The Tricky Business Of Interfaith Debates

I don't try and seek to impose my particular viewpoint through argumentation or poke holes in their religious views.

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People who know me well know that I love to engage in long, meandering debates. There is an instinct in me that loves the challenge of defending an intellectual position on a topic and giving a fiery riposte, particularly when the combatant is as keen for the fight as myself.

Of course, not all of my debates are on highly intellectual topics; all to often I get absorbed into a tete-a-tete about which cricket player is better, or which movie rocked more. Though time has dulled this instinct to a certain extent, I must sadly confess that triumphing in raucous argumentation does provide some degree of satisfaction still.

In my younger college days in the US, I recall being puffed with pride at being a Muslim in a larger non-Muslim area. Not pride in the spiritual traditions necessarily, but more like a religious nationalism, a pride of Muslim identity with a tinge of self-righteousness. This translated into much argumentation with my Christian friends over the merits and demerits of our respective faiths.

I would make attempts to counter any misconceptions they may have on Islam with points on why Christianity is flawed and illogical. I would take (wrongly interpreted) inspiration from Sheikh Ahmed Deedat’s rahimullah many debates with Christian pastors. Often, these discussions would end up in loud shouting matches, though still in good faith, no pun intended. I look back now and remember the smugness I used to feel, and cringe.

Strangely enough, though I am a Masjid Tour Guide nowadays and interact with Christians all the time, I have a somewhat different position to interfaith debate.  Whilst I enjoy engaging in discussion about Islam and answer their queries on the Deen, I don’t try and seek to impose my particular viewpoint through argumentation or poke holes in their religious views. Perhaps it is because I tend to see religion as an intensely personal matter for most people, and even a subtle slight can be hard for sensitive people to take in.

Interfaith debate can often be fruitless and counterproductive. Rather than foster mutual understanding and find common ground, debating tends to push each party back into their camps. It is typical to enter into a debate with the attitude of proving the other person wrong. Even if one wins on the technical points, there can be lingering feelings of resentment towards the winning party. Nobody likes to see their opinions belittled, and even an accurate critique can be construed as an attack on one’s identity.

I have noticed oftentimes that some Muslims may engage in debate using some tested talking points when the non-Muslim party is clearly uninterested in the topic and has other things on their mind. They may have the best of intentions of spreading the Deen, but without prior etiquette it can come across as patronizing if not downright obnoxious. Not that this tendency is limited to Muslims only. I’ve encountered non-Muslim street preachers who share the same needlessly combative attitude.

Having stated the above, I am not against all interfaith debates per se. If conducted respectfully in a proper forum between speakers with knowledge, it is perfectly legitimate and can be beneficial. Also, it is the right for any person to defend their religious views if unfairly criticized during a conversation.

Debate between willing and respectful debaters on religious matters can be perfectly fine as long as no boundaries are crossed. But to engage in a tussle of words for the sake of crushing your religious opponents’ views and mocking their sacred texts should be beyond the pale. It would be great if religious communities gained the maturity to see each other as natural allies rather than adversaries in an increasingly secularized and materialized world.

 

  • Justin Johari

    Assalaamu’alaykum,

    Whilst I agree with the writer, I would like to add one thing though. Each country has its own intricacies with regards to interfaith efforts, and Malaysia is no different. One must be aware when talking to locals of other faiths (in Malaysia’s context), that there exist historical and cultural baggages that one has to factor in, in the equation. To add to the above article: Know the local sentiments, be sensitive of peculiarities in race relations, take steps to respect these boundaries and then you can proceed to have your own interfaith events, insyaAllah, Bismillah!

    • Saqib Sheikh

      Walaikum Asalam Bro Justin,

      Fully agreed, and good job yourself in organising your interfaith events.

      Regards,
      Saqib

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