Arabs Without God: Chapter 3

By Brian Whitaker

Chapter 3: God’s own book

IN ORDER to attract followers, religions need some way of demonstrating their divine credentials. Christianity has traditionally relied on the stories of miracles performed by Jesus – turning water into wine, casting out demons, healing the sick with his touch, etc – culminating in his own resurrection from the dead. Such stories are inherently implausible, leading many to conclude that they never actually happened or are not to be taken literally. But for those who can be persuaded that they did happen, implausibility is their strength: the fact that ordinary mortals can’t perform miracles points to the conclusion that they must be the work of God.

Islam’s credentials also rely on the supernatural, though not quite in the same way. Unlike Jesus, who is claimed to be the son of God, the Prophet Muhammad is regarded as an ordinary human, though one “chosen” by God. He died a normal death and did not come back to life three days later. Although he has been linked to some miraculous events these are relatively few and not particularly central to the Muslim faith. On one occasion, Muhammad is said to have travelled from Mecca to Jerusalem and back (a round trip of more than 1,500 miles), plus an excursion from Jerusalem to heaven – all in a single night.[i] There is also a story that when the Prophet was asked to provide a sign from God he pointed at the moon which was seen to be split into two parts. Both these tales have been much elaborated by Islamic tradition, though the Qur’an refers to them in just a few words and without detail:

  • Glory to (Allah) Who did take His servant for a journey by night from the Sacred Mosque to the farthest mosque, whose precincts We did bless.[ii]
  • The hour drew nigh and the moon was rent in twain.[iii] 

In the eyes of Muslims, though, the most important miracle of Islam is the Qur’an itself, and in that respect Islam differs significantly from Christianity. While Christians often describe the Bible as “the word of God” and regard it as divinely inspired, they do not claim God was the author – it is a collection of writings from human sources. The Qur’an, on the other hand, is said to be the direct word of God, delivered to the Prophet Muhammad via the angel Gabriel (Jibril in Arabic). This claim is the essence of Islam, since without it the faith would not exist. Consequently, it is the claim that Muslims are most eager to assert and that sceptics are most eager to discredit.

Arabs Without God is available in paperback from Amazon (US) or Amazon (UK). It is also available in Arabic (online, free of charge) and in Italian under the title Arabi Senza Dio.

In their effort to demonstrate a divine origin of the Qur’an, Muslims employ a number of arguments. These focus on Muhammad’s trustworthiness, the Qur’an’s uniqueness of language and literary style, the accurate preservation of its text over the centuries, and internal evidence from its content such as foreknowledge of events and scientific discoveries.

Examining these in turn, the first argument seeks to establish that Muhammad was a person of integrity, and sincere in his belief that the Qur’an was a message from God. In the words of Sheikh Muhammad Salih al-Munajjid (a government-employed cleric in Saudi Arabia):

Allah chose him even though he had grown up as an orphan and was illiterate, knowing neither how to read or write. All good qualities and virtues were perfected in him, to the point of ultimate perfection. All these good qualities were combined and firmly established in him, something which no one else can attain except the Prophets whom Allah protected and guided.

This combination of perfect qualities is one of the greatest proofs of the truth of his Prophethood (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him).[iv]

Muhammad’s apparent lack of education is also cited by the US-based Institute of Islamic Information and Education as evidence that he could not have concocted the Qur’an by himself:

The fact that Muhammad could neither read nor write is well known and uncontested by even his non-Muslim contemporaries and present day historians. He had no schooling or teacher of any kind. He had never been known to compose oral poetry or prose.

The Qur’an, with its all-embracing laws and freedom from all inconsistencies, has its greatness acknowledged even by non-Muslim scholars. Its contents treat social, economic, political and religious legislation, history, views of the universe, living things, thought, human transactions, war, peace, marriage, worship, business, and everything relating to life – with no contradicting principles.[v]

Having thus ruled out Muhammad himself as the author of the Qur’an, the institute then goes on to consider other possible authors – Arabs, non-Arabs, even Satan – and by a process of elimination concludes that the real author must have been God.

Claiming divine authorship of a book is not without its hazards, however, since a literary work produced by God cannot afford to be anything less than perfect. Describing the Qur’an as “the greatest sign” from God, Sheikh Munajjid says it “contains in its pages miracles of both style and content, which all of mankind cannot match or imitate”. The Qur’an’s literary style – delivered in the local Quraishi dialect of Arabic – lies somewhere between prose and poetry, constructed in a way that makes it easy to memorise, and few would dispute its eloquence. Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall, a British convert to Islam who in 1930 published one of the best-known translations of the Qur’an, described its language as an “inimitable symphony, the very sounds of which move men to tears and ecstasy”.[vi]

The Qur’an itself not only claims there can be no imitation but challenges others to try, on pain of hellfire:

And if you are in doubt as to which We have revealed to Our servant, then produce a sura [chapter] like it …

