A Terrible Debating Tactic

Above is one of the most one sided debates that I’ve ever seen.  It’s between Robert Spencer and Adnan Rashid about the existence of Muhammad.  I’ve written about this topic before so I won’t elaborate on it here but I want to touch on the terrible tactic used by Rashid.  Although I believe Muhammad existed and am not a fan of the Spencer brand of apologetics to Muslims, I think that Spencer easily won this debate.

This debate is a little over an hour long.  If you want to learn how to debate and what not to do, it’s worth a listen.  When listening to the debate, try and count how many times Rashid says the words “scholar” or “authority”.  Spencer kept insisting that Rashid give evidence but with the exception of a late eighth century Hadith, it was all quotes from scholars and authorities.

The problem with quoting authorities is that both parties need to recognize that authority.  If I’m debating a Jew on if Jesus is the Messiah, we have a recognized authority in the Old Testament.  If I’m debating an Evangelical on eternal security, we have the entire Bible.  If I were to quote the epistle of Clement of Rome to the Evangelical, he would be under no obligation to recognize it because of his belief in Sola Scriptura.  If I quoted a Bible verse, he would have to show that I’m taking it out of context or it doesn’t say what I think it’s saying.

St. Thomas Aquinas expresses this sentiment as well in his writings.  The Angelic Doctor writes:

In the second place, it is difficult because some of them, such as the Mohammedans and the pagans, do not agree with us in accepting the authority of any Scripture, by which they may be convinced of their error. Thus, against the Jews we are able to argue by means of the Old Testament, while against heretics we are able to argue by means of the New Testament. But the Muslims and the pagans accept neither the one nor the other. We must, therefore, have recourse to the natural reason, to which all men are forced to give their assent. However, it is true, in divine matters the natural reason has its failings.

– Summa Contra Gentiles, Book 1, Ch. 3

St. Thomas clearly points out that we need to resort to authorities that we both accept.  If another party doesn’t accept the authority, we have to use natural reason as the common denominator,  especially in the case of the Muslims and the Pagans as St. Thomas pointed out.  There wasn’t a big atheist movement at that time so obviously St. Thomas didn’t reference it but every atheist I’ve met believes in the use of reason so it’s a common authority as well.  The only difficulty in using reason is that it’s hard to define parameters.  In other words it “has its failings”.

Regardless, in the debate above, Rashid clearly failed in this regard.  Both Spencer and Rashid agreed that documents like the Doctrina Jacobi and other early non-Islamic documents about the Arab armies existed but while Spencer wanted to discuss them in detail, Rashid did not.  I personally think that this was a missed opportunity for Rashid but that’s what happens when you fall into this trap of quoting authorities.

The ultimate problem with quoting authorities is that the authority needs to be able to justify itself.  If an authority is just an authority with no substance it won’t work.  Many years ago, I was at a political event and I got into an argument with someone about certain oil extraction methods.  I played my trump card and told him he was wrong and that I had a Bachelor of Science in Petroleum Engineering.  He then conceded that I was right.  I felt really cheap.  I had the degree but I didn’t have the full knowledge to back up what I was saying.  I didn’t know if I was right or wrong but I simply quoted the authority, my degree.  Since that time, I’ve always made quoting evidence my priority.  No more authorities, unless of course my opponent and I recognize them.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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5 thoughts on “A Terrible Debating Tactic

  1. I don’t enjoy listening to Adnan Rashid, and I’ve heard him enough now, it’s the same old stuff so I think I’ll give this video a miss. As usual though it is very interesting to read your observations.

    Islamic apologists inevitably put (supposed) authority before Reason. Shabir Ally leans heavily on this too.

    • Hi Patrick,

      Merry Christmas. I suppose that you hear a lot more about Adnan Rashid than I do since you’re from England. I’m not really impressed by his arguments. I think the reason he sometimes appears to be better than he is, is because he often debates Jay Smith who in my opinion isn’t a great apologist.

      You are correct about Shabir Ally. Paul Williams could be thrown in that group as well.

      God Bless,

  2. I.
    What is “natural reason”? I am inclined to believe that it is some form of empiricism. I grew to be highly sympathetic to Hume’s epistemological system, where the basis of knowledge are impressions and ideas. The implications of this form of empiricism led to me to sympathetic to forms of radical skepticism and nominalism. The Catholic Church also tends to disagree that it is also some form of rationalism since Rene Descartes’ work is on the syllabus of banned books.

