Archive for September, 2007


This is a summary of a well arranged book on the principles and etiquettes of debate as Islam articulates. Just a reminder for me and everyone else,  as you never know when you’ve hit snooze.

اصول الحوار وآدابه في الاسلام

بقلم صالح بن عبد الله بن حميد

The Principles and Etiquettes of Debate in Islām

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

Definition: ‘debate’ (Arabic: حوار \ جدال): 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 opinion…it 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 motives…is 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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And so, we are dutifully informed, reminded rather, that Monsieur Rajeem has conveniently been carted away, out of our bewildered midst, like Hannibal Lecter- word has it he slipped compliantly into the suave silken jumpsuit- didn’t put up much of a fight. His easy confidence, like any other of his better qualities, is naturally two-pronged. Firstly, he declares calmly as he is strapped in, it trophies the indestructable fire welded contract guarunteeing his return after so called ‘maintenance’ at the end of the month. His other horn relaxes and takes the time to polish itself and admire its speckled reflection which sniggers back at him from the Mirror, speaking casually of the seeds he did not even need to sew, of the work that ‘takes care of itself’. Duly, he sighs a sigh of idleness. I refer back to the way we measure our own darkness and the brief we were given on choice. 

‘Heh… Most of my, what you exert yourselves in calling, ‘work'[…] it takes care of itself.’ 

189795_glass_2_filling_with_water.jpgFeigning ignorance and the natural instinct to consume to survive thrust on their gloves and heroicly spa all day long, ignorant of the fact that, in the end, neither of them are meant to win this fixed match. Talha, seven years old, dragged himself home from school one day with this spa ensuing in his stomach and, needless to say, all he could hear was growling. Had he been in this more wetter part of the world, he would have heard Harry II declaring that one could endure four minutes without oxygen, four days without water and four weeks without food. Had Talha known this, he wouldn’t have behaved so awfully desparately with just five tally marked minutes to go.

He staggers in, sucking in the relentlessly humid air, teasing him with moisture, the screen doors clanging irritably at his shirt soaked with the sun, his face reddened in what could never be sunburn. He has only one thing on his mind: the chilled bottle of fizz in the fridge and the bendy faithful straw in the top left draw. His hyperactiviy is subjugated, tied to the colonised ants in his school pants, beneath the weight of his fast and if one were to look closely, you could see him sitting on it, it’s expression pained, as though somebody were sitting on it. He decides to further crispen his parched throat by running up the three heavy flights to his room, away from the aromas, away from the smugness of the freezer, it’s lower compartment housing the essence of all he desired, spilling out its secret delight of cool white mist each time his peripheral vision perchanced on his Mother opening its door. A few minutes later, he comes panting back down, arms flailing. He is a siren. 

‘Five minutes left! Five minutes! Hai mera roza lag gaya! Hai mera roza! (This fast is getting to me!)’ 

In preparedness, he stealths into the kitchen, puts his overheated hands around the icy glory of the bottleneck, his super-ego grabs the straw and he doesn’t even know it. He runs to the bountifully laid out dining table- in preparation of course! He sucks up the bubble juice till it rises, like the thermometer of his agony, to the top of the straw and releases it back into the bottle again before it can reach his mouth. He repeats the refrain: up, down, up, [checks the time- too early] down, up… [still too early] but then it’s too late and he’s forgotten to down and swallowed instead and broken his fast just minutes before the siren blitzed through the city. He sat frozen. Still. He gazed at his straw as it bobbed up and floated out to lean at an accusing angle against the betraying neck of the bottle… Off balance. 

‘Haha! What have you done, little one?!’ 

So perhaps Ramadan is not the best time to open the world up to Toobaa’s Kitchen. Especially since the consumption we’re to desist from should be of minimal relevance as we turn our attentions to ramadan441.jpgfocusing on our more soulful hunger for things of a grander and more sublime nature. But since we have accepted its minimal status in the scheme of abstinence, we should then be able to poke around the kitchen without drawing too much attention to the stoic grumbling of the stomach. Irrelevance is a wonderfully liberating opinion. Watch the extractor fan, on the other hand, grab wildly at the divinely scrumptious, drool inducing aromas, inhaling frantically like a long famished thing. Puh-lease.  

Come to the Kitchen.

Brothers and Sisters

If well postured tubby toddler, Roshan, had had a (presumably more street wise) older sibling to giggle and whisper in his ear the truth about the penalty for treading the barefooted crime, would he still have screamed with such shrillacrity at the sight of his Mother’s usually dainty gaze and gazelled disposition advancing towards him from the kitchen, dimorphing into the purposeful ogre which would carry out a hasty and affirmative replacement of his little unwanted plimsolls onto his reluctant little feet? Would he still have scrambled wildly to climb onto the sofa (‘off the floor’ being the only loophole allowing him not to wear shoes in that cool marble floored industrial city) before she could reach him and repeat the exercise?

