Islam and evolution

Muslims' debate about religion and science

Muslims have generally adopted a positive approach towards science. There is nothing in Islamic history that compares to the battles between church and science in Christianity. However, some Muslims do find it difficult to reconcile the concept of evolution with their faith.

In the 19th century, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was given a mixed reception by Muslims: hostility in some quarters and equanimity in others. The first Muslim critique came in 1881 from Jamal al-Din Afghani who wrote (referring to Darwin’s ideas about natural selection): “Is this wretch 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?”

On the other hand, Hussein al-Jisr, a Lebanese Shi‘i scholar, 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.” The latter view was echoed much more recently by the late Zaki Bedawi – for many years the foremost Muslim scholar in Britain – who said: “I don’t see a contradiction between [the theory of evolution] and Islam.”

Some go even further in reconciling evolution with Islam. 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.

Currently, according to Abdul Majid, a professor of zoology in Pakistan, there are three strands of Islamic thought about evolution: outright rejection, total acceptance and partial acceptance. However, the popular Muslim website, IslamOnline, espouses a strongly rejectionist view:

It’s a plain fact that what the Darwin theory wants to prove runs in sharp contrast to the divine teachings of Islam, and even to all the teachings of all heavenly revealed religion … The claim that man has evolved from a non-human species is unbelief, even if we ascribe the process to Allah or to ‘nature’, because it negates the truth of Adam’s special creation that Allah has revealed in the Qur’an.

So far, there has been little orchestrated creationist activism by Muslims of the kind seen among Christians in the United States, though there have been a few isolated incidents. A science lecturer at Khartoum University was reportedly arrested and beaten up because of the content of his courses and in 2006 Muslim medical students at the prestigious Guys Hospital in London distributed leaflets opposing Darwinism as a part of the activities for Islam Awareness Week. One member of the hospital’s staff was quoted as saying he found it deeply worrying that Darwin was being dismissed by people who would soon be practising as doctors.

Islamic creationism, as an organised movement, is relatively new and small, though well funded and apparently growing in influence. It is centred in Turkey and is based around the Foundation for Scientific Research (BAV), headed by Adnan Oktar, who has written dozens of books under the pen-name Harun Yahya. At first sight, BAV’s activities seem to be part of an internal Turkish battle between Islamists and secularists – one which it claims to be winning. “Darwinism is dying in Turkey, thanks to us,” BAV’s director, Tarkan Yavas, says. But it also has bigger ambitions, looking ahead to Turkey’s possible future membership of the EU. In Yavas’s view: “Darwinism breeds immorality, and an immoral Turkey is of no use to the European Union at all.”

In 2007, one of BAV’s publications, the Atlas of Creation, was sent free of charge to scientists and schools in Britain, Scandinavia, France and Turkey. The books are also freely available on the internet – which makes them a ready source of material for regurgitation in student essays anywhere in the world. BAV has frequent contacts with American creationists and, although its books are superficially Islamic, their arguments have been shown to rely extensively on Christian material produced by the Institute for Creation Research in California.

Islam’s scientific heritage may be one reason why Muslims in general seem untroubled by modern science. There is also a popular belief that science tends to confirm, rather than contradict, what is written in the Qur’an. Many Muslims claim that their holy book contains scientific information which could not possibly have been known to the Prophet or anyone else in seventh-century Mecca – and this is cited as evidence that the Qur’an must have come directly from God. One of the best-known examples is the claim that the Qur’an accurately describes various stages in the development of the foetus; another is that when the Qur’an talks about a “protection” against the sun it is referring to the ozone layer. As far as evolution is concerned, the Qur’an provides less than the Bible for anti-Darwinists to get their teeth into. It portrays God as the creative force behind the universe but – unlike the Book of Genesis in the Bible – does not go into detail about the creation process. It says God made “every living thing” from water; that He created humans from clay and that He created them “in stages”. In the view of many Muslims, this clearly allows scope for evolutionary interpretations.

Farida Faouzia Charfi, a science professor at the University of Tunis, notes that even the most fervent religious believers can be enthusiastic about science. “In those countries where fundamentalism has taken hold among the youth in the universities, it is striking to observe that the fundamentalist students are in a majority in the scientific institutions,” she writes – adding that “fundamentalists are even more numerous in the engineering than the science faculties”.

This, Charfi says, often surprises westerners because they tend to assume “that a scientific mind is of necessity modern”, but Islamists reject modernity only up to a point: they “want to govern society with ideas of the past and the technical means of modernity”. One example she cites is an election rally in Algeria where Islamists used laser technology to project the words “Allahu akbar” (“God is greatest”) on to a cloud in the sky. Al-Qa‘ida’s activities – its use of videos and the internet plus, of course, crashing airliners into buildings – provide numerous other examples.

