The Doha Debates: An insider’s perspective

The Doha Debate on Muslim women’s marriage rights succeeded in illustrating that marriage and female rights are complex issues that involve many aspects of culture, religion, social status, and society.

The ‘Doha Debates’ is a brainchild of Tim Sebastian, the BBC award-winning journalist who rose to fame in the last decade as the host of BBC’s ‘HARDtalk’. It is held in Doha, Qatar, and occurs eight times a year; this year marked the completion of its fifth season. It discusses and debates – Oxford Union style – topics of relevance in the Middle East, spanning religious, social and political issues. Tim proposes a “motion”, two people debate for it, and two against it. Tim and the audience have the opportunity to grill all four of the speakers, after which the audience votes on the motion, and it either “passes” or “fails” the house. It is aired on BBC, and estimated to have a viewership of a few hundred million people.

Four months ago, while attending the Muslim Leaders of Tomorrow (MLT) conference in Doha, some of us were invited to be part of the audience for a debate over the motion, ‘This house believes that political Islam is a threat to the West’. I managed to squeeze in a question directed at Maajid Nawaz of the Quilliam Foundation (which was slightly edited in the final airing) in which I asked him to explain why it was permissible for politicians to derive their ethics from Western philosophers, while according to him it was not allowed for other (Muslim) politicians to derive their ethics from what they considered to be Divine sources. Being a part of the audience was an interesting experience, as it gave me an opportunity to see how the Debates worked. Little did I know back then that I would be back in the same hall, only this time I would be sitting on the platform rather than in the audience!

Last week, the producers of the program contacted me to check my availability and willingness to participate in the Debates. I was referred to the program by a close friend, and the producers had also seen some of my talks online. The motion in question was to be ‘This house believes that Muslim women should be free to marry anyone they choose’.

The suddenness of the whole thing took me by complete surprise. I already had travel plans prior the debate call: I was to leave the next day for a long trip to Canada, England, and Turkey, and had to be in South Africa four days after the scheduled debate. If I committed to the Debates, and went to Qatar, I would not be able to return home, and would be committing myself to a 20-day trip spanning five countries! Additionally, I barely had time to prepare, as well as being already overwhelmed with the other lectures I had to give.

More problematic than the logistics of travel was the motion itself. Any time a male opposes a motion with the three words, “Muslim”, “women” and “freedom” in the motion, he is simply asking for trouble! It was as if I had to be the “bad guy” arguing for the subjugation of women. Of course, my completely stereotypical background as a bearded male cleric would do little to alleviate such a backlash.

I asked the producers what they meant by the motion. Did they mean that a Muslim lady had the freedom to not be forced into any marriage? In which case I could not oppose the motion, as Islamic law guarantees her the right to choose her spouse. Or did they mean that she had the right to marry anyone – including non-Muslims, and even other women (the wording of the motion clearly said anyone and not any man)? They responded that they meant it as it is – anyone!! Well, in that case, of course I opposed the motion. Islamic law does not allow a woman to marry a non-Muslim man, and of course same-sex marriages are prohibited as well!

I realized that this would be a very, very difficult debate. I was treading on ambiguous ground here. The motion was worded very broadly (I was later explicitly told by one of the staff that all motions must necessarily be ’sexy’ in order to bring about an exciting discussion). Most women would read into the motion the “freedom” to marry any Muslim man that they wanted to marry; in other words, the freedom to choose a partner, rather than be forced into a marriage. And that freedom was one that I would not have opposed, especially on a platform such as the BBC!

As an aside, the issue of whether a Muslim woman requires a wali or not is a fiqh issue which should be debated between the schools of law; such debates have no place in front of a public, non-Muslim, audience, and I would not have participated if that had been the issue.

So my dilemma can be summed up as follows: how can I get the message across that I oppose the motion because of the extreme generality of its wording, yet support the basic premise of granting women more of a say in their marriage? In other words, I wanted to present myself as a champion of a Muslim woman’s legitimate rights (some of which they are clearly not getting in that part of the world), while being opposed to illegitimate rights that the motion also hinted at.

To further make matters seemingly impossible, I had a full one-hundred and twenty seconds to make my rather complicated and nuanced point! I had never, in my life, given a talk consisting of two minutes. And as any public speaker knows, the shorter the time allocated, the more difficult it is to prepare the speech.

I asked the producers if they could send me an outline of what the other speakers were talking about. I didn’t want to repeat the same points my fellow speaker would mention, and also wanted to prepare myself for what the other side would say. To my surprise, the response came that it is against their policy to provide opposing views to each team, and in fact we would not even have a chance to talk with the other team before the debate! I guess this all added to the drama of the debate itself.

