The tradition being discussed in the article translated below is as follows:
مُحَمَّدُ بْنُ يَحْيَى عَنْ مُحَمَّدِ بْنِ الْحُسَيْنِ عَنْ أَحْمَدَ بْنِ مُحَمَّدِ بْنِ أَبِي نَصْرٍ عَنْ دَاوُدَ بْنِ سِرْحَانَ عَنْ أَبِي عَبْدِ اللَّهِ ع قَالَ قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ ص إِذَا رَأَيْتُمْ أَهْلَ الرَّيْبِ وَ الْبِدَعِ مِنْ بَعْدِي فَأَظْهِرُوا الْبَرَاءَةَ مِنْهُمْ وَ أَكْثِرُوا مِنْ سَبِّهِمْ وَ الْقَوْلَ فِيهِمْ وَ الْوَقِيعَةَ وَ بَاهِتُوهُمْ كَيْلَا يَطْمَعُوا فِي الْفَسَادِ فِي الْإِسْلَامِ وَ يَحْذَرَهُمُ النَّاسُ وَ لَا يَتَعَلَّمُوا مِنْ بِدَعِهِمْ يَكْتُبِ اللَّهُ لَكُمْ بِذَلِكَ الْحَسَنَاتِ وَ يَرْفَعْ لَكُمْ بِهِ الدَّرَجَاتِ فِي الْآخِرَةِ
Muḥammad b. Yaḥya from Muḥammad b. al-Ḥusayn from Aḥmad b. Muḥammad b. Abī Naṣr from Dāwūd b. Sirḥān from Abī ‘Abdillah who said: the messenger of Allah said: if you see the people of doubt and innovation after me – then – disassociate from them openly, and increase in insulting them and speaking [negatively] about them and slandering them and accusing (defaming) them – so that they do not feel hopeful in [spreading] corruption in Islam, and so people become warned of them, and they [the people] do not learn from their innovations, Allah shall write for you by that the good deeds and raise you by that in stations in the hereafter.
Source: Shaykh Al-Kulaynī, al-Kāfī, vol. 2, ch. 159, pg. 375, ḥadīth # 4
A lot of discussions, particularly in the last two centuries, exist over this tradition. The chain of this tradition is reliable, hence scholars who ascribe to the binding force of a solitary report transmitted by reliable individuals have used this tradition to issue verdicts.
On the other hand, those who do not accept the binding force of a tradition as such, have questioned the content and whether these words were truly said by the Imām. The difficulty in attaining assurance in the tradition is made more challenging when we realize that it only appears in Uṣūl al-Kāfī and no other book. Why scholars after Shaykh al-Kulaynī did not record it in their books could be indicative that they may have found the tradition problematic. Furthermore, some researchers have also textually critiqued this tradition by asking why the term Ahl al-Rayb (Doubt) is mentioned alongside Ahl al-Bid’ (Innovation). Just because someone has doubt does not necessarily mean they are also innovators. In fact, it is highly likely that Ahl al-Rayb is a scribal error for Ahl al-Ray’ (Opinion), especially given these two terms are still somewhat historically related.
Secondly, the technical terms Ahl al-Bid’ or Bid’ah were formulated around the 2nd-century hijrī and the only time these terms are found being attributed to the Prophet (p) are in weak, unreliable and fabricated traditions in the books of the Ahl al-Sunnah. These points make us question this tradition as a whole.
In recent years, given how much this tradition has been used to justify slander and accusations of other Muslims and believers, a number of contemporary jurists were forced to speak out against it. Āyatullah Bāqir Īrwānī of Najaf believes that there is no way that the term bāhitū in this tradition means to slander someone by making up false things about them. Āyatullah Shubayrī Zanjānī of Qom and Āyatullah Sīstānī have also argued that this tradition – when interpreted in the meaning of slander – goes against the established practice of the Imāms.
In a similar light is the ruling permitting the backbiting of anyone who is not a Twelver Shī’a. Some major jurists considered this ruling to be from the necessities of the Sḥi’a jurisprudential school. While some contemporary jurists have discouraged it by using ethical propositions such as ‘it should be avoided’, rather than legal statements like ‘it is prohibited’, it still leaves the room open for discussions on what constitutes a believer, what is the religious criteria for being considered ‘respected’ and so on. Hopefully, in a future post, we can look into that ruling and its preliminaries in a bit more depth.
