On Muslims & Evolution

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Presentation1

(UPDATE I and II below)

The following passages are excerpted from my forthcoming book tentatively titled “Discourses on Belief, Science, & Islam”. I’ve recently seen and read for a number of Muslim scholars declaring it a form of disbelief for a Muslim to accept the Theory of Evolution and for Adam and Eve peace be upon them to have descended as opposed to created in an original fashion. I therefore think it is important for some words to be said about this. Before you read this piece, as it contains only excerpts from a larger work, I should make something clear. As far as we are concerned in Islam, Adam and Eve were real people, not characters of some allegory to teach lessons about sin that never took place in real life. God is all-powerful and is not in need of naturalistic causes to bring anything into existence. In fact, every instance is a new creation as per Muslim creed. He could have popped both Adam and Eve and everyone else in history and even those reading this into existence from nothing. However, that is not what He did. Is it possible for Adam and Eve to have been created individually and not descended from previous ancestors? Yes. Is that the unequivocal Islamic position that some imams have given as an ultimatum to many Muslim college students, a number of whom have personally contacted me? Absolutely not! Where do I stand? Not that it matters, but after having gone through both the Quran, Hadith, and a number of commentaries, I find the claim that we have to believe in an original creation of Adam PBUH as a matter of belief that can lead to Hell if rejected unfounded. Moreover, the various lines of empirical evidence for an evolutionary origin of humans are too solid and numerous to pretend this conclusion is a product of over-extrapolation by atheists to reject God. Is the possibility for an original creation still open? Sure. No one was there to make an absolute assertion about it. We are only speaking in probabilities here. But based on the empirical evidence, and the nuances of Arabic in the Quran, evolution is far more likely than original creation. However, this is not a matter of belief or disbelief in Islam for it to be an issue of contention anyways. Young Muslim college students are being driven away from Islam for no religiously justified reason at all here!

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It is peculiar that no other theory in science receives the type of public attention that the Theory of Evolution does. There is something about it that rubs people in some sort of way that is unsettling to say the least. Superficially, proponents of Evolutionary Theory claim that religious believers are in their primordial state of thinking too much of their place in the universe. Darwin took mankind from being the centre of Creation to being just another natural product of a process that has generated countless other life forms and continues to do so. There is nothing special about being human, and we must accept this fact and move forward.

Looking at this issue from a Muslim perspective, however, this superficial claim seems to be more relevant to those who believe in a literal reading of the Book of Genesis than to Muslims. At least that is who it should be relevant to. Unfortunately, given the ubiquitousness of Muslim reliance on Christian apologetic texts to defend belief in God against atheism, we have in turn imbibed the Christian narrative. Many Muslims take it simply for granted that a belief in a unique creation of Adam and Eve peace be upon them is part of Islamic theology, and acceptance of an evolutionary account for their existence is tantamount to rejecting the Quran.

There is no weightier word, yet no easier to utter by many Muslims, than kufr (disbelief). It seems that many do not realize what it means to issue such a charge against others, especially in matters that allow room for differences. The Beloved ﷺ warned that for a Muslim to call another a disbeliever may make the accuser, not the accused, a disbeliever. Some may claim that they only use this word when they know the matter at hand has no differences in opinion about it. The appropriate response to that would be: Are you really sure about that? Are you willing to place your own salvation on this? Everyone tends to live in their own bubbles, which can in turn lead to a high estimation of oneself, leading to deluding it into having certainties about various matters that are objectively uncertain.

Controversial subjects in Islam have an alluring quality to them. They can attract religious figures to them like moths to a flame, eventually burning them and everyone else that follows in their track. The only way one can avoid this is by knowing which are their battles to fight. The challenge is to resist the urge to respond to followers’ expectations, and direct them to those who specialize in the field they are being asked about. If a heart surgeon decides their medical degree qualifies them to perform brain surgery, and they end up killing the patient, we can be rest assured that they will lose their license and be in prison the next day. Likewise, Islamic scholarship has sub-specializations. As the case in a medical degree, there is a foundation all Muslim scholars share. But specialized topics are best left to those who were granted the opening from God to understand them, and in turn dedicated their lives to their study.