Speaking with me, against the motion, was Dr. Thuraya Al Arrayed, a Saudi writer, columnist and member of the advisory board of the Arab Thought Foundation. Speaking on the other side, in support of the motion, was none other than Asra Nomani, an American-Muslim feminist who had authored several books, and who was a close friend of Daniel Pearle, the Jewish journalist who was brutally murdered in Pakistan by extremists. Along with her was Dr. Muhammad Habash, an MP from Syria and a graduate of an Islamic university. That was all the information I was given.

In any case, I took a deep breath, prayed istikhara, and began writing out my first draft. I thought I had done a good job of gathering my essential points in a succinct format, but when I timed myself reading it aloud, it was almost five minutes long! Obviously, most of my points had to go. But which ones to keep and which ones to discard? I kept on thinking about this issue throughout my travels to Canada, England and Turkey. I continued editing my speech in hotels and in the plane, in academic conferences and during Islamic seminars. In fact, I finished the final draft only two hours before the actual debate. That two-minute speech took up at least twenty hours of my time!

When I arrived in Qatar, I was met at the airport (before customs) by a special representative, and whisked away in a brand new Jaguar to Doha’s newest and swankiest hotel, the ‘W’. I have probably stayed at over a hundred and fifty hotels, but this one has to take the cake in terms of luxury and the “chic” factor. All of this glitzy display of material wealth actually repulses me, and I am grateful to Allah for that. Give me a decent, clean standard room any day, without the pretentious atmosphere and snobbish crowd!

Dr. Thuraya and I were supposed to meet Tim Sebastian and the producers the next morning in the lobby of the hotel. When we got there, Tim was wrapping up a conversation with the other two speakers (Asra Nomani and Dr Habash). We politely introduced ourselves, after which the two of them were led away. Tim then began engaging us in conversation, eventually making his way to the topic and getting a feel for our perspectives. He was taking notes, and it was obvious that he was preparing himself for his counter-offensive. Once again, we had no idea where Tim would be coming from. This was getting more and more daunting by the moment. Dr. Thuraya would be approaching the issue from more of a psychological and social perspective, whereas I would concentrate solely on the religious one.

An hour before the debate, we were driven to the studios (each team in a separate car), where the audience had already begun to settle down. We were told of various protocols to follow on stage (don’t tap the mic, always remember you might be on camera, etc.) and then finally were led onto the stage.

In case you’re wondering, yes, I was nervous, but I kept reminding myself that insha Allah I was there to try to present the truth in the best manner possible, and prayed that Allah would enable me to make a good and sensible case.

The debate was thoroughly enjoyable. It was quite clear that all four of us had very unique and specific perspectives, and the ‘line’ dividing the two sides appeared to shift back and forth. (I’m not going to go into too many details here as the readers can view the entire program in a few days).

The two opposing religious sides were championed by myself and Asra Nomani. My basic premise was that the motion was illogical in its very wording: a “Muslim” by definition is one who submits to the laws of Islam, hence there could be no ultimate “freedom” if she wanted to truly be Muslim. I decided against quoting any verses or hadith, as this was not a theological debate, but merely one of definitions (what makes someone a Muslim). I also decided to avoid all controversial fiqh issues and stick to what was agreed upon by the scholars of Islam. I do believe this helped my argument immensely.

Dr. Thuraya’s point was concisely and cheekily summarized by Tim as: ‘Mother knows best’. Her basic premise was that Muslim girls are too young and immature to make such major decisions. This, of course, earned her the wrath of many of the young, educated, female audience members, who claimed that they knew best what was good for them. I did not get involved with this tangent as I wasn’t the one who brought it up. I do believe, with all respect to her, that her argument did not help the motion and dampened the impact of some of my points.

Dr. Habash initially stated that he would not allow a Muslim woman to marry a non-Muslim man unless he affirmed the Prophet and believed in him. I said that in that case he’s a Muslim, so it’s a moot point! He then modified his position to state that he would allow such a marriage only if a Christian or Jew agreed to respect the Prophet and not ridicule him, otherwise he would be opposed to such a marriage. Instead of going down the tangent of how that position contravened ijma, I told him that even in that case he was not arguing for ultimate freedom for Muslim women, and therefore he would be more appropriate on our side of the motion. Overall I felt that he gave a confused message for his side.

Asra Nomani argued from a completely progressive point of view, stating that my claim of Muslim women not being allowed to marry non-Muslims was simply “Yasir’s version of Islam”. Even though I repeatedly pointed out that there was unanimous consensus on this issue, she continued to retort back that that was “my version”. Asra said all that I expected her to say, throwing in the standard red-herrings of “the wife-beating verse”, “forced marriages”, “loveless arranged marriages”, and of course “‘male domination”. I tried my best to always bring it back to the topic, as I did not want to waste time going down these other tangents. I was, however, offended at one tactic of hers. She asked (twice actually!), “What would you do if your own daughter wanted to marry a non-Muslim man?” I really felt like saying,
“Let’s leave our children out of the debate”. I found the question crude, undignified, and, frankly, insulting. I handled it as well as I could on the spot, although in hindsight I could have done better.