But if ye cannot – and of a surety ye cannot – then fear the fire whose fuel is men and stones, which is prepared for those who reject faith.[vii]

Despite the threat of eternal punishment, there have been plenty of attempts at mimicry. Abu al-’Ala al-Ma’arri, the Syrian philosopher-poet who died in 1057CE, produced a parody of the Qur’an and after being informed that his own work did not have the resonance of the holy book he is said to have replied: “When you read it days and nights for years, it will” – implying that readers’ familiarity with the Qur’an, more than the language, was what gave it resonance.[viii]

A more recent parody was al-Furqan al-Haqq (“The True Criterion”) a book published in the United States in 1999 and written in the style of the Qur’an but with a Christian message.[ix] It appears to have been designed so that the unwary might mistake it for a copy of the Qur’an.

Around the same time there was a campaign against a website called SuraLikeIt which had published four suras written in the style of the Qur’an, with English translations. One of them began:

(1) Alef Lam Saad Meem

(2) Say: O Muslims, You are far astray.

(3) Those who disbelieved in God and his Christ shall have in the life-after the fire of hell and a severe torture.

(4) Some faces that day will be subdued and darkened seeking forgiveness from God and God shall do whatever He wants ...

The sura went on to suggest that Muslims had been led astray by Muhammad and that Muhammad had in turn been led astray by Satan. SuraLikeIt became front-page news in Egypt, where scholars at al-Azhar denounced the website as “aggression on the human heritage and sacred values not only of Muslims, but of all humanity”. Eventually, America On Line, which hosted the website, was persuaded to delete it. AOL, apparently unaware that people have been parodying the Qur’an for centuries, explained its decision by saying: “Our terms of service are very clear on what we call appropriate content, such as content which is defamatory in nature. This page had that. It was particularly targeting Islam.” SuraLikeIt did not disappear, however. It found a host for its web pages elsewhere and the number of imitation suras has since grown from four to twelve.[x]

For the Qur’an to be accepted today as the word of God it is also necessary to show that the text currently in use has been preserved unchanged since the time when it was delivered to the Prophet. Its 114 suras were revealed piecemeal over a period of twenty-three years, with the Prophet reciting each part to his followers and encouraging them to commit it to memory. It was also recorded in writing, in an ad hoc fashion on whatever materials were available – leather, bone, palm fronds, etc. By the time of Muhammad’s death in 622, however, it had not yet been compiled into book form. During the Battle of Yamama in 633, many of the Prophet’s companions were killed, raising fears that large parts of the Qur’an could be lost unless something were done to preserve it:

Zaid ibn Thabit [who had been Muhammad’s personal scribe] was requested by Abu Bakr [the first Muslim caliph] to head a committee which would gather together the scattered recordings of the Qur’an and prepare a suhuf – loose sheets which bore the entire revelation on them.

To safeguard the compilation from errors, the committee accepted only material which had been written down in the presence of the Prophet himself, and which could be verified by at least two reliable witnesses who had actually heard the Prophet recite the passage in question.

Once completed and unanimously approved of by the Prophet’s Companions, these sheets were kept with the Caliph Abu Bakr, then passed on to the Caliph Umar, and then Umar’s daughter and the Prophet’s widow, Hafsa.[xi]

As Islam spread further afield, however, differences were found in versions of the text being used. The differences are said to have been adaptations to suit local dialects, but in order to preserve the integrity of the text ‘Uthman (who ruled as caliph from 644 to 656 CE) declared the version handed down from Abu Bakr to be the official one and ordered other versions to be destroyed.

These efforts to prevent the original text from becoming lost or corrupted form an important part of claims to its authenticity. But the fact that such efforts were necessary at all is seen by some as evidence that the Qur’an did not come from God: surely God, in his perfection, would have chosen a more reliable delivery method. “It’s ridiculous trying to convince me that this would be the only way that God could have transmitted His most important knowledge to humanity, and that it has to be in Arabic,” Mohammed Ramadan, an Egyptian atheist commented.

The “scientific miracle” of the Qur’an

IN RECENT years traditional arguments for a divine origin of the Qur’an have increasingly been overshadowed by claims that the Qur’an is a “scientific miracle”. The basic idea is that its verses contain information, usually of a scientific nature, that could not have been known to humans in the time of the Prophet – in which case the information must surely have come from God. Expounding further on this idea, the Institute of Islamic Information and Education says:

Within the Qur’an are recorded facts about ancient times that were unknown to Muhammad’s contemporaries and even to historians in the first half of the 20th century. In scores of verses, we also find references to scientific wonders, some only recently discovered or confirmed, regarding the universe, biology, embryology, astronomy, physics, geography, meteorology, medicine, history, oceanography, etc.[xii]  

Since the 1980s, the “scientific miracle” has become a major tool for Islamic proselytising and appears to have met with considerable success. It has also given many Muslims a renewed sense of pride in their religion. In the eyes of others, though, it has done much to discredit Islam.

