Words Have Meaning
The premise is quite simple. Words have meaning. The words being written for the reader to peruse are really nothing more than vehicles for meaning. Physical symbols of ‘g’, ‘o’, and ‘d’, when properly combined produce visual representations of meaning.
I am sure we can all agree that words have meaning. When we use a word, we do so because we have agreed between us that it has a specific meaning. For instance, if one wishes to communicate ‘plate’, the word ‘frivolous’ is not used. Likewise, if one desires to communicate a more transcendent idea, such as the hope one has for success, one does not employ this phrase: "I really like your dress, Francine!"
To complicate such a simple notion, however, we can add the subject of comparative religion to the mix. Do not all religions speak about God, sin, good and evil? Because a Muslim and Christian use the same words, we must mean the same thing, correct? After all, we both believe that ‘God’ is one, the creator, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent and totally unlike anything other being. We both agree that humans sin, that sin is bad because it is an act of rebellion against God. So, what is the problem?
Let me illustrate with a somewhat crude analogy. Sitting out in your front yard is a Ford and a Fiat. Let us make a list of similarities between the two:
- both are automobiles used for transportation;
- both words begin with ‘F’ and have four letters;
- both use petroleum products;
- both might even be the same color.
If we simply employ the similarities of the objects, we could rightly say that it would appear the Ford and Fiat are the same. Perhaps we would focus on the one underlying characteristic of both: they are automobiles whose purpose is transportation. Surely, these similarities are overriding in our understanding of the Ford and Fiat? Not only are they similar in important ways, they are categorically the same! They are automobiles. Granted, a Ford salesman might tell you a Fiat is not an automobile, but who can trust a car salesman?!
But the question remains: Is a Ford the same as or similar to a Fiat? Are there differences?
- one is American made, the other Italian;
- one is automatic, the other has a stick shift;
- one is new, the other is old;
- one has four doors, the other two.
Sameness and Similarity
Based on these observations, is the Ford similar to or equivalent to the Fiat? If one uses only the first list, the list of comparison, the two cars can almost be made to be equivalent (the same). On the other hand, if the second list, the contrasting characteristics, is used in addition to the first, the only conclusion possible is that the two cars are simply similar. That is, they share commonalities and similarities, but they are not the same or equivalent.
For clarity, let us distinguish between the idea of ‘sameness’ and ‘similarity’. First, let me offer this stipulative definition for sameness: any two items, persons or ideas are equivalent in every characteristic and attribute. Philosophically we are speaking of strict identity. An underlying assumption which feeds into this notion of sameness is that change exists. Sameness allows for no change or alteration. For purposes of this discussion, Muslims and Christians agree that very little changes. In fact, we might agree that God is the only being not subject to change. But this refers to his character and attributes, not to our understanding of God. More on this later.
Similarity is not sameness. Similarity is a flexible, fluctuating, pliable concept. Sameness is firm, unbreakable, absolute. Two things, persons or ideas may share any number of similarities. That they are partners in similarity, by definition, makes them not the same. Sameness and similarity are mutually exclusive concepts.
The Ford and the Fiat are similar. The fact of their similarity proves they cannot be the same. If the Ford and Fiat were indeed the very same car (but perhaps called different names by various people), we could not say they are similar. I am reminded of my own children and their struggles with the English language. Many times one of them will say something such as "That place is like a store." What is being described is a store. If it is like (similar to) a store, it cannot be a store. It might be an office building, a house, a bank or a garage, but it cannot be a store. So, I gently correct the statement, "It cannot be like a store if it is a store." Six year olds do not yet understand the formal equivalence of ‘is’.
Second, the definition of similar: two or more items, persons or ideas which may have at least one characteristic held in common. Obviously, then, the greater the number of characteristics and attributes held in common, the greater the similarity. The characteristics of commonality may be endless, but if there is one characteristic which is not equivalent, the two cannot be called the same.
Similarity works on a sliding scale of contrasting and comparing. We can say ‘x’ is very much like ‘y’ or we may say ‘z’ is very little like ‘y’. Both statements deal with similarity. Sameness is identity. There is no sliding scale of comparison. Either the items, persons or ideas are equal, equivalent, and identical or they are not.
It would appear that many times, Muslims (and Christians) have committed this type of error. This error is known as the fallacy of equivocation (equating two or more concepts which are not the same though they may be similar). Words which have similar meanings (that is, they share commonalities) are made to be equivalent. Muslims say ‘car’ meaning Ford while Christians think Fiat! Muslims say ‘Allah’ and think this is the God of the Bible.