If Toobaa’s older brothers, all those young young years ago, hadn’t had each other to finger-paint over the uncertainty with giggles of excitement, would they have clambered into that cardboard box and sled down the stairs? They had already carried out a test-run with a ‘large’ teddy bear, observed with horror the disastrous skip and tumble of the box over the banister and Teddy down the stairs, and decided to face the fear and do it anyway. What would they now recall and laugh about until their sides split open, releasing hundreds of tiny cardboard boxes skiing out, full of mini-thems, eyes wide with glee, toothy grins, breathless laughter, and the rushed feeling of never-ending ness?

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It was the driver who had insisted that there was no basis for Muslims, in reference to the newgen Muslim- a.k.a ‘practicing Muslims of the West’, to address one another with the default titles ‘brother’ and ‘sister’, when, in fact, we were not related at all. He was resolute in his claim and proclaimed that on the authority of ‘someone’ there was no scriptural evidence that the Muslim community should be referred to as a brotherhood.

Despite the fact that brotherhoods or fraternities of any belief, aim or order were the natural consequence of a shared idea on any scale, and the historic reality of this fact and the irrelevance of the entire topic to anything useful, he was given the benefit of the doubt as his audience was unarmed with the relevant Qur’anic ayat to fire at him with hasty little catapults. The substance of affinity is rather delicately woven into this matter of names, too delicate for the pullback of a slingshot.

A simple search using The Alim for Windows returns more than one verse, as well as ahadith, specifically calling the believers a ‘single brotherhood’, the key word being ikhwah, brotherhood.

إنّما المؤمنونَ إخوةٌ فأصلحوا بينَ أخويكمْ واتّقوا اللهَ لعلّكمْ تُرحمونَ

(The believers are but a single Brotherhood: So make peace and reconciliation between your two (contending) brothers: And fear Allah that ye may receive Mercy. 49:10)

It is a somewhat contagious verbal ritual, with which we appear to involuntarily baptize one another. In the warm, wisdom soaked corridors of SOAS, it was like plaiting everyone into one and the same braid, which, yes, formed a rather strong and tough old rope. And anyone could become part of this gloriously welcoming strand simply by being addressed in the above mentioned manner. Yet, it became that to some, referring to anyone by their forename in their presence, without the default title at least prefixed, resonated rather awkwardly. Some people upheld the tradition and used the nominative out of habitual, nevertheless genuine, respect for their colleagues in work or study, or their brethren in faith. Some played it as background music so that freedom of expression to free mix and Islamic political correctness could foxtrot to the fraternity jingle.

And THEN there was the confusing grey area. It is because marriage is always the elephant in the room spraying gawshings of water at any unmarried Muslims. It is here that the brethren terminology treads its thinnest ice. With the big heavy elephant on the thin crispy ice it is inevitable that we should have to make our way down and explore the case from a submerged angle.

Something to do with exhibiting timidity, innate apprehensiveness, guardfulness, and, marking out your MC Hammer space- you-can’t-touch-this- causes some to cling onto the terms as though they were barge poles between their chastity and anything challenging that. And yet, when investigations about the other person begin, running the potentiometer over a persons life and everyone associated with said persons life as though it were a metal detector, and it is with this that the driver had a problem, it was odd to then refer to one another as brother or sister. But some still, absent mindedly, did it.

‘Oh, did you enquire about that sister’s proposal? What’s she like?’

To better inform someone if you get the inkling that they, or anybody watching, may have the impression that you would make ‘such a wonderful couple’ you must cite those four syllables. ‘Greetings, Brother.’

‘Wahhhh! She called me… brother!!!’

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This clearly works better in Urdu. There is no word for ‘cousin’ in Urdu. Your cousins are referred to as your ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ even though compulsory bashfulness (if it doesn’t come instinctively) and reserved behaviour in the trenches of bachelorism would not indicate so, not to mention the legitimacy of a marriage taking place between such cousins. It is simply a term of address.

As a weapon, therefore, it has been known to reduce grown men to tears, to hear a girl he may have imagined as a bride for himself, pointedly calling him ‘bhaiii jaaaan’. Dear Brother.

The lazy department of my brain collates the pages and stamps the top, concluding in the summary box that, regardless of context, in true essence, it is the declaration of a shared affinity, the acknowledgement of which is demonstrated in the verbal hemisphere as a grand celebration of His Bounty of Guidance. And used ruthlessly when required.