– By Sayyid Ali
The following is a translation of Ayatollāh Sorūsh Mohallātī’s article Tohmat dar khidmat diyānat
Having looked at the situation the community is in, a number of Islamic thinkers have recognised that there is a grave illness present amongst many religious people who consider it permissible to slander and make up lies about those who disagree with them. They argue that by slandering them their identity and reputation will be destroyed and they will be seen as unreliable and therefore unable to misguide people. The social situation today, which was rightly referred to by Syed Khomeinī as “the day of slandering”, brings us to the question as to what exactly is going on? What’s the basis of the notion that slandering those who disagree with us is permissible? What’s the consequence of this? Where did it come from and where is it going?
The Command for Mubāhata
A tradition has been narrated from the Prophet where he mentions the responsibility of the Ummah in relation to the People of Innovation (ahl al-bid’a). The Prophet commands that the Ummah should repudiate them, mention their flaws and problems, and make them mabhūt so that they do not entertain the idea of trying to destroy Islam.
إذا رأیتم اهل الریب و البدع من بعدی فأظهروا البرائة منهم … و باهتوهم کیلایطعموا فی الفساد فی الاسلام و یحذّرهم الناس
If you see the People of Doubt and Innovation after me, make clear your repudiation from them…and bāhitūhum so that they do not aspire to commit trouble with Islam and to warn the people [of them].
The word bāhitūhum comes from the root <بهت> in Arabic which means to overwhelm someone with sound reasoning and irrefutable proof to the extent that they become astounded and dumbfounded, rendering them unable to present a counter-argument. Prophet Ibrāhīm is mentioned to have used this type of reasoning with the idol worshippers during his debates with them as he left them dumbfounded (with his logic and argument):
فبهت الذی کفر
Thus those who disbelieved became dumbfounded.
The original Arabic dictionaries have given the same meaning for this word also. For example, Jawharī in his Sihāh says:
بهته بهتًا أخذه بغتة و بهت الرجل إذا دهش و تحیّر
Fayyūmī in his Misbāh says:
بهت: دهش و تحیّر
Zamaksharī mentions there is no difference between the word in its singular three root form or any others:
بهته بکذا و باهته به
Ibn Fāris in his Mu’jam Maqāyīs al-Lugha mentions that the root of this word means bewilderment and in the form bihtān it means lying:
الباء و الهاء و التاء اصل واحد و هو کالدهش و الحیره، یقال: بهت الرجل یبهت بهتا و البیهته: الحیره، فأمّا البهتان فالکذب
Therefore, from a lexicological perspective there is no proof to indicate that the command bāhitūhum can be understood as “slandering and attributing lies”, nor to interpret the above tradition that the Prophet has given absolute permission to lie, slander and say whatever we want about deviators.
Logic that Causes Astoundment
Up until the 12th century hijrī scholars of Hadīth understood the tradition of the Prophet the way we mentioned above, and they would say that we should confront the “People of Innovation” armed with logic and reasoning and purely engage in refuting their ideas and fallacies. In regards to the meaning of bāhitūhum the great scholar Faydh Kāshānī said:
جادلوهم و اسکتوهم و اقطعوا الکلام علیهم
Argue with them, silence them and end the discussion with them [through logic and reasoning]. 
Even though elsewhere in his work Faydh mentions that there are instances where a tradition can have a number of different understandings and meanings, here in this instance he doesn’t make any reference to this, not even as a possibility. After him, Mulla Sālih Māzandarānī understood the tradition similarly, explaining that the word بهت refers to bewilderment, taking the tradition of the Prophet to mean that by using certainty producing proofs and solid evidences close the door of mischief on the “People of Innovation” and leave them astounded. Allamā Majlisī also has relied on the explanation of the linguists and understood the tradition like the previous Hadith scholars, saying:
الظاهر أن المراد بالمباهته الزامهم بالحجج القاطعه و جعلهم متحیّرین
What is apparent in respect to the intent of mubāhatah is the obligation [to deal with them through] certain proofs and to render them bewildered. 
Majlisī also translated this tradition in a number of his Farsi treatises as following:
بر ایشان حجت را تمام کنید تا ایشان طغیان نکنند در فساد کردن دین اسلام
Complete the proofs upon them so that they do not transgress in violating the religion of Islam. 
