On Interfaith Dialogue and Debate
“And dispute ye not with the People of the Book, except with means better (than mere disputation), unless it be with those of them who inflict wrong (and injury): but say, ‘We believe in the revelation which has come down to us and in that which came down to you; Our Allah and your Allah is one; and it is to Him we bow (in Islam).’” – Qur’an 29:46.
by Dr. Ali Ataie
As Muslims living in America, the most important duty to our fellow countrymen is to call them to the deen of Allah subhana hu wa ta ‘ala. This does not mean that you must possess a degree or need to be affiliated with some sort of bureau or interfaith organization. All of us need to get involved according to our capacity. As one of our sheiks said, “This land (America) is thirsty for sajda.” The purpose of this book is not to give you a license to belittle or defame the Christian religion or its adherents. My intention is rather to provide you with a last line of defense should your Christian friend turn sour and decide that he wants to slander Islam and its Messenger. Under no circumstances, however, are we permitted to slander or disrespect anyone. Remember what Spiderman’s uncle said to him just before he died: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Therefore, choose your words carefully and use your wisdom. In whatever way you decide to engage yourself in conversation with Christians, do so in a manner befitting a Muslim, the best of all human beings.
Ironically, you may notice that those who are strongest in opposition to you and your dawah efforts will actually be fellow Muslims! I have personally experienced Muslims making comments to me such as, “Brother, who cares what the Bible says, concentrate on the Qur’an” or “Don’t waste your time trying to ‘convert’ people, just practice your faith and let God take care of them.” Or my personal favorite, “Brother, don’t you know that the Prophet (upon whom be peace) forbade ‘Umar from reading the Torah!” Yes, he did. The reason, however, is because it wasn’t ‘Umar’s place to read the Torah.
All of us have different roles. I implore you to deal gently with each other and to respect those roles. Allah reveals to His Prophet: “Muhammad is the messenger of Allah; and those who are with him are strong against Unbelievers, but compassionate amongst each other” (Qur’an 48:29)
. These days it seems as if Muslims are strong against each other but compassionate amongst the Unbelievers!
As co-founder of Muslim Interfaith Council (MIC), I have had the good fortune of speaking at various interfaith venues. Events are of two types: Interfaith dialogue and interfaith debate. The purpose of interfaith dialogue is simply to inform. Our focus here should be on discovering similarities between our respective religious traditions, which in turn, inculcates understanding and tolerance. The goal of dialogue is to make your non-Muslim friends understand Islam and the Muslims and not necessarily agree with us.
Use the Qur’an to demonstrate various points such as: The exalted status of Jesus and Mary, the rights of women in Islam, the life of the Prophet Muhammad, and/or the great Abrahamic tradition.
It is extremely important that we maintain ourselves in a dignified and disciplined manner. You will notice that many non-Muslims who attend interfaith dialogue events wear their prejudices on their sleeves. Do not let this discourage you. A simple smile or handshake can go a long away. If a member of the audience tries to pick an argument with you, do not accept the challenge. Answer the question to the best of your knowledge and politely ask that he or she refrain from further comments on the issue. Also, it is not a good idea to discuss politics.
You will discover that once this door is open, it becomes extremely difficult to close. You may find yourself spending the entire night defending political regimes and ideologies that have little or no relation to Islam. Once during the course of a dialogue, a Pastor hidden in the audience asked our panel to explain why a deranged Muslim man in Pakistan set fire to a church. I responded, “I really don’t know. That certainly isn’t the behavior of a good Muslim. – But why should we have to sit up here and answer for what some insane man in Pakistan did? I don’t know what was going through his head!” This response caused the audience to chuckle and the questioner abandoned his probing.
