In a first of its kind, the Deen Institute organised a controversial debate asking, ‘Have Muslims misunderstood evolution?’ In two parts, scientific and theological, the programme involved five speakers, leaders in their respective fields, who paced back and forth with argument and counter argument.
Myriam Francois-Cerrah, the chair, opened the proceedings by observing that many in the field of science have tried to reconcile their gained technical knowledge on the subject of evolution with their faith. For some, this conflict shook their belief system while for others, as pointed out later in the day, it removed it entirely; hence the need for such a debate to take place.
Professor Ehab Abouheif of Biology Department, McGill University, began by defining evolution, simply, as change over time: descent with modification of organisms from common ancestors. The facts, he observed are not in dispute, rather, it is the question of theory, which processes took place and how.
Crucially, he addressed a common misunderstanding, that in evolution you don't transition from one species to another. That is to say the common belief that we originated from monkeys and apes, despite sharing extensive similarities, is an over simplification and inaccurate representation of evolution.
In contrast, Dr. Oktar Babuna opined that evolution is not a theory, rather a false religion. He observed that natural selection doesn't have evolutionary powers stating that mutations are harmful and do not generate new genetic information. By way of example he shared an illustration of how a starfish ‘evolves’ into a fish, asking for, and offering, a £5 million reward to anyone who can provide a transitional fossil to fit with that or any other evolutionary transition.
The applied biological anthropologist Fatimah Jackson, from the University of Maryland put her focus on how things change, not why. She observed our ability to trace back to the genetic Adam and the genetic Eve (in modern day Africa), raising the question whether they were the Adam and Eve spoken of in the religious scriptures. Fatimah also shared a brilliant diagram illustrating the shape of the forehead of the homo genus over time.
The first skull showed a flat, near horizontal, non-existent forehead, while the last showed our modern day foreheads. This increased area, she observed, is filled with our frontal lobe: ‘the emotional control centre and home to our personality’.
Fatimah then quotes a verse 16 from Surah Al-‘alaq: “A lying, sinning forelock”. In context from the preceding verses:
8: “Indeed, to your Lord is your return”
9: “Have you seen he who forbids?”
10: “A servant when he prays?”
11: “Have you seen if he is upon guidance?”
12: “Or enjoins righteousness?”
13: “Have you seen if he denies and turns away?”
14: “Does he know what God Almighty sees?”
15: “No, If he does not desist, We will surely drag him by the forelock”
16: “A lying, sinning forelock”
The implication of our specific make-up being that our frontal lobe, differing to all previous homo genus, is distinctive. We have greater cognitive ability. Thus, we as a creation, and those who abuse their authority in this life, won't be dragged by our arms, or legs, but by the very part of our body, the forelock, the forehead, where our cognitive abilities rest. What an interesting insight!
The polymath Dr. Usama Hasan asserted that evolution is in fact a Muslim theory. He quoted a number of classical scholars including Al-Jahiz, who wrote on the subject of common descent; Ibn Khaldun; then observing that even poets such as Rumi touched on the subject. In fact, he quoted John William Draper (d. 1882) “…the Mohammedan theory of evolution of mans from lower forms, or his gradual development to his present condition in the long lapse of time,” raising the question of why a scientist in the 19th century is referring to evolution as being a Muslim theory.
Usama further elaborated on a grave misunderstanding of the Quranic phrase, “Be, and it is” (36:82) giving the example of Prophet Jesus, who while we as Muslims believe did not have a father, he, like any child, grew in the womb of Prophet Mary. That is, he didn't simply appear out of thin air over night. Similarly, certain interpretations of evolution demonstrate the creation of humanity as we are today as a different understanding of ‘a miracle.'
He then shared that some scholars of the past opined that Adam and Eve, were in a Jannah (sometimes translated as paradise, but meaning a walled garden) on earth, citing Tabari and Ibn Kathir who collected such evidences.