The origins of “Qur’anic science” can be traced back to a French doctor, Maurice Bucaille, who served as family physician to King Faisal of Saudi Arabia in the early 1970s. Bucaille wrote a book, The Bible, The Qur’an and Science, which was published in 1976. In it, he argued that while the Bible contains many scientific errors, the Qur’an was remarkably prescient: references to the Big Bang, black holes and space travel can all be found in its verses. Bucaille died in 1988 but his name lives on: the practice of searching the Qur’an for advance knowledge of scientific discoveries became known as “Bucailleism”.

Pervez Hoodbhoy, a Pakistani physicist, comments:

Bucaille’s method is simple. He asks his readers to ponder on some Qur’anic verse and then, from a variety of meanings that could be assigned to the verse, he pulls out one which is consistent with some scientific fact ... To this end, he marshals an impressive number of Qur’anic references to bees, spiders, birds, plants and vegetables of different kinds, animal milk, embryos, and human reproduction.[xiii]

One obvious weakness of this approach is that it only operates retrospectively: the scientific “knowledge” in the Qur’an does not become apparent until after it has been established by science. Hoodbhoy adds: “In Bucaille’s book there is not a single prediction of any physical fact which is unknown up to now, but which could be tested against observation and experiment in the future.”[xiv]

One of the key Bucailleist figures of the 1980s was a Yemeni sheikh, Abdul Majeed al-Zindani, who worked at King Abdulaziz University in Saudi Arabia and began seeking out western scientists who were visiting the kingdom, with the aim of getting them to say positive things about scientific “knowledge” in the Qur’an. Zindani’s technique was described by Daniel Golden in an article for the Wall Street Journal:

His breakthrough came when one of his assistants, Mustafa Abdul Basit Ahmed, presented a leech to Keith Moore, a University of Toronto professor and author of a widely used embryology textbook.

Mr Ahmed wanted to show that a verse from the Qur’an, which states that God made man as a leech, was an apt simile to describe early human gestation as seen under a microscope. Mr Ahmed says Prof Moore was bowled over by the resemblance between the leech and the early embryo. Since the Qur’an predated microscopes, Prof Moore, son of a Protestant clergyman, concluded that God had revealed the Qur’an to Muhammad.[xv]

Moore was so impressed that in 1983 he produced an “Islamic edition” of his embryology textbook, The Developing Human, which he described as containing the same material as the original version but with the addition of “numerous references to statements in the Qur’an and Sunnah about human embryology”. In a foreword to the book, Moore wrote:

For the past three years, I have worked with the Embryology Committee of King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, helping them interpret the many statements in the Qur’an and Sunnah referring to human reproduction and prenatal development.

At first I was astonished by the accuracy of the statements that were recorded in the 7th century AD, before the science of embryology was established. Although I was aware of the glorious history of Muslim scientists in the 10th century AD, and some of their contributions to medicine, I knew nothing about the religious facts and beliefs contained in the Qur’an and Sunnah.

It is important for Islamic and other students to understand the meaning of these Qur’anic statements about human development, based on current scientific knowledge.[xvi]

Sheikh Zindani left King Abdulaziz University but in 1984 secured Saudi funding to establish the “Commission on Scientific Signs in the Qur’an and Sunnah”. Mustafa Abdul Basit Ahmed – the man who had presented the leech to Professor Moore – was then employed by the commission at $3,000 a month to travel around North America cultivating scientists, according to Golden.

The commission drew the scientists to its conferences with first-class plane tickets for them and their wives, rooms at the best hotels, $1,000 honoraria, and banquets with Muslim leaders – such as a palace dinner in Islamabad with Pakistani President Mohammed Zia ul-Haq …

During the course of their trips, scientists were presented with verses from the Qur’an to consider in the light of their expertise. Zindani then interviewed them about the verses in front of a video camera, pushing them to acknowledge signs of divine inspiration. Golden spoke to several who felt they had been tricked or manipulated. Here is one account:

Marine scientist William Hay, then at the University of Colorado, was assigned a passage likening the minds of unbelievers to ‘the darkness in a deep sea ... covered by waves, above which are waves.’ As the videotape rolled, Mr Zindani pressed Prof Hay to admit that Muhammad couldn’t have known about internal waves caused by varying densities in ocean depths.

When Prof Hay suggested Muhammad could have learned about the phenomenon from sailors, Mr Zindani insisted that the prophet never visited a seaport.

Prof Hay, a Methodist, says he then raised other hypotheses that Mr Zindani also dismissed. Finally, Prof Hay conceded that the inspiration for the reference to internal waves ‘must be the divine being’, a statement now trumpeted on Islamic websites.