Many Muslims have an unrealistic expectation of our scholars. The prefix a scholar has before their name (Shaykh, Professor, Imam, Ustadh, etc.) can give a false sense of vast polymath-type knowledge. In reality, the prefix is a general one and does not indicate anything specific. It is not uncommon to see a single scholar get asked about the “Islamic” ruling about anything and everything, and for them to answer any and all questions they receive. It is quite odd to see a single scholar answer intricate questions about economics, politics, science, philosophy, psychology, sociology, and even medical treatments and chemistry. The only thing that is yet to be heard of is an “Islamic” ruling on the Higgs Boson. However, we can rest assured that given current trends, even this will happen sooner or later and the belief in the Higgs Boson will be declared a form of kufr.

That is not to say that it is impossible for someone to master all these areas of study and arrive at a perspective on them that they can fit within the Islamic ethos. To claim such a thing would be to restrict the vast beneficence of God. He can grant anyone anything He wants. However, as our current affairs stand today, it would seem safe to assume that the overwhelming majority of Muslim scholars who dictate “Islamic” rulings on a variety of technical issues do so without actually understanding them. A layperson may miss this. But an expert scholar of the technical field in question, or even an amateur enthusiast certainly will not, and they will point to numerous fallacies in how the Muslim scholar conceptualized the issue they were so intrepid to declare a ruling on. The Theory of Evolution is an example of this.

The Islamic debate on Evolutionary Theory highlights not only a flaw in how Muslims understand evolution, but also a flaw in how Muslims understand science itself. Furthermore, it also highlights a lack of understanding with regards to what the Quran contains and the purpose it is supposed to serve. The misunderstanding of Evolutionary Theory is evident in the way various terms are used and how history of science is brought up to prove a point. The terms are always misused to give credence to conclusions that in reality are untenable, and the significance of certain historical events in science is misunderstood. An example of misuse of terms is microevolution vs. macroevolution. Many Muslims give ontological significance to these terms, which they do not possess. These terms are used by deniers of evolution to construct philosophical cases that have no relevance to reality in an effort to reject observable, recordable, and predictable phenomena.

The misunderstanding of history of science manifests in the attempts to use Thomas Kuhn’s concept of scientific revolutions. The claim here is that another theory will eventually replace the Theory of Evolution. A fallaciously often-cited example to support this claim is Einstein overturning Newton, which is not accurate. Einstein’s theory explains gravity as curvature in space-time and it accurately describes motions at significant fractions of the speed of light. Newton’s theory on the other hand is an approximation of gravitational effects that yields acceptable results at low to medium velocities. There was no overturning of any theories here. Einstein’s superseded Newton’s in some sense because it is more general, but both Newton and Einstein’s are still in use today in their respective contexts. This is what the whole search for a unified theory is about. Even if, and probably when, a unified theory is formulated, it will not overturn either of those theories. They will be shelved not because they are false, but because they are limited in application, and a more grand inclusive theory would be available.

In all cases, without having theories, physical phenomena are still taking place, and it is a matter of explaining what is happening at the physical level and how it is occurring. This is what the Theory of Evolution is about. That evolution happened and humans fit within it is not a question in science anymore. We can observe and measure this empirically. Evolutionary Theory is not a speculation about whether we evolved or not. Rather, the theory explains how evolution happened, how to construct the links between various organisms, and predicts what will happen, which is what makes it science as opposed to a grand scheme by atheists to have believers reject God.

For Muslims, the problem is not in the Theory of Evolution. The problem is the philosophical position of naturalism adopted by atheists, who use the Theory of Evolution as part of atheist ideology. Attempts to refute the science of Evolutionary Theory with appeals from philosophy of science to weaken the veracity of the theory are a misguided focusing of energies that will ultimately fail. They also indicate a lack of understanding of what philosophy of science is concerned with as a subject and how philosophers engage it.

This brings up another problem. Many Muslim religious leaders and teachers reject philosophy and logic as “useless”, and even cite declarations of previous scholars that they are impermissible because they lead to heresies and disbelief. It is therefore not surprising that most of our community lacks the basic tools of discernment to identify fallacious reasoning and non sequitur claims. The result of this is that we, in our reactionary fashion, throw out the baby with the bath water. Our inability to identify physical from metaphysical claims leaves us incapable of rationally engaging Evolutionary Theory, while maintaining authenticity to Islam.

Science does not change in response to a cleverly formulated rational argument devoid of empirical evidence. Hypotheses and data from experiments confirm and refute theories, not religious apologetics. This is what Thomas Kuhn was talking about in the Structure of Scientific Revolutions: theories change in response to a build up of contradictory data that eventually reaches a critical point. Explaining the observations at that juncture in a coherent fashion requires a new theory that explains what the outgoing theory fails to. Anyone keeping up with the scores of research and data in evolutionary biology knows that the exact opposite of this is happening for the Theory of Evolution.

In spite of this, some Muslims will double-down and vehemently assert that nothing matters other than what the Quran and Hadith say about Adam PBUH. Apparently this is where we must stop and have “faith” in the Unseen, and given the past is part of the Unseen, we must blindly accept whatever we are told in our Islamic sources about the creation of Adam PBUH as it was interpreted by our past scholars. This assertion is of course not different from fundamentalist young Earth creationist Christians like Ken Ham who recently debated Bill Nye the Science Guy. Just switch in the word “Bible” for “Quran and Hadith” and you have the same argument that Ken Ham used to support his beliefs that the world is only a few thousand years old. In fact, you might as well watch this short clip because you need to see why this is a problem as opposed to just read that it is (just picture an imam talking instead of Ken Ham and switch in Quran for Bible):

 

In both cases, the Muslim and the Christian define faith as the negation of the human intellect’s rational conclusions after observing confirmed repeatable patterns in nature. This presents an inescapable conundrum that has a scary conclusion for such individuals. If one cannot trust their intellect and rational capacities with regards to what they conclude about nature, how can they trust their intellect in concluding that their choice of belief, assuming it was a conscious choice, is the right one? Moreover, either evolution happened, or God set up every piece of evidence to make it look like it did, and expects us to reject our very rational conclusions. In other words, the God we believe in is now a deceptive God. An appropriate English proverb comes to mind now: You can’t have your cake and eat it too!

Conundrums aside, asserting that Muslims must stop and just have “faith” about the origin of man contradicts a command in the Quran. “Did they not see how God originates the Creation, then does it again? Surely, this is easy for God. Say ‘Go about in the land and look how He has originated the creation. Then God will create the subsequent Creation.’ Surely, God is all powerful over everything” [29:19-20]. The command to look into how God brought about Creation in general, and how He brought about various parts of it in specific (mountains, camels, etc.) in other verses is nonsensical if Muslims really are supposed to just have “faith” in the Unseen past.

In response to this some may cite another verse: “I did not make them witnesses of the creation of the heavens and the Earth, nor of the creation of their own souls; nor could I take those who lead (others) astray for aiders” [18:51]. Commentators on the Quran give different interpretations for this verse, one of which is that it forms a response to naturalists who make conclusive assertions about a past they were not witnesses to. But this has to be taken in light of other verses commanding people to look into the past and investigate how everything was brought about. It is more consistent to interpret the verse as a response to naturalism as a metaphysical position than to use it to refute evolution just because we were not there.

