Update: Given the baffling number of Muslims who need things to be black or white, this article may be confusing to many. Before you read on, one main conclusion you must come out of it with is that I am in no way trying to reconcile the Quran with the Theory of Evolution. What I am saying is that the standard explicit story of how Adam was created needs to be revisited, NOT because of the Theory of Evolution per se, but because of it dealing with ambiguous verses where a literal reading may give an anthropomorphic image of God. As for the Theory of Evolution, this is a question to be approached scientifically, NOT theologically. For more on that you can read my article in Al Jazeera English “Bringing Muslims Back to Science.” Any more details on this subject will be found in a book I plan to be finished with by the end of the summer insha’Allah where I allow myself all the space needed to develop this discussion properly.
In the spirit of beating dead horses, there seems to be a need to write yet another set of paragraphs on this “Theory of Evolution and how Muslims handle it” business. I received a message from someone wondering if part of the tension with regards to this subject can be attributed to how numerous Muslims actually picture God – not Adam, but God Himself. Talk about hitting the nail on the head!
As we get lost in the details of this debate, we miss the underlying image of God that many Muslims unwittingly uphold and do not want to let go of. It is an image of God creating and shaping Adam much the same way a pottery maker makes pottery. Given how often the verse in the Quran where God says, “O Iblis! What prevented you from prostrating yourself before what I created with My hands?” [38:75] is quoted with emphasis at the end, alongside other verses mentioning mud, clay, shaping, and straightening, it is of no surprise that many would have an anthropomorphic image of how God created Adam. In trying so hard to give nobility and sanctity to Adam, and Mankind through emphasizing how we were created, many of us have forgotten about the sanctity and exalted nature of God. An Arabic proverb comes to mind here: Everything that exceeds its limit, turns against itself. Interestingly, the Quran does not equate method of creation with ennoblement, “As for those who, with no authority to do so, dispute God’s verses, there is nothing in their hearts but a thirst for greatness they will never attain. Seek refuge in God, for He is the All Hearing, the All Seeing. Certainly, the creation of the Heavens and the Earth is greater than the creation of Mankind, though most people do not know it” [40:56-57].
Some have misunderstood my goal with regards to this subject, which is why since I wrote the first post I have been grouped with the Usama Hasans of the world. I have been called an evolutionist, in a disparaging sense of the term (Muslims reading this get what I mean), in order to discredit my position, which is the unfortunate go-to abusive ad hominem attack used when one has nothing to say about the actual topic. Others thought I was trying to reconcile Evolutionary Theory with the Quran, which was also not my intent. For all of this misunderstanding, I will take the full blame for not having expressed my ideas more clearly.
The issue is not about reconciling any scientific theory with Islam. Interpretation of the Quran is not a game, and it certainly cannot be subjected to scientific inquiry which operates on paradigms at risk of change at any moment in response to piling evidence. This is about the fact that we have two sides, neither of which has the objective grounds for the self-assured certainty they espouse, who both claim they “know” what happened in the distant past in the details they both claim to have.
We have the naturalists who deny the metaphysical and seek to get all their ultimate answers from what they can find in nature. In adopting such a position, the naturalist engages in ubiquitous acts of audacious over-extrapolations to make conclusions about the metaphysical from limited amounts of physical evidence. These over-extrapolations are a consequence of their philosophical position of naturalism. Such a philosophical position that rejects the metaphysical is by definition outside the realm of empirical investigation using the scientific method. All a naturalist can really do is engage in various forms of rationalizations to infer that the metaphysical does not exist. But ultimately, whether a naturalist will admit to this or not, naturalism is a position of faith. It is a faith that the Unseen really does not exist. But given the current popular discourse that ridicules faith, very few naturalists will readily admit to this fact.
On the other hand we have believers, in our case Muslims, who have turned the Quran from a book of signs into a book of science. In doing so, the actual empirical evidence, which the Quran implores Muslims to investigate, is largely ignored. Instead, most of us prefer to engage in ubiquitous acts of over-rationalizations to make conclusions about the physical from preconceived notions about the metaphysical. In doing so, a number of us will simply claim that scientists made the right observations, but got the wrong interpretations. A few others will make appeals to philosophy of science and engage in all kinds of abstract discussions that many may not have the aptitude, energy, or time to engage in.
What is certain about the specific mechanism behind the creation of Adam and Eve is that neither side can claim certainty.
As far as popular culture goes, science is presented in a neat packaging, which gives the false perception that it “works” all the time. Many people do not realize how biased the publication world is in science. Moreover, it is quite puzzling to see the same supposedly “enlightened” and “open-minded” people who take jabs at Fox News for their unfair and biased reporting falling for the over-extrapolated and often inaccurate reporting of non-scientist journalists about science. The church of TED that many subscribe to is built around hyping up findings that are hardly replicated. This of course is quite ironic when one reflects on how TED raised an uproar with the censorship/quarantine (whatever they want to call it) of two talks last year because they contained “factual” problems. As if TED is really about facts. All this feeds into the illusion that “Truth” comes from science, which further feeds the hubris of what is now dubbed “new atheism”.
