Have Muslims Misunderstood Evolution – Part 2

In the first part of this series, misconceptions about Evolution was pointed out, and Evolution was put in perspective by scientists who are experts in the field; Ehab and Fatima Jackson. Then a creationist, Babuna, presented his case but it was based on the same misconceptions pointed out. This post builds on the misconceptions highlighted and the debate goes into Theology and Belief.

Theology and Belief Discussions

Here are the backgrounds of the interlocutors that would be debating the different sides of this discussion:

  • Usama Hasan is a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, He has a PhD, an MSc and an MA in Physics and Artificial Intelligence from the Universities of Cambridge & London. He followed the family tradition of Islamic scholarship, becoming an Imam at the Masjid al-Tawhid mosque in Leyton. He is a certified transmitter of the Qur’an and Hadith and has translated a number of Islamic texts into English, including The Islamic Foundation’s “Way of the Prophet” (2009). He fought in Afghanistan against the Russian occupation.
  • Yasir Qadhi graduated with a B.Sc. in Chemical Engineering from the University of Houston, after which he was accepted as a student at the Islamic University of Madinah. After completing a diploma in Arabic, he graduated with a B.A. from the College of Hadith and Islamic Sciences, and completed a M.A. in Islamic Theology from the College of Dawah. He is in the final stages of completing his PhD in Religious Studies from Yale University. His dissertation revolves around the methodology of Ibn Taymiyya in reconciling Reason with Revelation in Islam. He has appeared on the BBC’s Doha Debates, and his work has been profiled by a cover-story in The New York Times. Shaykh Yasir Qadhi is a resident Scholar of Memphis Islamic Center. He is also a lecturer at Rhodes College, in the Department of Religious Studies.

Usama presented his position first. It was gladdening that he started with quote from Imam Shafi’i on the etiquettes of debate.

“I think my view is right, but it may be wrong. I think opponent’s view is wrong, but it may be right”
“Whenever I debated someone, I would hope that God would manifest the truth upon my opponent’s tongue” – Imam Shafi’i

I hope the debate ended with each of the interlocutors being more informed (or realigning their positions even if slightly). Interestingly about 15 years ago, Usama was defending the same position of creationists as Babuna, using similar sources. Now his position is that Evolution is a fact. In a way I see it like Malcom X’s transition to orthodoxy via Nation of Islam; championing each of the positions. Yasir Qadhi follows immediately with well structured arguments. Both presented their positions for 20 mins, then come back for 10mins, then come back for 5 mins to conclude. Only the first 20 minutes is covered in this post.


Evolution is a fact! In addition to the misconceptions (raised in the Science Discussion by Ehab), a major point of conflict is between scholars of text (Exegetes, Theologians) and scholars of context (Scientists). The aim is to bridge this gap. Theory of Evolution shall be defended by arguing two points:

  1. Evolution Theory was actually developed by Muslims
  2. Qur’anic accounts of creation is not in conflict with Evolution Theory

1. Evolution Theory was actually developed by Muslims.

According to Draper, who was a contemporary of Darwin, the Evolution Theory proposed by Darwin is nothing new because Muslims had already articulated it in the past; especially Ibn Khaldun (Muslim philosopher and Historian) and Ibn Miskawayh (Muslim Philosopher). Also, Al Jahiz (medieval Muslim writer) understood the concept of common descent in his Book of Animals (Kitab al Hayawan). Also refer to the book Darwin’s Ghosts by Rebecca Scott in which the development of Darwin’s Evolution Theory is traced to others before Darwin; others including Muslims. Then there is also the Bretheren of Purity (Ikhwan as Saffa), in their Rasa’il (Encyclopedia), talk about the different worlds (of Mineral, Plant, Animal, Monkey, Human) one going into the other.

Similarly these worlds were referred to by Ibn Khaldun. This is what Ibn Khaldun says about says about these stages/worlds:

“… the last stage of minerals is connected with first of plants… The last stage of each group is fully prepared to become the stage of the next group”. – Ibn Khaldun

These stages are connected according to Ibn Khaldun. This can be seen today in the most advanced plants that we know can count and eat insects. Another Muslim that expressed understanding of Evoltion Theory is Rumi the poet. Therefore Muslims that came before Darwin actually developed Evolution Theory.

