Debates and conversations
Having a debate with someone you disagree with and having a conversation with them are not the same thing. People perhaps think that a debate is just the same as a conversation with the addition of a few rules and procedures. For example, whereas speakers in a conversation stop and start spontaneously, adjusting to each other and to different topics as they go along, speakers in a debate take turns to speak for a fixed duration, and must stick to a specific topic. That is broadly true, but there is more to the difference.
A debate is usually a public occasion; what is said is meant to be overheard by the general public and intended to get their attention, approval and applause. What is said in a debate is not intended for the benefit of the person or the viewpoint being debated. Rather, the main purpose and pleasure of debating is to defeat the person or viewpoint you disagree with. The purpose is to bring the other down, to win at their expense. Some debates even have an audience “vote” at the end as a way to show which side won, which got the most “likes”. In this respect, debates are, like sporting contests, an entertainment. Debates may claim to be educative, but in reality they are not.
Certain consequences usually accompany this purpose. Since wining or losing is the desired result of the effort, it has the effect of hardening the differences between the viewpoints being debated, of hardening the divisions between those who are on “one side” and those who are on the “other side”. Now, as people generally prefer to be on the winning side, winners can expect some listeners to move to their side, and then claim that these listeners were persuaded to do so. But no genuine persuasion happened; only the perception of one side having won, and the other side having lost on that particular occasion. Losers will almost always feel that the conditions of the debate were somehow unfair and, if able to do so, will dispute the win, and want a re-match.
Debates done this way rarely, if ever, resolve disagreements, they usually extend and harden them. They do not relax differences so that people are able to live with them amicably or even peaceably. What is worse, they often prompt disagreements to get heated. The shallow pretence of reasoned argument based on “evidence” soon gives way to mockery, abuse and insults until, sooner or later, both sides determine that the other is without worth, and therefore should not be engaged with, not even in debate. But that is still not the end of it: the winners and losers typically go on attacking the other’s viewpoint while speaking directly only to their own side. So the already-hardened differences become institutionalised as social divisions, hostile factions that take pride in, and prove their loyalty by, never listening to the other.
By contrast, a conversation is usually a private occasion, with no audience or public to entertain. A conversation is ideally a small number of people exploring each other’s thoughts, often wandering from topic to topic. Because conversation is open-ended, not committed to ending in a win over another, it is possible for it to proceed as if the speakers had begun by saying: “Before we start, let us list all the relevant matters that we more or less agree about.” After that, one person can say: “Now, I think X, and I know that you think Z. Help me to understand why you think Z.” Even when the viewpoints X and Z are diametrically opposed, the fact that the speakers begin by affirming the common ground between them makes it possible (in theory always, in practice only some times) that the common ground will be enlarged as a result of the conversation. Some degree of learning happens; something, be it ever so slight, is better understood than it was before. In this sense, conversation is educative. Even if the disagreements remain unresolved, the common ground between speakers is not destroyed by their speaking. Their differences and disagreements do not harden into institutionalised social divisions, an “us” and “them”.
In summary: a good conversation ideally ends in the preserving or enlarging of common ground, enabling differences to be managed. The points of disagreement are not erased but their significance is put into perspective, their details adjusted here and there, usually on both sides. A good debate, by contrast, ideally ends in reducing or destroying common ground – that is what “winning” or “losing” in this context actually means: it shrinks the loser’s space or transfers some of it to the winner, if indeed there is an agreed winner.
Disputes and debates on social media
The business model of social media platforms (such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and the like) depends on attracting and selling human attention. Their advertising revenues are calculated in relation to the number of people “subscribing / following” or “liking / disliking” whatever is aired on the platform. Nothing attracts more regular attention more easily than winning or losing. For the business model it does not matter who or what is winning or losing; what matters is that something is “trending”, that is, getting the most attention now. It follows that to catch and hold attention the winning or losing have to be “bigged up”. So, it does not work to say simply “Mufti X disagrees with Mufti Z”; no, you have to say “Mufti X proves Mufti Z wrong”; or “X crushes Z”, “X destroys Z”, or “X owns Z: Boom!” I have over-simplified, but only a little; everyone will recognize the true picture well enough from my description.
