Home » History » Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111) on the Conditions and Evils of Debate

Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111) on the Conditions and Evils of Debate

The following is a translation of an excerpt taken from the “Book of Knowledge” of al-Ghazali’s work Ihya’ Ulum al-Din.

On the Conditions of Debate

…the fifth condition which justifies debate is that it should be held in private in preference to public meeting in the presence of celebrities and sultans, because privacy is more conducive to understanding and its atmosphere more suitable to clear thinking. Public meetings encourage hypocrisy and make it imperative for the individual to defend himself whether he is right or wrong. It is very well-known that these public meetings and assemblies are not promoted by their devotees for the sake of God. One of them may be alone with his companion for a long period of time but will not even talk to him because there is no audience to applaud his rhetoric. He may at times try to start a discussion but for the same reason gets no response. But no sooner someone makes his appearance or a group assembles, than he will try his utmost to provoke a controversy and then monopolize the discussion.

The sixth condition which justifies debate is that the debater should seek thereby the truth in the same spirit as that of the person who is searching for a lost object: he does not mind whether the object is found by himself or by his aides, regards his companion a friend not an adversary, and thanks him whenever he points out a mistake to him and reveals to him the truth. Thus if he pursues one way in his search for his lost object and his companion shows him another and better way he will not criticize him but rather will thank and honor him and rejoice with him. Such were the consultations of the Companions that once upon a time, when ‘Umar [ibn al-Khattab] was addressing an assembly, a certain woman interrupted him and pointed out to him his mistake. Thereupon he said, “A woman hath hit the mark while a man hath missed.” At another time a certain man asked ‘Ali a question and, on receiving an answer, disagreed with him saying that it was different; to which ‘Ali replied: “Thou art right while I am wrong, Exalted over all is God, the Omniscient.” On another occasion, Abu-Musa al-Ash‘ari then the governor of al-Kufa, was asked concerning the fate of a man who had died fighting for God and replied that he was in Paradise. Thereupon ‘Abd Allah ibn Mas‘ud contradicted Abu Musa and said that, in his opinion, the man would be in Paradise if, at his death, he has been truly sincere. Abu Musa, concurring with the opinion of Ibn Mas‘ud said, “What he hath said is the truth. Ask not my opinion when in your midst you have such an authority.” Such should be the fairness and justice of a seeker after truth. Should such a thing be mentioned nowadays to the most insignificant jurisprudent, he would deny it and declare it to be improbable. He would also say that there was no need at all for the explicit mention of sincerity since everyone knows that it was a necessary requirement.

Compare, therefore, the Companions with contemporary debaters, how the latter become embarrassed and ashamed whenever the truth is determined by an adversary, and how they exert their utmost efforts trying to deny the adversary his credit, malign those who refute their opinions, and finally liken themselves to the Companions in respect of co-operation in determining the truth.

The seventh condition which justifies debate is that the debater should not prevent his adversary from relinquishing one argument in favor of another and one illustration in favor of a second, as the debates of the Fathers were thus carried. The debater, also, should remove from his argument all the unorthodox subtitles of dialectics whether they are relevant or irrelevant. Thus he should not, for example, say that he was under no obligation to bring this up or that such and such a statement was contradictory to your first assertion and, therefore, unacceptable because going back to truth is in itself a refutation of error and should be accepted as an argument. You also notice how all assemblies are spent in defenses and debates, so much so that a debater would deduce a principle from all alleged causes, and when asked what proof he had that his conclusion was explained by that cause, he would say that that was what he had found and would tell his critic, “If you should find anything clearer and better, produce it so that I might examine it.” The objecting critic would then insist that such a thing has several meanings which he himself has always known but need not go through them while the debater would demand that they be discussed; but the critic would persist in his refusal. The debating assemblies are taken up by such questions while the poor debater does not realize that his saying that he neither knows nor remembers, and that he has no need for this or for that, is a lie against the law, because if he asserts that which he does not know simply to incapacitate his adversary he would be a wicked liar disobedient to Allah, any by his claim to knowledge he does not possess he would expose himself to the wrath of Allah. He would also have sinned even if his claims were true because he had concealed what he had known of the law. His brother Muslim had asked him in order to have things explained and examined, so that if he were right he would abide thereby but if he were wrong he would have his friend point out his mistake for him and lead him from the darkness of ignorance to the bright light of knowledge. No one will disagree that it is obligatory on the person to reveal whatever knowledge he may possess of the sciences of religion whenever he is asked about it. The meaning of his words, “I am under no obligation to bring this up,” is that in the rules of dialectics, which have been developed according to the principles of human curiosity and interest in the methods of deception and battling with words, he was under no obligation to admit anything unless it was obligatory by law. By his refusal to admit in the course of his argument a point which has been brought up and which he knows is true he becomes a liar and a villain.