[Thank you Oz and K for your comments.]

Idols : Sweet Nothings

It had come to us on a long, flat and shiny red box from Manchester. Sanam Sweets. Mithai so gloriously luxurious and thick, with its sweetness so intricately woven with saffron, that one could not find the like of its silk anywhere else, ever. Hence, the delectables had come to us from Manchester.

Ordinarily, hearing the word sanam would conjure to my simple link welding mind the moving image of Rishi Kapoor in a multicoloured sweater, aeroplaning down a snow caked mountain to his chandni (moonlight) and miming, so out of sync it was impressive, to the Bollywood song that would include, as many of them do, the term of endearment: sanam.

‘It means darling.’

Mother would always ponder a little before responding to our linguistic queries, having to approximate the meaning of words we would never have any use for, such as mehbooba, sanam, jaaneman, etc, etc. She would always pause, tap her finger once or twice on the rim of her mug and appear to be scanning handwritten notes suspended invisibly before her, but she always said the same. ‘It means darling.’ Darling. In those moments, we felt a slight twinge of guilt for having unstuck her from her absorbing dose of the des (homeland), forcing her back to the monochrome space of the pardes (foreign land) where it was a motherly duty to translate the meanings of words such as sanam. Of course, back ‘home’, you just knew what it meant, and there was more time for children to go about their own devices and mothers to forego this duty.

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So it was the long, flat and shiny red box from Manchester. For the first time, sanam conjured none of the above. This was the first time I had seen it written. It was a large gold foil printed script, as if the knowledge it would cunningly plant on me was a secret message, minor in its immediate importance, regal in the relevance of its existence. The letter Sad, was the traitor. In Urdu, there is little need for distinguishing between the two hissing letters, seen and sad, as the sweetness of this tongue did not allow such discrepancies to round the hollow of the mouth to one as haughtily explosive as that which the sad required. Seen (س) as in ‘sun’ and sad (ص) as in ‘sword’. So where there was a sad, I knew that, in Urdu, it would still be pronounced as a seen, and yet the word itself had to have its origins in Arabic.

My mind set down the peppermint tea and the living room and traveled the regular path from Urdu, through Persian, to Arabic, carrying the word by the scruff of the neck and trying to locate its village of birth, its cause for diffusion, its path of transmission, the basis for its semantic shift… There were several faltering seconds where my internal lexicon refused to open, its pages congealed in a sweat of panic and obstinate denial. Sanam! Singular of Asnām! Idol!

صنمٌ اصنامٌ    sanam pl. asnām idol, image

(Upon the authority of Hans Wehr, Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, Ed., Cowan, J. M., 1976)

Rishi Kapoor was running faster now, his smile stretched, frozen, insane. His heroine stood someway down, twirling her birdlike drapes of ludicrously thin cloth and as they met, they stepped into matching choreography of shimmying asymmetrically back and forth, miming, ‘Oh my idol, I swear by you…!’

Who had authorized this semantic triple jump? Where could I contact this person? It seemed pointless to direct my anger at what was, probably, the long buried bones of an unknown community of well intentioned individuals living at one end of a river which carried the trade of goods and words. I already knew the depth and vastness of Arabic words, roots and devices in Urdu. It had, after all, been me who insisted that Urdu was, in fact, an Arabic dialect. But the deceit had directed me towards a filing cabinet, where all the words I had not suspected, sat row after row in alphabetical order, now guilty until proven innocent, awaiting their final destination in my minds linguistic family tree.

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However, the threat of the sad, and at least nine other letters of similar status, takes a backseat as the matter of the disguised idol elbows its way to the front of the theatre and the lights dim for it to take the spotlight at centre stage. Take the example of a High Street North in East Ham, or any street laden thick with masjids and temples, on almost every corner, facing one another in somber reserve: to you is your faith and to me is mine, and notice how, just after noon on a Friday, you will see the sight of flowing robes, thawbs, dotis and jeans; headcaps, beards, white face paint and red dots; you will see how they eagerly make pace to worship an omnipotent force, in truth unbound by tangible form, the ultimate brewing entity. Eagerness and passion. Submission of the will to the highest conceivable force.

Surely, discerning between the breakable and the divine brewing entity, much beyond our comprehension,  is just the beginning, immeasurably essential, but just the start. The nature of disguised idols, that which causes one to compromise his covenant, are unique for every individual. Usually, it’s just money. Whatever they are, they are on the prowl in ones personal space. Seriously, on the prowl.

[Thank you to Oz, Hafsa, K, HMH, Imran, Bobby, Rieanne, Omar and Luqman for your comments.]