Marching for Allah (3): a clash of rationalities

Over the last couple of days we’ve been thinking about the idea that what we call rationality is actually, in part, cultural, and so different cultures will have different rationalities. One example of the difference between rationalities came across starkly in a public Christian-Islam debate I attended recently in Melbourne. It was done well. It was set up as an irenic dialogue about the differences in our ideas of God. The two participants were allowed to speak freely, and each responded respectfully to the other side. But in the end it was most valuable as an exercise in how difficult cross-cultural communication can be sometimes. I don’t pretend to be a dispassionate observer, but for my part I was impressed with the way the Christian debater engaged. He was soft-spoken and difficult to provoke. His arguments were careful, they relied on firm evidence, and he was very measured in his statements. If he didn’t know something, he said so. He committed only to say what he could demonstrate. And he wasn’t afraid to acknowledge that his opponents made good points from time to time. For the most part, I found his case compelling.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that these were all qualities we value in debate as westerners. We find these kinds of arguments compelling, because that’s what rationality means to us. Just looking around the room at the many Muslims in the audience was enough to see that every time the Christian debater acknowledged ignorance, he strengthened his opponent’s argument in their eyes. Each time he complemented his opponent on a point well made, he honoured his opponent, and shamed himself. The same thing that came across as compelling to me came across as a weak argument to many. The Muslim debater never did these things. In my eyes the Muslim argued bullishly at times; sometimes overstated his case without (what I considered) sufficient justification, and spoke with a confidence that his argument didn’t appear to me to warrant. In reality he was presenting an argument through which Muhammad and Allah would be honoured. Allah had to win and be seen to be clearly superior. It had to be emphatically asserted. It was the same kind of argument I find in a great deal of the Islamic apologetic literature that I’ve come across. Personally, I found it unconvincing. But then I’m western, and it isn’t my rationality.

The ironic thing about the night is that both sides came away thinking they had clearly won the debate. The nature of the differing underlying rationalities meant that the two sides had completely spoken past each other. The Christian, in doing the very things western people value in debate, had made an argument that had appeared to be timid and weak to the Muslims in the room. The Muslim had done the same thing. In debating the way Islamic people value, he had made an argument that appeared to be overconfident and brash to the Christians. Yet neither side could see it from the opposite viewpoint, and so both thought they had won. At least everyone was happy!

Well, not quite everyone. The question time at the end revealed a small group of Egyptian Christians in the audience. Even though they were Christian, their culture was shame-based, and so they saw the debate in a very different light to the western Christians in the room. Their comments made it very clear that they felt Christ had been dishonoured. They cared very little for irenic dialogue. They yelled insults, and in the most provocative way possible they spoke of being freed from the bondage of Allah and his false prophet. The adjective “Satanic” may have made an appearance. Their goal wasn’t to persuade by appeal to careful, measured, justifiable arguments. Their goal was to honour Christ, and if that meant upsetting the Muslims in the room, so be it. That’s what any rational person would do. Right?

Given this phenomenon: that people from other cultures think differently, and find different sorts of arguments persuasive, we’ll return next week to think about how we might commend Christ.

11 thoughts on “Marching for Allah (3): a clash of rationalities

  1. Hi Nathan,

    I too have noticed a difference in debating styles between Muslims and Christians but I failed to understand it as a cultural phenomenon. To me Muslims appeared to bombastically assert their beliefs without attempting to prove their beliefs were true, and they seemed more eager to bludgeon the opposition into surrender rather than seriously consider what was true and false. In my eyes their failure to substantiate their views or respond to their opponents’ cogent logical arguments made them look devoid of the truth as well as inept debaters. To me they seemed to suffer a crushing defeat and public humiliation but from what you say I guess they may have imagined they debated successfully and honourably.

