The etiquette of debate and discussion in Islam
All those involved in the work of da'wa would inevitably engage in discussion, debate and even argument in conveying this da'wa. The Prophets, Sahabah and the Messenger of Allah all experienced debate and often came across those who neither listened to their message nor engaged politely but rather worked to subvert the pure words, antagonize the da'wa carrier and even incite the audience against him with the expectation that the message would be lost.
It is often the case that the carrier of the Islamic da'wa who works for the highest work to revive the message of Islam and implement the Shari'ah may become blinded by his or her conviction and their sincerity to see this message surge forward and forget or not ponder about the hukm shari' pertaining to his discussion. Subsequently Muslims, especially those living in the West, find themselves pursuing discussion that contradicts the hukm shari' or contravenes one of its rules yet at the same time carry this message and aim for the reward from Allah.
The paradox between aim and action comes down to the failure to concentrate ones mind on the detail hukm shari' concerning discussion as well as the unwillingness of the heart to change due to the loss this may gain for him and his message. This failure has to be evaluated by the sincere mind and the concerned heart, for his yearning for Allah's pleasure must set him upon a path of excellence, self-evaluation and constant renewal, like a climber who seeks to reach new horizons, unsatisfied with his current level.
The writer, at the time of writing, has witnessed debate, discussion and argument which contravenes the hukm shari' from brilliant people whose shari' and political understanding far exceeds his own. Discussion boards, television phone-ins and websites are littered with debates and discussion between Muslims that not only creates disunity unnecessarily but also acts as a corrosive impediment to purifying the heart and disfigures the pure Islamic concepts. For this reason we present to you the etiquette's of debate in Islam. We pray this subject is given its due attention and aides the carrying of Islam and its establishment some time soon.
Etiquette of debate
Al-Jadal means to debate or dispute as we can see in the following ayah:
“Indeed Allah has heard the statement of her that disputes with you [tujadiluka] (O Muhammad) concerning her husband, and complains to Allah. And Allah hears the argument between you both.” [Mujadalah: 1]
Here Allah (swt) used the word tahaawur to refer to al-jadal. Its definition is: the presenting of proofs or what is assumed to be a proof by those disputing on a matter. The aim is to support one’s view or faction and to disprove the proof of the opponent and to convince him to accept one’s view as correct or the truth.
There is a type of debating or disputation, which has been obliged by the Sharee’ah to establish the truth and refute falsehood. The evidence for this is the saying of Allah (swt):
“Invite to the Way of your Lord with wisdom and fair preaching, and argue [jadilhum] with them in a way that is better.” [an-Nahl: 125] Also,
“Say, 'Produce your proof if you are truthful.'" [al-Baqarah: 111]
Furthermore the Messenger of Allah (swt) argued with the Mushriks of Makkah, the Christians of Najraan and the Jews of Madinah. The Da’wah carrier invites to the good, forbids the evil and struggles against the wrong thoughts. Wherever debating is useful as a style to fulfil an obligation then it becomes an obligation due to the principle: that which is necessary to fulfil an obligation is itself an obligation.
There are some types of debating, which are forbidden by the Shari’ah and are considered kufr (disbelief) such as the disputation regarding Allah or His Signs:
“Yet they (disbelievers) dispute [yujadiluna] about Allah. And He is Mighty in strength and Severe in punishment.” [Ar-Ra’d: 13]; and,
“None disputes [yujadilu] in the ayat of Allah but those who disbelieve.” [Ghafir:4]
“Those who dispute [yujadiluna] about the ayat of Allah, without any authority that has come to them, it is greatly hateful and disgusting to Allah and to those who believe.” [Ghafir: 35]
“And those who dispute as regards Our ayat may know that there is no place of refuge for them (from Allah's punishment).” [ash-Shura: 35]
The one who disbelieves is the one who rejects and does not affirm. Since the rejecter argues to disprove the truth and the one who affirms argues to establish the truth and refute the falsehood:
“And disputed by means of falsehood to refute therewith the truth.” [Ghafir:5]
“They quoted not the above example except for argument. Nay! But they are a quarrelsome people.” [az-Zukhruf:58]
Debating about the Qur’an to prove it is not a miracle or that it is not from Allah is also disbelief (kufr). Ahmad reported from Abu Hurayrah a hadith attributed to the Prophet (saw) that “Debating about the Qur’an is disbelief (kufr).” Ibn Muflih said the isnad is jayyid and it has been declared sound by Ahmad Shakir.
