Answering Missionaries

June 4, 2006


Filed under: Addressing James White polemics,General,James White,Shabir Ally vs James White — answeringmissionaries @ 1:10 am


Shabir Ally

May 29, 2006

Much of the discussion between James White and I during and after our recent debate seems to be on the question of who is a worthwhile scholar to cite. I have noticed over the years, and now again with this debate, that this issue has been much misunderstood. It seems that if I cite a scholar in favour of my view the other side dismisses the scholar as being unworthy. On the other hand, the other side would naturally cite scholars who disagree with my view. Moreover, my fellow debater may insist that I support my position with reference to only those scholars whom the fellow debater deems admissible. This can be frustrating, for, if I did not hold a position at odds with that of my opponent there would be no debate to begin with. And, the position I hold, which is the point of contention in the debate, would naturally be opposed by the scholars from the other debater’s camp. Equally frustrating is the fact that one of my fellow debaters would recommend a source which another rejects. More frustrating is the fact that a debater may not budge from his positions even when I am citing the very scholar whom he otherwise recommends.

Misunderstandings have risen to such an extent that one becomes disinclined to cite scholars at all. But this state of affairs is a travesty in the development of academic debates, for, as we shall see here, scholarly citations are indispensable in scholarly discussions. Some clarity can be brought to bear on this matter, however, if we recall some of the basic considerations involved in the logical process of argumentation by appeal to authority. I will recount here some of the reasons why it is necessary to cite scholars, and some of the caveats and limitations we must be aware of in citing them.

First, it should be obvious that there are experts in various fields, and an expert in one field may know very little of another field. Hence, in dealing with an area of expertise other than one’s own, it is inevitable that one refers to the knowledge of scholars in that field. The fields are in fact so numerous and specialized that each person’s specialization may be quite narrow. This very narrowness allows for the required focus and depth. Hence it is indispensable that one refers to scholars even of related fields.

Even if one is dealing with his or her own field of specialization it may be necessary to refer to other scholars for three reasons. First, no one has invented all of the knowledge of his or her own field. The knowledge is cumulative, having been derived from, and cultivated within, a stream of scholarship. One has to give credit to his predecessors and even to his contemporaries for the information and ideas one has come to possess.

Second, even within one’s area of specialization someone may have written a paper on a specific question. Writing a paper must have entailed some thought and research, and this may render the writer an expert on at least that single question.

Third, if the matter at hand is contentious, then even an expert presenting his case may need to cite other experts who agree with him, and show how he responds to those who disagree with him.

A persuasive case can be made for a view if it can be shown to be supported by a wide variety of scholars from opposing camps. Such universal support would indicate that despite other disagreements everyone seems to be together on the point in question. Even more effective, though harder to procure, is a citation from a scholar of your opponent’s camp clearly supporting your position.

However, there are some unwritten reasonable rules regarding the reliance on scholarly citations. First, it should be obvious enough that the cited individual should be a scholar in the field being discussed. For this purpose a scholar outside of his own field should be generally regarded as being on par with laypersons.

Second, the scholar should be representative of the field. In each field there is a mainstream view and a few fringe ideas. The mainstream view often develops and becomes entrenched within a scholarly community after much discussion, study, and mutual criticism. Fringe ideas are often proposed by individual scholars. Though such an idea may hold for the scholar presenting it, the scholars at large reject it or hold it in abeyance pending a hoped-for disproof. This does not mean that the majority is certainly right. In fact, often a much disputed view eventually commends itself to the scholarly community and becomes the accepted majority view. However, because of the manner in which scholarly opinion comes to be established through peer review and criticism, one would usually have greater confidence in a majority view among scholars than in a minority view. Because of the general tendency to cite scholars who represent the mainstream, a debater who finds it necessary to cite a minority view may be under some moral obligation to disclose this to his audience.

Third, because the knowledge in a field is cumulative and progressive, the cited scholars should be current, unless there is a special need for citing the scholars of a particular age. If, for example, we wanted to know what the earliest Muslims or Christians believed it will serve well to see a citation from the scholars of the early centuries. Mostly, however, we would be interested in knowing how things fit together in the light of our contemporary knowledge. Hence it is important to cite contemporary scholars.