Thus, the business model of social media platforms helps to intensify the process whereby disputes decay into rapidly spiraling outbursts of mockery, abuse and insult. What is best for the business is continually-shifting groups of people being extremely agitated about someone’s reputation or what someone did or said or is supposed to have done or said. In simpler words: social media platforms make most money out of people exchanging extreme opinions. It is extraordinary (and deeply depressing) that merely having an opinion and expressing it with maximum conviction has become a means of livelihood. Since it all happens on screen, the natural inhibitions people have about saying hurtful things to someone’s face are suspended: you can write or speak your abuse without seeing the effect on the other’s face. This goes beyond not listening to the other; it becomes not caring what the other thinks or feels. And not caring about “external costs” is very much in the spirit of the business model.
Hurt and hate are not, of course, all of what you can find on the big social media platforms. There are a great many people using these platforms to share knowledge, skills, solutions to practical problems, lectures, books, ideas, images, in a civil manner for educative or otherwise sane purposes. But these do not make as much money or expect to incite a huge “following”; they provide real services, not strong opinions. Thus, the technology itself of social media platforms is not an evil; it is the business model in which it is embedded, and the political economy which enables that model to thrive, which are evil in their conception and “external costs”. Allah has said about wine (intoxicating substances generally) that the evil therein is greater than the good. The analogy would not justify calling social media platforms haram, nor would the well-demonstrated argument that social media platforms are (especially for younger adolescents) addictive. Intoxicants necessarily rob you of ability to think clearly and act responsibly – that is their point; social media platforms do not do this necessarily.
How should Muslims react to disagreements with other Muslims?
The line between same and different is where information is presented to sensation, then processed by our sensory and nervous systems as perception and representation. That processing (we experience its result as practically simultaneous with the first sensation) is how we make judgments about the properties of things, about (for example) how yellow, green or red something is, and so how ready it is to eat. None of that can happen without both sameness and difference. Of human beings Allah has expressly said that He created them different (in colours, customs, languages, and male and female) so that they may know each other. Being Muslim does not dispense with the necessity of sameness–difference for acquiring knowledge and conscious experience, and for forming judgments. That necessity covers all forms and levels of knowing, and all trunks and branches of knowledge, including the most important, knowledge of our religion.
So, the first thing to do is to expect that other Muslims will not agree with you on everything. If you expect other Muslims (including your nearest and dearest: friends, spouses, siblings, children, neighbours) to disagree with you about some things – because it is in the nature of how reality is apprehended and processed – you should be able, when it happens, to accept it without becoming agitated, let alone extremely agitated. (Insofar as I am being critical here, it is only in respect of the extremes of agitation about disagreements.)
Historically, Muslim scholars have always differed about their understanding of the religion – even about its source-texts. They differed, for example, about how to prioritise among them, whether they were applicable in practical life, and when to apply which of them how flexibly. There have come down to us reports in abundance of differences among the Companions and their Followers. Yet it is very rare to find reports about the early generations of Muslims opposing each other in any ugly or abusive manner. Their way is supposed to be our ideal of practical conduct. That way was to support each other where they agreed and not to oppose each other where they disagreed. The principle behind this is that what they agreed about – what they held as common ground or common purpose – was for them much greater in weight and significance than what they disagreed about. In everyday matters, they followed the rule of following the imam – pray as he prays; coming into a different town they would respect and follow the practice that was accepted in that town. Only after that, would they try, though private consultation, to find out how and why the practice of this imam or this town differed from their own. This approach preserves and deepens solidarity. It is educative of good manners, teaches flexibility, protects from self-righteousness (the most dangerous sin because so difficult to recognize from within), and it allows people to learn from one another, to come to a better appreciation of the reasons they have for thinking and doing what they think and do. All that I said above about conversation as preferable to debate derives, more or less, from this approach.
But, you may object, that was then. Now, Muslims are not that good; their quality of commitment to Islam and Muslim solidarity (jama`a) has weakened steadily over the centuries. Political quarrels, physical distances, large regional and small localized peculiarities, barriers of language and other cultural currencies, levels of educational and economic attainment, and so on, are among many factors making for disunity. We do not now find it so easy to be mindful of “common ground” because any “common purpose” is obscured by established differences rooted in different histories. Because so much history and human custom have flowed since the early generations, we find lots of groups disagreeing and attacking each other more or less all the time. Has this behaviour not become the new “common ground”? It may be unwelcome, but it is the reality. In summary: (1) We must deal with present reality, which must include some challenging and disputing of what we witness Muslims engaged in. For example, in the present day you may well find, when a visitor to a town and willing to go along with whatever is the established practice there, that in fact there is not one established practice. Rather, there are three or more, as many as there are mosques. Now, in this reality, what is it right to do? (2) Do we not have a duty to contest forcefully what certain individuals and groups say that is misguided and which is misleading people in the religion? (3) And if we do not do that, are we not ourselves passive partners in misleading and misguiding people who may then be deprived of salvation because of our polite passivity?
