Islam's evolution problem
Can Islam and evolution be reconciled? Alom Shaha meets the scientists who are trying to do just that
People often assume that because I am a science teacher and an atheist my faith in science is what led me to reject faith in a God. This is not the case – I stopped believing as a child, long before I knew anything about the Big Bang theory or evolution by natural selection – but, as I have seen in some of my own students, many religious people can lose their faith, or at least have it severely tested, as a result of learning science.
I met someone like this at a recent conference called “Have Muslims Misunderstood Evolution?” organised by the Deen Institute, an organisation that claims to want to “articulate faith, not in spite of, but through scientific inquiry, critical thinking and logical reasoning, reviving intellectuality among modern Muslims.” This young man, a postgraduate biochemist at Imperial College London, told me that he had come to the conference in the hope that he would find a way to reconcile his belief in the teachings of Islam with what he described as “evidence for evolution in everything I do at work”.
He seemed deeply anguished by the fact that evolution by natural selection contradicts the core belief with which he was brought up – that the Qur’an is the literal word of Allah. When I asked him if he might consider the idea that the Qur’an wasn’t a divine document he told me that this was “impossible” for him, that his “life would have no meaning” if the Qur’an was not literally true.
His struggle is not unique. According to writer and journalist Myriam Francois-Cerrah, who chaired the conference, many Muslim science students experience “inner turmoil” as a result of studying evolution. She and some of the other speakers at the conference told of “heart-wrenching” emails they had received from students who had lost, or were in danger of losing, their belief in Islam because they could not reconcile what they believed the Qur’an says with what they learned in their science lessons.
As a teacher, I see students of all faiths confront this sort of dilemma, particularly when teaching about the Big Bang theory. Like the theory of evolution taught in biology lessons, the Big Bang theory is one that challenges what young people from religious backgrounds believe about the origin of the universe. Creation stories are amongst the first we hear as children and, unlike other stories, parents often present the creation stories of their particular religion as the literal truth, an idea that can stick well into adulthood.
The “Have Muslims Misunderstood Evolution?” conference was organised to address what is a clear need amongst Muslim students. The majority of the audience were young people, many of them university science students, who had come along on the promise of talks and discussions that would “elucidate the issue of human evolution from an Islamic viewpoint, in order to provide the audience with a clear understanding of the points of convergence between contemporary scientific theories and Islamic theology.”
Among the speakers at the conference were accomplished scientists who put themselves forward as examples of Muslims who had not only come to terms with evolution but made it their life’s work to understand it better. Professor Ehab Abouheif, who holds the Canada Research Chair in Evolutionary Biology at McGill University, presented compelling evidence for evolution from his own research with ants;. Professor Fatimah Jackson, Professor of Biological Anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told how she had studied and taught evolution before converting to Islam and explained how these things were “no hindrance” to her becoming a Muslim but rather helped her to get “closer to Allah”. And Dr Usama Hasan, former lecturer at Middlesex University and Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society boldly stated, “Evolution is a Muslim theory, it has been developed with the help of Muslims.”
The problem of reconciling science and religion is, of course, not unique to Islam. For some believers of all faiths, it seems science has become too successful at explaining the natural world – its superior explanations for everything from how the universe came to be to how the human eye evolved can make religion look weak in comparison. There are two responses to this if you are intent on keeping your faith – dig your heels in and insist that science is wrong, despite overwhelming evidence, or reinterpret your religion to accommodate scientific knowledge and move towards a platitudinous position along the lines of “Science tells us the How, Religion tells us the Why”, convincing yourself of some version of Stephen Jay Gould’s “Non-overlapping Magesteria”, the idea that science and religion are completely separate and therefore non-contradictory realms.
There are some factors that make the acceptance of evolution more difficult for Muslims than for members of the other Abrahamic religions, something Adam Deen, self-styled “Muslim intellectual” and the organiser of the “Have Muslims Misunderstood Evolution?” conference, seemed keen to address. “The whole objective of the conference,” he told the BBC, “was to get these scholars of the texts, Muslim theologians and the scientists to come together and provide a cogent response to the challenges many Muslims are facing.” From what I saw, from at least two of the speakers and many of the attendees, the primary stumbling block for widespread acceptance of the theory of evolution in the Muslim world is the central notion in Islam that the Qur’an is the literal word of God.
This is a view propagated by Harun Yahya, the notorious Turkish creationist who has published several books that claim to refute evolution, though they have been thoroughly repudiated by numerous scientists, and whose writings seem to have a worrying degree of popularity in the Muslim world. Yahya himself was not at the conference but was represented by an acolyte, Dr Oktar Babuna, who told the conference, via video-link, that Allah “does not need evolution. He says ‘be’ and it is.”