“I fell into that trap and then warned other people to watch out for it,” says Prof Hay, now at a German marine institute.

Years later, many of the comments from scientists targeted by Zindani are still circulated on the internet.[xvii] Zindani, who had ties to Osama bin Laden long before he became notorious, eventually returned to Yemen where he became a prominent figure in the conservative/Islamist Islah party and founded Iman University, a Yemeni religious institution with about 6,000 students. Thanks to the university’s research efforts, Zindani claims to have developed a herbal cure for HIV/AIDS. Since 2004, he has been listed by the US as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist, mainly because of his connections with Bin Laden and al-Qaeda.[xviii]

Hunting for scientific foreknowledge in the Qur’an is an activity that almost anyone can take part in. It doesn’t require any theological expertise, and digital versions of the text have made searching easier than it used to be. There’s also a fair chance that somewhere among the Qur’an’s 6,000-plus verses something can be found that could, conceivably, with some stretching of the imagination, be interpreted as referring to a recent scientific discovery. Consequently, the internet is full of examples that people have supposedly found.

The searching often appears to bear fruit because of ambiguities or obscurities in the language of the Qur’an. The vocabulary of seventh-century Arabic had developed to suit the needs of the time but in the absence of precise scientific terminology figurative expressions or approximations often had to be used. The planets, for instance, are described in the Qur’an as “swimming” in space.[xix] This imprecision creates ambiguities which allow people to read things into the text that may or may not have been intended. The ambiguities also allow sceptics to argue that if God had wanted to impart scientific knowledge through the Qur’an He might have spelled it out more clearly.

Similar claims of foreknowledge are made for other religions, too. For example, a verse from Hindu scripture – “What does not exist cannot come into existence, and what exists cannot be destroyed”[xx] – has been interpreted as referring to the law of conservation of matter and energy in physics. But this can be a risky business, as Hoodbhoy points out: “Science is quite shameless in its abandonment of old theories and espousal of new ones.” Hindus used to claim their scripture was full of evidence supporting the Steady State theory of cosmology – until scientists abandoned the Steady State theory in favour of the Big Bang theory. Needless to say, Hindus soon found other scriptural passages “which were in perfect accord with the newer theory and again proudly acclaimed as a triumph of ancient wisdom”.[xxi]

A few examples illustrate how the search-and-ye-shall-find technique works in the Qur’an. An article on the True Islam website talks about the ozone layer and begins by explaining its importance in shielding the Earth from harmful rays. “The discovery of the ozone layer,” it continues, “took place many centuries after the Qur’an was revealed, nevertheless there is mention in the Qur’an about this protective layer that shields us against the sun’s harmful rays.” Then comes the all-important sacred verse:

Until he reached the rising of the sun, he found it rising on a people for whom We had provided no shield against it [i.e. the sun].[xxii]

For those who don’t immediately see that this refers to a hole in the ozone layer, the writer explains:

Five implications are drawn from this verse:

1. The word “shield” implies that there is something harmful from the sun, because if there was no harm to come from the sun, there would be no need for a shield.

2. In earlier interpretations of the Quarn [sic] the word “shield” was taken to mean mountains or hills, but mountains and hills do not shield us from the sun’s rays ultra violet rays unless we live all our lives inside one!

3. The phrasing of the verse indicates that the people mentioned as having no shield are in fact the exception and that for the rest of mankind there exists a shield.

4. The words “We had provided no shield” indicate that the shield is a natural one (of God’s making) and not a man-made one. This automatically eliminates the suggestion of houses and other man-made shelters.

5. The verse indicates the presence of a people, and thus areas, that are not shielded. This is in line with the current knowledge concerning the existence of holes in the ozone layer. It is generally thought that these holes have always existed. The matter has suddenly acquired an alarming nature because the size of these holes are greatly being enlarged as a result of man’s pollution of the planet.

The only phenomenon that is able to accommodate all these five implications is the ozone layer.[xxiii]

A possibly more significant observation about the quoted verse is that it seems to assume there is an actual spot, somewhere on Earth and yet to be discovered by science, where the sun rises. A few verses earlier, the Qur’an also talks of the place where the sun sets. It is described as having “a spring of murky water” with people nearby.[xxiv]

Meanwhile, an item on the Islam Guide website looks at the Qur’an’s knowledge of geology, quoting the following verse:

Have We not made the earth as a bed, and the mountains as pegs?[xxv]

Mention of the word “pegs” prompts this explanation:

A book entitled Earth is a basic reference textbook in many universities around the world. One of its two authors is Professor Emeritus Frank Press. He was the Science Adviser to former US President Jimmy Carter, and for 12 years was the President of the National Academy of Sciences, Washington, DC. His book says that mountains have underlying roots. These roots are deeply embedded in the ground, thus, mountains have a shape like a peg.[xxvi]

Islam Guide adds: “The history of science tells us that the theory of mountains having deep roots was introduced only in the latter half of the nineteenth century.” But is this an example of the Qur’an revealing information that could not have been known in the Prophet’s lifetime, or a case of wishful thinking? Some mountains do have roots and some of those roots can be considered as peg-shaped, but there is no strong reason for supposing this is what the verse alludes to.