Examine the consultations of the Companions and the negotiations of the Fathers. Have you ever heard of anything like this in them, or have you ever seen anybody who had been prevented from relinquishing one argument in favor of another and one illustration in favor of a second, and from citing as proof an event in the life of one of the Companions after having drawn an analogy, or quoting a Qur’anic verse having related a tradition? On the contrary all their debates were carried on in this manner: they used to set forth and examine everything that occurred to them just as it occurred.

The eighth condition which justifies debate is that one should only debate with those from whom he expects to learn something, people who arrive at their knowledge independently. Usually, however, men nowadays avoid entering into a debate with intellectual giants and celebrities for fear that their adversaries should determine the truth. They would rather debate with their inferiors in the hope of confounding them with falsehood.

Many other minute conditions, which make debate justifiable, exist besides those already mentioned; but in those eight conditions you will find how to distinguish between those who debate for the cause of Allah and those who debate for some other purpose. But in general you should know that he who does not struggle against and debate Satan while his heart is subject to his most virulent enemy, the Devil, by whom he is being continually dragged to his doom, but does instead debate with men in cases wherein the mujtahid is right, or shares with him who is right his reward, the same is a laughing stock of Satan and an example for the sincere. Thus Satan rejoices when he throws him into the darkness of evil which we shall now enumerate and discuss.

On the Evils of Debate and its Character-Destroying Influences

You should know and be sure that debates which are designed for the purpose of overcoming and silencing an opponent as well as for displaying one’s excellence and honor, bragging before men, boasting, and being contradictory, or for the sake of winning popular favor, are the source of all traits which are blameworthy before God and praiseworthy before His enemy, the Devil. Its relation to the secret sins of pride, conceit, jealousy, envy, self-justification, love of power, and others is like the relation of drinking to the sins of the flesh such as fornication, foul play, and murder. Just as the person who has been given the opportunity to choose between drinking and the other sins, deemed the former harmless and took to it only to be led by his drunkenness into committing all the other sins, so is he who succumbs to the lures of overcoming and silencing opponents in debate, and falls victim to the urge for power and boasting; these things have led him to conceal all wickedness in his bosom and stirred in him all blameworthy traits. Proofs of the blameworthiness of all these will be discussed in the Section on the Destructive Matters in Life although we shall now allude to the major evils which are enkindled by debate. Of these we may enumerate the following.

One is envy: The Prophet said, “As fire consumes wood so does envy consume good deeds.” The debater persists in envy because at times he overcomes his adversary and other times he himself is overcome; at times his words are praised and at other times those of his opponent are applauded; and as long as there remains in all the world one known among men for his versatile knowledge and regarded by them more learned than the debater and endowed with keener insight, the debater will inevitably envy him and wish that the favors and admiration which that man enjoys might accrue to him instead. Envy is a consuming fire; its victim is subject to torment in this world while in the world to come his torture will be more intense and painful. For this reason Ibn ‘Abbas said, “Take knowledge wherever ye may find it, but accept not the opinion of one jurisprudent concerning another because they are as jealous of one another as the bulls in the cattle-yard.”

Another is pride and haughtiness: The Prophet said, “He who exalts himself is humbled by God, and he who humbles himself is exalted by God.” Said he again quoting the Almighty, “Pride is my mantle and grandeur, yea it is my cloak. I shall smite anyone who would contest my sole right to them.” The debater persists in exalting himself above his equals and peers and in claiming for himself a station higher than his worth to the extent that he and his colleagues fight over their seats in assembly halls and boast about the degree of their elevation or lowliness as well as their proximity to, or remoteness from the central seat. They would fight as to who should lead the way in narrow streets. Often the foolish, deceitful, and insolent among them justify themselves on the ground that they are thereby maintaining the dignity of knowledge because the believers has been charged not to object himself. They thus consider humility, which God and his prophets commended, abasement, and regard pride, which is reprehensible to God, the dignity of religion. In other words they have altered the signification of these terms for the confusion of people as they have altered the signification of other terms such as wisdom, knowledge and the like.

Another is rancor from which a debater is hardly ever free. The Prophet said, “The believer is free from rancor.” Several more traditions have been related in condemnation of rancor and they are well-known. Yet we do not know of a debater who, is capable of entertaining no rancor against anyone who would nod his head in approval of the words of his adversary, or who when the latter pauses in the midst of a sentence, would politely wait for him. On the contrary he would, whenever he is confronted with such a situation, entertain and foster rancor in his heart. He may attempt to restrain himself hoping thereby to disguise his feelings; but, in most cases, he fails as his feelings invariably reveal themselves. How can he refrain from rancor when it is inconceivable that all the audience should unite in favoring his argument and approve all his conclusions and deductions? Furthermore should his opponent show the least sign of inconsideration about what he was saying, he would entertain for him in his heart a hatred that would last throughout his life.