Debating may also be makruh (disliked) such as arguing about the truth after it has become clear:
“Disputing with you concerning the truth after it was made manifest, as if they were being driven to death, while they were looking (at it).” [al-Anfal:6]
One can debate either with a proof or a probable proof (shubhat daleel) but without these it would be a mere row or confusion. The shubha has been defined as: ‘what a faction imagines to be true though it is not true.’ This is the definition of Ibn ‘Uqayl. Ibn Hazm defines a row or wrangle as: to promote with a false proof a false issue thus leading to falsehood and this is sophistry.’ Ibn ‘Uqayl said: “whoever wanted to follow the method of scholars (the people of knowledge) then he has to speak with proof or a probable proof (shubhah), while quarelling is the confusion of the people of disputation.” One can say quarrelling is the argument which lacks a proof or a probable proof.
This is the advice of the Muslim ‘Ulema regarding the rules and etiquettes of debating, it is the following points, with some adjustment:
• He should give precedence to the fear of Allah, intend to draw closer to Him and seek His good pleasure by adhering to His command.
• He should intend to establish the truth and refute the falsehood without trying combating, suppression and vanquishing of the opponent. Ash-Shafi’i said: “I never argued with a man except I wished he is helped and led to the right, asking Allah to give him protection and guarding. I never spoke to a person except that I did not bother whether Allah showed the truth on my tongue or his tongue. Ibn ‘Uqayl said: "Any debate whose aim is not to support the truth is a curse on the one who engaged in it."
• He should not debate for the sake of status, rank, seeking a benefit, argument, or to show off.
• He should be truly sincere for Allah, His Deen and his opponent for the Deen is Naseeha (true sincerity).
• He should begin by thanking and praising Allah and sending peace and blessings on the Messenger (saw).
• He should desire that Allah help him to achieve that which pleases Him.
• His style of debating should be good as well as his appearance. Ibn ‘Abbas narrated that the Messenger of Allah (swt) said: “Right guidance, graceful manners and deliberation, are one part of twenty-five parts of Prophethood.” (Ahmad and Abu Dawud). It has been reported in a narration, which stops at Ibn Mas’ud that he said: “Know that good method of guidance in the last age is better than some actions (of devotion).” Ibn Hajar in his Fath al-Bari said the chain is sound.
• Being concise will insure one’s speech easy to understand, comprehensive and effective. Using long-winded sentences will lead to boredom, not to mention that it is more prone to mistakes.
• He should agree on a basis to which both will refer. With the disbeliever this will be rational but with a Muslim it will be either rational or textual. The mind is the reference in the rational matters but for the legal matters the basis is the text due to the saying of Allah (swt): “(And) if you differ in anything amongst yourselves, refer it to Allah and His Messenger (swt).” [an-Nisa': 59] i.e. the Book and the Sunnah.
• One should not debate with the disbelievers about the branches (furu’) of the Shari’ah because he does not believe in their basis. One should not debate with him about marriage to four wives, testimony of women, Jizyah, inheritance, prohibition of alcohol and other such rules when trying to bring them to Islam. The discussion should be restricted to the fundamentals of the Deen whose proofs are rational. This is because the aim of the debate is to take him from falsehood to the truth, from misguidance to guidance and this will not be possible unless we take him from kufr to Iman.
Similarly, one should not debate with a Christian by refuting Buddhism or Judaism. Such discussions cannot be considered a debate. The Christian is not a Buddhist or Jew such that he needs to be taken from these beliefs to the true belief. Rather one should discuss with him his own creed to make him leave it and bring him to Islam. That is why we do not say: we debate in that which we agree and leave that which we disagree because we are obligated to debate with them. And debate can never take place unless it is in a matter in which we disagree. If a Christian or a capitalist agrees with the Muslim that Buddhism, communism or socialism is rationally repugnant and he talks about these issues, then this is not called debate or disputation. It does not save the Muslim from the obligation of discussing with him until he brings him to Islam.
