Debating in Islamic Heritage
April 17, 2022 0

Debating in the Islamic Heritage

The art of debating is not foreign to the Islamic culture; in fact, debating has been present since the inception of Islamic traditions, more precisely since the time of the revelation, as it challenged numerous positions that were quite engrained in the Arab culture and sparked controversy. This situation led to the creation of an environment ripe with differences of opinion, discussions, dialogues, debates, and all forms of exchange of arguments and evidence, around metaphysical and existential topics, such as monotheism, the message, and the judgement day. The Quran recorded many of these exchanges, reporting the arguments and counterarguments.

This does not mean that Arabs and Muslims knew Debating as a science with rules and methodological frameworks as defined by the Greeks, and more particularly Plato –who made of argument a valuable part of his philosophy, and considered it Philosophy’s axis, its primary tool, and the path to omniscience and the knowledge about the reflections and true essence of entities, and he made ‘argument’ a counterpart to the Theory of Knowledge which holds an important place in philosophy-. However, they experienced it as an activity anchored in their culture, being illustrated in their forums, poems, markets, and speeches. It also shows in the texts of the Holy Quran, which has reported the discussions and arguments between prophets and their peoples. Debating played a key role in the councils of Caliphs who used to organize private meetings to which philosophers, Fiqh and Hadith scholars, scholastics, and poets were invited. This was basically official sponsorship of debating by the state.

Hence, we differentiate between tackling debating in our heritage as a practical activity constantly present in the public space; and debating as a science with set rules and methodological frameworks that has integrated the system of knowledge and sciences that have flourished under the Arab and Islamic civilization.

 The “Debating” concept

Before tackling debating as a practice that became an independent discipline and a research methodology, we should first address the concept and its Arabic etymology. Indeed, the word /Muna’dhara/ (debate n.) comes from the root /Na’dhara/ (debate v.), which is taken from the word ‘Nadhar’ (contemplation) as “every debate entails contemplation, but every contemplation does not inherently entail debating. Thus, debating is an exchange of contemplations between two parties.”[1] Furthermore, an exchange presupposes an interaction, and hence a reciprocal impacting, between two parties.

Debating is an exchange of contemplations between two parties

Linguistically, the word ‘contemplation’ that generated the concept of ‘debating’ has a plethora of meanings, amongst which:

  1. ‘Contemplation with reason’, which means examining rationally to perceive something and discern it. It may also mean to scrutinize and inspect, or the knowledge acquired after inspection. From the Quran, “Observe what is in the heavens” [10:101] means “Contemplate, and observing is to meditate about something quantifying and estimating it.”[2] This meaning is tightly associated with debating as it is not fulfilled without contemplating the evidence and meditating about the arguments.
  1. Debating comes also from contemplation as ‘seeing with one’s own eyes’, because “each of the two adversaries is seeing the other”.[3] This is supported by Az-Zubaidi: “using contemplation with the meaning ‘seeing’ is more popular among the public, whereas the meaning ‘rationalizing’ is rather limited to the elites.”[4] It is from this meaning that debating scholars have drawn one of the rules that must be observed during debating, which is not to turn away from the opponents, but rather to keep eye contact as much as possible.
  1. Debating can also be rooted in ‘nadhar’ (v) as in the word /Intidha’r/ (waiting n.). We use the same word for the meaning of “waiting for someone”. This is illustrated in the verse “On the Day when the hypocrites, men and women, will say to the believers: ‘Wait for us! Let us get something from your light!’.” [57:13], in the Hadith reported by Anas [Ibn Malek]: “Once we waited for the Prophet till it was midnight or about midnight”[5] (using the same word /nadhar/ with the meaning “waiting”), and in the following verse from Amr Ibn Kulthum’s poetry:

Oh father of Hind, hasten us not! *** Await us, and the tidings we had brought!

From this meaning, debating scholars have stipulated that debaters have to wait while opponents are explaining their arguments and evidence, and restrain from interrupting them.

