On Muslims & Evolution II

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319515-evolution-evolution-of-humansTalk about ruffling more than a few feathers. My previous post “On Muslims & Evolution” generated a massive outcry for myself. My Twitter interactions feed has never been this active. I have received more email messages in a day about this issue than I could possibly manage to respond to. Some were extremely troubled by seeing me change from my earlier position that Adam was created in an original fashion and adopt the position that he may have been created through an evolutionary process. Not only that, some were also distressed by the way I phrased things. I got compared to people like Usama Hasan, Irshad Manji, and Maajid Nawaz. Of course those who have been following me for a while or know me at a personal level would recognize the ridiculous nature of such comparisons. But I guess I cannot please everyone, nor do I really care to.

The reaction I received from the post was a live example of how orthodoxy gets established. Most people think of orthodoxy as a thing – a code made up of a set of statements that everyone abides by. However, that is not exactly correct. In his essay The Social Construction of Orthodoxy that appears in The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology (edited by Tim Winter, a.k.a. Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad), Ahmed El Shamsy writes:

Orthodoxy as a social phenomenon is not a “thing” but rather a process. For theological doctrines to become established as orthodox, they must find a place in the constantly changing net of social relations, and institutions that constitute society. This is a two-way process: ideas can reconfigure these relations and institutions, but the social context also actively receives ideas and promotes, channels and/or suppresses them. Thus the history of orthodoxy cannot be simply a history of ideas, but a history of how, in particular situations, claims to truth came to be enshrined in social practices, such as rituals, and in institutions, such as the “community of scholars”.

A great many of us do not pay attention to the non-rational components of decision making. Some have looked at my change in position on how Adam was created to be a byproduct of my science education rather than an active endeavour to understand the Quran. As if I am so naïve and oblivious to my presence in the West and focus on studying the empirical world that I am not conscious of being influenced by unIslamic ideologies all around. I received, and continue to receive, verses from the Quran and references to Hadiths about Adam, as if I missed or disregarded all of them. What this demonstrates is that everyone is more interested in hearing themselves talk and lecture to everyone else, than to take a step back and figure out how I could arrive at such a conclusion given all these textual references about the creation of Adam in Islam.

Given the length that I have to go to in discussing the details, I decided that I would put all that in a book format. I thought I could do it in a couple of articles, but the subject proved to require a lot more space to develop properly. Some may see this as a ploy to get you to “buy my book”. I see this charge as nothing more than an impatient hasty judgment of my intentions, driven by the short attention spans of this 140 character generation that feels self-entitled to everything and in the format that it wants it.

What I wanted to clarify here is what I was not saying in my previous post. I am not saying that the apparent meanings of verses in the Quran about Adam do not entail an original creation. I am not saying that believing in an original creation is silly. I am not negating faith in the Unseen. I did not promote that a random, senseless, purposeless process of bumping unconscious atoms will generate consciousness. I did not say that God is not needed to bring forth life. I was not telling Muslims to disregard scholarly consensus as if it is a meaningless concept. I did not promote an allegorical reading of the Quran. I also did not deny belief in the existence of Adam and Eve as real people. More importantly, I did not promote science as a final overseer over the Quran, determining what we can believe from it from what we cannot. So for the love of God stop imposing on me misunderstandings that stem from knee-jerk reactions against everything that sounds different from what you might be used to.

Part of the reason many Muslims are uncomfortable with an idea that Adam may have been created through evolution is due to the way evolution is portrayed. You can hear in the way they describe it: you mean our father Adam and mother Eve peace be upon them evolved from apes?! This is not completely the fault of Muslims. Most timelines of evolution are presented in something like the picture at the top of this post or something like this one:

evolutionIt should not come as a surprise to anyone, including Dawkins’ God Delusion thumping atheists that anyone who is presented with evolution as the theory that a Homo erectus ape literally gave birth to a Homo sapiens male we call Adam, would ultimately reject this as absurd. In fact, that is a completely rational rejection because this picture is preposterous to say the least. Of course, that is NOT what Evolutionary Theory says, and those pictures caricature the whole thing. Ancestors in evolutionary terms do not mean immediate parents and grandparents. Not to mention the whole business of “why did evolution stop?” which stems from the projection of the human life timescale onto the unimaginably long timescale needed for evolution to happen in the way that it is proposed to have happened.

