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Defending the Faith: Cherry-picking similarities a powerful way to mislead

Published: Thursday, Nov. 3 2011 5:00 a.m. MDT

The Arabic equivalent of the English word "film" is "film." A familiar kind of financial institution is called, in both English and Arabic, a "bank." Plainly, Arabic and English are very similar, if not identical.

Well, no.

Cherry-picking similarities while failing to mention major differences is a powerful way to misrepresent and mislead.

As a matter of fact, the plural of Arabic "bank" isn't "banks," it's "bunuuk." The plural of Arabic "film" isn't "films," it's "aflaam." Moreover, the vast majority of Arabic words are utterly unlike their English equivalents. And the grammar and syntax of Arabic are radically different from English.

On Oct. 30, Michael Youssef, an Egyptian-born American evangelical pastor, published an article on the political site Townhall.com titled "Common Threads between Islam and Mormonism." Now being picked up elsewhere, his column is a very thinly veiled attack on a prominent (though unnamed) political candidate, but my focus here will be on a few of its cherry-picked parallels between Mormonism and Islam, plainly intended to subtly demonize the faith of the Latter-day Saints by associating it with a religion that many Americans fear.

"In America," writes Dr. Youssef, "we have the great privilege of choosing candidates based on our core values, rather than how they identify with our theological point of view."

He nonetheless proceeds to comment, for a political publication, upon Mormon and Islamic doctrines. "It's hard to believe," he says, "that two religions that are worlds apart geographically have so many things in common."

Indeed.

Offering an example, he observes that "They both have their own book of 'sacred scripture.' " Which is true, of course. In fact, Mormonism has four such books. And while those Mormon books don't include the Qur'an, they do include the Bible — a fact that Youssef somehow omits. Islam doesn't accept the Bible as authoritative scripture, but Mormonism emphatically does.

"While both tip their hats to the Bible," Dr. Youssef asserts, "each see(s) God's Word as insufficient by itself."

Note the sleight-of-hand by which Dr. Youssef equates "the Bible" with "God's Word," thus privileging his own Protestant view of scripture over the views of Muslims and Mormons, who would never, ever agree that they regard "God's Word" as "insufficient." (This is yet another illustration of the "fallacy of equivocation," about which I've recently written. Muslims believe God's Word to be found in the Qur'an and the teachings of Muhammad. Latter-day Saints find it in their three unique books of scripture, in the inspired words of modern prophets, and, again, in the Bible.

According to Youssef's account of Islam and Mormonism, "both repudiate Biblical Christianity and identify orthodox Christianity as a false faith."

But this is deeply misleading. Islam — along with all other non-Christian religions (that's pretty much what it means to be non-Christian) — does indeed reject Christianity, and regards the Bible as fatally corrupted. But Mormonism counts the Bible first among its "standard works" of scripture and declares itself to be nothing less than the restoration of lost biblical Christianity.

Furthermore, by assuming his conclusion among his premises — namely, that his own non-Mormon position is biblical and orthodox, while Mormonism is not — Youssef ensures that his premises will demonstrate that Mormonism is (surprise!) unbiblical and unorthodox. But he does so at the price of reasoning in a circle, committing the basic logical fallacy of "begging the question."

"Both religions," continues Youssef, "reject the doctrine of the Trinity." And, truly, Islam does. There is no divine Son of God in Islam; Jesus is a very great prophet but, still, only a prophet. God rules in solitary monotheistic majesty and is neither his father nor ours. Oddly, though, Dr. Youssef fails to mention that Latter-day Saints, unlike Muslims, worship a Godhead consisting of Father, Son and Holy Ghost, believing that Jesus was the Jehovah of the Old Testament and that salvation is possible only through Christ's redeeming Atonement.

Much more could and should be said about Youssef's misleading article. Large differences divide Islam and Mormonism with regard to such issues as the nature of God, marriage, priesthood, continuing revelation, and scores of other issues.

Perhaps he just ran out of space.

In any event, Youssef's essay reminds me of my colleague William Hamblin's fictional "Moses Middlebury" school of philology, according to which "Moses" and "Middlebury" are really the same name. You just have to drop the "-oses" and add the "-iddlebury."

Daniel C. Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at BYU, where he also serves as editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative and as director of advancement for the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He is the founder of MormonScholarsTestify.org.

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