Knowing Your Limits
Last night I ended up having a quasi-discussion with a friend of Pastor Green on his Facebook timeline and what an experience it turned out to be! It was clear to me from the onset that the person had a bit of difficulty understanding the discussion. Knowledge is a very important tool for developing one’s understanding of the world we live in, and is essential for matters of faith and belief. It is very common for me to read, and encourage others to read two great works by Muslim scholars on knowledge in Islam. Namely, “Kitab al ‘Ilm“, by Imam al Ghazali (رحمه الله), and “Instruction of the Student: The Method of Learning“, by Imam al Zarnuji (رحمه الله). Another book, but from a non-Muslim which I and many scholars have found profitable is, “How to Read a Book“, by Mortimer J. Adler; a fantastic exposition on the importance of reading, while providing helpful lessons in developing the skill of reading. Lastly, there are two principles with which I have found to be profitable for every conversation or dialogue I engage in. The first is that of “disce aut discede“, which translates into meaning, “learn or leave”. What this phrase communicates, is that whenever you engage in some act of learning you should always be willing to learn, and if not then you should leave that engagement for it does not increase your knowledge or understanding. The second is that of, “damnant quod non intelligunt“, which translates into meaning, “they condemn what they do not understand”. Naturally, a person who is uneducated about a particular topic with which they disagree with you on, tends to condemn your position without having an understanding of their own position, or yours.
Having learned these two principles, I tend to leave a discussion where I find the person to be uneducated about the topic under discussion. I entered into this discussion with the person named Luke to see where it would lead. He claimed he was a friend with many textual critics, that he’s studied the science, and that he is very familiar with the various schools of thought within the textual criticism community. So, I set a litmus test for him, is he pretending to have knowledge he doesn’t have? I wrote a few lines on the philological problems with the Johannine Prologue. I then waited for his response. Strangely enough, his next two comments on the topic caught me a bit off guard – I was shocked to be honest. He read, philological to be philosophical and then proceeded to write several paragraphs on how both James White and William Lane Craig were philosophical textual critics. I cried with laughter, I really did not know how to respond to something so wrong, but yet so ingenious. Not only did this confirm that he had no idea what he was talking about, the very fact that he invented a new field and attributed it to several Christian speakers was beyond phenomenal. You simply cannot pay for entertainment like this. I think the problem he had, was assuming that because I was a Muslim, the only things I knew of textual criticism were from reading books by Bart Ehrman, therefore he expected me to regurgitate Bart’s views. When that didn’t happen, he proceeded to disagree with everything I stated. Not because I was wrong, but because it put him in an awkward position for a Muslim to know more about the origins of his scripture, than he knew and its very common to see people become desperate when their religion is being discussed. Yet, before he did this, he did something even more incredulous. He accused me of plagiarism. Why did he do this? Well, I had posted a quote from a journal, in response he said I was simply copy pasting, despite me having explained what the consequences of this study meant. He derided me in numerous comments, when he realised that I actually had access to the journal, he just threw out the insult of being a plagiarist. What reasoning did he use? He said, I didn’t engage with the evidences of the topic under discussion. So, as a counter, I asked him, aren’t you posting quotes from the internet without having engaged with the evidences? Especially when the journal’s author from whom he took his quote both disagreed with his view, and the author had first hand experience with the evidences? So by his own logic, wouldn’t that make him a plagiarist? Apparently he took great insult at this, so he began to insult the Prophet (صلي الله عليه وسلم) in response to my rhetorical questions. This unfortunately is not the first time that this has happened. In countless discussions with polemical Christians, when they’re unable to cope with difficult questions, they tend to be become very angered and unfortunately try to derail the dialogue by insulting Islam or something related to our beliefs. This behaviour and its solution is spoken of in the Qur’aan by Allaah, He says:
وَقَدْ نَزَّلَ عَلَيْكُمْ فِي الْكِتَابِ أَنْ إِذَا سَمِعْتُمْ آيَاتِ اللَّـهِ يُكْفَرُ بِهَا وَيُسْتَهْزَأُ بِهَا فَلَا تَقْعُدُوا مَعَهُمْ حَتَّىٰ يَخُوضُوا فِي حَدِيثٍ غَيْرِهِ ۚإِنَّكُمْ إِذًا مِّثْلُهُمْ And it has already come down to you in the Book that when you hear the verses of Allah [recited], they are denied [by them] and ridiculed; so do not sit with them until they enter into another conversation. – Qur’aan 4:140.
Da’wah has its limits. Humans also have limits, whether it be with our knowledge or our ability to communicate and convey our beliefs accurately. Therefore, as responsible Muslims, we should know when to leave a conversation or when to acknowledge that it’s useless to debate a topic with someone who has no knowledge of the topic itself. I’ve been privy to hundreds of debates whether in person, or over the internet, and its become very saddening to see that if these persons who were debating had to do so without Google at their fingertips, they would have nothing to contribute in a discussion. Their knowledge is really based on how quick they would be able to search the internet for responses to questions posed to them. This reminds me of an experience I had with a young militant atheist named Shiva. On Facebook he had no issue criticising religion, fortunately we attended the same University so I asked him to meet in school and have a personal, face to face discussion on religion with me. He declined. He then arranged a meeting with one of my Muslim friends who isn’t that familiar with anti-religious polemics and how to respond to them, therefore he agreed to meet the person, but when the time came for the meeting, he’d have me show up instead. The look on the face of the young atheist at my presence was one of pure astonishment. As Allaah as my witness, and as my friend would gladly testify, the young atheist had nothing to say about Islam at this meeting. In fact, for almost all of the questions raised, his response was either that he did not know, or that he did not understand what the questions were about.
That was such an eye opening experience that from that day, that I now choose to engage in face to face debate more, as opposed to online discussion. To the young da’ees who are beginning to engage with non-Muslims about Islam, I encourage you to read the books I’ve mentioned, and should you be unable to find them, head over to our contact us page and I’ll send you a PDF copy. Before engaging in any debate or dialogue or discussion on theological differences whether it be with Christians, Jews, Atheists or even Hindus, you need to develop an intellectual foundation, a knowledge base from which you can then progress to studying the topics frequented in inter-faith discourse. Understanding the nature of knowledge, its uses, its mediums and its limits is very important for becoming an honest and sincere seeker of knowledge. How can you learn, without knowing how to learn? How can you disagree, without first knowing what you’re disagreeing about? In conclusion, we should always be open to recognizing someone’s limits and your own limits, in regard to your knowledge of Islam and other topics. Should you find someone unable to honestly discuss a topic, leave that topic or the discussion. Should you find that you are unfamiliar with a topic, leave that discussion and study it before speaking, lest you speak without knowledge and unknowingly earn the punishment of Allaah for speaking wrongly of Islam. One of the things I’m happy to have done, is to graduate from having a cursory understanding of some topics, to having indepth, well studied, well taught understanding. If you truly value discussing inter-faith topics, then you should do the responsible thing and study before speaking, and if you fail to do so, then ask yourself one question. Are you doing this for Allaah, or are you doing this for you? and Allaah knows best.