  1. Debating could also be derived from the ‘nadhar’ as in /nadhi’r’/ (match n.). The word /Muna’dhir/ (comparable adj.) means identical and analogous in every aspect. It is said: someone is comparable to you, with the meaning: he is identical to you, because if a third party sees both of you, they would not be able to set you apart. Furthermore, the word /na’dhar/ (be comparable to v.) means being a counterpart to someone in the act of conversing, and could also mean –in a ditransitive use- comparing someone to someone else; Muhammad Ibn Chiheb Al-Zohri said “Do not equate anything to the Quran or the Hadith”, which Abu Ubaid explained as “Do not put anything in position of analogy with them.”[6]
    From this, scholars have stipulated that debaters have to be comparable in terms of knowledge and intelligence, so that the scholar does not debate the ignorant.

To summarize the linguistic roots of debating in Arabic, the word is drawn from contemplating with reason or with eyesight, or from waiting –as in slowing down and pausing, or from the comparable – as in identical or analogous. None of these linguistic meanings is independent from the concept of debating, thus the debate scholars have not deviated from these linguistic nuances. They have stipulated that the two sides of a debate must be comparable, maintain eye contact between opponents, and that debaters must wait and listen to their opponents while they present their arguments and evidence.

Consequently, we can define that debating as a public activity is an exchange of speeches between two diverging sides, where each side strives to prove their position and discredit the other side’s position, along with the objective to reach the truth.[7]

As a result of this definition, we can discern the discrepancy between arguing and debating in the scholarly terminology; they perceive ‘arguing’ as lacking the condition of “being eager to reach the truth”, that is why they define it as “an exchange of speeches between two sides where each side strives to support their position and discredit the other side’s position.”[8] Hence, reaching the truth and the sincere desire to do so is what separates debating from arguing. This shows the moral and objective qualities of debating.

Debating as a science

After existing as merely scattered pieces of literature in books of all fields, debating has become a science that Muslim scholars contributed to etymologizing, rooting, and enriching in terms of maturation of its topics. The fields of interest to debating were gathered and its topics described so it became one of the most important ‘tool sciences’[9] that Islamic sciences need to defend its positions and refute the objections and doubts thrown in its direction.

There have been numerous definitions of the debate science, but all of them revolve around perceiving it as a collection of rules and codes that aim at organizing argumentation between opponents and setting an order of interaction between them, the objective being to attain the truth; hence the debaters are not talking randomly, but there are rather known rules for this art, and the goal from these rules is “to achieve the skills required by debating so as the research does not deviate from its course and truth is uncovered.”[10]

Next: the difference between debating and arguing as sciences of the Islamic civilization, and the relevant topics.

By: Dr. Ali Alsanad


[1] Al-Juweini, Al-ka’fiyya in ‘Arguing’, p.19.

[2] Az-zubaidi, The Crown of the Bride, (14, 245).

[3] Harun Abd Razzaq, A Book in the Art of Research and Debate Skills, p.4-5.

[4] Az-zubaidi, The Crown of the Bride, (14, 245).

[5] Reported by Al-Bukhari in his Sa’hih, Hadith number 593, (1, 215).

[6] Az-zubaidi, The Crown of the Bride, (14, 249-252).

[7] This definition is close to what Ahmed Chenkiti in his commentary on “The Ethics” by Al-Marsifi, known as “Entertaining the Fair-Minded with a Commentary on Al-Marsifi’s Ethics”, p.7, where he defined Debate as: an exchange of speeches and a discussion between two diverging sides, where each side strives to prove their position and discredit the other side’s position, both of them having the objective of reaching the truth.

[8] Al-Beji, The Methodology in Ordering Arguments, Abul-Waleed Al-Beji, p.11.

[9] A ‘tool science’ is a science that enables its practitioner to understand different Arab and Islamic sciences; it provides the learner with prerequisites to launch their scientific quests. Such sciences are: Arabic linguistic sciences, like grammar, conjugation and rhetoric, and sciences of rationality, like logic and debating.  

[10] Seddik Hasan Al-Qanuji, The Basics of Sciences, p.255.


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