    I am beginning to think this difference in cultural mindset may explain people’s different verdicts about Mohammed’s character. According to the earliest Muslim historians, Mohammed acted in ways which seem vile and dishonourable to a modern western mind. He was a megalomaniac, a paedophile, a rapist, a deceiver, and a sadistic murderer, and yet Muslims assert he is the highest moral example for everyone to follow. I had thought Muslims secretly knew Mohammed was despicable but deliberately tried to pull the wool over other people’s eyes. But maybe Muslims really do regard Mohammed’s machiavellianism, brutal acts of aggression, and tyrannical domination of other people as signs of his heroic superiority. It is interesting that when Karen Armstrong (a westerner) wrote a biography of Mohammed she tried hard to sanitise him by glossing over those aspects of his character which disgust westerners, but the earliest and most reliable Muslim sources about Mohammed (historians such as Bokhari, Ibn Ishaq, and Abu Dawud) were not embarrassed by Mohammed’s monstrous vices and did not try to soft pedal them when describing them.

    • Hi Phil. Yes, I wouldn’t want to phrase it exactly as you have, but I think you’re starting to think along the right lines here. Different cultures have very different ideas of what virtue looks like, and it’s linked into the concepts we’ve been discussing this week.

      Particularly with the kinds of things you’re talking about here, you might want to consider what it would look like if someone valued honour over truth. I’ll leave you to google Taqiyya and Kitman.

  2. Well written – wow, you’ve hit the nail on the head, and though I’ve lived amongst Muslims for many years I’ve not realised until now what you just pointed out. Thanks for publishing it.

  3. I have really enjoyed Nathan’s articles. I live in a suburb of Brisbane and am surrounded by Muslims. They are my closest neighbours. Nathan’s cultural insights are very helpful.

  4. My question: How does one present the gospel in this cultural context in a way that the hearers understand? I’ve been studying the letter to the Philippians of late and some commentators who have studied 1st century Roman writings and inscriptions suggest that Roman culture had an shame/honour culture where the worst possible thing thing that could happen to someone is to suffer humiliation. It sounds like the culuture of (some) muslims may bear some similarities to this. Paul’s response (to the (culturally Roman) Philippian believers) was to urge them to look to the example of Jesus who had all the glory and honour of being God, yet willingly put it aside to die the most humiliating death possible. He then urged the Philippians to see this as their example – to change their way of thinking such that humiliation for the sake of Christ becomes the highest honour. But with Philippians Paul is talking to people already converted. How does on approach someone in such a shame/honour culture with the Gospel without betraying the gospel ( which acting out that cultural norm would seem to do )?

    • Thanks David for a very thoughtful question. It’s certainly something we need to wrestle with, and I’ll pick up exactly this issue next week as the series progresses.

  5. Hi Nathan,
    Do you think Muslims generally value honour above truth? Personally I would rather be right with God even if the whole world regarded me as scum, rather than to be seen in public to win a religious debate and yet to be heading for hell. Your description of the different debating styles in the recent debate you attended in Melbourne would seem to suggest the Muslims were not seeking to know the truth but merely wanted to be seen to win the argument.
    Have you ever heard of a Muslim (or Buddhist or Shintoist) who was convinced Jesus is the only Way but who deliberately refused to convert in order not to shame their family or community?

    • Phil,

      Don’t we all do this from time to time? In our culture we have white lies that we tell in order to preserve relationships: “No! Your blood pudding and haggis went over really well at the dinner party. Everyone really loved it!” Or even at a more simple level – have you ever tried answering “How are you?” honestly to a stranger? We don’t think we aren’t being truthful.

      In most of our internal moral compasses there is a balance between how big a lie you can tell (it has to be suitably small), and what you can lie in aid of before you become a “liar”. There are more plot lines of western movies than I can count based around the fact that a guy has told the girl some lie or another in order to establish a relationship with her. In those movies, the protagonist doesn’t immediately become the “bad guy” because he told a lie. It’s alright in the end, because we all understand that his cause was suitably noble.

