Discourses, discussions, dialogue, conversations and arguments have always been recognised as a means to enhance knowledge, to know another’s point of view without necessarily agreeing or for that matter, disagreeing. Even the Greek philosophers considered debate as a useful medium of teaching. Scholars of Islam also adopted this method for propagation of religion and interpreting issues arising in daily life. These discourses were meant to be civilised and meaningful exchange of opinions and arguments with agreement on fundamentals but variances on issues related to practice —reconciling and bridging the differences being the main objective for debates. Tolerance was an essential ingredient that balanced the magnanimity of argument upholding the concept of spreading awareness with the grace of respecting a rival’s beliefs.
In fact the art of debate was taught to students in the madrassahs enabling them to prove their worth during manazaras. Thus, emphasis was not laid on merely memorising and assing on the acquired knowledge to others, it also meant to be able to stand for one’s deductions, weigh them on the scale of arguments and in this way either prevail upon one’s opponents or surrender before their thesis or merely agree to disagree. These debates also enhanced the silent audience’s perception about different things letting them tread on avenues to which they perhaps did not have access to or helped to direct them towards enlightenment.
Royal patronage to discourses was provided when the Abbasid Caliph, Harunur Rashid sat through specially arranged manazaras by his minister Ali bin Isa, in his own court during the tenth century. It was in the courts and in the age of these rulers that the great debates between the Mutazilites and the Asharites (orthodox) were held during the tenth century.
While much can be argued about the usefulness of debates there are some ugly aspects that could aggravate into minor tiffs, culminating at times into uncontrollable violence, breaking into riots with brutal ferocity resulting in mass murders and arson. As a character, Levin says in Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina, “The argument is really about the inner self. While we talk of logic on the surface, we are really in conflict because of our ego or some deeply, and emotionally, held position.”
This is exactly what had happened when in 1258 AD, the Mongols attacked Baghdad. Prominent among the causes of downfall of the Abbasid Rule were disunity amongst the people on sectarian grounds and for holding different beliefs that erupted into volatile discourses mostly based on frivolous issues that it did not take long for the once powerful state to crumble before the Mongolian might.
This could have been the reason why in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, there was a shift towards rote method of learning rather than open discourses. Thus, at the lower level of education both in the modern schools and traditionalmadrassahs, students were forced to be on the receiving end with hardly any opportunities to interact with their counterparts, lest such activities resulted into unmanageable episodes of hostility.
Recently in Pakistan, manazaras have taken on a new form. These can be seen and heard on the innumerable television channels that air live and sometimes recorded programmes where a topic is debated by proponents of conflicting views. As long as these remain within the ambit of civility and knowledgeable themes, they prove a valuable source of information, but the moment they transgress into personal attacks on characters and perky issues, they start taking on a loathsome nature. Small talk, gossips, scandalous rumours, mud-slinging, innuendos and slander might be appealing to a vast segment of the audience but they certainly cause great harm to the character of the people. Such behavior might draw in a lot of money to its patrons or substantially raise the television rating points (TRP) but it bankrupts the entire value system of the society. History bears witness that once, the national character of a country is damaged, submission to a foreign and more powerful master, becomes inevitable.
Time is precious, therefore it should be utilised most productively rather than wasting it in aimless discussions. The war of tongues is extremely dangerous as it has immense potential of getting converted into physical armed warfare. With falling levels of tolerance such discourses have become breeding grounds for vested-interests who do not let any opportunity go by to create chaos. These days, the electronic media has become very influential in shaping the opinion of the masses. Rapid transmission of information is excellent, but if done irresponsibly could lead to disaster. Within minutes, a piece of news can play havoc with the peace and tranquility of the society, besides disrupting the entire system.
It is about time that we reassess our talk shows where guests are invited to throw light on their views. They should be instructed to keep themselves within propriety limits, respect other people’s opinions, refrain from uncivil behavior (interrupting a speaker), abstain from hurling personal accusations (in a world where no one is infallible), differentiate between humour and mockery, remembering that a wrong word from their mouths could cause a jolt in which they, along with their loved ones would also suffer. The producers and anchors, keen to keep their jobs intact, must also lay down some principles for maintaining decorum in their programmes. Their own attitude and style of conversation should not be aimed at rebuking, antagonizing, sensationalizing or offending anyone.
In today’s Pakistani media, semblance of Baghdad’s violent and uselessmanazaras is quite obvious—one prays it is not the case of history repeating itself because if they continue unabated, we maybe heading towards the inevitable that occurred in Baghdad. As a responsible fourth pillar of the State, it is the collective duty of media to refrain from undesirable manazaras that are detrimental for the entire society.