of “commending good and forbidding evil” in society
A compliance inspector is appointed by the Islamic ruler to ensure that the public sphere is orderly, according to the Islamic standards, to prevent any violation of “rights” and perpetration of “wrongdoing.”
The inspector can stop a Muslim who is publicly breaking fast; can detain people who fail to maintain the Islamic standards of covering. Similarly, if a merchant in the marketplace is withholding goods from customers or propping up the prices, the inspector could intervene and enforce the fair treatment of the public
All these and others are affecting the common PUBLIC
- Leadership in Islam is considered as an amanah (a trust) and a responsibility. A leader is required to meet his obligations to God, the Supreme Power as well as to discharge his duties towards the people (Makhluq) or his followers to the best of his abilities.
It says to the rulers that the authority vested in them is not their private property but is a trust and that they should discharge the obligations of that trust to the utmost, like upright and honest people, and should carry on government in consultation with the people.
Thus when someone becomes a public figure, many things (not all) become public. For example a person questioning Hazrat Umar (RA) from where he had earned the extra piece of cloth he was wearing.
He can be questioned about his wealth, how he earned it, his prayers with congregation
But still one has to be very cautious about his private family life and it should not be questioned unless he is involved in corruption, having extra-marital affair or other illegal intimate/sexual activity. Even if politics is involved, it should not be discussed in public; It should be left alone for his privacy (as mentioned in point 12 under Private Sphere) or it may discussed with him in privacy (protocol described below)
Principles on How to Correct Someone’s Mistake? (Including a Leader or a Ruler)
- Advise, not condemn
- Be Sincere to Allah in your aim while advising
- Don’t expect people to be perfect
- Correct based on evidence on Holy Quran & Sunnah
- Do with etiquette
- Take into account the persons status (teacher, leader etc)
- Appreciate his good deeds first
- Talk in private first
- Give time to correct mistake; keep reminding
- If mistake repeated, talk to him in front of his elder, local party leader etc
- If still repeated talk to major party leader or in a gathering but this is rarely recommended or encouraged
- Address a gathering collectively and pointing out the mistake in general without naming anyone
- Stop talking to him, boycott, prayers for him/her, leave alone and say peace (salama). These are other techniques
- Never argue, swear, slander or fight. The only basis of superiority and excellence that there is, or can be, between man and man is that of moral excellence
Same rules apply for correction of conflicts within the party (Internal party conflicts should never be brought into public)
May Allah forgive me if I have said anything wrong. Ameen.
Also read the following related article: