The Muslim theory of evolution

Denying evolution not only puts Muslims out of touch with established science, it puts them out of touch with their own scientific heritage

Is evolution compatible with Islam?
Ghaffar Hussain
On 14 January 2013 10:03

The debate amongst Muslims about the compatibility of evolution by natural selection with Quranic teachings has gained real momentum in recent years. With an increasing number of Muslim scientists coming forward and publicly declaring their belief in evolution, the debate has also began to attract the wrath of conservatives, who feel threatened by evolution and view it as a falsifiable western concoction.

Belief in evolution remains a minority position in virtually all Muslim societies around the world today. According to studies, 22 percent of Turks, 16 percent of Indonesians, 14 percent of Pakistanis, 11 percent of Malaysians, and 8 percent of Egyptians believe in evolution. In comparison, belief in evolution is between 60 – 80 percent in most European societies, and 40 percent in the US.

But things may not always have been this way. Traditionally, western scientists considered evolution a theory primarily promulgated by their Muslim counterparts. A contemporary of Charles Darwin, Sir William Draper, in his book 'The Conflict Between Religion and Science,' refers to “...the Muhammaden theory of the evolution of man from lower forms” (p188).

Draper's observation was based on the fact that Muslim scientists since the 9th century CE have been alluding to the idea that humans evolved from less sophisticated life forms over a long period of time.  

Al-Jahiz (781-869 CE), a Muslim scholar based in present day Iraq, states in 'The Book of Animals':

Animals engage in a struggle for existence; for resources, to avoid being eaten and to breed. Environmental factors influence organisms to develop new characteristics to ensure survival, thus transforming into new species. Animals that survive to breed can pass on their successful characteristics to offspring.

Ibn Khaldun, perhaps one of the most famous Muslim Polymaths of all time, published a book called 'The Muqadimmah' in 1377 CE. In it he states:

One should then take a look at the world of creation. It started out from the minerals and progressed, in an ingenious, gradual manner, to plants and animals. The last stage of minerals is connected with the first stage of plants, such as herbs and seedless plants. The last stage of plants, such as palms and vines, is connected with the first stage of animals, such as snails and shellfish.

He adds:

The animal world then widens, its species become numerous, and, in a gradual process of creation, it finally leads to man, who is able to think and reflect. The higher stage of man is reached from the world of monkeys, in which both sagacity and perception are found...

There were also many other Muslim scholars, writing between the 9th and the 14th century, that expressed ideas similar to those of al-Jahiz and Ibn Khaldun. Persian scholar, Ibn Miskawahy (932-1030) provided perhaps the most vivid account of evolution from that period, seeking to harmonise it with the Quranic description of creation in the process.

So why didn't these ideas take off and integrate into the fabric of mainstream Muslim thought and society? There are a number of reasons.

Firstly, Muslim empires in the past believed in centralising knowledge rather than disseminating it en masse. Centres of learning, such as Baghdad and Cordoba, had their houses of knowledge in which scientists would work, preserving and developing on, primarily, Hellenistic knowledge. There was no printing press, and even when it did arrive it was rejected, thus such knowledge was largely reserved for an elite audience. When centres of learning were conquered and destroyed, as Baghdad was in 1256 by the Mongols, most of the knowledge was lost too.

Secondly, the religious authorities of the time were largely opposed to ideas being put forward by scientists and other rationalist thinkers such as Ibn Rushd, and before him, Ibn Sina. They felt threatened by non-theological attempts to ascertain truths and Muslim leaders often sided with the religious authorities for political reasons.

Thirdly, literalist and dogmatic strands of Islamic theology have been aggressively promoted all around the Muslim world over the past few decades or ever since huge oil deposits were discovered in the Arabian Gulf. The Saudi state, in an attempt at cultural imperialism, has done its best to mainstream Wahabi thinking in Muslim communities everywhere. The result: a retardation and stagnation of thinking in parts of the world that were already very stagnant.

Most conservative Muslims today feel threatened by the idea of evolution, especially since the evidence for it is over-whelming and an increasing number of believers are starting to accept it. History illustrates that this doesn't have to be the case. Evolution is not a modern western construct. Like most great ideas, it has been developed over hundreds of years by many great thinkers, from Aristotle all the way to Dawkins.

Most importantly of all, the theory of evolution today, especially with the advances in our understanding of DNA, is fact. Denying it not only puts Muslims out of touch with established science, it puts them out of touch with their own scientific heritage.

Ghaffar Hussain is a counter terrorism expert and Contributing Editor to The Commentator. Follow him on Twitter @GhaffarH

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