We also now know that the Earth’s abundant supplies of iron originated in outer space – created by fusion in extremely hot stars. Numerous Islamic websites claim to have found prior knowledge of this in the Qur’an, citing a phrase which can be translated as saying “We [i.e. God] sent down iron”.[xxvii] An article on the Religion of Islam website comments:

This shows that iron did not form on the Earth, but was carried from Supernovas, and was ‘sent down’, as stated in the verse. It is clear that this fact could not have been known in the 7th century, when the Quran was revealed.[xxviii]

However, in order to claim that God “sent down” iron, the writer adopts one very specific interpretation of the word “anzalna” in the Arabic text. Other possible interpretations are that God “revealed” iron and its many uses to mankind, or simply that He “provided” it for mankind.[xxix] The writer does acknowledge these other possibilities but dismisses them by saying that anzalna occurs in the Qur’an only when used in its literal “sending down” sense. This is incorrect. Verses elsewhere in the Qur’an state that God “sent down” clothing, food and eight kinds of cattle – and nobody has suggested that any of them originated in a supernova.[xxx]

Needless to say, when articles of this sort appear on the internet other articles appear, pulling them apart. There are also anti-Islam websites that highlight what they claim to be scientific errors in the Qur’an. Others point out that the Qur’an is not alone in its apparent foresight. Yemeni atheist Ahmad Saeed said: “Whenever I have discussions about the Qur’an [people] say: ‘But how can an illiterate person find out about all these scientific discoveries and miracles 1,400 years ago?’ I tell them that Star Trek also foresaw how the future is going to look, so why don’t you believe in Star Trek instead?”

Hamza Andreas Tzortzis, a convert to Islam who has engaged in public debates with several high-profile atheists, describes the “scientific miracles” narrative as an intellectual embarrassment and suggests that while it does attract many to Islam it also drives others away:

Millions of booklets and pamphlets have been printed that make the claim that there are scientific miracles in the Qur’an, and countless non-Muslims have converted to Islam as a result … Famous popularisers such as Dr Zakir Naik and Yusuf Estes have also used the scientific miracles narrative to verify the Divine nature of the Qur’an.

Due to this intense popularisation over the past few decades, there is now a growing counter movement that attempts to demystify the so-called scientific statements, and they seem to be more nuanced, with a growing popularity. A significant number of apostates from Islam (many of whom I have had private conversations with) cite the counter movement’s work as a causal factor in deciding to leave the religion.[xxxi]

Islam and the theory of evolution

ALTHOUGH there is a long history of conflicts between science and Christianity, Muslims have not generally regarded scientific discoveries as a threat to their belief system. The famous occasion in 1633 when the Italian scientist, Galileo Galilei, was forced by the Roman Catholic Church to recant his “heretical” belief that the earth revolves around the sun has no Islamic equivalent. Muslims’ historical eagerness to engage with science – and to explore it – was at least partly connected to their faith. Astronomy was of particular interest since they used a lunar calendar, and they also needed to ascertain the direction of Mecca when praying.

Borrowing Ptolemaic and Aristotelian ideas, Muslim astronomers readily accepted that the Earth is spherical. Around 830CE, under the Caliph al-Ma’mun, they measured the distance between two cities in what is now Syria, which were known to be separated by one degree of latitude. From that, they calculated the Earth’s circumference at 24,000 miles – a remarkably accurate result.[xxxii]

Later, Abu Rayhan al-Biruni (973-1048) devised a new way to calculate the radius of the Earth using trigonometry and a mountain, and the figure he came up with was little more than ten miles out.[xxxiii] Biruni also speculated that the Earth rotates on its axis, though he was unable to find proof. At the Maragha observatory in what is now Iran, thirteenth-century Muslim astronomers discussed whether the Earth revolves around the sun but eventually abandoned the idea. Some of their arguments bore a resemblance to those later put forward by Copernicus and do not seem to have caused theological problems.