About a half-hour later, however, the Pastor began to interrupt us with one word questions like “Jihad?’ or “bin Ladin?” I asked him, “What about Jihad and bin Ladin?” Make sure that a specific question is asked before you attempt to answer it. In dialogue, it is perfectly acceptable to respond by saying, “I don’t know.” Lastly, unless you’re really gifted, try not to use Biblical quotes to back your points. Christians in the audience may take this as an affront against them. Rather spend that time talking about the beauty of the Qur’an or the greatness of our beloved Prophet salallahu ‘alaihi wa sallam, two subjects that can never be exhausted. I once began quoting from John’s Gospel during a dialogue at a Catholic Church to support the Muslim belief in the nature and function of Jesus, upon whom be peace. I noticed that although 99% of the audience found what I said pleasant and enlightening, there was one woman who took strong exception. She stood up and began rattling off various “I am” statements and demanded that I accept them as well. I had no choice but to further explain the Muslim position regarding the authenticity of the present-day Bible. As I continued to speak, other audience members began verbally objecting to my statements to the point where I had to quickly change subjects just to maintain order. Therefore, save your comparative analysis for after the dialogue for those who want to hear it.
Debates are a whole separate issue.
The purpose of debate is to convince. The goal of a debate is to make your non-Muslim friends agree with Islam and the Muslims. Obviously, this is much more difficult and requires a great deal of knowledge and effective articulation. While debating with Christians, it is vital that you make use of the Biblical text to defend your arguments. Unlike an interfaith dialogue, where both sides are presented independent of each other, debates require us to implement concepts and ideas that are present in our opponent’s frame of reference. For example, in a dialogue I would simply inform the audience that in Islam we send blessings of peace upon one another. If I were debating, I would say, “Muslims send blessings of peace upon one another just as Jesus did according to your Gospels (Luke 24:36).” Since our focus in a debate is to win the argument, “I don’t know” is never an acceptable answer.
You will notice that when cornered, Christians often resort to slander and ridicule. Make sure that if you plan on debating a Christian in a public forum, you let him know during a preliminary meeting that you have zero tolerance for such tactics. Remind him that he must stay on the topic as you will do the same. Have a strong moderator who will not be afraid of enforcing the rules. There was a certain priest with whom I met at a hotel the night before I was to debate him. We talked for hours about the format including the order of speakers, time limits, etc. The next night I noticed that he had brought two of his older colleagues to join him on the panel to debate me. After an hour or so, when they realized that they were losing badly, they began making disruptive noises like children and then slandered the Prophet. This behavior continued until the debate concluded. Even though the Muslim Student Association organized this event, not one of their intimidated members spoke up and against the “triune” usurpers. On another occasion a few years earlier, a Christian from the audience decided that he would declare himself the official timekeeper and scriptural aide to my opponent. He would give him cues and whisper verses to him under his breath while the moderator, a Muslim, simply sat idly. Fortunately, one of my Muslim brothers from the audience publicly confronted him about this and shortly thereafter, he was gone. Thus a controlled environment is essential for a quality debate.
The good news about a debate is that you will always have an advantage over your Christian opponent. The reason is simple. Most Christians, even those who do public speaking events, know next to nothing about the Islamic tradition; and what they do know is often a bunch of stereotypical myths that can be easily combated. Muslim speakers, on the other hand, actually study Christian scripture and religious sources beforehand in order to critically evaluate the material in an educated and convincing manner. For instance, a Muslim might say the following during the course of a debate: “According to renowned New Testament scholar and author Bruce Metzger, I John 5:7 which explicitly outlines the Trinity, was fabricated into the Bible sometime during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. He comments in Strobel’s book: ‘I acknowledge that (the verse in question) is not part of what the author of I John was inspired to write.’” A Christian, on the other hand, will say something like: “Muslims believe that they must kill infidels in order to attain salvation” or “In Islam, dogs are considered dirty” or “Muhammad was suicidal and suffered from epilepsy.” I hope you can see the differences between the logical, lucid Muslim argument and the ignorant Christian ramblings. Truly “with Allah is the argument that reaches home” (Qur’an 6:149).