‘Call unto the way of thy Lord with wisdom and goodly exhortation’: The Islamic approach to debate 

Tuba Ahmed-Butt, Türkiye

In a world where the internet, social media, and new inventions have provided mankind with new and more effective tools to receive news, provide information, and build and share opinions about various topics, it is also evident that similar opinions tend to accumulate. While this can be empowering at times, it has also proven to be a dangerous effect that influences our general knowledge and makes the spread of false information easier. Opinions are formed based on one-sided perspectives.

Observing people’s way of debating and arguing, I have come to the conclusion that there must be a more beautiful way to do so, without becoming embittered. As always in life, I have found the most complete solution to any question being raised in the teachings of Islam.

This was also the case regarding the question about the most beautiful and respectful way to debate with different or contrary opinions and beliefs.

Allah says in the Holy Quran in Surah an-Nahl:

اُدۡعُ اِلٰي سَبِيۡلِ رَبِّكَ بِالۡحِكۡمَةِ وَالۡمَوۡعِظَةِ الۡحَسَنَةِ وَجَادِلۡهُمۡ بِالَّتِيۡ هِيَ اَحۡسَنُ ؕ اِنَّ رَبَّكَ هُوَ اَعۡلَمُ بِمَنۡ ضَلَّ عَنۡ سَبِيۡلِهٖ وَهُوَ اَعۡلَمُ بِالۡمُهۡتَدِيۡنَ

“Call unto the way of thy Lord with wisdom and goodly exhortation, and argue with them in a way that is best. Surely, thy Lord knows best who has strayed from His way; and He knows those who are rightly guided.” (Ch.16: V.126)

In just one verse, Allah has explained the art of arguing in a depth that truly leaves one astonished.

In the Five Volume Commentary, in light of the four aspects that are mentioned in the verse above: “wisdom”, “goodly exhortation”, “the way that is best” and “Allah, the All-Knowing”, we read:

“The word حكمة translated as wisdom in the text among other things means, (1) knowledge or science; (2) equity or justice; (3) forbearance or clemency; (4) firmness; (5) any saying or discourse conforming or agreeable to truth and in accordance with the exigencies of the occasion; (6) gift of prophecy; and (7) what prevents or restrains from ignorant behaviour (Aqrab & Lane).” (Five Volume Commentary, under Surah an-Nahl, Ch.16: V.126)

According to each translation a new aspect comes to light that needs to be considered while debating. 

How the word hikmah in the verse can be interpreted and applied in preaching

“The word may be used in all these senses in the verse under comment. 

“[A.] Taking it in the sense of ‘knowledge’ or ‘science’, the verse would mean that Muslims should invite others to Islam by arguments based on knowledge and reason and should not confine themselves merely to making appeals to sentiments and emotions. 

“[B.] Using it in the sense of ‘equity’ or ‘justice’, the injunction embodied would be that, when arguing with the followers of other Faiths, Muslim preachers and missionaries should not bring forward such objections against those Faiths as can be advanced against Islam itself for such a course is not only inconsistent with justice, but is also unsound. 

“[C.] If حكمة be understood to mean ‘forbearance’ or ‘clemency’, the verse would mean that Muslims should explain the beauties of their religion with patience. 

“[D.] Taking the word in the sense of ‘a saying or discourse conforming or agreeable to the truth, and in accordance with the exigencies of the occasion’, the verse would mean, that while inviting other people to Islam Muslims should not say anything which is not true and is not in accordance with facts, for if they resorted to falsehood while preaching truth they would be ruining their own souls in order to save those of others. Moreover, their discourse should be conformable to the exigencies of the occasion and should not wound other people’s susceptibilities. 

“[E.] Taking the word in the sense of ‘gift of prophecy’, the verse would mean that Muslims should invite men to Islam by using arguments contained in the Quran and not arguments which are the creation of their own fancy. 

“[F.] Lastly, taking the word in the sense of ‘what restrains from ignorant behaviour’ the verse would mean that the talk of Muslims should not be beyond the comprehension of those to whom the appeal is made. They should say things which may help to resolve the doubts of others and not display or demonstrate their own talents and learning.” (Ibid.)

