The Principles and Etiquettes of Debate in Islām


Saleh Abdullah Bin Humaid
(Imam of the Holy Mosque of Makkah)

Definition:'debate' (Arabic: ÍæÇÑ \ ÌÏÇá): a discussion between two or more parties aiming at modification of opinions, proof of an argument, demonstrating of truth, falsification of suspicions, and a refutation of unfounded statements and concepts.Some methods employed: laws of logic and rules of syllogism (causes and effects) as expounded in books on logic, theology, rules of research, polemics and principles of jurisprudence.

Objectives of Debate:

Main objective: Al-Thahabi says: "A debate is only justified to unveil truth, so that the more knowledgeable should impart knowledge to the less knowledgeable, and to stimulate a weaker intellect."

Supportive objectives include: preliminary objective to get acquainted with the other party/ies' point of view; reaching a compromise that satisfies all parties; investigating broad-mindedly for bringing into play all the diverse approaches, to ensure more feasible results, even if in later debates.

Conflict among people is a fact:

"If thy lord had so willed, He could have made mankind one people: but they will not cease to dispute, except those on whom thy Lord hath bestowed His mercy: and for this did He create them." (XI, 118-9) (had Allāh willed, all humans would have embraced one religion by instinct. their social life would be something similar to bees or ants. there is no room for disagreement among them.but Allāh has chosen to create otherwise.they have to acquire knowledge. it may not be presumed that Allāh created humans so that they may disagree. Allāh created humans so that they would, because of their diversity in abilities. choose different professions.

The Self-Evidence of Truth:

It is not a sin to differ; a scholar will be rather rewarded in the Hereafter when he errs in his judgement and is doubly rewarded when he is right. This is a great incentive for scholars to exert themselves and reason out controversial issues with a view to revealing truth and suggesting the best available course for the community.

Points of Agreement:

Stressing the points of agreement at the beginning ensures a cordial and amicable debate. It will also be a more fruitful and focused debate. The cordial start will bridge gaps and help debaters to proceed with a positive conciliatory spirit. It will be otherwise if the debaters raise controversial issues at the outset. it will be a narrow and tense debate. with each looking for his chance to expose the other's slips and faults.defeating rivals rather than reaching useful conclusions.

Some of our scholars have observed that ignorance is mainly in denial and renunciation rather than in affirmation. An experienced debater says: "Make your partner answer in the affirmative and avoid his saying "no" as far as you can. once he says "no" his pride will compel him to adhere to his word. An answer of "no" is not just this monosyllable. The whole organism, with its nerves, muscles and glands will be primed for it. It is a concerted drive to renounce."

Principles of Debate:

1) Using and adhering to scientific methods.

i- If quoting, maintain accuracy;

ii- if claiming, provide proof.

2) Freedom from contradiction of the debater's statements and proofs.

E.g. i- Pharaoh charged Prophet Moses (as) with being 'a magician or a madman'. Disbelievers contemporary to Prophet Muhammad (as) said the same of him. "magic" and "madness" are incompatible. a magician is known for cleverness, the opposite of a madman.
ii- Quraysh charged the prophet with supporting his claim with "continuous magic". an obvious contradiction.magic cannot be continuous, and what continues cannot be magic.

3) A proof should not be a repetition of a claim.

Some debaters are dexterous at manipulating language so that what they say would seem to be a proof, bit it is not more than restating the first assumption.

4) Agreeing on indisputable and given basic issues.

By having solid given issues as a reference it would be possible to discriminate between a truth-seeker from another who is only disputing for the sake of dispute. [the nature of these 'given basic issues' depends who you are debating with eg. Muslims, communists, atheists, etc)

5) Impartial search for truth, avoiding bias and observing the accepted ethics of debate.

A sensible person is expected to seek truth and to avoid error sincerely. Al-Ghazali says: "A diligent seeker of truth may be compared to one who is looking for his lost camel. It would be immaterial for him if he or another person should be the one to find it."

Also, "Over-enthusiasm is a mark of corrupted scholars, even when the case they are defending is true.a person who enjoys a place of prestige is strongly inclined to preserve his position by attracting followers, and the only way to that is to boast and to attack or curse adversaries."

6) Qualification of the debater.

While it is true that the right to expression should be protected, it is also that this right does not entitle everyone to say anything he likes. a participant should have specialized knowledge.

Prophet Ibrahim (as) told his father: "Oh my father! To me hath come knowledge which hath not reached thee: So follow me: I will guide thee to a way that is even and straight." (XIX, 43)
It would have been better for [a layman] to have the modesty to come as a learner.

7) Decisiveness and Relativity of Conclusions.

It is not requisite for a successful debate that either party should accept the other party's would still be successful if each party realizes that the other party is justified in adhering to his views and that these views can therefore be tolerated. A debate would be a failure if it results in discord, hostility or charges of ill will and ignorance.

8 ) Acceptance of the conclusions agreed upon by the debaters and all that they entail.

Parties should take the conclusions seriously in practice. [otherwise] the whole debate would be pointless.

Al-Shafi'i: "I never debate with someone and he accepts my proof but I hold him in high esteem, and I never debate with someone and he refuses my proof but I lose all esteem for him."

The Rules of Good Manners in Debate:

1) Using only decent language and avoiding a challenging or overwhelming style.[it is advisable to avoid] first person pronouns, singular or plural, in debates. expressions like "in my opinion", "in our experience" seems pedantic and egotistic to hearers.might also be indicative of self-praise and mixed intention.more tactful to replace such expressions with "examination would reveal", "experts have discovered" [etc]. Abu Ja'far Al-Mansoor: "Avoid Ibn 'Umars strictness, Ibn 'Abbas's facileness, and ibn Mas'ood's oddness, may Allāh be pleased with them all."

2) Abiding by specified time.

.not to expatiate upon a topic or monopolize talk beyond the requirements of tactfulness and polite social behaviour. Some experts estimate [the capacity for listening and attention] to be 15 minutes]. A speaker had better conclude his talk while people are enjoying what he says rather than wait until they are looking for a conclusion of his volubility.

Main causes of long-windedness and interruption of others:

i- Arrogance
ii- Love of receiving status and praise
iii- Supposing one [has exclusive knowledge]
iv- Carelessness of people's knowledge, time and circumstances.

3) Attentive listening and avoiding interruption.

"a conversation between deaf persons" describes the situation when each party is concentrating on his own utterances and never listening to what the other has to say.

4) Respecting an adversary.

The right titles and polite address should be maintained.

5) Confining debates to a specified place.

Debates and disputes should be private- this is more conducive to intensive thinking.a large audience is conducive to pomposity and aggressiveness.

6) Ikhlas.

A debater must train himself to seek nothing during debate but Allāh's pleasure. It would admirable for one to stop the discussion if he perceives that he no longer speaks from love of truth, but has rather selfish there any personal advantage that may come to him as a result of his participation? Does he aim at achieving reputation or gratifying his desire to talk? Does he seek to see disharmony and discord take place?

May Allāh guide us and protect us. May blessings and peace be on Muhammad, the last Messenger. Amen!"


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