The Messenger of Allah (صلى الله عليه وسلم) said, “Do you know what is backbiting?” The Companions said: “Allah and His Messenger know better. Thereupon he said, “Backbiting is talking about your (Muslim) brother in a manner which he dislikes.” It was said to him: “What if my (Muslim) brother is as I say.” He said, “If he is actually as you say, then that is backbiting; but if that is not in him, that is slandering.”
Shaykh Al-Islam b. Taymiyyah explained the different ways as to how people backbite and these ways can be summarised as follows:
1) From the people are those that backbite so as to not feel left out of those whom he is sitting with or his companions or his relatives – while he knows that the one being backbitten is free of what they say (or some of what they say).
He thinks that if he were to forbid them from backbiting then the gathering will come to an end and those in the gathering would find him annoying and thus keep away from him.
Due to this he complies with them in backbiting for good relationships and companionship.
2) There are those that backbite in a religious form, so he will say about an individual: “I don’t have the habit of mentioning about anyone except with good and I don’t like to backbite or lie. However, I shall inform you off this individual’s affairs.” So he will say about the individual: “He is a good man but he has such and such in him (mentioning bad about).”
Or he might even say: ‘Leave us off from (mentioning about) him; may Allah forgive him and us’ by saying this his only intent is to belittle him and diminish his character.
They try to remove the backbiting by employing a religious form thereby thinking that they are deceiving Allah like they deceive the creation!
3) There are those that will elevate someone else and by doing so he will elevate himself – thereby showing off (riya’). So he will say about an individual: “If only I had made du’a for so-and-so last night in my prayer regarding what has reached me (from the bad) about this individual”. By doing so, he elevates himself whilst putting this individual down in front of the one who believes him.
Or he may say about an individual: ‘so and so is not intellectually smart and has little understanding.’. By doing so he only intends to praise himself, show how knowledgeable he is and that he is better than this individual.
4) There are those that are overcome by jealousy when backbiting and so will gather between two disgusting affairs – backbiting and jealousy.
So when an individual is praised (in his presence), then he will try to take that away from this individual by diminishing him in a religious form or in the form of jealousy, immorality and dispraise – in order to take that (praise) away from him.
5) There are those that backbite in the form of mockery and play.
This person will mock, imitate and belittle an individual in order to make people laugh.
6) There are those that backbite in the form of amazement/shock- so he will say about an individual: “I am shocked at how this individual does not do such and such!” or he will say: “I am shocked as to how this individual fell into such and such.” or he will say: “How can did this individual do such and such?” thereby mentioning this individual’s name when he is ‘amazed’.
7) There are those that backbite in the form of showing grief – so he will say about an individual: “Poor guy! It saddens me as to what happened to him and what the outcome was for him.” By this, the one who hears him thinks that he is worried for him and if possible he would say more! He may also mention this in front of this individual’s enemies so that they vent out their anger.
Such forms of backbiting are from the worst diseases of the heart.
Taken from: al-Fawaa’id al-Majmoo`ah fee Sharh Fusool al-Aadaab wa Makaarim al-Akhlaaq al-Mashroo`ah