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.