2. Qur’anic accounts of creation is not in conflict with Evolution Theory
The issue of the alignment of Qur’anic accounts of creation and Evolution is more an issue of Exegesis than Theology. The basic teachings of Qur’an on creation does not contradict Science, which means that it possible to interpret the following basic teachings of the Qur’an as follows:

  • Adam was created from earth and water => Life evolved from earth and water
  • God breathed His spirit into Adam’s body => According to Ibn Arabi, this means that man reached intellectual and spiritual maurity. The maturity was gradual, not instantaneous
  • God taught Adam all (God’s?) names => Man became receptive to receiving devine knowledge
  • God taught eloquent speech to man => Adam was a “Perfect Man”

Through out history, there has been difference of opinion between Exegetes and “Scientists” of the time, each uncompromising on their positions. So having objections to the above interpretations is a persistent issue. What follows are some of the common objections today we find in the Qur’an, presented as objections to the Evolution theory:

This similitude of Jesus before Allah is as that of Adam: He created him from dust, then said to him: “Be” and he was. [Q3:59] Yusuf Ali Translation

Objection 1: God said “Be” and it was; therefore creation of Adam was instantaneous.
Counter Objection 1: The Qur’an here is comparing Adam and Jesus in the same verse. We can understand that the command from God “Be” is applicable to both Adam and Jesus. If the Qur’an affirms a gradual and natural process for the (virgin) birth of Jesus, so why not a natural processes for Adam? “Be and he was” doesn’t mean things can’t take time, especially to God who is beyond time.

Objection 2: Surely the greatest men (Prophets) and women mentioned in the Qur’an could not have had common ancestors with apes. That is derogatory!
Counter Objection 2: Having a common ancestor with apes is not derogatory, it is humbling. In fact, the Qur’an repeatedly reminds us of this need for humility when it says man is created from “ma’in mahin” (detestable fluid, semen). That does not derogate great men and women.

Objection 3: The Qur’an’s account of creation is that Adam and Eve were expelled from the heavenly garden (Jannah) and sent down to earth. Therefore Adam could not have evolved on earth.
Counter Objection 3: The word “Jannah” in the Qur’an refers to both heavenly and earthly gardens. Exegetes like Tabari and Ibn Kathir refer to this opinion of Jannah as earthly; noted as a minority view. The interpretation of “Jannah” as heavenly maintains that the appearance of Adam and Even on earth is “Miraculous” (instantaneous), out of nowhere. This makes it clearer that the issue of Evolution Theory with Islam is an Exegesis (Tafsir) issue, not a Theological (Belief) issue.

Objection 4: Theory of Evolution leads to Atheism, denial of God.
Counter Objection 4: No! Science tells us HOW we were created, and revelation tells us WHY.

In conclusion, failure to reconcile interpretation of (religious) text in light of modern science has led many young Muslims to lose their faith after studying Science and unable to reconcile with popular interpretations. Exposure to different interpretations has led many to rediscover their faith.

Yasir Qadhi

It must be acknowledged that Evolution Theory is accepted as well established among scientists in the field. This debate is relevant for a fundamental topic as this which is very much misunderstood, and which needs more scholarhisp. This is a theological debate; by Muslims, for Muslims and based on Muslim sources. So this may not make sense to non Muslims.

The question of the debate is: Is the idea that humans evolved from non-human ancestors a valid theological position in light of Qur’an and Hadith?

Before answering this question, some background should be set. We know that any established fact in science CANNOT contradict the Qur’an. There may be a perceived conflict but not an actual conflict. In the case of a perceived conflict, a Muslim has one of three logical options based on the three categories of perceived conflicts:

Category 1: When neither Science nor religious Texts asserts a position e.g. the existence of aliens. Muslims can choose to believe in aliens, or not, as they like.

Category 2: When Science has achieved indubitable certainty while religious texts are ambiguous e.g. a few verses have been interpreted in the past to support geocentricity (the universe revolve around earth) while more verses in light of Science support heliocentricity (the universe revolves around the sun). So Muslims can choose heliocentric interpretation.

