22 Mar 2012

On debating atheism in Islam

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 Palace.

At this 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!’

Abu Hanifah 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?
The atheist astonished at his reply got up and fled.

This story 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.

What really 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.

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Karl reMarks is a blog about Middle East politics and culture with a healthy dose of satire.

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