The Obligation to tell the Truth
Up until the 12th century Shi’ī jurists were of the opinion that it was not permissible to slander or attribute lies to the innovators, and in their jurisprudential work they made this very clear. Even if they were attempting to attack Islam and bring it disrepute, it was still not permissible to lie and speak falsehood against them. Shahīd Thānī says the following in this regard:
یصح مواجهتهم بما یکون نسبته الیهم حقا لا بالکذب
Addressing them with what is true is correct and not with falsehood. 
After mentioning this tradition Syed Tabatabā’ī says:
و لاتصحّ مواجهته بما یکون الیه کذبا لحرمته
It is not correct to address them with lies due to it being forbidden. 
After bringing this tradition in his discussion on defaming, Sāhib al-Jawāhir gives a warning about the impermissibility of attributing baseless lies:
نعم لیس کذلک ما لا یسوغ لقاؤه به من الرمی بما لایفعله
It is not the case that we can attribute to them things they have not done. 
The Expediency of Slandering
Unfortunately, from the 13th century onwards, Shi’ī jurisprudence was blemished in relation to this matter and the permissibility of lying and slandering against the “People of Innovation” began to gain traction and approval within the jurisprudential discussions. First, it was mentioned slandering and defaming may have been a possible meaning of the command in the tradition bāhitūhum. This possibility was then justified by appealing to expediency (maslihat), and the reasoning for this was such, as what better reason could there possibly be to justify slandering someone (like accusing him of fornication or sodomy, or of disbelief, or being a thief etc.) so that he loses reputation and people protect their own faith and stay away from them? By this slandering, even though one person may have been defamed but at least the religion of society has been kept safe and sound!? Shaykh Ansāri made this quite clear:
ویحتمل ابقائه علی ظاهره بتجویز الکذب علیهم لاجل المصلحة، فانّ مصلحة تنفیر الخلق عنهم أقوی من مفسدة الکذب
The possibility remains with the apparent [meaning of the tradition] of the permissibility to lie upon them (the People of Innovation) on the basis of expediency. For the benefit of keeping people away from them is greater than the corruption of lying. 
As is to be seen, at the beginning the idea of defaming was mentioned only as one possibility but later it was to be understood as the apparent meaning of the tradition. After this the philosophical reasoning behind it was taken to be expediency, and on the basis of this there was no need (to prove it) from the tradition itself, as when there is a contradiction (tazāhum) (between two contradictory commands), the more important command takes priority over the less important one (qāidatu al-ahamm wa al-muhimm). In this instance, the expediency (of protecting the society’s faith) was given the priority and upheld. For example, Ayatollah Khoie, in responding to a question on whether it was permissible to lie about Sunnis (mukhālifīn) and the People of Innovation says that even though lying is forbidden it is permissible to slander and defame them due to expediency so that people do not get influenced by them. Ayatollāh Gulpaygānī took a similar conclusion, saying that the command of bāhitūhum indicates slandering and in such circumstance it is no longer forbidden but permissible. This understanding was not limited to the handful of jurists mentioned but also a number of other scholars understood it this way similarly. Till it reached the point where Ayatollāh Mo’min accepted that not only was it permissible to slander and attribute things falsely like fornication, but it was in fact recommended! 
The Consequence of Slandering
The evidence upon which this idea of slandering those who oppose you is based on is extremely flimsy and there is no need for me to engage in a lengthy critique of it here, but I will just allude to a few points:
- Overlooking the understanding of the word that the scholars of Hadith all agreed upon.
- Forgetting to look at the general purport of the tradition (when dealing with) the word being a homonym (ishtirāk lafdhī), having both the meaning of astound and slander, and arriving at an unsubstantiated conclusion.
- Not taking into consideration both the internal and external indicators that shows the word does not mean slander.
- Ignoring the corruption of slandering political and religious opponents and considering it expedient for religion.
Yet more important than all of these points is that it begs the question both jurisprudentially and ethically as to what kind of society is being produced by this? And in what direction are academic discussions being taken? How would political campaigning end up? What kind of culture would take over the media industry? If someone with this outlook took up a governmental position and found himself object of protests and criticism, be it rightfully so or not, and slanders those against him with baseless claims, even though he may have the piety of Abu Dhar or Salmān, what (damaging) effect would his words have (on the society)? How much of what he relates or recounts (of his opponents) would be true? If we discounted the idea that a person would lie or slander due to what we know of his piety and justice, how could we now judge his the accuracy of what is being said (about others)?