Charfi, an expert in the optical and electronic properties of semiconductors and electromagnetism, suggests that despite this apparent enthusiasm Muslims are often selective in their acceptance of science and simply ignore or reject any parts of it that seem to conflict with their religious beliefs. Support for Charfi’s argument about selectivity comes from a study of attitudes towards evolution among Muslim students (Turkish and Moroccan) in the Netherlands which found that their views were “much more one of negotiation” with Darwinism than downright rejection:

Though a few students … simply negated the whole of evolution theory on the basis of its perceived incongruence with the creation account in the Qur’an, the vast majority constructed types of bridge models in which some aspects of evolution were accepted and others rejected.

The construction of these models does not imply that the students experienced the encounter of two different accounts of origin as very problematic or disconcerting. On the contrary, they hardly recognised the implicit presence of evolutionary assumptions underlying studies like medicine, chemistry, and 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.

In the students’ bridge models, microevolution 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.

For almost every student I talked with, macroevolution 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.

… In line with the acceptance of creation, it clearly stood out that the existence of God went unquestioned among the students. Atheism was strongly refuted. All students believed in angels, djinns and devils, to which they applied both supernaturalist and naturalist characteristics. Especially for medicine students, hesitations on the true origins of psychiatric ailments stood out – are they djinns or genes?

The students in the Dutch study were all described as having “enlightened” political views (acceptance of democracy, equal gender rights, etc) – which suggests that the kind of selectivity noted by Charfi is not confined to Islamists and Muslim traditionalists. The author noted that along with partial acceptance of microevolution and theistic evolution, some students also produced a few explanations of their own: “A Moroccan female student approached evolution theory as a potential divine ordeal. In her view, bones that support evolution theory could possibly exist by God’s will to test the faithfulness of his people: is their faith strong enough to believe in spite of the facts?”

In Charfi’s view, this approach – rejecting or partially accepting some aspects of science on the basis of literal interpretations of religious texts – is completely unacceptable. Science comes as a total package and trying to cherry-pick, or using Qur’anic verses to re-calculate the speed of light (as some do), makes a nonsense of it:

To partially accept fundamental laws of physics is to render the whole theory incoherent. The rational step is to propose another theory that is logically coherent; this requires an analysis of the principles that underlie theories and their relations and not a simple rejection of some of them. In order to undertake such work, an open mind that is free of all constraints is necessary.

To explore, understand, criticise, innovate, create without forbidding any question, without banning any field and giving the imagination free play – all this implies that one has freed oneself from all dogma. This is unfortunately not the case in the Islamic world where reference to the sacred is inevitable and where the most socially correct thing is to be in conformity with Islam rather than to believe in God. It is in the name of this unavoidable reference to the sacred that scientific knowledge is mutilated.

Source: What's Really Wrong with the Middle East, by Brian Whitaker (Saqi Books, 2009).

Further information

Muslim Responses to Darwinism
Islam Herald website.

The Muslim responses to evolution
by Abdul Majid. Islamic Research Foundation International.

Darwinism from an Islamic perspective

Darwin’s theory of evolution in Sudan
Undated web page, retrieved 27 November 2008.

Academics fight rise of creationism at universities
by Duncan Campbell. The Guardian, 21 February 2006.

Islamic creationism

Harun Yahya - an invitation to the truth
Turkish-based Islamic creationist website

Cloning Creationism in Turkey
by Taner Edis. Reports of the National Center for Science Education, vol. 19 no. 6, pp. 30–35, Nov–Dec 1999.

Turkey: scientists face off against creationists
by Nicholas Birch., 24 May 2007.

Inayat Bunglawala v Harun Yahya
A head to head debate about evolution and the origins of life from a Muslim perspective. Comment Is Free, 1 July 2008.

Shooting the messenger
A Turkish court has ordered the blocking of blog platform Wordpress in defence of Adnan Oktar. By Ali Eteraz. Comment Is Free, 20 August 2007.

Anti-evolutionism among Muslim students
by Danielle Koning. ISIM Review, Autumn 2006.

The Qur’an and modern science
by Amjad Rafiq. Islam 101 website. Retrieved 27 November 2008.

When Galileo meets Allah
by Farida Faouzia Charfi. New Perspectives Quarterly, Winter 2002.

A new astronomical Qur’anic method for the determination of the greatest speed C
by Mansour Hassab-Elnaby. IslamiCity website.

Life on Earth
by Ashraf Salmawi. website.

The evolution of daft ideas
by Brian Whitaker. Comment Is Free, May 29, 2007

Darwin and God: can they co-exist?
Muslim scientists must ensure that Islam's encounter with evolution does not turn out to be its Galileo moment. By Inayat Bunglawala. Comment Is Free, 3 July 2006

Why Muslims should support intelligent design
By Mustafa Akyol. IslamOnline, 14 September 2004

The Origin of Life - an Islamic Perspective
by Yahiya Emerick. Islam For Today website.

The Quran and modern science
by Maurice Bucaille. Islam For Today website.

Life in the Perspective of Quranic Revelations
by Mirza Tahir Ahmad (a non-mainstream Ahmadi view).

The Creation of the Universe
by Ashraf Salmawi. website.

Bridging the gap between evolution and intelligent design: a Quranic perspective
by Iyad Hijazi & Sylvia Nemmers. website.