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The Etiquette of Debate, Part I

This is the first of a two-part series.

As technological industries expand and the domain of the internet grows ever so rapidly, endeavors propagating a moral use of the cyber-web are lagging far behind. Due to minimal accountability and the anonymous nature of boundless online interactions, numerous calamities have bruised the socio-cultural fabrics of society. The monitor of a screen replacing the face-to-face interaction individuals would’ve experienced before the technological revolution has inflated the confidence of people to expressing ideas and opinions they wouldn’t have dared otherwise express in real life. Occasionally these foolish ideas and opinions manifest themselves in bullies and uncouthed self-made scholars. This cultural norm of unrestricted self-expression on the Web has, too, plagued intellectual standards and respect society once held for scholasticism and pursuers of knowledge.

Devaluation of scholarship has justified unsubstantiated opinions, in all fields of knowledge, that need not exist. Not only does the aforementioned attitude hinder one from appreciating and yearning for intellectual enlightenment, it also causes a spreading of misinformation, masked behind the facade of truth. It is needless to say that formal schooling doesn’t guarantee infallibility from faulty beliefs, however, a systemically orchestrated approach towards knowledge logically reduces chances of unprecedented deviations.

On the rare occasion that keyboard warriors make logically coherent claims, they simultaneously violate all etiquettes of discourse in the process of it. Especially given this ages myopic adamance on pleasing individualistic tendencies, keyboard warriors are ignorant of how influential their tone and method of discourse is on persuading others. Meaning besides presenting your arguments in an off-putting wrapping, the opposing party only further hastens to subconsciously reject it without any logical scrutiny. These all result from an individuals alter-ego superintending the purpose for debating and the mentality in the midst of it.

For this reason, the ego creates a veil that neglects intellectual and moral sincerity in a debate, in hopes of snatching the banner of victory for social praise and bragging rights.

Not only are these debates fruitless in their outcome, more often than not, they result in both sides becoming more arrogant and confident in their stance, be they objectively true or not. Given this, it becomes incumbent on us, supposed followers of Prophet Muhammad (saws) and his blessed Household (as), to establish our etiquettes for debating on those the AhlulBayt prescribed for us. Put simply, given the hefty responsibility placed upon the shoulders of any individual who divulges into debates–of which includes the prevention of misguiding the opposite party as a by-product of the debate–adequately instilling a set course of proprieties for intellectual discourse only persists when it’s in parallel to that of the AhlulBayt’s.

To begin with, it is of dire pertinence to initially familiarize oneself with the method of dialogue that the AhlulBayt adopted in response to the questions asked by non-Muslims. Since there isn’t sufficient space to cite them all, readers are encouraged to check out al-Ihtijaj-e-Tabarsi, Ayoon Akhbar-e-Raza and the famous al-Kafi. The most crucial prerequisite to debating is initially acknowledging the objective in debating. With a wrong mindset and misled intention, you’re headed towards spiritual oblivion from the get-go.

“I have created the jinn and humankind only for My worship.” (Quran 51:56)

Courtesy of the verse above, it becomes evident that we’ve been created for the worship/appeasement of God. In order to see the forest through the trees, one must distinguish between acts which abide by the aforementioned duty. Through deductive reasoning, one could conclude that every effort put into a debate should be done so with Allah’s (swt) gratification in mind, which most importantly entails taming your ego. Ironically, this necessitates the avoidance of debating if indulging in it would provoke the opposing party to further drown in his pool of ignorance–for man is far from an utterly rational creation and thus may increase in adamance of his deepest convictions if they are challenged by contradictory evidence.

So, as the first rule of debating: one must ensure the debate increases both party’s conviction in truth and simultaneously nearness to Allah (swt).

If a debate breeds a tensely polarized atmosphere, in the perception of the individual debating it, the negative vibes will be attributed to the truthful position held and disparage it. In such cases, it is best to abstain from the debate. Although the Holy Prophet’s prophetic knowledge in regards to all facets of knowledge is indisputable, had he not mastered the art of verbal discourse to redirection the societies wide-held grain of Paganist beliefs, he would have failed his prophetic mission.

Having understood the conditional prerequisite to engaging in debates, it becomes now necessary to lay down the criterions of which constitute a fruitful debate. In differentiating between a good and bad debate, Imam Sadiq (as) states that a good argument is that which eliminates doubt [1]. Often times, when debates are held between two laymen, no concrete conclusion is reached and both parties become further perplexed in the opaqueness of their original understandings. Therefore, in order to prevent that, it is strongly encouraged by the Imam to not divulge in any debate without prior certainty in said position.

Hitherto, only an introductory description illustrating how debates ought to be engaged (with what intention) and in which conditions they are to be held has been mentioned. God willing, a follow up article will be dedicated that dissects the etiquettes to be observed during a debate, per the traditions of the Ahlul-Bayt and verses Qur’anic verses.

ادْعُ إِلَىٰ سَبِيلِ رَبِّكَ بِالْحِكْمَةِ وَالْمَوْعِظَةِ الْحَسَنَةِ ۖ وَجَادِلْهُمْ بِالَّتِي هِيَ أَحْسَنُ ۚ إِنَّ رَبَّكَ هُوَ أَعْلَمُ بِمَنْ ضَلَّ عَنْ سَبِيلِهِ ۖ وَهُوَ أَعْلَمُ بِالْمُهْتَدِينَ

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. [2]

[1] Tafseer Imam Hassan al-Askari, h 322.
[2] Holy Qur’an, Chapter 16, Verse 125.

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