Looking for an excuse
The tradition we mentioned from the Prophet was exclusively towards the People of Innovation, yet if the door of slandering is opened for the religious people towards them (it would be akin to opening Pandora’s box), as anyone who is proposing an idea that may seem to be an innovation, (or has an idea or belief that is misunderstood by the religious masses), would be a legitimate target for slandering and attributing all sorts of lies to them would be considered acceptable.
During the Iranian Constitutional Revolution didn’t both Mirzā Nā’īnī and Akhund Khorasānī support the establishment of an independent Parliament and get accused of being supporters of Innovation? Didn’t Mirzā Nā’īnī write his entire book Tanbīh al-Umma to respond to the allegations that were calling democracy and the idea of a parliament an innovation? Didn’t Shahīd Thanī get accused of innovation by people of his time for his ruling on the obligation (wujūb ‘aynī) of the Friday prayer?  In a society where people are looking for an excuse to bring down another person, it suffices to merely consider the person you disagree with as an innovator or supporting an innovation out of a grudge. Then after that your free to say whatever you want about him, call him a homosexual, a deviant, a Bahā’ī etc.
Shahīd Mottaharī narrates a relevant story to this discussion, the gist of which is that a man went to go buy some alcohol yet all he had on him was a single coin. The seller told the man that there’s no point buying any if he only had that much money on him, yet the man persisted to give him some, even if it was just a few drops. The seller responded saying people drink alcohol to get drunk, what on earth are you going to do with just a few drops. To which the man responded, just give me the drink and I’ll take care of getting drunk. Mottaharī then continues:
بعضی مردم که دنبال بهانه اند برای بدمستی و هرزگی اند گفته اند: اجازه هست هر دروغی که دلمان میخواهد، برای اهل بدعت جعل کنیم، بعد با هر کسی که کینه ی شخصی پیدا می کنند، فورًا یک تهمتی می زنند و می گویند: او اهل بدعت است، و شروع می کنند به جعل کردن و تهمت زدن! آن وقت ببینید بر سر دین، چه می آید؟
Those people who are looking for an excuse to get drunk [slander other people] have said: Do I have permission to make up whatever I want about the People of Innovation? After this [permission] they go after whoever they have a grudge against and slander him, then they say: “He was an Innovator!” Then they begin to defame and slander him. At that point you’ll realise what [a travesty] has befallen religion [through this]. 
To make it clear just how awry our society has gone on this we can take the words of Muqaddas Ardabilī as a comparison, an individual whose piety and justice was the role model for the jurists:
الّا ان يذكره المسلم بالوقيعة في دينه لدليل ان كان صحيحا وغير قذف ولا يقول : الأبرص والأجذم ، والحقير ، والوضيع وان كان كذلك في الواقع ولا يقول في دينهم ما ليس فيه من القبائح كما يفهم ذلك من قواعد الشهيد.
A Muslim [looking to critique another’s faith should not do so] except by speaking of things which are present within his faith with proof, if such is correct, and should not do so to defame [the other]. He should not use insulting and demeaning words even though he may in reality be [correctly described as] such and such. And detestable things which are not within their religion should not be attributed to them. This is what we have understood from Shahīd’s [dicussion on this in] Qawā’id. 
A number of other well-known scholars have voiced concern on this unethical approach being taken of slandering people for the sake of defending religion. Allāma Shi’rānī comments:
ربما یختلف فی ذهن بعض العوامّ انّه یجوز البهتان والافتراء علی اهل البدع بأن ینسب الیهم کفر لم یتفوهّوا به لمزید تنفّر الناس عنهم و هو غلط
Perhaps it may occur to the laymen that it is permissible to slander and lie about the People of Innovation, and attribute to them disbelief hoping to keep people away from them. This [assumption] is wrong. 