      To their credit, I think, honour cultures tend to value relationship much more highly than we do in the west.This means, in general, the range of things that are considered “innocent” lies might be broader than western people will feel is still truthful. This doesn’t mean, I don’t think, that you can’t trust people from honour cultures to tell you the truth. It means that you have to work harder to cross the cultural barrier.

      Just as someone from another culture has to learn not to expect an honest answer when they ask “how are you” to a westerner, so also we have to learn the difference between the situations and questions which will yield truthful answers, and those that will yield “white” lies. Many people from honour cultures will avoid truth where it would bring shame.

  6. I’ve heard something very similar to this before. I’ve heard it said that if we speak calmly about the Gospel, rather than getting animated, Muslims will think that we don’t believe the Gospel, and if we don’t get angry when people speak badly of Christ, Muslims will think that we don’t really love/hounour him. So I think there is some truth in this but I have a few questions/observations:

    1. What do you think a Muslim would make of this article and the comments made here? Will they understand it or does their way of thinking mean that it will be incomprehensible to them? If we can understand that Muslims think differently from us, surely they can understand that we think differently from them, and this having been grasped by both sides, surely it will then be possible for us to speak to each other rather than speaking past each other? Hopefully, most people reading this will know at least one Muslim. Why not ask them to read this article and ask them what they think about it?

    2. If Egyptian Christians think differently from western Christians, it is likely that different Muslims will think differently from each other. Muslims that have been born in the west and educated in western schools and universities are unlikely to be so honour/shame based in their thinking as those educated in an honour/shame culture. We need to be careful not to think that all Muslims are the same!

    3. Christians are freed to speak calmly because we are absolutely sure that we are right in a way that Muslims are not, and so I think that the way we communicate is shaped by the Gospel and not only by our western culture. To the extent that what we say in debates is the truth of the Gospel, we know with absolute confidence that on the last day our arguments will be vindicated. We will win the debate. Jesus will be honoured. Every knee will bow to him. That is why we have no need to overstate our case – because we are absolutely sure that it is right. In the same way that it was because Jesus was completely secure in his equality with God that he could lay everything down, so it is because Christians are absolutely secure that they are right which means that they can be calm when presenting the Gospel and can admit the things that they do not know. Nor do we feel that we can bully the “opposition” We know that every Muslim (and every other person who does not know Christ) will burn for ever in a lake of burning fire if they do not submit to him and his love. How, therefore can we bully them? Unlike what Mulsims believe, they will not even be pulled out of hell after paying for their sins and then go to heaven – they will suffer pain and torment for ever. And so, we are filled with compassion towards them. The Muslim knows none of this kind of certainty. Deep down, he is not sure that he is right. It is his insecurity that leads to his debating style. Similarly, the Muslim does not have pity/compassion on the Christian and feels free to attack and lay into the Christian in his debating style. Before I get accused of being blind to cultural influences, I am not saying that the way western Christians debate is not all shaped by western culture, but I am saying that it is also shaped by the Gospel.

    • Kevin,

      Thanks for some interesting points. I think we end up going the same way, as you say, regarding your third point. Just a quick response to your other two:

      1. I’ve actually spoken to some Muslims along these lines, and in general you are right. They will understand. Some wont. But that’s OK, some westerners won’t too. There’s nothing intrinsic in a worldview (other than perhaps underexposure to other cultures) that stops people from getting that others think differently. It’s a great discussion point, and I heartily endorse your suggestion of giving the article to a Muslim friend and then talking about it. Talking this way can open up some great discussions about the nature of God as well.

      2. Right again that there are western Muslims just like there are non-western Christians. In my experience they aren’t very common. I’ve come across several, especially on university campuses, but I think it would probably be true that most Muslims in Australia aren’t very western in their worldview. (Perhaps that’s wrong. I have limited exposure, and I don’t even live in Australia anymore, so I could be way off base there.) It’s probably also worth noting that orthodox Islam regards many prominent western Muslims as apostate due to the fact that post-enlightenment thought tends to liberalise Islam, just as it can do to Christianity.

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