Sunday, January 29, 2006

Muslim Christian Debate on Premier Radio

Yesterday on the “Unbelievable “programme on Premier Radio, Abdul Rahman (Jaffah?) from the Muslim Council of Britain presented the Muslim side.

He had been filling the shoes of  Anas Al-Tikriti originally scheduled but “kept away because of illness”. I’m sure it had nothing to do with him realising he would be facing Jay Smith, of the Hyde Park Christian Fellowship and a veteran debater with Muslims.

Rahman was introduced as a barrister currently standing for public office on the Respect Coalition platform. Each side gave a brief personal history and the moderator Justin Brierley did as best a job as could be expected in making the Muslim guy feel welcome and of keeping the lid on the proceedings when each side started talking above and/or  past the other.

The proposition being considered for debate was: “Which faith, Islam or Christianity, is most compatible with the West”. I may be biased but I do think Jay Smith “won” the debate – he defined his terms and stuck to his definitions, always kept himself under control, and rebutted every argument which Abdul Rahman put forth.

The most memorable impression Abdul Rahman made was of getting emotionally agitated at various points in the dialogue so that Justin Brierley had to come in on his side, to the rescue, as it were, so that Smith found himself debating and rebutting both Rahman and the moderator.

A. Rahman started the proceedings and decided to get the first punch in quick by accusing Christianity of having a history of “demonising” Islam while Islam, he said, exhibited a level of co-existence which he characterised by the use of the word “pro-existence”.

He made claims that in the Ottoman Empire and in Iran the government built churches and synagogues (false). Smith calmly countered by asking “Is it demonisation to ask the pertinent questions ?”. Smith later picked up on the “demonising” terminology and used against A. Rahman himself who was doing just that to Abu Hamza (aka The Hook).

It is not my intention to give a “blow by blow” account but touch on some highlights. I suppose one could say the discussion turned chiefly around the theme of “women” and “violence” as regards to how each faith fared in these two aspect in terms of being more compatible with the West. Of course, the Muslim guy was largely reduced to being on the defensive.

Rahman admitted a number of times that he was “not a scholar” when confronted with the fact that Jay was quoting specific Quranic verses.  A. Rahman ,when presented with one Quranic verse after another, regarding the treatment of women nevertheless did try to counter by saying women in the West had not received voting and inheritance rights until recently whereas the Quran had codified such.

When faced with the Sura 4 permission to men to “beat their wives” A. Rahman responded with an anecdote about Meccan men married to “liberated” Medinan women complaining to Mohamed that their wives were always “talking back” to them. He claimed as a result that ayah or verse had been “revealed” to Mohamed as a “time bound” concession for the men to control their wives.

A. Rahman tried to bring up the verses in Deuteronomy regarding God’s command to the Israelites to annihilate the inhabitants of Canaan. Smith responded to that point by saying that was 1400 B.C. and needed to be left there thus supporting the notion of normativity and time boundedness for the Christian as well.

The issue of “normative” versus “time bound” verses in the Quran continued to be an important part of the discussion which is not a surprise. One reason this is interesting is because, while in Mecca, Mohamed and his followers did not have economic and political power. And so it is in these verses which “came down” at this time that we find pronouncements regarding co-existence and such verses that say “there is no compulsion in religion”.

What was very surprising was Abdul Rahman’s claim that the earlier Meccan verses were the “normative” ones while the later Medinan verses were “time bound”. In arguing in this manner, he was arguing differently from the logic of “abrogation” in Islam where later verses abrogate the earlier ones.

So by having to go against his own Islamic tradition, A. Rahman was making the point that an earlier teaching of the Quran was normative, universal and thus compatible with Western pluralism.

Smith had said throughout the discussion and re-iterated in his concluding statement that his ultimate authority was the New Testament and the example of Jesus Christ for which no exceptions need be made for the 21st century. This is truly a “beautiful thing”. He also concluded, (and demonstrated) that this was not the case for the Quran or for the example of Mohamed which should be left in the 7th century.

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