Search for Truth: Debate

In the Quran, Surah An Nahl (16:125), Allah ta ‘Ala exhorts us to:

ادْعُ إِلَىٰ سَبِيلِ رَبِّكَ بِالْحِكْمَةِ وَالْمَوْعِظَةِ الْحَسَنَةِ ۖ وَجَادِلْهُم بِالَّتِي هِيَ أَحْسَنُ ۚ إِنَّ رَبَّكَ هُوَ أَعْلَمُ بِمَن ضَلَّ عَن سَبِيلِهِ ۖ وَهُوَ أَعْلَمُ بِالْمُهْتَدِينَ

Which translates to:

Invite to the way of your Lord with wisdom and good instruction, and argue with them in a way that is best. Indeed, your Lord is most knowing of who has strayed from His way, and He is most knowing of who is [rightly] guided.

Allah ta ‘Ala also states in Surah An’am (6:159)

إِنَّ الَّذِينَ فَرَّقُوا دِينَهُمْ وَكَانُوا شِيَعًا لَّسْتَ مِنْهُمْ فِي شَيْءٍ ۚ إِنَّمَا أَمْرُهُمْ إِلَى اللَّهِ ثُمَّ يُنَبِّئُهُم بِمَا كَانُوا يَفْعَلُونَ

Which translates to:

Indeed, those who have divided their religion and become sects – you, [O Muhammad], are not [associated] with them in anything. Their affair is only [left] to Allah ; then He will inform them about what they used to do.

It is these two verses which I will base my thesis upon.

I’m almost certain that many, if not most of us who are passionate about our beliefs have, at times, resorted to yelling, shouting, speaking over the other person, cutting people off, deflecting, straw-manning, and a host of other unsavory practices when debating or arguing with our opponents.

In this article, I hope to present a method of debating or argumentation which might be closer to the spirit of the Quran than what most of us are accustomed to. If you want to go directly to the point, please scroll down to the bulleted points below.

Let’s take, for example, two scenarios. One, we need an answer to a complicated math problem and another where we are debating our views. In the first scenario, we have certain known variables and methodologies to solve the particular equation. When we discuss this problem with someone, our intent is crystal clear. We want to get to the truth. Anyone asking for clarification or challenging our construct is doing it to HELP us get to a better understanding for ourselves and potentially for them as well. We have no need to get defensive and no need to raise our voices even if there are disagreements. Each of us can present our idea and not be afraid to get knocked down or be “shown up”. Why is that? Because we are searching for the truth.

Now how does that contrast with a discussion, let’s say, on religion, politics or even the toppings on a shared pizza? In this latter scenario, the result affects us in a personal way. There is also less fact and more opinion. Our opinion, which is at stake. At times there are even grey areas between fact and fiction which we believe or have been conditioned to believe. It is far too easy to dismiss the other party’s point of view as invalid or substitute that word with ad hominem attacks. Makes us feel safer, perhaps, but neither is that in the spirit of the Quran nor the ways exemplified by the prophet of Allah ( ﷺ‎ ).

All other “nations” or people may have an excuse to yell, shout and/or misbehave but there are two very important reasons why Muslims can not go down to that level. One, because Allah exhorts us not to and that should really be enough. However, for those who need “practical” reasons, that is an arena where ignorance wins and truth loses. Everyone is probably familiar with Imam Ali’s quote that when he debated those with knowledge, he won and when he debated the ignorant, he lost.

So now, how do we engage with them as Allah has stated, wa jadilhum (debate/argue/discuss) with them in the best of ways when THEY don’t do it? I think the answer is very simple. WE do it. If we can demonstrate a better way, they will follow, In Sha Allah. When WE Muslims don’t conduct ourselves in the best of ways when debating those who say “la ilaha il Allah”, how can we expect non-Muslims to, when according to us, we’re guided and they’re not? In fact, in most cases, we are able to engage with the non-Muslims but completely unable to engage with other sects in Islam.

This brings me to my second point. Sectarianism. Again, there are two reasons I propose, why this topic is of the utmost importance. One, because unity in the Quran is emphasized and division is clearly forbidden in whichever shade you wish to accept the verses. Second is the undeniable benefit to us in being united. How are we to take this verse? Did Allah mean by this verse that the sect we adhere to is the “right” sect and the “others” are the ones who are not uniting with us? It doesn’t take a genius to recognize how flawed that fallacious proposition might be. Therefore, those who simply attack another sect as a response to a question or point of debate, have no ground at all to stand on. Without going too deeply into the very many ways this fruit can be sliced, let’s just that we can all agree that we are interested in searching for the truth.

Too often Muslims find themselves blindly advocating one sect even though the point of contention is clearly against them. This, my dear brothers and sisters, is the very essence of sectarianism which Allah ta ‘Ala forbids us from. Until or unless you are able to articulate your points of weakness, you don’t have the entire picture and when someone else articulates it for you, you will feel that pain or jarring from your world view being shaken.

Here are some protocols we must set up in order to be true to the Quran and true to Our Creator. We must be fair, and not start with the premise that we are right.

  1. Our intention should be to please Allah alone
  2. We can enter into one of three modes.
    • Teaching
    • Learning
    • Arbitration
  3. One topic must be defined or a question must be stated clearly
  4. Exactly two sides of the stated proposition must be taken by the “student” and “teacher” role
  5. If a “teacher” makes a statement, he/she must defend it. There is no need to ask why the questioner is asking, what is the questioner’s belief, how others are wrong or any off-topic replies. These violations must be called by the arbitrator and explicitly cited.
  6. If a student asks a question, he/she must allow the teacher to articulate their point. They may defer to the arbitrator to rule on whether or not the question has been address appropriately.
  7. The answer to the question the student has asked must directly relate to the question, not go into preaching mode or spout unrelated statements.
  8. An arbitrator must adhere to the protocols of debate. That is their primary function and not to take sides or give their own opinion on matters. They can clarify questions and set the expectations for the debate. The arbitrator is also the consistency checker.
  9. Each person must stay within the topic until it is answered or agreed to be deferred.
  10. If the teacher contradicts or changes an earlier statement even with a clarification, the student reserves the right to iterate through the points previously discussed. If not, the same point must not be beleaguered.

These protocols are the most basic requirements for an honest debate to take place, following the spirit of the Quran, which should then be understood as the spirit of Islam. In this construct, since you don’t have to commit to or declare your OWN beliefs, firstly, you can speak from positions you don’t even hold and secondly, no one can attack you personally because it is a point you’re debating, not your personal belief.

For example, I am a Muslim, but I can roleplay a Christian, a Hindu or any religion using this model. What I personally believe has nothing to do with the point being discussed.

Once we start practicing this method, we won’t need to raise our voices nor argue with ignorant people at their level. Instead we can raise them to a higher level, bi ithnillah (by the permission of Allah).