Another is backbiting which was likened by God to the eating of carrion. The debater persists in “eating carrion” and is continually referring to the words of his opponent and traducing him. Because he endeavors to be right in what he says about his opponent, he inevitably cites only what shows the weaknesses of his opponent’s argument and the flaws in his excellences. Of such is traducing and backbiting, while lying is sheer calumny.

The debater, moreover, cannot keep his tongue from attacking the honor of anyone who turns away from him and listens to his opponent. He would even ascribe to him ignorance, foolishness, lack of understanding, and stupidity.

Another is self-justification; God said, “Assert not then your own purity. He best knoweth who feareth Him.” A certain wise man was once asked, “What truth is reprehensible?” He replied, “A man’s praising himself [even though it may be justified].” A debater is never free from praising himself and boasting of his power, triumph, and excellence over his peers. In the course of a debate he would repeatedly say, “I am fully aware of all such things,” and “I am versatile in science, of independent judgment on question of law, and well-versed in the knowledge of tradition,” and many other assertions besides with which he would sing his own praise, sometimes out of sheer arrogance and at other times out of the need to render his words convincing. It is also well-known that arrogance and self-praise are by law and reason condemned.

Another is spying and prying into the private affairs of men. God said, “Pry not.” The debater always seeks to uncover the errors of his peers and continually pries into the private affairs of his opponents. He would, when informed of the arrival in town of another debater, seek someone who could reveal the inside story of the man and would by means of a questionnaire attempt to bare his vices in order to expose and disgrace him whenever the need should arise. He even would inquire about the affairs of his early life and blemishes of his body in the hope of discovering some defect or disfigurement such as scalp pustule and the like. Should he fear defeat at the hands of his opponent, he would, in the course of the debate, allude to these blemishes, especially if his opponent should remain firm and stand his ground, and would not refrain from being outspoken if he were given to insolence and scorn. Both of these practices are regarded as clever ways of repelling the attacks of an opponent, as should be seen by the accounts of the debates of some of the illustrious and celebrated debaters.

Another is to rejoice at the injury of others and feel depressed when they are glad. Anyone who does not desire for his brother Muslim what he desires for himself is far removed from the way of believers.1Thus he who prides himself by parading his excellence is inevitably pleased at the injury of his peers and equals who vie with him for glory. The hatred which exists between them is like that which exists between fellow-wives. Just as the one wife would tremble and turn pale at the sight of her fellow-wife so would a debater at the sight of another: his color would change and his mind become perplexed as though he had seen a mighty devil or a hungry lion. How unlike the companionship and friendliness which used to exist between the learned men of religion whenever they met is this, and how unlike the brotherhood, the co-operation, and the mutual sharing which were characteristic of them under fair and adverse conditions alike! Thus al-Shafi‘i said, “Among the virtuous and wise, knowledge is like a bond of blood relationship.” I cannot, therefore, understand how some men, among whom knowledge has engendered a deep-rooted enmity, have followed his rite. Or can you ever imagine any spirit of friendliness prevailing among them when they are concerned with achieving triumph and boasting of it? How unlikely! It is bad enough that such an evil fastens on you the traits of the deceitful and robs you of those of the believers and devout.

Another is deception, the evidence of whose blameworthiness is well known and need not be enumerated. Debaters are compelled to deception because when they meet their opponents, friends, or followers, they find it necessary to endear themselves to them by saying nice things which they do not mean, by feigning to have been anxious to meet them, and by pretending to be impressed by their station and position, while everyone present as well as the speakers and those to whom they have spoken to, know that the whole thing is untrue, false, fraudulent, and wicked. They profess their love with their tongues while their hearts seethe with hate. From it all we seek refuge in God.

The Prophet also said, “When people take to knowledge and ignore works, when they profess love to one another with their tongue and nurse hatred in their hearts, and when they sever the ties of relationship which bind them, God will visit His wrath upon them and curse them, He will render their tongues mute and their eyes blind.” The truth of this tradition, which was related by al-Hasan, has been verified as these conditions which it predicts have been witnessed and seen.

Another is to resist truth and detest it and to persist in disputing it so much so that the most hateful thing to a debater is to see the truth revealed by his opponent; no matter what it may be, he would do his best to refute and deny it and would exert his utmost in deception, trickery and fraud in order to disprove his adversary until contention becomes in him a second nature. He is thus unable to hear anything without immediately expressing his objection to it. This habit of his would even drive him to dispute the truths of the Qur’an and the words of tradition and would cause him to cite the one in contradiction of the other. Furthermore wrangling even in opposing wrong is prohibited since the Prophet called men to abjure it although they are right in their contention. He thus said, “Whoever was in error and should abjure wrangling, to him God would build a dwelling in the confines of Paradise; while whoever was in the right and should abjure wrangling, to him God would prepare a habitation in the heart of Paradise.” God has also regarded as equal those who devise lies against God and those who call the truth a lie. He said, “But who acteth more wrongfully than he who deviseth a lie against God, or calls the truth when it hath come to him, a lie?” and again, “And who acteth more wrongfully than he who lieth against God and treateth the truth when it comes to him as a lie.”