On the Muslim front, the creation of Adam, ennoblement of mankind through the intellect and free will, and the specific mention of our creation in the Quran are not disputed among Muslims. However, many have not recognized that the verses that speak to the creation of Adam fall into the category of what are termed mutashabihat, i.e., ambiguous verses. The reason for this is that these verses do not only mention the creation of Adam per se, but they also speak about God creating Adam. Hence, everything that can give the slightest hint of anthropomorphism, i.e., turning God into a pottery maker as many Muslims have done today, must be interpreted in light of the umbrella verse under which all verses about God fall under, “There is nothing like unto Him. Yet, He is the All-Hearing, All-Seeing” [42:11]. Thus, for those who made the analogy of verses about Adam’s creation to verses commanding prayer, in order to imply that it is a form of disbelief to claim ambiguity in creation verses, this is why the analogy does not work. One is talking about God’s actions, the other is talking about His commandments.
Some will jump at this golden opportunity to point out that what Muslims are espousing about the creation of Adam is based on scholarly consensus. I beg to differ. It is not so much based on scholarly consensus as it is based on consensus over what has been understood from the scholars. The only consensus one can meaningfully cite here is the consensus over how Quranic interpretation is to be approached in general, and that Adam was especially created, not that he was a special creation (yes, those mean different things). As for the details of how he was created, the interpretation of Quranic verses and/or authenticity of Hadiths related to his creation, and whether he was in actual Paradise or was in a garden on Earth are subjects early Sunni scholars differed on. What could be conceded here is that the majority of Sunni scholars opted for an interpretation that became dominant today, but that does not preclude any minority position from gaining prominence in another context should the evidence turn in its favour.
In my view, and I could and certainly hope to be wrong, it seems that most of us Muslims are ashamed to admit having faith and belief in the Unseen. It is not part of faith to reject empirical evidence and construct philosophical arguments that only a few people can comprehend to show why your faith is “rational” despite all empirical evidence to the contrary. In fact, that would limit the Mercy of God because doing so would restrict “sound” belief only to those who have the intellectual capacity to engage in such philosophy. Moreover, those who are unable to handle the abstract realm for too long will begin to reject Islam because belief in God, which was supposed to be a natural easy thing to do has become a convoluted mental process only those with too much time on their hands can partake in.
The shame of faith can be seen in how quickly many of us seek to validate our religious practices, which come from a sense of an inferiority complex. This spans from the use of research about male circumcision lowering risks of various diseases to debates over Halal slaughter that often seek to justify the practice through scientific legitimacy, and to answers over why eating pork products is prohibited in Islam that use science “proving” why eating pork is harmful. It seems that few are able to submit without being given a “scientific” reason to do so. The biggest example of our shame of faith comes in the insidious movement driving the so-called scientific “miracles” of the Quran. This is no longer about basing faith within reason – we now choose to base our faith in Islam within empiricism, and when it does not agree with our preconceived notions, we seek to refute the very empiricism we had used to justify our faith. In both cases, we have lost our ‘izza (nobility), which speaks to Umar ibn Al Khattab’s famous quote, “We are a people ennobled by Islam. If we seek nobility in other than it, God debases us.”
Nevertheless, this discussion is neither here nor there for the main reason why I put this topic on the table. Namely, the issue of how Adam was created is not a matter of creed that can be imposed onto Muslims in a way that puts them in a position where they have to choose between Islam or science. I think we have a problem in how we approach science. Our lack of engagement in science has put us in a position where many of our scholars will view something like Evolutionary Theory through the lens of theology rather than the lens of science. The reason for this is that we have sufficed ourselves with the consumer position. We do not partake in producing scientific discoveries anymore. We just wait until they are out in the market, buy that which does not shake our inherent biases about the world, and reject that which does. If that is not pure whim and desire, I do not know what is?
My interest is not in promoting any particular scientific theory. I am more concerned about scientific thinking and the adherence to the scientific method to substantiate empirical claims and support theories. This is how I use the term “science”. However, I recognize that in the public sphere, science refers to something more than that. So I sympathize with the knee-jerk reactions I received when I voiced the possibility of Adam being created through an evolutionary process as opposed to an original creation without predecessors. Although as a scientist I lean towards an evolutionary process, the only rational, and in my view theologically valid position on this issue is to just say “I do not know”. None of us were there when Adam was created, and in spite of any textual sources one can cite in Islam, they do not give absolute certainty about the exact mechanism Adam was created through beyond “Be!” and he became. This does not require linguistic gymnastics either!
The Theory of Evolution is not a guess. It is a scientific model for life on Earth. It is substantiated with numerous lines of evidence, but it, like any other theory in science, also has a lot of controversies. Such controversies are to be resolved through the scientific method, not philosophical or religious musings. If at some point we find that we need a new model, it will not be due to anything other than empirical evidence. As for the philosophical baggage, metaphysical assumptions, worldview some have constructed, new atheism, the late Hitchens’ “I’m a monkey” screams, etc., we cannot claim they were necessarily the result of Evolutionary Theory. Rather, they were the result of our own absence from the scientific arena and presence in the pointless debates arenas.