I do not know what Islam is “all about,” and this is one respect in which I differ from most journalists, politicians, chiefs of police and U. S. military officers. Unlike me, a great many of these deep thinkers are confident that they know what Islam is “all about,” or at least what it is not all about. The basis of their claim is not clear, although it does not appear to involve study of Islamic scripture or immersion in Islamic practice.
This post is not about Islam, because, as I said, I do not know what Islam is “all about.” I have not read Islamic scripture and I have not gone so far as to dip my toe into Islamic practice. I find my own religion a handful. This post is, instead, about how we should go about learning what a religion is “all about,” and why when today’s deep thinkers try to do so, they so often take us into a world of fantasy.
To begin, let’s describe a religion as a practice, since religion is above all else something that one does. A “practicing Catholic” is, for instance, doing Catholicism by believing the things Catholics believe and acting the way Catholics act. Presumably the same is true of a “practicing Muslim.”
Alasdair MacIntyre says that every practice yields “internal goods” and “external goods” (1). Internal goods are intrinsic, proper, and unique to the practice to which they are internal. External goods are incidental to any particular practice, and common to many. For example, the good of gliding through water is internal to swimming, for it can be achieved by no means other than swimming. The good of a chiseled torso, on the other hand, is external to swimming because swimming is only one of the ways one can get one.
Now what we might call a true swimmer strives for excellence in swimming, not in physical appearance, health, or social opportunities. He may very well enjoy and appreciate these last three goods as incidental rewards of swimming, but if he is a true swimmer, they will not be what swimming is “all about.”
Not all who swim are true swimmers. Many swim with an eye to one of the external goods, or incidental rewards, of swimming. For them, swimming is a convenient means to corporeal pulchritude, physical health, or casual socializing. I call such people duffers. A duffer is not necessarily a bad swimmer, but (still following MacIntyre) duffers are, on the whole, bad for swimming.
To understand why this is so, imagine a hiking club that is comprised of true hikers and duffers. The true hikers love hiking, the duffers are happy to hike, but only because it is an agreeable way to exercise, socialize, pass the time, build an appetite, or what have you. And to the extent that the duffers take over the club, the club will cease to be a hiking club and degenerate into a social club that happens to hike. Socializing, not hiking, will become what the club is “all about.” Book clubs are often destroyed by duffers.
With this in mind we can return to the question of what any particular religion is “all about,” and doing so we see that every religion takes in true religionists and duffers. The duffers will call the true religionists “fanatics,” and I’m happy to accept the term. To the fanatics the religion is “all about” goods internal to the practice of that particular religion, and not about external goods such as “community,” “fellowship,” or gossiping in the church basement over coffee and cookies. To the duffers, it’s the other way round.
Now, if you wanted to understand what swimming, or mountaineering, or barber shop singing was “all about,” would you ask a fanatic or a duffer? I’m not asking which one you would like to join with in a club. If you’re a duffer, you will wish to club with duffers. But who would you ask if you wished to understand the good internal to the practice of swimming, mountaineering or barber shop singing? You would ask a fanatic, of course, since the fanatic is obsessed with that good. The duffer is concerned with something else.
When today’s deep thinkers tell us what Islam is “all about,” they clearly have in mind what it is “all about” for the duffers of Islam, since the goods they mention are external to Islam and readily obtained by other means. I do not deny that “spiritual solace,” “meaning,” “tradition,” “community,” and the like are incidental rewards of Islamic practice; but since they are incidental rewards of a great many practices, they cannot be what Islam is “all about.”
The reason today’s deep thinkers say such things is that they are themselves religious duffers. In their eyes, a religion is a convenient pretext for doing things other than the practice of that religion, just as hiking is a convenient pretext for duffers in the hiking club to do things other than hiking. Duffers are always quick to denounce and purge “extremists,” because “extremists” have tendency to point out that duffers love, above all else, to sit on their duffs.
The essence of any practice will be found in its fanatics, not its duffers. This is obvious in sports and it should be obvious in religion.
(1) Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, second edition (South Bend, Ind.: Notre Dame University Press, 1984), chap. 14.