There is some truth in those objections. So I will try to consider them carefully. First of all, if an ideal is difficult of attainment, does that justify its abandonment, so that we cease to aspire to it, or to let it inspire our conduct? That would be to recommend defeatism and despair. And Allah has explicitly forbidden Muslims to despair. Yes, it is very hard now to find common ground and build (or rebuild) common purpose. But it is not impossible. Yes, we can expect to fail most of the time. But we can still keep trying. That is why we are commanded to be steadfast. If disputing and debating each other increases hatred and enmity among Muslims, it makes the hardships of the now reality even harder, not easier. Allah commands in the Qur’an: “And obey God and His Messenger, and do not dispute, lest you falter and lose your courage. And be steadfast. God is with the steadfast” (al-Anfal, 46). The religion cannot hold any ground, or hold any recognizable form, unless we act (within the limits of what is feasible in a given situation) with firm belief that the commands of Allah cannot be suspended just because we find them inconvenient or difficult.
Secondly, on what basis are you able to sustain the judgment that “they” (other groups) are the misguided ones misleading others, and the confidence that “we”, by means of public disputation, will be able to correct them? As explained above, public disputation, especially on social media, encourages exchange of mockery and abuse. As a result of a perceived increase in the popularity of one group (a debating “win”), some people may well shift membership to that group. But that is not evidence of persuasion, of a real change of mind and heart, from ignorance to knowledge, from misguidance to guidance. It is more likely a simple change of allegiance and loyalties, a move from one grouping to a different one, perceived as more “successful”. The members of the group that “lost” the debate may then harden their opposition to the ways of the group that “won”, become much more intensely loyal to their own ways: thereafter those members will survive and function as a distinct sect, cut off from the larger body of Muslims. What then has been gained, really?
It is my experience that, with very few exceptions, people who are most adamant that their group is right do not know why they hold the positions that they do. They hold the opinions of their group or its leaders, and if asked, are unable to explain why and how those group leaders came to their positions. This weight of ignorance about “our” beliefs and ways can be multiplied many times when it comes to ignorance about the ways and beliefs of “others”. Naturally, “we” hold that our group leaders based and built their teachings on the source-texts of Islam. But that is just what “they” also hold about their group leaders, and no doubt they are as ignorant about us as we are about them. Disputatious debate does not and cannot resolve this situation. Rather, disputatious debate will exaggerate and aggravate it.
There are no short-cuts, no magic ways-out. We can gain some emotional relief by abusing in return those who abuse us, but it is only a temporary relief, dispiriting and destructive, because we are always perfectly aware that it will make the situation worse. The way out is the slow one, of listening to the other and being listened to, the way of conversation. How is this done in practice? Group leaders meet in private and begin by affirming what is common ground between them, then they listen and speak and exchange some understating of why one holds this position on a certain matter and the other a different position on that matter. If such encounter is impracticable for the leaders, they can ask their deputies to go to the meetings of the other group strictly with the intention of listening and learning, of finding out what they hold and why they hold it. Eventually, it may be possible for the groups to go public together, and explain to their people in a civil, courteous way what they agree about and what they disagree about. And for both to affirm what Allah has said many times in the Qur’an: that after knowledge comes to them, people differ and disagree, and that He will settle those differences hereafter so that no rancour remains in the believers’ hearts, and their greeting is “Peace”.