Dr Babuna imagined he could undermine the theory that all life evolved though natural selection by citing examples of “living” things mentioned in the Qur’an which had not evolved. His examples? Angels, jinn (spirits), the devil, and Moses’ staff that turned into a snake. All his arguments were similarly weak, and, compared to the serious attempt to reconcile Islam and science from the established scientist speakers, he came across as a comical figure. However, Dr Babuna’s position was partially supported by another speaker, former chemical engineer Shaykh Yasir Qadhi, who put forward the notion that Muslims are “allowed” to believe in an evolutionary explanation for life on Earth except in the case of humans.
As a scientist, he seems to have accepted that the evidence for evolution is overwhelming, however, he told the audience that there was “no logical alternative” but to accept the Qur’anic text as true, that science “cannot contradict the Qur’an.” In other words, since the Qur’an says Allah created man from clay, that is what must have happened. “What is so difficult about believing the creation of man was a miracle?” he asked the audience.
Qadhi’s position is not dissimilar to that of the Catholic Church, which maintains that evolution is the process by which life on Earth came about, but that God is responsible for giving humans their soul; it accepts that the facts that support evolution cannot be ignored but still finds a way to keep God in the picture. Putting aside the difficulties of defining exactly what we mean by a “soul”, I suspect that science will one day demonstrate that consciousness is as much a result of evolution as every other aspect of life.
Professor Abouheif started his talk with a resounding “Yes!” to the question “Have Muslims Misunderstood Evolution?” and went on to provide a list of “myths” about evolution in which he preemptively destroyed Dr Babuna’s arguments against it, which relied mainly on the absence of “transitional fossils”. Professor Abouheif gave up most of his lunchtime to answer questions from a crowd that had gathered around him, but I was saddened to see that many people simply wanted to attack him for the views. One young man, who seemed unable to speak except by shouting, told Professor Abouheif: “You can’t stand up there and say say that evolution is fact. It’s your opinion.” Referring to the professor’s own work on ants, another young man told him that “just because you can do those things in the lab doesn’t mean that’s how it happened in nature.”
The professor remained admirably calm during all of this, repeatedly saying, “I only had an hour, if I had more time, I could explain so you could understand.” Sadly, I think he’s mistaken – no amount of time would have been sufficient to convince most of these people of anything that did not fit with their pre-existing beliefs.
I have to confess to feeling guilty that I also gave Professor Abouheif a bit of a hard time. I asked him what he thought about the description of the creation of humans in the Qur’an (Allah made Adam from “clay”) and whether he thought it was a literally true. He replied that the Qur’an tells us Allah created man, but that it was “not reasonable to assume he did it in an instant”. I asked him again if he thought this bit of the Qur’an should be interpreted as a metaphor and he said, “Allah could have created life in many ways” and “the role Allah plays in this is not known to us.” He seemed reluctant to state explicitly that the Qur’an was not literally true and I left wondering if he was simply being cautious in front of some Muslims who might have taken offence at such a statement.
Dr Usama Hasan seemed clearer about his position on Qur’anic literalism. He told me that “excessive literalism is a serious problem for Muslims”, particularly when it comes to reconciling science and Islam. In a piece for the Guardian’s Comment Is Free, Dr Hasan wrote, “One problem is that many Muslims retain the simple picture that God created Adam from clay, much as a potter makes a statue, and then breathed into the lifeless statue and lo! it became a living human. This is a children’s madrasa-level understanding and Muslims really have to move on as adults and intellectuals.” His views have made him unpopular with some and he made headlines in the UK in 2011 when his life was threatened by extremists who objected to a lecture he was giving about how Islam and evolution could be reconciled.
Despite this, Dr Hasan continues to speak on Islam and evolution, determined to win more Muslims round to his view that the two do not have to be incompatible. He claims to be motivated by his love of the Qur’an (he is an Imam as well as a scientist) and that he wants to “spread the idea that the book of God and the book of Nature can be aligned.”
Dr Hasan is hopeful that more Muslims will come round to accepting the theory of evolution by natural selection as the process by which all life on Earth developed. I think he may be right – if people like him continue to speak out in public, continue to set an example to young Muslim scientists, it’s likely that they will get through to people like the young biochemist I met at the conference and help them find a way to be good scientists as well as good Muslims.
In response to the Catholic Church’s position on evolution, Richard Dawkins has said that “given a choice between honest-to-goodness fundamentalism on the one hand, and the obscurantist, disingenuous doublethink of the Roman Catholic Church on the other, I know which I prefer.” Dawkins might accuse Dr Hasan, Professor Jackson and Professor Abouheif of “doublethink”, but he would be wrong to be so harsh on them. These Muslims are far more honourable than the likes of Harun Yahya who spread creationist lies and misinformation.
They are doing a service to both science and Islam. These Muslims are playing an important role in the evolution of modern Islam itself by showing not only that Muslims can accept the truth of evolution and remain faithful to Allah, they can also add to our scientific understanding of what has been described as “the single best idea anyone has ever had”.