Category 3: Where Religious Texts present a position that is clear beyond dispute while Science presents “interpretation of data” that conflicts with that position e.g. The Theory of Evolution. The solution for a Muslim is to accept the Texts, and then be humble about our their ability to understand God and His methods through Sciences or any other way. We must adopt teachings from “Authoritative religious texts rather than speculative interpretation of scientific data”. The following have been established in authoritative religious texts:

  • Humankind descended from Adam and Eve
  • First humans were directly created by God
  • Adam and Eve did not have parents, and were not products of evolution from previous life forms

To contradict any of these teachings of the texts would be “scripturally indefensible, historically flawed, and methodologically shallow”. Here are three arguments to support these established truths:

  1. Scriptural evidences
  2. Role and Philosophy of Science
  3. Argument from history

1. Scriptural evidences

There are numerous explicit and clear evidences that humans are from only two parents; so many that time will not allow it in this conference. There are also Text that clearly indicate the stages of creation which cannot follow from Evolution Theory. For instance where the Qur’an mentions “… bayna ruhi wat turab”, meaning man was in a state between being a soul and being clay; this is not consistent with Evolution Theory which claims that Man came about through natural phenomenon.

Who made all things good which He created, and He began the creation of man from clay; Then He made his seed from a draught of despised fluid [Q32:7-8] Pickthall Translation

In Q32:7-8, we understand that man was created “first from clay (dust)… then from despised (semenal) fluids”; that the first man was created from dust, then his progeny was created through natural methods. Remember we said Evolution Theory falls under Category 3 (above), where textual meaning must be adopted over scientific conclusions. Had Evolution Theory fell under Category 2, then the scientific conclusion could be given weight in the interpretation. But it falls under Category 3 as far as rules of language and exegesis allow. Given the frequency and sheer diversity of nouns and ajdectives in these verses makes the meaning so clear and explicit without room for other interpretations. Unless by twisting and imagining meanings (hermeneutical gymnastics), or by claiming that the whole story is allegorical but that would be blasphemous. In conclusion, Islamic texts cannot be faithfully interpreted as modern day Evolution Theory.

2. Role and Philosophy of Science

Science works by collecting Emperical data and using that to find the best explanation to understand and predict the world. Therefore anything beyond the realm of the physical cannot be grasped by Science. Therefore, by default Science disqualifies any supernatural account of the creation of man. “Science has a function, a scope and a role, let us keep science within that scope”

3. Argument from history

During the Muslim Civilisaion, scientist were not persecuted for presenting scientific conclusions. Therefore it is a big mistake to lump Muslims who question only one aspect of Evolution Theory with religious creationists of other faith traditions (and Islam) who deny the entire Theory of Evolution. In times of challanges, When there is attempt to “reconcile” what is considered “indubitable Scientific evidences” with the Qur’an, history has shown that the Scientists are wrong; science remains changing (through Thomas Kuhn’s Paradigm Shift). It is actually religious arrogance to interprete the devine with changing paradigms.

Usama committed a falasy by appeal to authorities who are neither “authorities” in Theology or Biology, which are the fields of concern for this debate. He claimed that historical Muslims articulated a Theory of Evolution (before Darwin). This is an error of the highest magnitude because what Ibn Khaldun and Ibn Miskawayh were referring to was a Muslim adaptation of the Greek concept of Scala Naturae (Scale of being) NOT Evolution Theory. Scala Naturae is a static and linear scale useful in assigning legal and moral weight to those higer on the scale than those lower; there is no suggestion of progression. Both Ibn Khaldun and Ibn Miskawayh have those quoted passages in their section on Prophecy (or Prophethood); which is not to imply that men become prophets or that prophets become angels, but to instead it is to establish a hierarchy. In addition, Ibn Miskwayh actually quotes a hadith about the creation of Adam from clay in the same page where he referred to the Scala Naturae, showing he does not intend to mean Evolution Theory. Moreover, and I hesitate to say this, both Ibn Khaldun and Ibn Miskawayh have used this scala natural to defend racism and allow for subjugation and slavery of other races there were placed on lower stages of the Scala Naturae. After all an expert T.J. Boer (1903) has pointed out that it is wrong to read Evolution Theory into the works of Ibn Khaldun and Ibn Miskawayh.