That brings me to the third objection, that if we do not engage in dispute we are robbing those who are misguided of their chance of salvation hereafter. This is well-meaning but gravely discordant with the general and particular guidance of Qur’an and Sunnah. Allah takes His Messengers to task (in truth He is consoling them) when they express profound grief and distress over their inability to persuade unbelievers to believe, including members of their own families. The Messengers preach; they do not guide; it is Allah who guides. He has said this very explicitly. Salvation depends exclusively on His forgiveness and grace. We preach, we try to convey the guidance, but we do not bring about guidance. It is not enough that we do not make any public claims to that effect. We must devoutly believe that we do not do more (by our words and example) than invite others to desire guidance, make it appealing and relevant to them instead of repugnant and irrelevant. Then, if Allah wills, they receive guidance as a gift within, from Him directly. Similarly, we convey the warning and hope (“good news”) carried in the guidance, but we do not give assurance of a particular salvation. Equally, we do not give assurance that any particular person or group is condemned in the final judgment, that is, refused deliverance from the Fire. It is not permissible for Muslims to go beyond the general statements about this in Qur’an and Sunnah and interpret them as applicable to this or that individual or group. That too is a prerogative exclusive to Allah. He makes it very explicit that He forgives whom He wills and that His judgment is not arbitrary. His judgment is based on comprehensive knowledge of both the inward and outward worth that a person has acquired in the conditions and circumstances of their earthly life, and for every life, the conditions and circumstances are configured uniquely. We can see something of the external burdens people struggle with, the external tools and equipment available to them; but we can only ever guess at their internal burdens and internal resources. Guesswork is not knowledge. So we must always reserve judgment; if for no better reason, then let us do so because it leaves room for hope of forgiveness.
All that is not just a matter of good manners – having the proper modesty and humility when conversing with or about others, individually or as groups. Rather, it has to do with our conception of God and the nature of human relation to Him. This is a difficult matter to grasp that goes to the core of what religion is for. We can be sure that if Allah’s chosen Messengers struggled with this, we too will struggle with it. Nobody wants to accept that they cannot save the ones with whom they have the strongest attachments – their children, parents, kinfolk, homeland and larger entities with which they identify. We can find moving examples in the stories of any of the Prophets and Messengers mentioned in the Qur’an. In order to hold firmly to the guidance of Allah and then to implement it steadfastly with wisdom and justice, they had to endure some degree of separation from their bonds with kin, people and place. All were or became fatherless, homeless, culturally orphaned, displaced, before they could re-orient and restore their people’s relation with Allah.
To put it simply: understanding and implementing the meaning of “we belong to Allah and are returning to Him” will at times require a measure of separation from “belonging and returning to” other than Allah. We should expect there to be tension, in some circumstances conflict, between believing in God and the family- and group- relations through which believing in God acquires particular, concrete form. We are deeply indebted to parents and siblings, to teachers, to “home”, to friends, etc., who are part of who we have become as distinct individuals. This debt is expressed and reciprocated as emotional loyalty. Something like this loyalty is also observed among members of groups that formed, not on the basis of ties of family or locality but on the basis of beliefs expressed in words particular to some revered individual or school and manners of worship special to their locality. These types of group-building can of course be combined – people can bring their family ties into religious groups and extend them through marriage within the group. Ultimately we do not belong to our families or to any other groupings. According to the description of the Qur’an all ties – between parents and children, spouses, bosom friends, between group leaders and their followers – any and all such ties have no value for the individual soul when it is summoned to answer to its Creator’s judgment.
Both kinds of loyalty – to family ties and to religious, confessional groups – exist in tension and potential conflict with believing in Allah in full commitment to the meaning of “we belong to Allah and are returning to Him”. If we are not alert to that tension and conflict, we risk depriving ourselves of the mercy and help that are available to us when we value obedience to the guidance of God and His Messenger above all other ties. Without that help and mercy, we are at risk of lapsing into taking extreme positions even when there is no need for that. We risk not only lapsing into injustice against others but also, which is far worse, we risk becoming unable to feel that we are being unjust, because our unjust conduct is made to seem good to us. If we put the group first, ahead of God and His Messenger, we will find it easy to see faults in the ideas, aspirations and beliefs of “outsiders”, groups we do not belong to, and we will readily judge their faults as incurable and unforgivable (except, of course, by the miracle-cure of joining our group!) At the same time we will find it very difficult to be equally severe on the elders and leaders of our own group, even when they are guilty of the same faults that we criticise in outsiders, and we will rush to defend them against outsider threat or criticism. In this way, we end up wronging both our rivals / opponents and ourselves.
