In a first of it’s kind production, the Deen Institute organised an –at times- controversial debate asking, ‘Have Muslims misunderstood evolution?’ In two parts, Scientific and Theological, the program 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 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 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 do not 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 does not 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.
Professor Fatimah Jackson 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, verse “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, will not 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!
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 did not 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 Quran, 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.
– Professor Ehab Abouheif believes in an interpretation of evolution.
– Dr Oktar Babuna does not believe in evolution.
– Professor Fatimah Jackson, believes in an interpretation of evolution.
– Dr Usama Hasan, believes in an interpretation of evolution, defining humanities creation through a process of evolution as a miracle.
– Sheikh Yasir Qadri, also believes in an interpretation of evolution but humanity, specifically beginning with Adam and Eve, are except from the evolutionary process; explaining our creation as a miracle.
Sadly, Yasir disagreed with Usama on numerous points, often-criticising Usama for citing religious authorities, all the while doing the same himself. Worse, he adopted the position that everything inside ‘this bubble of thought’ must remain where it is, while anything outside is free and open to interpretation, failing to recgonise that he himself gave an example of how ‘bubbles of thought’ change over time. E.g. Where previously it was thought that the creation took place over six days, as in six 24 hour periods. Today, through science, we know this was over six ‘stages.’
A sensitive subject, all speakers ought to be commended for retaining a sense of dignity and mutual respect despite differing opinions. This is something rare to observe in almost any Muslim religious discussion where passions are often portrayed at the expense of sensibilities.
Moreover those students of science who do at times feel at odds reconciling science and faith should not, for whether scientific or theological, an interpretation, a concept of evolution is widely acknowledged, and it is only with time – using the same intellectual inquiry that the Quran asks of us – that we will understand more.
Having read of the great scientific and theological debates that took place during the ‘golden era’ of Islam, Myriam’s opening words set my expectation for as comprehensive a dialogue as possible given the diversity of the audience in what short time we had. As the speakers did go back and forth with their differing points of view, for a brief moment I wondered, what if every subject of learning was given the same degree of dialogue and respect, how different would the Muslim world be?
I close with the knowledge that while 98% of our genome is similar to that of a chimpanzee, 28% is similar to that of a petunia: humanity can indeed be just as beautiful on the outside as it is on the in.