    I suppose science can be considered to be a form of “natural reason”. I would regard it as a form of empiricism that is more systematic and rigorous than the knowledge derived from mundane common sense and every day experience. The philosophy of science largely deals with the constructs of science, such as scientific theories, and the epistemology and methodology of science.

    BTW, do you know if Aquinas quoted from Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics. I did not read it in-depth, but in portions of the Physics and Metaphysics tends to endorse the view that one investigates nature to discover the principles of which it operates. This is sort of a form of empiricism, but a professor told us that, although nature can help one arrive at the principles, Aristotle is not an empiricist because Aristotle believes those principles are ascertained though intuition. As Immanuel Kant said:

    “All our knowledge begins with the senses, proceeds then to the understanding, and ends with reason. There is nothing higher than reason.”

    I would tend to argue for Muhammad’s (SAWS) existence by using an argument for the existence of Jesus (SAWS). Much of the evidence comes from oral traditions, as were recording in the Gospels. There are also chains of narrations of Muhammad (SAWS) such as the hadiths that at least testify to his existence. Essentially my argument is an analogy: if a certain type of historical evidence and methodology would support the existence of Jesus, then it would likely support the existence of the prophet.

    Of course, it is an analogy. Mr. Spencer does not have to prove the existence of Jesus as that was not the resolution, but he should at least give some of the evidence.

    14:20 (I only watched a few minutes): Spencer claims that the Muhammad of the hadith is “almost totally fictional” and “based on nothing that can be verified as historically accurate”. One could argue too that much of the biographical information about Jesus can be considered to be that way too since it it is based on oral traditional. The biographical information of Jesus is in the Gospels.

    I would add Spencer’s narrative and the supposed lack of mention of Islam in the accounts of the early Arab conquests supports the perspective that these conquests were not primarily inspired by religion: they just conquered because they can. The suggestion that the conquerors did not press their religion is also evidence that Islam does not encourage conversion by the sword.

    P.S. What happened to Paul Williams?

    • Hi Latias,

      Hope you’re enjoying time off school. It must feel good to be done those papers.

      “The Catholic Church also tends to disagree that it is also some form of rationalism since Rene Descartes’ work is on the syllabus of banned books.”

      Keep in mind that the Descartes and Aquinas lived hundreds of years apart in different countries so its no inconceivable that they had different definitions of reason and rationality.

      I don’t know if Aquinas quotes from Posterior Analytics. It’s hard to say since I have a non-academic edition of the Summa Contra Gentiles, so there are not a lot of references. I’ve never read the Summa Theologica in depth so I can’t comment on that either.

      Both of the traditions about Muhammad and Jesus come from oral traditions, although for Jesus they’re put onto paper far before that of Muhammad. I actually wrote a post about this that you might find interesting.


      One thing that I will say about Jesus though. According to liberal scholarship, the Gospels are written from 70 to 90 AD. However, these same liberals say that 7 of Pauls writings are authentic and they were written from 50 to 60 AD. Within these letters we have pre-Pauline creeds such as 1 Cor 15 and Phil 2. These go back earlier than the letters. These portions also include the death, resurrection, and deity of Christ. What we have in the Pre-Pauline material, the Pauline material, and the Gospel material are all consistent. In terms of Muhammad, we don’t have the hadith until the ninth century so it’s harder to be sure. Although, I think there are other reasons for thinking it’s authentic. We can actually confirm the general history of Muhammad from the non-Muslim sources. A few questions need to be answered but I generally accept the Islamic narrative with a few caveats. However, if I’m dialoging with a Muslim, I will concede the traditional narrative of Islam to them since I don’t need that for my debating techniques.

      I would agree with your last paragraph.

      Regarding Paul Williams, are you referring to his blog? I don’t really go there anymore because in my opinion it has gone downhill. It’s turned into a battle area and there is so much name calling that it’s sad. I would say that a lot of people on both sides aren’t interested in truth. I don’t know about anything specific going on with Williams though.

      Merry Christmas and God bless,

      • Mark 4:9 Then Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”

        And those with brains have no excuse not to use them.

        Merry Christmas!