Criticizing Muslims without naming and shaming

In the name of Allah, the Gracious, the Merciful

It is from the guidance of the Prophet (s) to not criticize other Muslims in public by naming and shaming them, thereby harming their reputation. The reputation or honor of another Muslim is sacred and cannot be transgressed without serious justification.

If a Muslim commits an error in public, it is best to criticize the wrong action or idea privately or in another forum without naming the person or humiliating them. We should not attack the identity of the person who made a mistake. After all, the goal is to correct their behavior, not to harm them.

Aisha reported: If the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, heard something bad about a man, he would not name them by saying, “What is the matter with this person that he says this?” Rather, the Prophet would say:

مَا بَالُ أَقْوَامٍ يَقُولُونَ كَذَا وَكَذَا

What is the matter with some people who say this?

Source: Sunan Abī Dāwūd 4788, Grade: Sahih

On one occasion, some companions of the Prophet (s) openly declared some misguided religious vows without a right to do so. Some said they would not marry, or eat meat, or sleep on a bed. The Prophet (s) did not rebuke these companions by name, but instead he declared to the rest of the community that the Sunnah was different from such extreme asceticism.

Anas ibn Malik reported: Some of the companions said, “I will not marry women.” And some said, “I will not eat meat.” And some said, “I will never sleep in a bed.” The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, praised and glorified Allah, and he said:

مَا بَالُ أَقْوَامٍ قَالُوا كَذَا وَكَذَا لَكِنِّي أُصَلِّي وَأَنَامُ وَأَصُومُ وَأُفْطِرُ وَأَتَزَوَّجُ النِّسَاءَ فَمَنْ رَغِبَ عَنْ سُنَّتِي فَلَيْسَ مِنِّي

What is the matter with some people who say this? I pray and I sleep, I fast and I break fasting, and I marry women. He who turns away from my practice is not related to me.

Source: Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 1401, Grade: Sahih

Al-Nawawi comments on this tradition, saying:

هُوَ مُوَافِقٌ لِلْمَعْرُوفِ مِنْ خُطَبِهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ فِي مِثْلِ هَذَا أَنَّهُ إِذَا كَرِهَ شَيْئًا فَخَطَبَ لَهُ ذَكَرَ كَرَاهِيَتَهُ وَلَا يُعَيِّنُ فَاعِلَهُ وَهَذَا مِنْ عِظَمِ خُلُقِهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ فَإِنَّ الْمَقْصُودَ مِنْ ذَلِكَ الشَّخْصُ وَجَمِيعُ الْحَاضِرِينَ وَغَيْرُهُمْ مِمَّنْ يَبْلُغُهُ ذَلِكَ وَلَا يَحْصُلُ تَوْبِيخُ صَاحِبِهِ فِي الْمَلَأِ

It is in accordance with his discourse, peace and blessings be upon him, to be like this. When he disapproved of something, he would address it and mention his disapproval without specifying who did it. This is part of his tremendous character. Indeed, the purpose is for that person and all who are present, as well as others, to hear that disapproval without scolding the person in the assembly.

Source: Sharḥ al-Nawawī ‘alá Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 1401

The reputation of a Muslim is part of his or her sacred property, which cannot be violated except in the direst of circumstances.

Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said:

كُلُّ الْمُسْلِمِ عَلَى الْمُسْلِمِ حَرَامٌ دَمُهُ وَمَالُهُ وَعِرْضُهُ

The entirety of the Muslim is sacred to another Muslim: his life, his wealth, and his reputation.

Source: Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2564, Grade: Sahih

In general, Muslims should advise each other about their public errors in a private setting so as to respect the sanctity of their reputation. Those who frequently rebuke, scold, and disparage other Muslims in public, naming and shaming them without solid justification, are in reality committing a heinous sin against them.

Al-Muzanni reported: Al-Shafi’i, may Allah have mercy on him, said:

مَنْ وَعَظَ أَخَاهُ سِرًّا فَقَدْ نَصَحَهُ وَزَانَهُ وَمَنْ وَعَظَهُ عَلانِيَةً فَقَدْ فَضَحَهُ وَخَانَهُ

Whoever admonishes his brother in private has been sincere to him and protected his reputation. Whoever admonishes him in public has humiliated him and betrayed him.

Source: Ḥilyat al-Awliyā’ 13854

Yet, to merely refrain from direct naming for censure does not mean we should humiliate Muslims indirectly by innuendo, by using offensive nicknames known to be associated with them.

Allah said:

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا لَا يَسْخَرْ قَوْمٌ مِّن قَوْمٍ عَسَىٰ أَن يَكُونُوا خَيْرًا مِّنْهُمْ وَلَا نِسَاءٌ مِّن نِّسَاءٍ عَسَىٰ أَن يَكُنَّ خَيْرًا مِّنْهُنَّ ۖ وَلَا تَلْمِزُوا أَنفُسَكُمْ وَلَا تَنَابَزُوا بِالْأَلْقَابِ

O you who have faith, let not people ridicule another people; perhaps they are better than them. Neither let women ridicule other women; perhaps they are better than them. Do not insult each other, nor mock each other with nicknames.

Surat al-Hujurat 49:11

In our times, Muslims attack other Muslims using all sorts of damaging labels (“celebrity shaykhs” “scholars for dollars” “white knights” “coconuts”) and these statements are harmful regardless of whether the audience connects them to the intended target or not. If the audience implicitly understands a specific person is being attacked, then it is simply mockery with forbidden nicknames by innuendo. If the audience does not know who the specific intended target is, then it casts a pale of suspicion over the entire community that perhaps he was talking about so-and-so or so-and-so.

Rather, in Islam we must limit our criticism to wrong beliefs and misdeeds without attacking the particular identity of people. By doing so, we focus on what is most worthy of criticism (concrete actions and abstract beliefs) while respecting the sanctity of Muslims’ public reputations.

Success comes from Allah, and Allah knows best.