Futuwwa and Debates

It’s been difficult to begin writing with my head whirling with so many thoughts and ideas about American Muslim social etiquette, the place of Muslim women scholars, and perspectives on Muslim women spiritual practices. Some of my thoughts are reactionary, sparked by recent experiences in Muslim community life. Some were good and some frustrating. But one that really got me is how often we Muslims can make being around other Muslims extremely uncomfortable.

I know that Muslims do not hold the monopoly on polemics, but there is something about the ways in which Muslims engage in pointless debates that makes you want to stay in your house, avoid the masjid, and steer as far away from Muslims as you can. Battling on street corners quoting hadith makes debating seem like a democratic endeavor. But is knowledge truly equalizing, when some have a lot (including information that can serve to contextualize some knowledge) and others have a little. The funny thing is that Muslim men tend to debate at a much higher rate than Muslim women. Often these debates deal with matters that have little effect on daily life or practical affairs. Debating is not just a gendered male domain, there are plenty of women who get feisty in debates, myself included. The problem is, that I hate arguing. I have a fight or flight reaction once one sparks up. Debates are not about guiding someone to truth but rather they are a battle of egos. One can feel like a bully when defeating the flimsy argument of an intellectual midget. But is a clash of the titans between two intellectual giants any better?

Arguing is not constructive on an intellectual or social level. It doesn’t build bonds or help community life. Debating is not a way for us to get to know each other. And if you are going to engage in a discussion of difference, there is an etiquette about how you should go about that (I’m not going to get into that in this post). You shouldn’t drag someone into a fight, especially if they are waving a white flag and call for a truce. You don’t call somebody up and introduce yourself then go about arguing about somebody’s minhaj or deviant behavior. A Ramadan iftar is not the place where you should engage in a debate. As a guest, you should not try to demonstrate the force of your argument with a loud voice, pointing fingers, or jabbing your hand in the air in threatening moves. As a host or a guest, you should not try to embarrass anyone or put anyone on the spot. If you feel like there is some serious problems with the the company you are in, consider excusing yourself and bowing out gracefully.

My recent readings on Sufism and Muslim spiritual practices has touched upon the concept of futuwwa (Islamic chivalry). So much of Futuwwa, which comes from the word “young man” is a composite of the virtues of altruism, humility, loyalty, gentleness, generosity, hospitality, and chastity. Putting others before yourself, often entailing hospitality and not making others uncomfortable either as a guest or a host. Debate and arguing are the opposite of the virtues that comprise futuwwa. Character is shaped by environment, but it can also be a matter of education, reflection, internal inclinations, and personal choice. Although many Muslims still find value in lineage and social status (i.e. Shurfa’ or Sayyid), I see nobility as a reflection of character and ethical conduct.

2 thoughts on “Futuwwa and Debates

  1. Yup. I couldn’t agree more. I learned this lesson back in March when I had some heated exchanges with my SIL (I wrote you about them). There came a point when I said “Enough. I’m not going to say anything else in order to fulfill the needs of my ego or yours.”

    What really annoys me is when Muslims throw around Allah and Prophet Muhammad’s name like frisbees. When really everything they are saying is about their own opinions, wish fulfillments and desires. It’s like they feel that they have some dial-up connection that no other Muslim can have. Again a sign of the dangers of the human ego.

    I also hate arguments. I used to teach Deborah Tannen’s work on Dialogue over Debate to my students. Debate to me is about argumentation, rhetoric & persuasion. It often hinders learning.


  2. As-Salaamu ‘alaikum,

    I don’t know if women are prone to this kind of pointless arguing as much as some men, but I avoid the sort of places where they happen, and when I’m with the sort of people known for this kind of debating, I try to keep the conversation away from them. There’s a real sense of one-upmanship to it, a glee over “establishing the hujja on” someone and stumping them in an argument, as if such debates were how matters of Shari’ah or aqida are decided. I even listened to one preacher who gave an example of Imam Ahmad supposedly stumping Imam ash-Shafi’i in such an argument over the status of someone who doesn’t pray, but the position of Shafi’i (that he is still Muslim) is by far the majority one.

    Whether they’re “democratic” or not is besides the point. Islam is not really democratic in terms of how it settles these matters. It’s true that consensus and unity of the scholars is a sign that a position is correct, but a large minority position is still valid.


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