Fourth, one has to be on guard against the possibility of bias on the part of the authority one is citing. Hence it is of little value, so far as a proof goes, to tell your opponent that your friends agree with you. The scholars of your camp are naturally predisposed to your own position. Worse yet, it makes little sense for you to cite scholars from your own camp as supporting authorities for your disagreement with your opponent. Hence a Muslim debater can hardly hope that a citation from a fellow Muslim debater would convince his Christian opponent. Likewise, a Christian debater will find Muslims responding in disbelief when statements against the textual integrity of the Quran, for example, are cited from scholars who are known for their polemical distance from that Scripture.

The final and most important caveat I wish to mention here is that a scholar is not God. His words do not represent the final verdict on a question. A certain bit of wisdom may transcend the sum of the various parts of the subject which the scholar has studied over the years. And for this reason we may hold a certain degree of respect for a scholar’s intuition on a question. But we also work with the assumption that the scholar is fallible, and that other persons are at least as capable. This means two things. First, fallibility implies that the scholar’s findings may not only be verified by the findings of others, but may also be disproved by such findings. Second, the capability of other persons means that others will be able to understand the scholar’s pronouncement, and will be able to retrace his steps or pursue his sources. This latter point brings us back to where we began, to the recognition of the need for sources.

In the present context, two points about sources need to be highlighted. First, the scholar should cite his sources to provide a means by which students may pursue a further study of the matter. Second, students should demand of a scholar that he provide his sources when he cites information which could not reasonably be credited to the scholar in question as his first-hand knowledge. What this implies for our debates is that anyone today who makes a claim about the history of the Christian and Muslim scriptures must either name his sources on request or withdraw his claim. Since he or she was not an eyewitness to the early events connected with these scriptures, he must rely on and evaluate the information which comes from those who were in a position to know the facts.

The fact that a scholar is not God needs to be emphasized in connection with another of its implications. In the end, what really matters is not what the scholars are saying but the reasons for their saying it. Knowing their reasons, we can judge whether those reasons are adequate grounds for us to agree with the scholars or whether we have other reasons for reaching a different conclusion. But here we must be methodical. Quite often scholars are dismissed wholesale because they affiliate with a certain movement, because they do not belong to our religion or sect, or even because they teach at a certain college. We are not to proceed on mere suspicion about the person, but deal with the process of reasoning that led to their conclusions. We cannot use ad hominem attacks against the scholars.1

We should attempt to differentiate between the facts which a scholar is working with, and the interpretation of those facts which will likely be coloured by a scholar’s particular bias. A scholar’s facts may lead us to a different interpretation than that which s/he arrived at from the same facts. And our interpretations will naturally be shaped by our own biases. Hence, while it is legitimate to identify a scholar’s bias, doing so does not give us the license to automatically discard everything he or she says. We still have to engage the facts he was working with, and we still need to provide good reasons for preferring our opinion over his.

These are elementary principles in thinking about the use of scholarly citations to bolster one’s argument. Yet it is remarkable how often and with what vehemence these principles are violated. Over the years I have become increasingly aware of this problem, and in my recent debate with James I came to be reminded of this yet again. The mere suspicion that some scholars are from the school of Satan is deemed sufficient ground on which to dismiss everything they said. And whoever cites them to support an argument suddenly becomes guilty by association. Hence he too comes under suspicion for his citation, and this becomes the basis on which everything he says can be likewise disregarded.

The situation has come to such a state that one becomes reluctant to cite any scholars at all. For, the only scholars who will escape such lambasting, it seems, are scholars who are already the favorites of one’s opponent. Yet we cannot let this state of affairs prevail, for then the practice of academic debates will have lost its academic nature. We can, of course, rise above the simplistic dismissal of scholarship based on partisanship, and concentrate on dealing with the reasons, the proofs, and the evidence for and against a position being defended. It is more important to weigh the arguments than to clobber the scholars who make them. I hope that what I have written here may help to clear up some of the fuzzy thinking that has blanketed so many of our debates.


1. In addition to the list of recommendations for further readings given above, for more on ad hominem arguments please see my paper regarding this debate: “The Distinction Between an Inconsistent Person and an Inconsistent Argument,” May 24, 2006.


Flew, Antony. How to Think Straight: An Introduction to Critical Reasoning, Second Edition. Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1998.

Govier, Trudy. A Practical Study of Argument, Third Edition. Belmont: Wadsworth, 1992.

Mayfield, Marlys. Thinking For Yourself: Developing Critical Thinking Skills Through Writing. Belmont: Wadsworth, 1987.

Rottenberg, Annette T. Elements of Argument: A Text and Reader. Boston: Bedford, 1997.


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