I was waiting for the opportunity to ask her one of my prepared questions, which was to demonstrate the logical consequences of destroying all boundaries. Very late in the debate, the opportunity did arise, and I said, “Asra, a very simple and blunt question: would you allow a Muslim woman to marry another woman?” Her response was, as I expected, in the affirmative. That was all I needed! My main point throughout the entire debate was: if you remove all limits, you have nothing left, and there is no point attaching yourself to any religion. Do as you please, but don’t bring religion into it to justify it.

Tim had a nice go at me once when I engaged him in dialogue. Reverting to my debate habit of dishing it back to the opponent, I asked him how he would define something (trying to corner him into a contradiction), at which point he very correctly pointed out that I was the speaker, not him, and that’s why I had been invited. That brought a good laugh from the audience! I did stumble on one other occasion, but overall I think I did alright, and I’ll leave the readers to be the judge of that when they view the program.

I was not expecting to win the motion. It was simply too vague of a motion, and women (and men) were arguing more for their freedom to choose their partner than freedom to contravene the Shariah. And I understand and respect that point of view, especially in the ultra-repressive climate of the Gulf where women have a much more difficult time, culturally and socially, in saying “No!” to someone whom their family chooses for them. However, my ultimate goals in this debate were:

1. To make sure that Islam was not blamed for these evils; rather lay the blame squarely where it was deserved (culture).
2. To underscore the fact that the Islamic system was the perfect system and the need to understand it properly and return to it.
3. To illustrate that importing cheap slogans such as “total freedom” is in fact meaningless, and would lead to consequences that the vast majority of people in the region would be opposed to.

I also wanted to make sure that I myself did not appear as some evil villain perpetuating the stereotypical figure of a male bearded Muslim cleric out to dominate women and deprive them of their rights to marry, divorce, live, or even breathe!

In these goals, I do believe that alhamdulillah I was successful. The vote was 62 % for the motion, and 38 % against. I was actually happy at the result; I feel that if the implications of such a broadly-worded motion had not been successfully shown, the motion would have been closer to a 95 – 5 split! And, as the Prophet salla Allahu alayhi wa sallam said, ‘A third, and a third is a lot!’

After the Debate, we all went out for dinner, and I had the opportunity to engage in a friendly conversation with Tim Sebastian. Tim is clearly a skilled debater and an intelligent person, but he’s also very down to earth and genuinely concerned about the affairs of the world. Initially, I had assumed that he was merely “doing his job” and that this project was just one more feather in his hat, but it was clear that he is passionate for what he does and believes in bringing about change. I was very impressed with his humbleness, character and manners. Just one point to illustrate this: our dinner table was very long, and he made a point to stand up and move to each part of the table throughout the course of the evening so that he could get to know all the guests.

The debate succeeded in illustrating that marriage and female rights are complex issues that involve many aspects of culture, religion, social status, and society. The fact that the conversation took place was a step forward for the region. And in the end of the day, that is the ultimate goal of the Doha Debates – to talk about controversial topics in a public forum and to begin dialogue for a more productive and healthy future.
Sheikh Yasir Qadhi has a Bachelors in Hadith and a Masters in Theology from Islamic University of Madinah. He is presently working on his PhD in Islamic Studies at Yale University. He is an instructor at AlMaghrib, AlKauthar, and has appeared on a number of Islamic channels including Huda, Islam Channel and Al-Fajr. He has written several books in English including Introduction to the Sciences of Qur’an, Riyaa: Hidden Shirk, Dua: the Weapon of the Believer, and many more. This post was originally published at Muslim Matters.


  • asmauddin says:

    Dr. Thuraya’s focus seems absurdly narrow. I wonder if she adopts the ‘mother knows best’ attitude with regard to Muslim men, too.

  • Liaquat Ali says:

    Yasir Qadhi’s position is pretty much a general consensus among Muslims. But he made an interesting statement between 10:30 – 10:40.

    “Once a unanimous consensus is established it cannot be broken by a later position.”

    So as Muslims make rulings based on what they knew or understood at a given time, the subsequent generations have to follow those rulings NOT because those rulings were inherently sound and clearly and unambiguously defensible but because, “once a unanimous consensus is established it cannot be broken by a later position.”

    What is that rule based on?

    It sounds contradictory to me in the light of verse 41:53 which leads me to believe that re-interpretation is continuously needed to incorporate what is being revealed in the horizons (natural sciences, astronomy, etc.) and within ourselves (genetices, psychology, etc.)

    41:53 Soon will We show them our Signs in the (furthest) regions (of the earth), and in their own souls, until it becomes manifest to them that this is the Truth. Is it not enough that thy Lord doth witness all things?

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