In conclusion, It is a mistake for Muslims to say they don’t believe in Evolution. Most of the principles of Evolution Theory are not in conflict with Theology (dinosaurs, mutation, hominids etc). In fact, I could even accept that there is a common ancestor for all life on earth WITH THE EXCEPTION of humans. Evolutionary Science is not bad science; it is well researched and fits criteria of proper Science, therefore also having limitations that any Science has. Be reminded that it is within the realm of religion to believe in miracles. For those who believe in virgin birth of Jesus, red sea parting by Moses, splitting of the moon by the Prophet and other miracles clear in the Quran, why is it so difficult to believe that the unnatural creation of the man was even a greater miracle. Here is a possible alternative to Evolution Theory by a hypothetical Muslim biologist which Theology could accept: Evolution Theory is applicable to all life on earth with Adam being the only exception, however Adam (DNA) was made to fit perfectly among other creations such that barely looking at scientific evidence, the conclusion follows that man may have evolved like other creatures. (see Q18:51).

I called them not to witness the creation of the heavens and the earth, nor (even) their own creation: nor is it for Me to take as helpers such as lead (men) astray! [Q18:51] Yusuf Ali Translation

My Comments

Usama provided good reasons for why he thinks Muslims helped developed Darwin’s Evolution Theory. In spite of the good counter challenge presented by Yasir concerning the claims of Usama, I still find that Usama has a point to his claim. After all reading these texts of Ibn Khaldun especially (as translated into English), it is seems to me they actually mean progression between the different states. I agree with Yasir that the source of the scale is probably from the Greek Scala Naturae, but it seems the historical Muslims have taken it a step further to imply there is a progression. Progression through different states from a Sufi perspective is nothing new, and I suppose all the quoted Muslim’s were exposed to some level of Sufi ideas. That is why it is not surprising to find a Sufi (Rumi) among those quoted.

As to the opinions of (literature) experts concerning this matter, both sides quoted authorities to support their claim which may mean these are simply scholarly differences that both have followership. So I see Usama’s claim that Darwin’s Evolution Theory may have been developed by Muslims as plausible.

Usama also claimed that the Qur’an’s account of creation is not incompatible with Evolution Theory, whereas Yasir maintains that the two are not compatible. While this looks like a major point of disagreement I think this just an extension of a more fundamental difference which is that Usama sees this issue of Evolution as an issue of Exegesis and Interpretation, while Yasir sees it as an issue of Theology and belief. It is no surprise then that the two could not agree because they are dealing with different problems and so their approaches will differ. Actually both of them mentioned how they see the problem. If this is an issue of Exegesis/Interpretation, then certainty is not paramount, only plausibility is important. That is why it is understandable that those who see it as a matter of Exegesis/Interpreation refer to Science for a proper grounding which provides them with plausibility almost to the point of certainty. On the other hand those who see this as a matter of Theology/Belief must seek certainty in the Texts themselves because these are the most authoritative sources for the religion. I must say, both did a good job defending their positions but their positions are not really on the same plane.

Personally I find Evolution Theory to be a matter of Exegesis/Interpretation (like Usama), not Theology/Belief (Yasir), provided it accepts the origin of Man is from God. How God realized His creation is subject to interpretation as long as it is plausible. Issues of Theology/Belief should be more fundamental and therefore I don’t find contradiction between the Theological positions of the two sides. Referring to the three categories of conflicts put forward by Yasir, one who sees Evolution Theory as an issue of Theology/Belief (like Yasir) is bound to place it in Category 3 (where Texts supercede), whereas those who see it as an issue of Exegesis/Interpretation (Usama) are bound to place it in Category 2 (where Science clarifies).

Like I said, I find all their arguments very interesting and informative, but I don’t really see a conflict based on how I see the issue.

The next post covers their 10 minute rebuttals. See you there InShaAllah!



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