It is said
that the Muslims were gathered in the presence of the Caliph when an atheist
approached them and said ‘I don’t believe in God, there cannot be a God, you
cannot hear Him or see Him, you’re wasting your time! Bring me your best
debater and I will debate this issue with him.’ The best debater at the time
was Imam Abu Hanifah, a messenger was sent to summon him to the
royal palace. Several hours passed by without a sign of Abu Hanifah, but he
finally showed up.
The Caliph inquired
why Abu Hanifah was late. Abu Hanifah explained that he came to the bank of the
River Tigris but there were no boats to take him to the other side. While he
was waiting, he saw some planks of wood floating nearby. The planks suddenly came
together and formed a boat. The boat then drifted towards him and he got in.
The boat then crossed the river on its own, without any visible sail or oars, and
landed him on the other bank. He then got off the boat and came to the Royal
moment, the atheist burst out laughing and remarked, ‘Oh Abu Hanifah, I heard
that you were the best debater from amongst the Muslims, I heard that you were
the wisest, the most knowledgeable from amongst your people. From seeing you
today, I can say that you show none of these qualities. You speak of a boat
appearing from nowhere, without someone having built it and the boat taking you
to your destination without a navigator against the tide, your taking childish,
you’re talking ridiculous, I swear I do not believe a word of it!’
Rahimullah replied, ‘If you cannot believe that a boat came into being without
a boat maker, than this is only a boat, how can you believe that the whole
world, the universe, the stars, the oceans, and the planets came into being
without a creator?
astonished at his reply got up and fled.
is a popular one and is often repeated as the ultimate argument against
atheists. It might be a true account or a fictional story, sometimes it’s
attributed to Abu Hanifah but in many versions it only refers to an unnamed
notable Muslim scholar. It doesn’t really matter if the story is true or not, what
matters is that it is considered a plausible scenario.
strikes me about it is what it signifies from today’s perspective regardless
of our opinion of the scholar’s debating skills. If we believe the premise,
then it was possible for an atheist in the early years of Islam to debate a
prominent Muslim scholar in front of the caliph and therefore publicly deny the
existence of God. Compare that with the current situation when any hint of
deviation from orthodox views can land people in serious trouble, as happened
recently with the Saudi poet Hamza Kashgari. The real lesson to take from such
stories is that the spirit of open debate is more in keeping with Islamic
tradition than today’s censoriousness.
Note: There are various versions of the story online here and here for example.