The “Source of Morality” Argument in Muslim Debates: Does It Work?

This is a debate/dawah tactic that has annoyed me for a long time.

If someone brings up some illiberal aspect of Islam in order to criticize Islam (e.g., slavery, male authority, wife “beating,” hudud, prohibition of homosexuality, etc.), the response given by the Muslim is:

“But what is the source of your morality and is it objective?”

This is not a compelling response.

Can we just retire this line please?

Yes, it may work for someone who is already sympathetic to Islam, e.g., another Muslim or a very open-minded non-Muslim. And if you have had success using the argument in those contexts, feel free to continue.

But for people who are not sympathetic to Islam and/or have minimal experience with debate, it doesn’t seem to be good at convincing them or making them reconsider their liberal commitments. It just makes such people think, “Hmm, I might not have some well-thought-out philosophical explanation for my moral commitments, but what I know for a fact is that what Islam calls to is evil.”

What’s worse is that bringing up these meta ethical issues just looks like a major dodge (probably because it is). Rather than address the moral objections against Islam head on, the Muslim essentially has to change the subject. The optics of this in context of debate are not good.

There are much simpler, easier-to-understand points that we can raise to show the wisdom and moral justification behind these illiberal aspects of Islam. I try to pack my debates with these types of arguments so that hopefully more Muslims can pick them up, add to them, make them better and stronger. Hopefully we can collectively retire the old stuff that really doesn’t work.

RELATED: [WATCH] Muslim vs Ex-Muslim on Sharia and Human Rights

Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with bringing up meta ethical questions like, what justifies our morality, is it objective, etc. But not in response to these specific attacks against the Sharia, where they’re ineffective, out of place, and ultimately look like a deflection.

Inadequacy

The inadequacy of the argument is clear when arguing with other religious groups who do believe in a divine source for objective morality similar to Muslims.

Try explaining these illiberal aspects of Islam to modern Christians, Jews, Hindus, etc. The first principles approach of asking for the “source” of their morality falls completely flat. The Christian, Jew, Hindu, etc., will say the exact thing the Muslim says: Our morality comes from God/gods! So this response from the Muslim is a nonstarter.

I experienced this when I debated David Wood in 2021. Liberal Christians like Wood believe that Christianity has always endorsed liberal morality: freedom of speech, individual liberty, freedom of conscience, etc. This is, of course, laughably false. But the meta-ethical line of attack would do absolutely nothing in such a debate with a Christian who is attacking the illiberal practices and beliefs in Islam.

What ends up happening in many of these debates, unfortunately, is that the Muslim, when he can’t make the “source of morality”  resorts to making compromising, inaccurate, and dishonest claims about Islam, e.g., “Islam always intended to abolition slavery,” “Islam endorses individual religious freedom in exactly the same way that modern liberal norms dictate,” etc. At this point, the non-Muslim interlocutor can enjoy a roasting session by citing ayah after ayah, hadith after hadith, scholarly quote after scholarly quote to show how baseless the Muslim’s claims really are.

This is embarrassing.

Status Quo

Why do people have the moral commitments that they do?

Is it because they have each individually undergone a process of Cartesian-like reflection, carefully deducing their morality from clear and indubitable first principles? Obviously not.

Even if they were to do that, it is probably not the case that morality is something that can be deduced in the same way that mathematical theorems or logical propositions can be deduced.

In reality, our moral commitments are a complex interplay of biologically-grounded intuitions and emotions plus social conventions plus cultural/religious teaching. For most people, their moral commitments and tendencies are dominated by what they see around them in society and the status quo.

This status quo is reason enough for them to be confident that their liberal beliefs are true and that illiberal Islam is wrong or false, even if they concede that they might not have worked through all the philosophical details.

An abstract theoretical discussion on meta ethics is not going to shake that confidence. And that is exactly what is needed to win the debate. You have to make them feel like their liberal position is irrational or leads to negative consequences or is in some way contradictory. 

By the way, this has nothing to do with the discussion in kalam about the nature of Allah’s moral commands. All scholars from all kalam schools agree that, ultimately, we obey Allah because He has commanded us. That is the ultimate reason. But that does not mean we cannot reflect on the beauty, wisdom (hikma), and superiority of that moral requirement vis-à-vis other religions, cultures, and philosophies. Conveying such reflections is a necessary component of dawah, while always acknowledging that our obedience to Allah’s commands is not contingent on our ability to rationalize or, even, intellectually appreciate those commands.

Inconsistency

Another reason why this “source of morality” argument is so poor: It undermines other arguments in favor of Islam.

In conversation with non-Muslims, we often want to appeal to the superior ethical values of Islam. Things like justice, being good with neighbors, taking care of the elderly, etc., etc.

But how can you appeal to these values if the non-Muslim doesn’t have objective morality? Why would these values matter?

So this is inconsistent.

The Muslim wants to sing the praises of the ethical values of Islam and expects the non-Muslim to agree that these values in Islam are praiseworthy, but when the non-Muslim mentions the politically incorrect aspects of Islam, then suddenly the Muslim wants to debate meta ethics and whether the non-Muslim is in any position to make moral judgments.

You had no problem with the non-Muslim making positive moral judgments about Islam two seconds ago when you were telling him about how Islam “gave women their rights,” etc. You weren’t so concerned about whether those moral evaluations were grounded in some coherent meta ethical position two seconds earlier.

Muslim: Islam is all about peace, women’s rights, tolerance, etc. Don’t you see the beauty of our religion??

Non-Muslim: Yeah, that’s all great, but what about the slavery?

Muslim: Whoa, whoa, hold on! Can you please tell me first what is the source of your morality?

Anyway, it’s just a weak argument.

The Point

We need to raise our game. If Muslims are going to be on social media engaged in debates and argumentation, we need to demand more.

We need to be better and improve our dawah to the extent where we stop using these weak, failed arguments. Many of these weak arguments originally came from Christian apologetics, by the way. We can do much better.

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Muslim commenter

Brother this is a great point what would method would you propose to do instead or a better route to take especially if we are inexperienced in giving dawah or just in a casual debate. JazakAllah khairan

Hamid

JazākAllahkhayr, nice article.

I would also add, as a constructive criticism to you inshaAllah, that in apart from asking them to justify why the status-quo should be followed, that you also do your best to disambiguate the terms thrown around by them when it comes to the usual buzz – including “slavery” and “wife beating”- BEFORE you even move on with them NO matter how much they squirm because to almost all of your debate opponents equivocation when debating YOU is like oxygen for them

Last edited 2 months ago by Hamid
Wee Jim

“But what is the source of your morality and is it objective?”

The claim that islam has an objective source of morality is a matter of opinion and so subjective anyway.

Zaid Diaz

Are you another Belgrade bot here?