My personal take in all of this is irrelevant. However, a number of people feel that my readers are owed an explanation for how I changed positions. In short, I have always wondered about the possibility. But more importantly, I was always troubled by the fact that when I actually thought for a clear rational reason that takes into account what we have in Islam as well as what I understood about evolution, I could not justify an absolutist position on this. In addition, I also noticed that I was spending 80% of my time reading refutations of the science, and philosophical arguments against it, all of which never seemed to satisfy me completely when I looked at the empirical evidence. In a sense, I was biasing myself towards a conclusion I already had in mind.

More importantly, I was not paying attention to the greater narrative in which all these debates take place. I was also particularly, and continue to be troubled by the fact that most Muslim teachers in the West recommend books “refuting” evolution for Muslims to read, ignoring that the authors of these books are more often than not trying to advance Young Earth Creationism. What drove me over the edge was the unhealthy attachment many of us have to past scholars, which to me uncomfortably borders on the side of unquestionable reverence and exaltation that is worthy of the title “worship” as opposed to respect and admiration. There is a lack of recognition on the part of a great number of Muslim teachers today for when we should defer matters to our past scholars and when it becomes unjustified to do so. This has gotten to the point where if the Quran and Hadith are brought up to bolster a different position, one would get rebuked because they are going against past scholars. It is quite odd and frankly ironic to be called a liberal and a postmodernist Muslim when you tell fellow Muslims to go back to the Quran and Hadith and reexamine our understandings based on sound methodology that takes context into account.

Finally, many of us do not appreciate that when we read naturalistic accounts in the Quran, they are not descriptive enough as to arrive at an explicitly binding conclusion upon everyone, but are more indicative in nature. There is a subjective component that cognitively biases the reader towards one of the possible linguistically valid interpretations of such verses. That subjective component is a byproduct of one’s scientific knowledge of the world. It allows different readers to understand the same verse giving a naturalistic account to different depths. It also generates different paradoxes for different readers, because their levels of knowledge about the world will vary. (I wonder if some of those who want to impose past scholarly opinions on these issues will eventually issue fatwas against studying science because it will cause modern Muslims to have different cognitive biases than past scholars!)

So when I say you have to actively do science and not just read about it in order for you to understand why someone would have a hard time accepting the interpretation of an original creation of Adam, I am speaking about something only those in science would really get. That is not to say that academic pressure, peer pressure, and groupthink are not factors in how scientists make conclusions. They can be. However, many Muslims under appreciate the power of the hard evidence, which can subvert such factors once it accumulates. Are there philosophical discussion to be had about what the practice of science really means in the big picture and what does it really tell us? Of course. But we are not talking about a subject that can only be truly appreciated by handful of philosophy professors. (I am thinking about a lot of things when I say I am leaning on the evolution side!)

For me the problem is not evolution vs. original creation of Adam. The problem is in how we as Muslims conceptualize science, approach it, understand it, and appreciate the power it has in giving us an understanding of the natural world. The problem is in how we see the role of Scripture in the context of science, and what naturalistic accounts in the Quran are meant to serve. But the biggest problem of all for me is in Muslims relying on works written by people who attack science because it threatens their creeds, which should be no problem for us, and we ignore the actual issue of how science is presented to give the untenable conclusion of naturalism. In doing so, as young Muslim scientists discover the uselessness of such anti-science books, they doubt the basis of their religion, and end up leaving it altogether. The actual practice of science is about investigating natural causes in the world, and this does not require one to consciously identify as a believer in God or not. Faith is about belief in the Unseen, not belief against the evidence. The issue of contention for us, as far as I can tell, should be more about how the findings are eventually packaged and presented as a worldview.

I go back and forth on the mechanism of how God created Adam, but I do not question that Adam was created. Whether it was original creation or through evolution, both are amazing events to me. Although I lean towards evolution today, I may change tomorrow if I come across convincing evidence. It is not something I lose sleep over because the ennoblement we were given as humans was not through the body, but through qualities that God has granted us. My search for mechanisms is to understand God’s Creation, not to negate God as the Creator.

What the past day and a half have taught me about Muslims (at least those who are on social media, and more specifically those who are within my circles of influence) is that most of us look for cheerleaders. A writer is not rational because he or she is actually rational, but because they articulate our beliefs in a captivating and succinct way. They give us tools to eloquently talk about our beliefs. In a sense, they are a tool for us. When that tool breaks down and no longer serves its purpose, we get angry and go back to the store to yell at customer service, looking for a refund!