In sum: as human beings we cannot dispense with belonging to a group but we can strive for readiness to relax that belonging in order to have peaceful, hopefully amicable and co-operative, relations with people who belong to a different group. That is made difficult because of the taste people have acquired in recent years for launching scathing attacks on rivals, alongside uncritical affirmation of their own purity and rightness. This already coarse attitude has been coarsened even more by the use of social media platforms: the quality of thought, argument and manners has deteriorated and the ugliness and harshness of abuse has worsened. How very far that is from understanding that “we belong to Allah and are returning to Him”! Would it not be sensible to stay away from disputes of this sort aired on these sorts of public platform? Even if it were true (it is not) that someone has been “saved” from the misguidance of a particular group as a result of our criticisms of that group, how many more persons will have been repelled by the manner of our criticisms so that they become disgusted with Muslims and Islam and abandon the religion?
There is no short-cut to dealing with misguidance, our own or that of others. The long, slow road of patient conversation (of listening and learning as well as speaking and teaching) is the safer route. It is a good rule for Muslims that, for an action to be pleasing to Allah as well as beneficial to the religion and the ummah, means and ends must both be halal. Among the permissible means for the permissible end of offering or receiving advice, conversation and consultation are highly commended. Disputatious debating, public taunts and harsh challenges, are nowhere commended: there is no precedent for them. Rather, all the precedents are on the side of sabr, persevering theough the suffering. As is recorded in the Sunnah, theological wrangling among Muslims provoked Allah’s Messenger to a high rage, and he condemned it; so too, in diverse contexts, he condemned self-righteous in-fighting among Muslims for its futility and for the damage it did to the solidarity of the ummah. The modern in-fighting between religious groups and sects is harmful, even if the persons engaged in it are convinced of their own good intentions and convinced that they are working on behalf of the religion. Their tendency to mock, abuse and insult each other is very reminiscent of the blood-feuding among the Arab tribes of the age before Islam, when their passionate, fiercely preserved clan-loyalties made them, for many centuries, enfeebled vassals of the powers surrounding their lands.
I regret that these reflections may seem to some readers too mild, too tame, an acquiescence in the miserable reality of how Muslims disagree in our time. But one consolation is that this miserable reality need not complicate our individual, personal relation to Allah. If He wills, I hope to write some reflections on that relation, which would be more positive. Another consolation is that, in some situations, not taking action is not pointless and it is not negative. On the contrary, it is positive in that we deliberately, and for the sake of our obligations to Allah and His Messenger, upon him be peace, avoid adding to the harm, avoid adding to the miserable reality and making it even more miserable. That is concordant with the practice of the early generations: by not joining in these futile, destructive debates, we refuse support to Muslims engaged in them, while remaining willing to support those same Muslims in doing what they do that is right.
What religion is for: a reminder
Many people say religion can give meaning and weight to their life, some sense of final purpose so that they cope better with its ups and downs, perhaps also with the prospect of its termination. Some add that religion can provide direction and guidance so that they get through their everyday lives in a much more disciplined, serious and responsible way than they might otherwise do.
All of that is no doubt true. Yet, when I reflect on it, it seems to me that all these “purposes” of religion (or reasons for it) could be served by other means that do not need a connection with the notion of God, and therefore do not go under the name “religion”. For that reason, these reasons for religion seem to me, precisely because they do not need God, to be secondary. What then is the primary or primordial need that we have of God, and for the answering of which our religion (the conscious effort to remember and return to God) is the most familiar effective means?
A grain of sand is tiny compared to the size of a beach or desert in which it lies, and it is infinitesimally, negligibly tiny compared to the earth in which the beach or desert is situated. Who sees or knows or values this grain of sand? Well, you and I just did, just for a little while in thinking about it, albeit in a general way. But for this one particular grain of sand: who sees or knows or values it? We may say: whoever or whatever is related to that grain of sand by seeing or touching it, by moving it or being moved along with it. Many grains of sand together can be put to use in the construction of shelters, and for cleaning surfaces: animals use sand and dust in these ways, as do humans. But as to a grain of sand in its singular individuality, separately from any external action on it: who sees or knows or values it?