Publication of Charles Darwin’s book, On the Origin of Species in 1859 drew a variety of responses from Muslims – some predictable, some less so. One early Muslim critique – from Jamal al-Din Afghani in 1881 – cited the continued existence of male foreskins as evidence that Darwin’s ideas on natural selection must be wrong: “Is this wretch [Darwin] deaf to the fact that the Arabs and Jews for several thousand years have practised circumcision, and despite this until now not a single one of them has been born circumcised?”[xxxiv] On the other hand, Hussein al-Jisr, a nineteenth-century Lebanese Shia scholar who advocated combining religious education with modern science, saw room for an accommodation between evolution and scripture. “There is no evidence in the Qur’an,” he wrote, “to suggest whether all species, each of which exists by the grace of God, were created all at once or gradually.”[xxxv]

Significantly, one of the first conflicts about Darwinism in an Arab country involved American Christians. It occurred in 1882 at what is now the American University of Beirut. In a speech at a graduation ceremony, Edwin Lewis, a popular professor of chemistry, referred to four “ideal men of science” – one of whom was Darwin. Lewis went on to describe Darwin’s work as “an example of the transformation of knowledge into science by long and careful examination and accurate thinking”. This proved too much for the Board of Trustees since the institution – known at the time as the Syrian Protestant College – had been founded by American missionaries, and Lewis was forced to resign. In the ensuing furore, several senior faculty members also resigned and students declared a strike in support of Lewis; seventeen of them were suspended. To prevent a recurrence, staff were then forced to sign a declaration promising to uphold “Christian values”. The declaration was not repealed until 1902.[xxxvi]

Noting the theological problems that Christians faced in connection with evolution, some Muslims spotted an opportunity to further their own cause. Marwa Elshakry writes:

The theological controversy over evolution in Europe ... could actually be used against European claims of superiority. With the well-publicised opposition to Darwin often regarded from outside Europe as symptomatic of Christianity’s peculiar difficulty with science, many felt motivated to show just how easily Darwin’s ideas could be embraced within their own tradition ...

Just as missionaries, Orientalists and diplomats were claiming that it was Islam that hindered social and intellectual development, Abduh [Muhammad Abduh, the grand mufti of Egypt] made the reverse case: it was Christianity rather than Islam that was the real obstacle.[xxxvii]

Far from dismissing Darwin, some Muslims went so far as to claim part-ownership on the grounds that precursors for parts of his theory could be found in Islamic culture. Elshakry continues:

Supporters and critics alike pointed out that Muslim philosophers had long referred to the idea that species or “kinds” (as the Arabic term anwa’ suggests) could change over time. The notion of transmutation was also recalled in these discussions, and early Muslim philosophical and cosmological texts were cited whenever Darwin was discussed ...

Analogies were drawn with earlier notions of a hierarchy of beings, from matter and minerals to flora and fauna, and finally to humanity itself. That some mediaeval works also argued that apes were lower forms of humans provided more evidence for nineteenth-century Muslims that Darwin’s theory was “nothing new”.

Even today, some suggest that evolutionary theory had Islamic origins. A book published in 2005, Evolution and/or Creation: An Islamic Perspective, claims that Darwin’s ideas about evolution and natural selection were partly derived from Muslim philosophers and scientists, including Ibn Sina (also known as Avicenna) who died in 1037.[xxxviii]

Fortunately for Islam, the Qur’an is a lot more vague than the Bible about the process of creation. It says God made “every living thing” from water;[xxxix] that God created humans from clay[xl] and that He created them “in stages”[xli] – which leaves some scope for interpreting it within an evolutionary framework.

Today, however, Muslim opposition to Darwinism appears to be growing, under pressure from religious conservatives and the influence of American Christian creationists. It’s an area where Arab schools, universities and media nowadays tread warily and often timidly for fear of provoking complaints.

One well-funded organisation promoting an Islamic version of creationism internationally is the Foundation for Scientific Research (BAV), based in Turkey and headed by Adnan Oktar, who has written dozens of books under the pen-name Harun Yahya. Although superficially Islamic in content, BAV’s publications have been shown to rely heavily on Christian material produced by the Institute for Creation Research in California.[xlii] The BAV books are freely available on the internet[xliii] – which means they can be easily regurgitated in student essays anywhere in the world.[xliv]

Teaching about evolution in Arab schools ranges from cautious to non-existent. Ahmad Saeed, a Yemeni, described what happened in his biology class:

My school used to take the science books from Oxford University and there were a lot of chapters that our teacher told us to cancel. Whenever a teacher cancelled a chapter students would say “Thank God!” because they didn’t want to learn more, but I used to read these cancelled chapters and one of them in our biology class was about evolution theory – though the chapter wasn’t called “evolution” it was called “natural selection”, which is one part of evolution theory.

I remember going through this natural selection chapter [by myself] and at the time I thought it was just ridiculous – I was fine with the teacher for deleting it.

According to Saeed, the teacher said the chapter was excluded on instructions from the education ministry. “Now that I look back at it,” Saeed continued, “I realise the brainwashing that they perform on these children.” Today, he argues with friends on Facebook in support of evolution:

Ninety-nine per cent of the people on my Facebook account say things like “You seriously think we came from monkeys?” I try to explain that that’s not the theory – the theory says we share ancestors with monkeys. It just goes to show how really ignorant we have been.