Another is hypocrisy and flattering people in an effort to win their favor and mislead them. Hypocrisy is that virulent disease which, as will be discussed in the Book on Hypocrisy, leads to the gravest of the major sins. The debater wants nothing but to put himself forward before people, and to gain their approval and praise.

These ten traits are among the greatest secret sins. Others, who lack restraint may engage in controversies leading to the exchange of blows, kicking, boxing, tearing garments, plucking beards, cursing parents, denouncing teachers, and outright slander. Such people, however, are not considered respectable human beings. The prominent and sober among them do not go beyond the preceding ten traits. One may be free of this or that trait with regard to his inferiors or superiors, whatever the case may be, or with regards to people outside his community or his sphere of work. Yet in his attitude towards his peers, who are equal to him in position, the debater is guilty of all these traits. Each of these ten traits may give rise to ten other vices which we shall neither discuss nor explain at the present time. They include snobbishness, anger, hatred, greed, the desire to seek money and power in order to attain triumph, boasting, gaiety, arrogance, exalting the wealthy and those in authority as well as frequenting their places and partaking of their unlawful riches, parading with horses, state-coaches, and outlawed garments, showing contempt to people by being vain and ostentatious, meddling in the affairs of others, talkativeness, the disappearance of awe, fear, and mercy from the heart, absent-mindedness to an extent that the worshipper would no longer be aware of what he had prayed, or read, or who had communed with him during his prayer, nor, despite the fact that he had spent his life in the study of those sciences which aid in debate but are useless in the hereafter, such as the embellishment of diction and the knowledge of singular anecdotes, would he be able to experience any feeling of humility in his heart.

These traits are common to all debaters although they have them in varying degrees each according to his own station. But everyone, even the most religious and the wisest among them, is subject to several of them. Everyone, too, hopes to conceal them and, by self-mortification, to free himself therefrom.

You should, moreover, know that these vices characterize those employed in admonition and warning if their purpose is to be recognized and establish for themselves prestige, or to obtain wealth and position. They also characterize those who are working in the science of religion and legal opinions if they ever hope to secure a position in the department of justice or become trustees of religious endowments (awqaf) or to excel their peers. In general, these vices characterize everyone who, through knowledge, seeks other than the reward of God in the Hereafter.

Knowledge, therefore, would either doom its possessor to eternal destruction or lead him to life everlasting. For that reason the Prophet said, “The most severely punished of all men on the day of resurrection will be the learned man whom Allah has not blessed with His knowledge.” On the contrary how much better it would have been if he had come out at least even. This, however, is very unlikely because the dangers of knowledge are great, for he who seeks it seeks the everlasting kingdom and the eternal bliss which he will either attain or else be doomed to perdition. The seeker after knowledge is like him who seeks power in this world: if he does not succeed in amassing a fortune he cannot hope to be spared the humiliation of poverty. On the contrary, he will continue to live in the midst of the worst conditions. To say that in encouraging debate lies an advantage, namely, that of inducing people to seek knowledge since without ambition for power and the rivalry which it provokes all branches of knowledge would have vanished, is true in one respect but otherwise useless. Thus had it been for their expectation of playing at the ball and mallet1 and with birds,2 the school would not have been attractive to the boys. But this does not mean that the reasons for the school’s popularity are praiseworthy. Similarly in the case of ambition for power as the reason for the preservation of knowledge: it does not mean that the ambitious one is saved. On the contrary he is one of those whom the Prophet described when he said, “Verily God will establish this faith through men who have no faith.” And again, “Verily God will establish this faith through wicked men.” The ambitious is personally doomed to destruction although, through him, others may be saved, especially if he should urge people to forsake the world and in so doing outwardly resemble the learned Fathers while inwardly he conceals his ambitions. He is, in this respect, like the candle which burns itself out in order that others may see: the good of others lies in his own destruction. On the other hand if he should urge people to cherish this world he would be like the fire which, besides consuming everything, burns itself out as well.

The learned men are of three kinds: First those who are outspoken in seeking this world and in their devotion to it they destroy both themselves and others. Second, those who call people to God in public and in private; they bring joy and gladness both to themselves and to those whom they call. Third, those who preach the hereafter, outwardly forsaking the world while inwardly seeking the approval of men and worldly prestige; they save others but destroy themselves. Examine therefore to which of these three categories you belong and to what end have you been preparing yourself, and do not think that God would accept anything of knowledge and work which has not been consecrated to Him.

[Taken from the Book of Knowledge from Ihya’ Ulum al-Din; translation adapted from:]

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