Surprisingly, Sheikh Yasir Qadhi also agreed with evolution in every context except, he asserts, for humanity. Like Usama, he cited the Qur’an, the Hadith, and classical interpretation, stressing that humanity is the one exception to notion of evolution. He went further to observe, that if something is not included in the scriptures then there is nothing to prohibit it’s belief, including for example alien life forms.
Yasir went on to observe that many Muslims have misunderstood the subject area based on prejudice. He gave the example of how previous generations on the Indian sub-continent refused to learn English by way of protest, even though that knowledge would have been beneficial.
What does this mean?
As with any controversial subject, we need to look at the status quo, the accepted norm. For generations people have believed such and such and so our beliefs therefore cannot be questioned, for doing so would weaken them.
We can see this parallel when we look at attitudes towards women in society, on the one hand implying women shouldn’t leave the house, while knowing that women at the time of the Prophet did everything.
Another example is our attitude towards food, on the one hand insisting that only food slaughtered by Muslims (zabiha) is permissible for consumption, all the while the Quran asserts that halaal food includes the food of people of the book.
Elsewhere we see attitudes demonise pigs, even dogs, where while we do not eat the former in general, the Quran makes them lawful in certain circumstances.
The issue, sadly, is one of image, one which I’d venture to state is false, even delusionary. Consider a friend of mine who has set up a charity to fund schools and so educate children in Pakistan. She was scheduled to appear on a ‘Muslim’ tv channel but was told that she either covers her hair, or that she declares she is a non-Muslim. Her options are to either deceive the audience with an image that does not reflect who she is, or to reject Islam?
Similarly, when working in the non-profit sector in Bosnia many years ago, I remember orphan girls as young as five being told to cover their hair for a photograph which would be sent to a sponsor, all the while they would never actually wear a scarf otherwise. Someone, somewhere has decided that instead of reflecting life, we must reflect an interpretation of life, even if those who are being represented do not live by that interpretation. That is to say, we are lying to ourselves.
The worst part of this affair is the attitude of the Islamic Society at the University where this talk was initially scheduled for. Whether you agree or disagree with a subject, shunning it outright is not the correct ‘Islamic’ way – the Quran is full of verses which encourage us to seek knowledge, to question, to evaluate, to continually question.
Indeed one of Prophet Muhammad’s most profound hadiths reads, ‘Doubt is part of faith’ – that is to say that action by virtue of action does not amount to faith, but continually questioning the status quo to either strengthen or re-evaluate a position, does amount to faith. You would have thought that an Islamic Society at a higher institution of learning would understand this, instead - pity them - as it seems they prefer the world is flat theory to education.
By sustaining an ‘image’ of Islam we deliver the greatest injustice to humanity, indeed we neglect the very purpose of our being. Between an ideal (however that is defined) and an inquiry, there is a middle ground, it is called dialogue.
By refusing to support this conference, the University Islamic Society failed in its mission both as an organization at an institution of higher learning, and as for being ‘Islamic’ they substituted learning for absoluteness of arrogance.
Yet sadly, the vast majority of Muslims the world over have adopted the same position with regards to a number of subjects insisting on ‘Doing and believing as those before us did, blindly, without thought’ – the same thing that the Quran itself warns against.
Professor Ehab, Professor Fatimah and Dr. Usama all believe in an interpretation of evolution. Dr. Yasir believes in evolution for everything except for human beings. And Dr. Oktar does not believe in evolution. – Whichever one of these opinions you support, what matters is less the opinion but that you are open to discussion and discovery, without imposing your personal belief onto others. So while the subject of evolution continues to be debated, perhaps the greater learning from this conference is that it is Muslims themselves, metaphorically need to evolve. But even here, given the inquisitive nature of early Islam, you could argue that evolution is simply returning to the sunnah.
Related Links:The Deen Institute
As a Muslim, how do you interpret Evolution Theory?
Bridging the Gap Between Evolution and Faith
Al-Jahiz - the First Islamic Zoologist