Evolution and Muslim students at UCL

When facts are at odds with religion, we must be be prepared to challenge religious dogma and those self-centred leaders who use it to manipulate others and maintain ignorance

Is scientific knowledge a challenge to Islam?
Ghaffar Hussain
On 5 December 2011 09:51

It is being widely reported that a select number of conservative Muslim Biology students at University College London (UCL) have began boycotting lectures on evolution. This, if true, is deeply depressing and indicates a broader trend towards religious absolutism that has taken root amongst a significant minority of young Muslims in the UK.

The fact that all living species are inter-related and evolved from simpler life forms to more complex ones over millions of years through a process known as natural selection has been well established and is widely accepted by leading biologists from all over the world. Recent fossil finds and advancements in our understanding of DNA have further strengthened the case for evolution to the point that denying the entire theory would be tantamount to denying the existence of gravity.

I can remember attending lessons which covered evolution during my GCSE Biology as a fairly devout young Muslim. I can remember being fascinated by the evidence I was presented with and it prompted many heated debates with the teacher. What I didn’t do was walk out of the lesson or boycott it. I had enough confidence in my own intelligence not to be misled by pseudo-science and enough of a desire to seek the truth to expose myself to alternative perspectives.

Regardless of my interest in certain aspects of Biology, I decided to study a social science (Psychology) for my undergraduate degree. At the time I was criticised by some of my more conservative Muslim friends for this decision. They viewed the social sciences as anti-religion and believed that they had very little to offer in terms of real knowledge. Their sceptical attitude towards the social sciences was undoubtedly informed by their conservative religious values which were threatened by disciplines that seek to answer questions which they view at the preserve of an almighty being.

Many of these conservative religious friends chose to study hard sciences instead, believing that they were going for disciplines rooted in real knowledge and indisputable facts. This tendency towards hard sciences was also indicative of the fact that they had very fragile comfort zones and very little confidence in their ability to face information which could contradict their traditional values. It may also come as no surprise that the vast majority of extremists study hard sciences in further education.

Historically, religious dogma has always been an enemy of scientific progress. The Muslim and Christian obsession with a geo-centric universe held science back for centuries and led to the persecution of many scientists. However, we can have religion without religious dogma. An increasing number of Muslim scientists have begun to accept evolution and still hold on to their religious convictions. The two are not necessarily incompatible. Evolutionary creationists exist and are increasing despite the best efforts of some zealots to promote classical creationism and intimidate them.

In the end, we must be guided by the facts regardless of which deeply held religious belief they may contradict or who they may offend. We must maintain an open minded approach to knowledge seeking and not be afraid of hearing views which may challenge our beliefs.

Most importantly of all, we must always be prepared to challenge religious dogma and those self-centred leaders who use it to manipulate others and maintain ignorance. 

Ghaffar Hussain is a leading independent counter-extremism expert

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