Moreover, if the criterion for accepting a scientific conclusion were the direct witnessing of events, we would have to reject that the Earth orbits the Sun. No one has actually seen a full orbit of the Earth around the Sun over a full year in a direct way, and nor does anyone need to. Our acceptance of the scientific conclusion that the Earth revolves around the Sun, as opposed to the other way around, would make one inconsistent in their judgments if they reject evolution. The same scientific method was applied in both contexts, so something has to give in order to avoid self-contradiction.

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There a lot more to be said here, but my concern was less so about the detailed point-by-point analysis of verses and Hadiths, which can be found in the book among other matters of discussion once it is released, and more with how we approach this particular issue. The number of Muslim religious leaders who speak on this topic, yet have absolutely no proper background in science or philosophy is troubling. More concerning is how they easily declare something a form of disbelief when they have not properly conceptualized it. This is evident in how they speak about this issue of evolution. It is my sincere hope that they stop talking about this as they have directly created unnecessary doubts in the hearts of many young Muslims. More importantly, they need to stop relying on books written by Christian apologists or Intelligent Design advocates, who attempt to refute evolution. These types of books are based on an attempt to support a case for a far-right Evangelical Christian conception of the world and of mankind, many of whom say was created in the literal image of God, which is most certainly not the Islamic position. Such texts were written to support a creed not upheld by Muslims, and I find it odd that a number of Muslim scholars and teachers are recommending them to average Muslims to read in order to bolster their faith in Islam!

UPDATE I:

I’ve been receiving quite a few messages on Twitter and email from a number of brothers and sisters asking about specific verses and Hadiths and how they can be squared with Evolutionary Theory. I’d like to remind you that the intention of releasing these excerpts wasn’t to discuss the specific evidence, but to point to a problem in how we engage this subject. More particularly, the problem of Muslim scholars and teachers who have no proper background in the necessary subjects speaking on evolution and claiming Muslims who accept it are committing a form of disbelief. For the detailed breakdown of verses and Hadiths, please wait until the book is release by the end of the summer (tentatively targeted for release then). Even verse 3:59 is not as explicit as many like to make it out to be. We impose on the language more than it can bear, and all the verses have ambiguities to them. Does this mean this matter is settled either way? No. Both sides of this issue have difficulties in their arguments for their positions. But that’s the whole point of this. It’s not a matter of belief or foundational creed in Islam, and we need to stop making it so. Finally, just as I changed my position as of late, don’t be surprised if I change back in the future. I’m not an absolutist in this issue and it has no bearing on my being a Muslim or accepting that God created everything. It’s only a matter of reflecting over how He created, not whether He did.

UPDATE II:

So the messages continue. Something has to be said about how easy for Muslims not actively involved in science to brush this issue aside. For those in the field, what’s expected is truly too much. When you see the empirical evidence, construct testable hypotheses, and see scores of publications in evolutionary biology coming out on a monthly basis, especially ones that deal with human evolution, it becomes difficult to say the least to pretend that that what the imam is saying with regards to the process by which Adam was created is literally true. This is not a matter of accepting miracles. This is a matter of accepting a miracle that was made to look like a natural event, perfectly fitting in a sequence of other events, but was not actually a natural event. Again, easy for Muslims not actively in science to say this and believe, but nearly impossible to peacefully accept by actual scientists. That’s not to say we’re talking about a dogmatic adherence to evolution in the fashion people like Richard Dawkins do. But it’s about what’s rationally digestible for a scientist to accept. This may trouble some readers, especially imams and scholars, but to claim that there is absolutely no room for alternative interpretations, and base this on the position of early scholars without discussing the direct evidence from the Quran and Hadith is a disservice to all Muslim scientists who are having trouble with this. Yes, I’m leaning towards evolution because I did enough homework to be comfortable with this. I can change tomorrow should I get persuaded. But what I will not do is submit to the call to listen and obey scholars who don’t even understand the theory (with all due respect to the shyookh) and turn off my intellect and put the blinders on, and neither should any other Muslim who does science.

Read the follow-up to this post “On Muslims & Evolution II