I was recently asked to take part in a debate with a Muslim speaker at Birmingham University. The date agreed was March 8th 2000. Since this was to be my first public debate, I was concerned that my opponent should be of a similar standard to me, preferably not someone who was a veteran debater. This would enable me to learn the mechanics of debating first-hand and gain experience without having to worry too much about the skill of my opponent.
With this in mind I spoke to the Christians involved and agreed to take part in the debate on the condition that I would not be speaking against Shabir Ally. I knew that he was in the country at the time and it was likely that he would be asked to speak for the Muslim side. Shabir, from Toronto in Canada, is one of the foremost Muslim debaters in the world and regularly holds public debates in this country and elsewhere. I thought it prudent to gain some experience before taking on one so adept in such a forum.
The representative of the Islamic Society (ISOC) informed the Christians that their speaker was called Abdullah As-Sadiq. This name was also printed on the posters that the ISOC produced, and he told the Christians that he was not a regular debater: apparently our skills and experience would be quite well-matched. As a consequence of this, I agreed to the debate.
However, a couple of things aroused suspicion. Firstly it seemed rather difficult to locate Abdullah and contact him. The Islamic Society at Birmingham did not know him personally, as he had been arranged via a third party under the name Answering for Islam. The ISOC representative passed on the information that Abdullah had not debated before, that he studied in London and that he had not published any material (e.g. videos, books, pamphlets, articles in print or on the internet).
Secondly, I had already had a bad experience with Shabir. In a 1998 debate with Jay Smith at Aston University in Birmingham, Shabir had masqueraded under the title Abdul Abu Saffiyah, a name that was technically correct, as he is apparently the father of a daughter named Saffiyah. Still, it seemed very dishonest to conceal his identity in such a manner, as this gave him an unfair advantage before the debate.
The third suspicion came about ten days before the agreed date, when I learnt of a Muslim event in Birmingham, at Aston University, at which Shabir Ally was one of the main speakers. How strange, I thought, that on the very day I am due to debate a mysteriously unknown Muslim, Shabir Ally is in town and his talk conveniently ends before the scheduled begin of the evening debate. With Shabirs known history of appearing under alternative names, this was enough to make me doubt.
So I gave the Islamic Society an ultimatum. Unless in two days they could confirm in writing that their speaker was not Shabir Ally and could give me details to enable me to speak to him directly, the debate would be off. Two days later, the ISOC responded after speaking to their contacts at Answering for Islam. It was indeed Shabir and in consequence I cancelled the debate as promised.
I document these happenings for two reasons. Firstly so that people can learn more about Shabir Allys ways of operating (or those of his close associates Shabir has certainly not to my knowledge denied his responsibility for covering up his identity on these two occasions). Secondly to explore some issues related. I was amazed that in conversation with the leader of Birmingham ISOC he did not seem embarrassed at Shabirs behaviour (I would be horrified if a Christian speaker had acted similarly) and even seemed to think that I was being deceitful in the way I had acted! This surprised me so much that I think it needs exploring a little.
The Use of Alternative Names
The main issue is this: was Shabir (or a member of his team) right to give an alternative name for this debate? Was that deceitful or a legitimate way of operating? My Muslim friend informed me that it is accepted practice among Arabs to take on an alternative name, for instance that of your parents or children, making you Abu X (father of X), Ibn X (son of X) or such like. I have no problem with this in principle, but the way in which the practice is used is crucial.
Many people employ pen names, that is, names under which they will publish material so as not to draw attention to themselves. This is legitimate under certain circumstances and I have used it myself in the past. Before I had taken any public meetings on the subject of Islam and Christianity, I published a number of articles on the internet under the pen-name Toby Jepson. Some of the URLs are given below, including that of the response to Shabirs 101 Clear Contradictions in the Bible, which I co-authored.
By using this pen-name I was not putting anyone at a disadvantage and it was appropriate at the time when I had not entered the public arena myself. (In case anyone thinks that I may have ended up debating Shabir without telling him that I had written a public response to his material, I did in fact inform Shabir that I was one of the authors of that paper at a meeting he took at Imperial College, London, during 1999.)
However, Shabirs behaviour was entirely different. He is well known in several countries, has taken many debates and written plenty of material that he uses in public. If anyone agrees to debate him they should know that this is the person they are debating, so that they can adequately prepare for the encounter.
The use of an alternative name should never cover up a persons true identity so as to put others at a disadvantage. In a debate it is entirely appropriate to know who your opponent is, as a knowledge of their past material and usual style of presentation can help greatly in knowing how to prepare and present your own case. Thus it would seem that Shabirs use of an alternative name on both occasions was both deceitful and unfair. Not only was I unaware of the persons identity, I was fed totally false information about him and his past experience, told that he had never debated publically before or published any material. This is inexcusable.