Allah has said in the Qur’an (Yunus, 61; Sab’a, 3) that there is not anything as small as an atom, smaller than that or greater than that, but that its existence is set in writing. This is teaching us not to be heedless of any of our words, thoughts or deeds, great or small, for all of them are witnessed, written, down to the smallest particular, and the full record submitted at the reckoning. And it is a way to grasp the meaning of “belonging to Allah and returning to Him”. That expression does not refer only to the human life completed at death, but to all the conscious and unconscious moments of that life, each being continually returned to Allah, as it is lived. But the notion that the smallest thing we know or might one come to know of And yet a human life, even the longest we can imagine, is, when compared to the duration and extent of the known universe, far smaller than a grain of sand compared to the size of the earth. Who sees or knows or cares about this one particular human life, mine or yours?
That need, to be seen and known and cared about, that need to be in relation – that is what religion is for, primarily, primordially. And the other matters (who am I and where am I going? do I really exist and what does my existence mean? why at all am I alive, and how should I live?) are a sort of secondary elaborations of that need. The need in primary form is recognised when we are given a name and others take the trouble to ask us that name, and we tell them so that they know us individually and may care to relate to us as such. It is a horrible, telling moment in Robinson Crusoe – for a couple of centuries (I am told) the most popular book read in Europe, not counting translations of the Bible – when the hero meets a human being for the first time after twenty-odd years of total isolation and does not ask him his name; instead, he just tells him: “I am ‘Master’; you are ‘Man Friday’.” The conversation and relationship that develops continues, more or less, in this spirit of a one-way process of civilising the native; the hero imparts to him all that he knows, except how to use a gun
Human relations do not have to be established in that style of colonialist certainty and self-assertion, and are not. But they do need to be established, and they are most commonly established in family, in locality, in groups bonded by shared ideas and beliefs – the kind of groups and their behaviours that I have been speaking about.
The people likely to be reading this do not need me to quote the many verses in the Qur’an that affirm that Allah knows each one, male or female, inside and outside.
 I am using the word “debates” here to mean the public challenges and arguments that, in the present time, Muslims throw at each other on all manner of issues about which they have a strong conviction that they are right and the other is wrong. I certainly do not mean the carefully structured and professional, often also carefully recorded, “debates” that Muslim fuqaha’ (legal scholars of the same or different Sunni schools of law) held in ages past, with the very specific purpose of testing the validity of their legal reasoning on particular points. These debates were held away from the rulers’ courts, usually in a mosque, in order to avoid unwelcome political influence. (Purposes and venues were quite different for, in those same ages past, the “debates” between court-patronised theologians, philosophers and literary celebrities.) Also, the legal scholars’ debates were conducted with civility and courteous speech, mutual respect for each other’s sincerity and integrity, and a shared commitment to improve the quality of legal reasoning and thereby the chances of realizing justice in actual cases. The fine points debated often turned on the validity of analogies used to guide/adapt legal reasoning – questions like how far the right of a woman slave to maintenance from her owner was analogous to that of a wife’s right to maintenance from her husband, and if the slave-owner or husband became insolvent what happened to that right; in what respects and circumstances was it the same kind of legal obligation and in what respects and circumstances different? During these debates one scholar would put the case for one opinion, and point by point the other would question or refute that case. The intention was not for one scholar to “win” and the other to “lose” the debate, but for both to benefit by their joint effort to clarify the matter in question. In respect of manners and motive, this kind of debate is what I am here calling “conversation”, albeit a narrowly focused, very formalized and learned, conversation between professionals striving to serve, and improve, their profession. Of course, one might criticise these debates for their exclusion of non-professionals, and perhaps for other reasons also, but they were not at all comparable to the destructive wrangling that, in our time, is advertised (often on social media platforms) under the heading of munazarah (debate).
 At any given hour the great mass of attention on social media will drift towards the latest catastrophe – volcanic eruption, earthquake, military conflict – anything entailing or threatening massive loss of life. However, regular attention (meaning repeat visits to the same location) is drawn to win/lose scenarios – sports matches, the sudden ups and down of celebrity reputations, etc. – in the group of topics of which the individual is a fan.
 The universality of this experience may be gauged by the prevalence, in the cultural memories of very diverse peoples all across the world, of origin- and foundation-myths that start with someone born without a human father. However, such an event is confirmed only for the Messiah, `Isa ibn Maryam, upon him be peace, and in the Qur’an this event is told without compromising, or in any other way obscuring, the perfect transcendence of God.
 What is usually translated as “returning to” can be equally well translated as “being referred or called back to”, in the sense of carrying a question to the authority that will answer it.