Mohammed Ramadan noticed a similar approach when studying at a state school in Egypt:

They have a chapter [in the textbook] – the final chapter – and it’s all done in a kind of comic way. Most of it doesn’t come in the exams, but if it does it’s mostly about the birds that migrated from certain places and how they changed their colours – a very, very superficial concept of evolution. Some of the teachers accept that evolution may happen through adaptation but they say even if it’s likely to happen in animals it won’t happen in humans, because humans are special.[xlv]

Ramast, an Egyptian ex-Christian, studied evolution at school but found it presented in an equivocal way: “We studied it as a theory that might be right or wrong. But later I started to learn on my own, for example from the Discovery Channel, HowStuffWorks, Digg, and other websites. I learned out of curiosity. I wanted to understand how dinosaurs become birds or a monkey can evolve into a human. I know now that it didn’t happen exactly like that but I had to learn about evolution to find out.” He added that ideas about evolution eventually became “the last thing” in his journey to atheism: “My decision when I grew up was whether I wanted to believe in Adam and Eve or evolution.”

Egyptian universities are “not exactly crawling” with evolutionists either, according to Nour Youssef in a post on the Arabist blog: “Professors almost always introduce the subject as an obsolete, wrong theory, misrepresent it and then conclude with things like: Why are monkeys still around if we came from them?”[xlvi]

Although some Muslims flatly reject evolution theory – the On Islam website says it is “incompatible with the Qur’anic account of creation” and “all the teachings of all heavenly revealed religion”[xlvii] – others seek a kind of half-way house. A study of attitudes towards evolution among Muslim students (Turkish and Moroccan) in the Netherlands found that while a few rejected the whole of evolution theory on the grounds of incompatibility with the Qur’an, “the vast majority constructed types of bridge models in which some aspects of evolution were accepted and others rejected”:

Microevolution [small changes over a relatively short period] and the concept of “the survival of the fittest” appeared on the accepted side of the equation. Students reasoned that it is impossible to deny the logic and empirical backing of these concepts. They also connected microevolution to theistic evolution, the idea that God has guided the adjustments in his creatures. Several students accepted the Big Bang and believed that the Qur’an contains references to both the Big Bang and evolution theory.

On the other hand …

For almost every student … macroevolution [the development of new species, etc] was on the negated side in the bridge models. In contrast to microevolution, macroevolution was connected to atheist aspirations … Likewise, no student accepted the idea that human beings have sprung from apes.[xlviii]

According to the study, these students also “hardly recognised” the evolutionary assumptions that are nowadays implicit in subjects such as medicine, chemistry, and the bio-medical sciences. “Students in these disciplines were of course aware that they were required to take some courses and exams related to evolution theory, but they considered this quite unproblematic as they felt that external reproduction [of Darwin’s ideas in an exam] does not require internal acceptance.”

Given the lack of proper teaching about evolution in schools, it’s scarcely surprising that Arab journalists mislead the public when the subject crops up in the news. In 2009 the Qatari-based al-Jazeera, the Middle East’s most widely-viewed news channel, announced that American scientists had found “new evidence that Darwin’s theory of evolution was a mistake”. The report was referring to a discovery of the fossilised remains of an Ardipithecus ramidus, an early human-like species 4.4 million years old. Although this raised new questions about humans’ distant ancestors it did nothing to undermine evolutionary theory. Regardless of that, al-Jazeera turned for a comment to Dr Zhaghloul el-Naggar, who it described as a famous Arab geologist. Naggar told the channel that the discovery “dealt a heavy blow to Darwin’s theory” and showed that westerners were beginning to “return to their senses” after “dealing with the origin of Man in terms of materialism and the denial of religions”.[xlix] Naggar is an Egyptian Fellow of the Islamic Academy of Sciences who also has a website promoting stories of “scientific miracles” in the Qur’an.[l]

In 2014, National Geographic’s Arabic channel, based in Abu Dhabi, broadcast “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” – a follow-up to the famous science documentary series originally presented by Carl Sagan in the 1980s. Watching the first episode, Palestinian atheist Waleed al-Husseini noticed some odd changes and omissions to “certain parts that did not conform to the Islamic faith, or might have caused controversy in the Arabic speaking world”. A sentence in English saying “We humans only evolved within the last hour” was translated into Arabic as “We humans only existed within the last hour.” In another sentence which said “For more than 100 million years, the dinosaurs were lords of the Earth, while our ancestors, small mammals, scurried fearfully underfoot”, the words “our ancestors” were removed from the Arabic version. Writing on his blog, Husseini said:

For a channel supposed to represent science in the eyes of Arabic speakers, especially with the already poor scientific content in the Arab media, most of which is tainted by pseudoscience (scientific miracles in the Koran and such), it was quite dishonest to censor what little information the Arab viewer might get about our own history and evolution, as revealed by modern science. [li]

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[i]. “Isra and Miraj: The Miraculous Night Journey.”

