Sunday, November 7, 2010

Imam Ghazali: Debate as a Means of Searching after the Truth

Imam Ghazali (1058 - 1111), Khorasan

...You will understand this ambiguity between debate and consultation when I relate to you the following, namely, that co-operation in the search after truth is a part of religion but has… distinguishing features and conditions.

Whereas debate as a means of searching after the truth is one of the fard kifayah duties, no one who has not yet fulfilled his fard ‘ayn duties should take it up.

Thus whoever has a  fard ‘ayn duty to fulfil, but addresses himself to the fulfilment of a  fard kifayah instead, claiming that he seeks thereby the truth, is a liar; he is like the person who neglects prayer and traffics in weaving and tailoring saying that his purpose is to cover the nakedness of him who prays naked because he finds no clothes. Such a thing may occur and is quite possible just as the occurrence of the rare cases which are the subject of research in those debates is possible.

Those who spend their time in debate neglect several duties which are, by general agreement,  fard‘ayn duties. Similarly, anyone who has been expected to return a deposit to its owner at once, but, instead of so doing, seeks refuge in prayer which is the worthiest of all obligations before Allah, transgresses because it is not enough that a person be obedient and his works constitute acts of service unless he observes therein the rules of time, condition and sequence.

Debate as a means of searching after the truth is justified provided the doer is not confronted with a more important  fard kifayah duty.

Thus whoever finds an important obligation waiting for him and turns to perform something else, transgresses. In fact he is like a person who comes upon a group of people and finds them, having been neglected, about to die of thirst, but instead of saving them by giving them water to drink, buckles down to study the art of bleeding, claiming that it is a fard kifayah and that unless the town had a bleeder the people will perish. On being told that a number of bleeders already exist within his region and, therefore, there is no need for his services he insists that notwithstanding all this, bleeding remains a  fard kifayah.

 Likewise, he who does this and neglects to give his attention to the calamity which has befallen a group of thirsty Muslims is like the person who devotes his time to debate while several fard kifayah duties remain neglected in the town. Thus several have taken up the profession of law(fatwa) while a number of obligatory duties remain neglected in every town and no jurisprudent ever pays any attention to them. More specifically let me single out medicine in which there is not, in almost all the land, a Muslim physician whose word could be legally accepted in important matters. Nevertheless not one of the jurisprudents has taken up medicine. The same is true of the Muslim obligation to enjoin what is just and to forbid what is evil1which is a fard kifayah duty.

A debater might perhaps be arguing in the midst of a hall draped with silk and among men apparelled with it, but would say nothing about it and instead would debate concerning a hypothetical case which might never come to pass, even if it should occur there would be several jurisprudents ready to attend to it.

All this time he claims that he desires to come nearer to Allah through performing the fard kifayah duties. It was related by Anas that the Apostle of Allah was once asked, “When will the Muslim obligation of enjoining what is just and forbidding what is evil be neglected?” To which he replied, “When the best among you take to hypocrisy and the wicked, to adultery; when government shall pass to the hands of the least deserving among you and knowledge to those who are corrupt.”

The third condition which justifies debate is that the debater should have the ability and right to form an opinion of his own (mujtahid), and should be one who can give decisions on his own responsibility without being bound be the opinions of either al-Shafi‘i or abu-Hanifah or any other imam, so that whenever he would find that the school of abu-Hanifah is right on a particular point he would hand down his opinion accordingly, just as the Companions and the imams used to do, and would ignore what the Shafi’ite school holds on the subject. On the other hand, he who lacks the right and the ability of independent interpretation (ijtihad), as is the case with all contemporaries, but would hand down his opinions on the authority of his imam, would not be able to reject the stand of another even though he should discover its weakness. Of what use to him there is debate when his system is well-known and his opinions are bound to conform to it? And whenever a doubtful point confronts him he would be compelled to say that the founder of his school might have an answer as he himself was not independent in interpreting the sources of the law. It would have been more fitting for him if his discussions were on points which lend themselves to two opinions, for then he might hand down his opinion in favour of the one and against the other and become thereby more and more disposed to one view and opposed to the other. Yet debates are not confined to this type of two-sided questions; often these are ignored in favour of cases in which the points of controversy have been fully discussed and decided.

The fourth condition which justifies debate is that there should be none except on actual cases or cases likely to be so. Thus the Companions held consultations only as questions arose or were likely to arise, as for example questions of inheritance. We do not, however, see debaters concerning themselves with the criticism of cases in which the handing of opinions has caused widespread tribulations. Rather they seek the spectacular cases which attract attention and consequently, no matter what the nature of the case may be, discussion of the issue becomes widespread. They may even ignore cases of frequent occurrence saying that they are reported cases or rare events which are not spectacular. That the aim of a debate should be the truth is nothing short of a miracle. They would also drop a case because it has been reported although the way to truth is through such reports; or they might drop it because it was not spectacular and would lend itself to little discussion. Truth, however, aims at reducing debate and arriving at conclusions concisely and not flatulently.

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