Likewise, we cannot say we will have dialogue with the Kuffar on matters we agree and leave what we disagree to the Day of Judgement when on that day Allah will judge as he pleases and He will settle the matter between us. We cannot say this because we are commanded to debate in the matters we disagree and if we do not do this then we will have fallen short of our duty. Yes, the judgement is for Allah in this world and the Hereafter but we cannot confuse Allah’s action with what He has entrusted us with. Such a proof is untenable. Indeed it is an argument, which has no proof or even a probable proof.
• He should not raise his voice or shout in the face of his opponent, except as much as it is enough to make him hear you. It has been narrated that a man by the name of ‘Abd as-Samad spoke to al-Ma'mun and raised his voice. Al-Mamun said, "Do not raise your voice O ‘Abd as-Samad, for correctness is in that which is more right rather than in that which is more strong, while the good speaker is good for both the faqih (the one who gives knowledge) and the mutafaqqih (the one who takes knowledge)."
• He should not look down at or belittle his opponent.
• He should be patient, forbearing and forgiving when his opponent argues unless if he is insolent. He should then desist from debating and arguing with him.
• He should avoid getting angry and annoyed. Ibn Sireen said: “al-Hiddah (rage) is the other name of ignorance” i.e. when it happens during a debate.
• He should think about what his opponent is saying and understand him so that he can respond correctly. He should not be quick to speak without allowing his opponent to finish. Ibn Wahb said: I heard Malik say, “there is no point in answering without understanding, and it is not good manners to interrupt one’s opponent.” But if he is showing off, playing to the crowds then in origin he should not have been debating him in the first place if he knew this. If such behaviour appears during the discussion then he should advise him. If he doesn’t take notice of that then he should discontinue the discussion.
• He should face his opponent and not look at those present showing contempt for his opponent whether or not they agreed or disagreed with him. If the opponent does this he should be advised. If he does not respond then the debate should be stopped.
• He should not debate someone obstinate and self-conceited for such a person will not take anything from someone else.
• He should not debate in places of fear such as debating on satellite channels or public gatherings unless he is at ease with his Deen fearing none for the sake of Allah and happy to bear the consequences of statements whether that is imprisonment or even murder. Nor should he debate in the gathering of the Amir or a ruler fearing for himself unless he is prepared mentally to be like Hamzah. Otherwise silence is better for him because in such a situation he will disparage the Deen and people of knowledge. Here he should remember the stance of Ahmad and Malik from the famous scholars and the stance of those who debated Ghaddafi when he rejected the Sunnah.
• He should not debate someone who hates him whether that hatred is from him or his opponent.
• He should avoid riyaa` (showing of), tasmi’ (letting other hear of ones piety), arrogance and pride.
• He should not intentionally sit in a place higher than his opponent in the gathering.
• He should not debate with someone who belittles knowledge and the people of knowledge or be in the presence of a fool who belittles the debate or those debating. Malik said: “the humiliation and disgrace to knowledge is when a man speaks with knowledge to one who does not obey him.”
• Out of arrogance he should not refrain from accepting the truth if it appeared on the tongue of his opponent. Returning to the truth is better than continuing with falsehood, and also so that he becomes from those who hear a saying and follow the best of it.
• Umar (ra) said, “We have been forbidden from pretence (of knowledge).” (al-Bukhari). Masruq said: We came upon 'Abdullah bin Mas'ud (ra) and he said, "O people! If somebody knows something, he can say it, but if he does not know it, he should say, 'Allah knows better,' for it is a sign of having knowledge to say about something, which one does not know, 'Allah knows better.' Allah said to His Prophet: 'Say, 'No wage do I ask of you for this (the Qur'an), nor am I one of the Mutakallifun (those who pretend and fabricate things which do not exist).'” [Sa'd: 86] (Agreed upon).
These are some of the rules of discussion that all Muslims must remember. The Prophet (saw) said, "Be divine, gentle and juristic (understanding), the divine (rabbani) is the one who educates the people with the easy knowledge before the difficult”. (Al-Bukhari).