[ii]. Qur’an 17:1

[iii]. Qur’an 54: 1

[iv]. Munajjid, Muhammad Salih al-: “Evidence for the truth of the Prophethood of Muhammad”

[v]. Institute of Islamic Information and Education: “The Authenticity of the Quran” Contrary to what the institute says, there are some who dispute whether Muhammad was illiterate.

[vi]. Pickthall, Marmaduke: The Meaning of the Glorious Qur’an.

[vii]. Qur’an 2:23-24

[viii]. “Arabs Hated The Quran.” Australian Islamist Monitor, 28 October 2008.

[x]. For details of the SuraLikeIt affair, see: Bunt, Gary: Virtually Islamic. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2000, pp 125-130. For the text of the suras, see

[xi]. Institute of Islamic Information and Education: “The Authenticity of the Quran”

[xii]. ibid.

[xiii]. Hoodbhoy, Pervez: Islam and Science: Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality. London and New Jersey: Zed Books, 1991. p67.

[xiv]. Hoodbhoy, op cit. p 68.

[xv]. Golden, Daniel: “Western Scholars Play Key Role In Touting ‘Science’ of the Quran.” Wall Street Journal, 23 January 2002.

[xvi]. Dr Moore’s “The Developing Human with Islamic Additions” textbook.

The Islam Papers, 1 November 2013.

[xvii]. See, for example, Zindani’s video, “This is Truth”

[xviii]. “United States Designates bin Laden Loyalist.” US Treasury Department, 24 February 2004.

[xix]. Qur’an 21:33

[xx]. Bhagavad Gita, 2:16.

[xxi]. Hoodbhoy, op cit. pp 66-67.

[xxii]. Qur’an 18:90

[xxiv]. Qur’an 18:86

[xxv]. Quran, 78:6-7

[xxvi]. “The Quran on Mountains”

[xxvii]. Quran 57:25

[xxix]. For a variety of translations of this verse, see

[xxx]. Clothing: Qur’an 7:26; food: 10:59, 45:05, 2:57, 7:160; cattle: 39:06

[xxxi]. “Does the Qur’an contain scientific miracles?” Blog post by Hamza Andreas Tzortzis, 21 August 2013.

[xxxii]. The Book of Curiosities. Chapter 1: On the mensuration of the Earth and its division into seven climes, as related by Ptolemy and others.

[xxxiii]. “Abu Arrayhan Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Biruni.”

[xxxiv]. Quoted by Iqbal, Muzaffar: Science and Islam. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing, 2007. p. 157.

[xxxv]. Ziadat, Adel: Western Science in the Arab World: The Impact of Darwinism, 1860–1930, London: Macmillan, 1986, p. 94 Quoted in ‘Muslim Responses to Darwinism.’ Islam Herald website. Retrieved 27 November 2008.

[xxxvi]. “Academic Year Launched.”

[xxxvii]. Elshakry, Marwa: Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860-1950. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014. pp 8-9

[xxxviii]. Shanavas, T O: Evolution and/or Creation: An Islamic Perspective. Philadelphia: Xlibris Corporation, 2005.

[xxxix]. Qur’an 21:30, Al-Anbiya (Pickthall’s translation): “Have not those who disbelieve known that the heavens and the earth were of one piece, then We parted them, and we made every living thing of water? Will they not then believe?”

[xl]. Qur’an 6:2, Al-Anaam (Pickthall’s translation): “He it is Who hath created you from clay, and hath decreed a term for you. A term is fixed with Him. Yet still ye doubt!”

[xli]. Qur’an 71:14, Nuh (Pickthall’s translation): “When He created you by (divers) stages?”

[xlii]. Edis, Taner: ‘Cloning Creationism in Turkey.’ Reports of the National Center for Science Education, vol. 19 no. 6, pp. 30–35, Nov–Dec 1999.

[xliv]. For example, in 2004 a group of Muslim students in biomedical sciences at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam were reported to have uncritically copied text from “Islamic creationist” websites for an essay assignment on “Man and evolution”. See: Koning, Danielle: “Anti-evolutionism among Muslim students.” ISIM Review, Autumn 2006.

[xlv]. Author’s interview, February 2012. Mohammed Ramadan is a pseudonym.

[xlvi]. Youssef, Nour: “Last week in Egypt in TV.” Arabist blog, 17 November 2013.

[xlvii]. “Darwinism from an Islamic Perspective.” On Islam, 24 July 2012.

[xlviii]. Koning, Danielle: “Anti-evolutionism among Muslim students.” ISIM Review, Autumn 2006.

[xlix]. A video of the news report with commentary from the Arab Atheists Network can be found at A text version of the news report, in Arabic, is here:

[l]. Zhaghloul el-Naggar’s website:

[li]. Husseini, Waleed al-: “Cosmos and Islamic censorship.” Blog post, 16 March 2014.