The Holy Prophetsa also admonished preachers to speak to people according to their level of understanding. (Kanz-ul-Ummal, Kitab al- ‘ilm, min qisami l-aqwal, Hadith 29468, Dar al-Kotob al-‘Ilmiyyah, Beirut, 2004, Vol. 10, p. 105)

The importance of goodly exhortation in preaching

“The words, ‘goodly exhortation’ mean ‘a discourse which softens the hearts of the hearers and makes a deep impression on them.’ Thus the Quran exhorts its followers not to content themselves with mere cold and dry reasoning but to reinforce and support philosophical dissertations with an appeal to sentiments. This appeal, however, should be ‘goodly exhortation’ i.e. it should be based on pure truth and there should be no prevarication or tampering with facts.” (Five Volume Commentary, under Surah an-Nahl, Ch.16: V.126)

The significance of arguing in the best way in Islamic preaching

“The words, and argue with them in a way that is best, mean that while arguing we should make the most solid and unassailable argument we possess as the pivot round which all other arguments should revolve and which they should support.” (Ibid.)

Seeking motivation from God’s wisdom and guidance in preaching

“The expression, Thy Lord best knows those who have strayed from…who are rightly-guided, contains a word of encouragement and good cheer for the Muslim evangelist. He is told that if in spite of his best efforts he finds that his preaching has not had the desired effect, he should not get discouraged and think that his preaching was defective, but should continue his noble work without slackening, leaving the result to God, because He alone knows who is deserving and destined to be guided to the right path.” (Ibid.)

Further, Allah states in Surah al-‘Ankabut, chapter 29, verse 47  of the Holy Quran:

وَلَا تُجَادِلُوۡۤا اَهۡلَ الۡكِتٰبِ اِلَّا بِالَّتِيۡ هِيَ اَحۡسَنُ ٭ۖ اِلَّا الَّذِيۡنَ ظَلَمُوۡا مِنۡهُمۡ وَقُوۡلُوۡۤا اٰمَنَّا بِالَّذِيۡۤ اُنۡزِلَ اِلَيۡنَا وَاُنۡزِلَ اِلَيۡكُمۡ وَاِلٰـهُنَا وَاِلٰـهُكُمۡ وَاحِدٌ وَّنَحۡنُ لَهٗ مُسۡلِمُوۡنَ

“And argue not with the People of the Book except with what is best; [but argue not at all with] such of them as are unjust. And say, ‘We believe in that which has been revealed to us and that which has been revealed to you; and our God and your God is one; and to Him we submit.’”

Again, in the Five Volume Commentary, it is explained:

“The verse lays down a very sound principle to guide us in religious controversy and when preaching our Faith to others. We should begin our preaching by laying stress on those beliefs and religious principles which are common between us and our adversary.” (Five Volume Commentary, under Surah al-‘Ankabut, Ch.29: V.47)

And in the very same verse Allah mentions another important and underestimated aspect of debating: simply not to argue with those who are unjust.

And thus, preaching in a good manner, with goodly exhortation, using solid arguments, and appealing to sentiments, is essential for effective Islamic preaching. This approach, as taught by the Holy Quran, can soften the hearts of the listeners and leave a deep impression on them, leading to a greater likelihood of them knowing their Creator.

Wisdom, not cowardice

It is also important to keep in mind that wisdom does not equate to cowardice or blindly agreeing with something that is fundamentally wrong. While we should not engage in unnecessary conflicts, we must always express our teachings and viewpoints with wisdom. It is essential that we never compromise on truthfulness out of fear of opposition. As the Promised Messiahas has emphasised in numerous instances, truthfulness shines even brighter in the face of opposition and reveals its true magnificence. (For a detailed discourse on this subject, see Friday Sermon, 8 September 2017 at www.alislam.org/friday-sermon/2017-09-08.html)

The Promised Messiahas states: 

“The purpose of the verse, ‘and argue with them in a way that is best’ [Surah an-Nahl, Ch.16: V.126] is not that we should be so lenient as to confirm falsehood by way of flattery. Can we call a person righteous who claims divinity and accuses our Messengersa of lying, and calls Hazrat Musaas a thief? Is this what it means to ‘argue in the best way’? Absolutely not. Instead, it is a manifestation of hypocrisy and disbelief.” (Tiryaq-ul-Qulub, Ruhani Khazain, Vol. 15, p. 305, footnote)

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