With all respect to this great scholar, why has he focused on the layman and ignore what some of the biggest scholars have said on this? Shahīd Mottaharī says:
بعضی آدم های «بی سواد» این «باهتوهم» را اینطور معنی کرده اند که به آنها تهمت بزنید ودروغ ببندید، و بعد می گویند: اهل بدعت دشمن خدا هستند و من دروغ علیه او جعل می کنم، با هر کسی هم که دشمنی شخصی داشته باشد،می گوید: این ملعون اهل بدعت است، صغری و کبری تشکیل می دهد، بعد هم شروع می کند دروغ جعل کردن علیه او. آن وقت است که شما می بینید، دروغ اندر دروغ جعل می شود
A number of illiterate people have understood the tradition of bāhitūhum to allow them to slander and lie, and after they’ll say the People of Innovation are the enemies of God and I [am allowed to] lie upon them. After this with they’ll call anyone who they have a personal grudge against a cursed enemy of God, and using the same argument they’ll start to concoct lies. At that time you’ll see how lying produces [nothing good] but more lying. 
Motahharī, through his insight and knowledge was able to evaluate and address a growing unethical problem within religious circles, and by highlighting this instance, he was also able to warn of its consequences which in his own words he says will create a “disgraceful society”. However, despite all that, until we recognise that the problem isn’t because of the layman and its roots actually lay elsewhere, and until we refine our jurisprudential opinions and make ethics govern jurisprudence, politics and religiosity, this problem will not disappear any time soon.
1 – “Today, just as you all can see, is the day of slandering. I have no idea how things have ended this way that a person can [have the audacity to] say whatever he wants about another person. Does he not know that dishonouring the honour of a believer is like dishonouring the sanctity of God?!” – Sahīfeh Imām, v. 10, p. 275
2 – Al-Kāfi by Shaykh Kulaynī, v. 4, p. 123
3 – Qur’ān, Surah 2, Verse 258
4 – Al-Wāfī by Faydh Kāshānī, v. 1, p. 245
5 – Sharh Usūl al-Kāfī by Mulla Sālih Māzandarānī, v. 10, p. 43
6 – Mir’āt al-Uqūl by Allāma Majlisī, v. 11, p. 81
7 – Risaleh hudūd va qisās va diyāt by Allāma Majlisī, p. 28
8 – Sharh Usūl al-Kāfī by Mulla Sālih Māzandarānī, v. 10, p. 43
9 – Riyādh al-Masā’il by Syed Tabatabā’ī, v. 16, p. 42
10 – Jawāhir al-Kalām by Shaykh Najafī, v. 41, p. 413
11 – Al-Makāsib by Shaykh Ansārī, v. 2, p. 118
12 – Misbāh al-Fiqāha by Ayatollāh Khoie, v. 1, p. 458:
قد تقتضی المصلحة الملزمة جواز بهتهم و الزراء علیهم و ذکرهم بما لیس فیهم افتضاحا لهم و المصلحة فی ذلک هی استبانة شئونهم لضعفاء المؤمنین حتّی لا یغترّوا بارائهم الخبیثة
13 – Al-Dur Al-Mandhūd by Syed Mohammad Ridhā Gulpaygānī, v. 2, p. 148
14 – Irshād al-Tālib by Shaykh Jawād Tabrīzī, v. 1, p. 281
15 – Mabānī Tahrīr al-Wasīleh by Ayatollāh Mo’min, v. 2, p. 452
16 – Tanbīh al-Umma wa Tanzīh al-Milla by Mirzā Nā’īnī, p. 101 and p. 115
17 – Dawāzdah risāleh yeh fiqhī dar mowrid namāz jum’eh, p. 386
18 – The list of rulings or beliefs that were once considered an innovation only to later become the orthodox opinion or widely accepted is far too extensive to be listed and would at the least merit its own article. Yet to give a further example, the third testimony in Adhān was once unanimously considered an innovation amongst the jurists pre-Shahīd Thānī yet it is now considered to be recommended (in fact not reciting it could lead to one being defamed and accused of not being Shi’ī). Refer to Liyakat Takim’s article “From Bid’a to Sunna: The Wilaya of Ali in the Shi’i Adhan”.
19 – Majmu’ Athār by Shahīd Mottaharī, v. 16, p. 104
20 – Majma’ al-Fā’ida wa al-Burhān by Muqqadas Ardabilī, v. 13, p. 164
21 – Ta’līqeh bar Sharh Mullā Sālih bar Kāfī by Allama Shi’rānī, v. 10, p. 43
22 – Majmu’ Athār by Shahīd Mottaharī, v. 26, p. 417