Is the Debater as Important as the Debate?
The issue raised by my Muslim friend was this: the debate concerned a topic, not a personality. If I was willing to debate that topic, surely I should debate it with anyone and not limit who I was prepared to challenge. Was I not being deceitful here, as I would be prepared to speak against someone who knew less than me, yet not speak against someone who knew more? Was I afraid that the superior logic of Shabirs argument would show me up to be wrong and force me to acknowledge the truth of Islam?
This is a very important point and it needs answering. Yes, we were debating an issue and not primarily a personality. But it does not follow that the most inexperienced Christian should always be willing to pit his wits against the most experienced Muslim, or vice versa. If it does, I wonder why most ISOCs in the UK ask Shabir Ally to speak in their debates, and dont just let one of the brothers from the group do it. The reason I am sure is that they would not feel comfortable speaking against a Christian who knew the issues better than they did. Accusations such as these cut both ways.
Debating is not just a matter of knowledge or content, but also about presentation, experience and debating skill. An experienced debater can make a weak argument sound strong, whilst an inexperienced debater can be unaware of the strength of his argument and lack the skill to hit home a point of logic. Furthermore, one debater can make use of material that his opponent may be unaware of. The material may be valid or invalid, but a more experienced opponent is more likely to know which it is.
Without having a certain amount of experience in debating it is far easier to be hoodwinked by arguments that have the appearance of truth but in reality are based on misinterpretations. This is quite separate from the truth or otherwise of the basic proposition being debated. It is entirely appropriate that those not well experienced in the debate format should gain experience by debating against those of a similar calibre.
Far from being deceitful, my reluctance to debate Shabir initially came from humility. Who am I to think that I can walk straight in at the top and take on one of the best Muslim debaters in the world? It is basic common sense to wait until such an event would be a more even match, so the issues in hand can truly be debated for what they are. When people of a similar standard debate each other, the issues can be heard much more fairly than when there is a disparity between the speakers.
Sticking to Principles
It is my firm belief that debates such as these should be undertaken on the most fair and level basis possible, without either side having an unfair advantage. Because of this, I believe it is right not to take part in situations where there is obvious deception. To be a part of it would be to give the message that I in some way condone the behaviour. This is a further reason why I did not take part in the proposed debate, as I wanted to make it abundantly clear that I will not associate myself with deceitful practices.
I challenged Shabir publically on his actions at a meeting held at Aston University, Birmingham, on the day of the proposed debate. He appeared quite comfortable with his actions and defended them. He claimed that one of his motivations had been perhaps to get into debate with Jay Smith on his historical material. Shabir made the interesting charge that Jay has been running away from debate with him and that his aforementioned tactics in Birmingham had been in order to bring about the debate that Jay was supposedly avoiding.
This is strange logic indeed, as Jay had debated Shabir before under his real name, has done so since and plans to do so again. Furthermore, both times that Jay has presented his historical critique of the Quran in debate with Shabir (in Birmingham and Leicester), Shabir has largely avoided dealing with the questions raised by it.
In addition to this, before I was aware of the true identity of my supposed co-debater, it was relayed to me via the ISOC that Abdullah was not happy to debate solely on a historical comparison of the Bible and Quran, but wished to spend at least half of the time debating Was Jesus a Muslim or a Christian? It seems that Shabir is not quite as keen to debate the Qurans historical support as he would like to make out.
In this short article I have relayed recent events so that people will gain an insight into Shabir Allys ways of working. I have also considered two issues related to the topic, i.e. the ethics of using alternative names and whether it is normally appropriate for novice debaters to take on veterans in the public arena. I invite any responses via my e-mail address at the end of the article. Shabir himself is more than welcome to respond to me and clear the air should he feel I have misrepresented him. Any response he makes will be posted up on this page so that readers can consider it side-by-side.
Perhaps it would be right to finish by considering the name under which Shabir attempted to masquerade on this occasion. Abdullah Al-Sadiq could be translated as the honest servant of Allah. It is an interesting name for Shabir to take, as in the way it was used it seems clearly to point more to his dishonesty than his honesty. I would like to think that his actions here do not reflect badly on the way he conducts his debates, as he is certainly one of the more gentlemanly debaters around at the moment.
In response, I would like to leave off with the words of the apostle Paul, a man whom myself, Shabir and each one of us would do well to emulate.
"We have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every mans conscience in the sight of God." (2 Corinthians 4:2,3)
March 27 2000
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