I have been a professional philosopher for about 30 years, which means that for 30 years I have spent my life answering two major questions:

  1. “What does a philosopher do?”
  2. “Why would anyone want to do that?”

Both are good questions, difficult questions, questions that are made even more difficult because we philosophers are a nitpicky lot that disagree on the answers to question #1 and are not terribly interested in answering question #2. Why is this the case? We philosophers actively seek to understand questions and statements clearly and deeply and then find the faults in them, faults of logic, assumptions, evidence, completeness, etc., in the hope that we can correct the faulty thinking in the hope that we can move closer and closer to those truths the mind can grasp.

I wish sometimes that I could turn off that nitpicky bent of mind, but deep down I don’t really want to because more often than not that nitpicky attitude, while frustrating to others, yields greater freedom from the human tendency to think poorly and be a slave to falsehood.

All the above is an advance warning that you may get upset or declare as a waste of time what is to follow about a problem I have with much of the talking and thinking about missions to Muslims or the pronouncements of media and political pundits about the nature of Islam and the mind and heart of Muslims.

Too often I hear questions posed that imbed what might be unhelpful assumptions:

  • What does the Qur’an say about sin, free will, the nature of believers and unbelievers, etc.?
  • What is the basic psychology of the Muslim mind?
  • According to the Qur’an, should Muslims kill Christians?
  • What was the character of Muhammad?
  • What laws actually make up Shari’ah?

As a philosopher, I immediately begin to consider whether questions such as these assume as fact what may not be fact.  For example…

  • Is there a single discernible position within the Qur’an about sin, free will, the nature of believers and unbelievers, etc.?
  • Is there a single discernible Muslim mind such that accurate generalizations about it can be reliably described?
  • Is there a single unarguable decontextualized position within the Qur’an about whether Muslims can justifiably kill Christians?
  • Was Muhammad a flat, consistent character or was he, what in literature would be called a round character, namely, a multidimensional character with growing trends and contradictions in various situations and in differing times?
  • Is there a monolithic, agreed upon authoritative voice among Muslims about what laws constitute Shari’ah, or are there multiple voices that have similarities and differences.

Moreover, I wonder whether there is a way to navigate considering these questions in helpful ways that are not characterized by faulty logic giving rise to overgeneralizations that support prejudice and discrimination toward individuals who self-identify as Muslims.

One philosophical distinction that may help navigate this discussion is between essentialism and nominalism. These terms have a rich history within philosophy, but to people outside philosophy these terms are often misunderstood and are thus not very helpful. I have struggled for an alternative way to consider the ideas each term reveals.

Recently, I was reading an article by some medical researchers at the University of Chicago who were investigating the influences of Islam on the health of American Muslims. These researchers, Padela and Curlin, made a distinction that comes very close to the one I was seeking but that didn’t have the baggage of the terms ‘essentialism’ and ‘nominalism’.  They distinguished ‘Islamic religiosity’ vs. ‘Muslim religiosity’. I have accepted without change their definition of ‘Islamic religiosity’ but have expanded their definition of ‘Muslim religiosity’ since the latter they defined strictly in terms of health-related actions, and I would like to move beyond matters of health alone.

‘Islamic religiosity’ is the values and practices that are described in the sacred texts that Muslims generally recognize as authoritative. ‘Muslim religiosity’ I have re-defined as the actions, based on their interpretations of those authoritative texts, by those individuals and groups that self-identify as Muslim.

So, ‘Islamic religiosity’ is the objective given whereas ‘Muslim religiosity’ is the subjective interpretation of Muslims about the objective given. Let’s consider an example. If ‘Islamic religiosity’ refers in part to statements within the Qur’an, then ‘Muslim religiosity’ refers to the actions that individual Muslims or groups of Muslims take based on their interpretation of those statements within the Qur’an. There may be one statement within the Qur’an but multiple interpretations of that statement by Muslims. In fact, that is exactly what we have seen through the centuries, namely, authoritative statements interpreted in various, and in some times widely divergent ways, by Muslims.

I find this a very helpful lens through which to consider questions posed about Islam and Muslims. The steps taken to answer such questions as earlier posed would be at least two-fold:

  1. Give an account of what the authoritative texts seem to say about a given issue. Quote them as they are without resorting to interpretation.
  2. Describe the various interpretations offered by individual Muslims and groups of Muslims through time.

Failing to take step #1 results in ignoring the authoritative primary sources of authority for Muslims. Failing to take step #2 results in ignoring the history of interpretation of those primary sources of authority and the rich diversity among Muslims on issues.

Failing to take step #1 results in understanding Muslim thought as a mere form of individual or cultural relativism, which it isn’t. Now when MSNBC ignores step #1, you can fault them. Failing to take step #2 results in forming gross generalizations that perpetuate ignorance and prejudice. Now when FOX News or Donald Trump ignore step #2, you can fault them. Actually, both MSNBC and FOX News fail on both counts, as do many, if not most, of our politicians.

I hope this distinction proposed by Padela and Curlin and adapted by this lowly philosopher, helps us in Islamic or Muslim studies navigate our research and discussions in more adequate ways and reduce the numerous ways in which we misunderstand each other.

If the distinction doesn’t help you, then chalk it up to another example of confusion about what a philosopher does and still one more example of wondering why anyone in the world would want to do what we do.

Have a wonderful day, once you have set forth the necessary and sufficient conditions for what it means to ‘have a day’ and what could possibly be the conditions for it to be ‘wonderful’.