“Quite against my will, my lecturer has managed to convince me that the Theory of Evolution is actually true. I felt very uncomfortable in class”, said Nazri, one of my fellow coursemates.
“The point now is to figure out whether or not the Theory of Evolution is really against the teachings of Islam. Exactly what is Islam’s stand on Darwin’s Theory? Is it 100% against it?”, I asked him.
“Well, it’s difficult to say”, said he.
“In my opinion, the challenge is for us to not making any kind of blanket statements. We should differentiate between Charles Darwin, Darwinism, Neo-Darwinism, Social-Darwinism, and the Theory of Evolution itself”, I suggested.
“There are indeed many differences between them. However, when translated to Bahasa Melayu and our mindset, it is collectively termed as ‘Darwin’s Theory’. That’s all”, he continued.
“Therein lies the problem. In my opinion, the behaviour of many Moslem lecturers who pronounce blanket condemnations of Darwin’s Theory will lead to problems later, especially for those like you, who are studying for the Biology A-Level. There are many who think that Darwin’s theory and its evolution…. Is 100% against the teachings of Islam”, I expanded upon my thoughts.
“Their arguments are very simplistic. If one believes in Darwin’s Theory, it means one believes that our ancestors are apes! It starts and ends that way”, supported Nazri.
We paused to ponder. The issue is not one that is particularly easy.
The Breadth of the Theory of Evolution
Our attempt to try and understand the Theory of Evolution is based not solely on the need to answer the question of who or what our forefathers were. It is also not for the purpose of condemning the imperialism of the West, imperialism that was based on the Social Darwinist theory of survival of the fittest.
Coincidentally, in my Muslim Historiography class with Assoc Prof Dr Ahmed Elyas Hussein, we had discussed a question more basic than the need to correctly assess the truth of the Theory of Evolution, namely the question of the “Beginning of History”.
This involves testing the Theory of Evolutionary Biology against questions related to the creation of Adam and life on earth before Adam.
Without this understanding, we will always be troubled by discoveries arising from advances in DNA profiling techniques. These techniques enable scientists to calculate the mutation rates of living structures, which solidifies the evidence obtained from fossil dating and challenges our simplistic understanding of the “Beginning of History” question posed earlier.
Up till now, scientists have been able to distinguish roughly 15 species of early man. However, it is not trivial to categorize these various species, how they inter-relate, and how each species ends. The early Australopithecine species, estimated to be 5 to 2 million years old, leads to the Neanderthal species, estimated to be 200,000 to 24,000 years old. All this brings up questions related to the creation of Adam and Islam’s stand on evolution itself. Did Adam live as early as the Australopithecine era?
I am not an expert in the field, especially in Biology. However, I would like to share some thoughts with you, with the intention of helping you make some early assessments regarding this issue.
Islam’s Stand on the Creation of Man
Below are some verses that touch on the origin of man:
Allah SWT says in the Quran:
[Surah ar-Rahman, 55: 14] He created man from sounding clay like unto pottery
Similar messages are presented in 22:5, 23:12, 30:20, 32:7, and 37:11.
Allah SWT also says:
[Surah at-Tin, 95: 5] We have indeed created man in the best of moulds
In translating these verses, Mohammad Asad says: Allah SWT has created man in the best of forms, with positive qualities both physical and mental, sufficient for him to complete the task(s) for which he was created.
Consider too verses 8:2 and 7:8.
Allah SWT also states in the Quran that all of mankind descends from Adam. He says:
[Surah an-Nisa, 4: 1] O mankind! reverence your Guardian-Lord, who created you from a single person, created, of like nature, His mate, and from them twain scattered (like seeds) countless men and women;- reverence Allah, through whom ye demand your mutual (rights), and (reverence) the wombs (That bore you): for Allah ever watches over you.
And man was created by Allah as a khalifah (vicegerent) on this earth:
[Surah al-Baqarah, 2:30] Behold, thy Lord said to the angels: “I will create a vicegerent on earth.” They said: “Wilt Thou place therein one who will make mischief therein and shed blood?- whilst we do celebrate Thy praises and glorify Thy holy (name)?” He said: “I know what ye know not.”
Opinions from Islam’s Early Scholars
When studying Islamic history, we usually look at how well the ummah carries out Allah’s commands, and how this relates to the rise and fall of civilizations. This viewpoint sometimes causes us to overlook the opinions of the ‘ulama on matters related to pre-history.
In the same way that the Theory of Evolution has philosophical roots that extend to the eras of Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, as well as to religion, so too do the ‘ulama look to these sources in order to help seek answers to questions related to pre-history. However, the thrust of the understanding always comes from Quranic verses, which carry their own principles. Even though the ‘ulama make use of various other sources, Quranic principles remain the main source for them.
Just look at al-Mas’oudi’s book, Akhbar al-Zaman. Before talking about Adam and the generations after him, Al-Mas’oudi included the chapters, “On the Age of the World”, “On the Peoples before Adam”, “On the Earth and What Is In It”, “On the Sea that Covers (Al-Bahr al-Huhi?) and the Amazing Things Contained Within It”, etc.
Al-Mas’oudi explains that there were 28 groups of peoples created on this earth before Adam. These consisted of flora and fauna as well as a mankind that resembles the people of Adam. These groups mixed and interacted, leading to the expansion of the peoples to 120 groups.
Al-Thabari also says in his tafsir that all of creation was created before Adam.
Al-Maqdisi explains that there were three main groups in this world before Adam, two of which were groups of Jinn, whereas the third is slightly different in that they were made of flesh and blood. This third group consists of those referred to as “man yufsidu feehaa wa yasfiku al-dimaa”, i.e “one who will make mischief therein and shed blood”, as this group was called by the angels in the Quranic verses of 2:30.
These explanations by al-Mas’oudi demonstrates how previous ‘ulama have been debating matters regarding pre-history well before these discussions appeared in Europe during relatively current times.
These matters are important for Islamic knowledge in order to build and structure a World History based on an Islamic perspective. Muslims see the question of God, mankind, and the world, as subjects that cannot be separated. Based on this principle, the historical context cannot simply start with the creation of Adam, but pre-Adamic eras should also be considered.
This really amazes me. All this while, the fact that ‘ulama as early as the 10th century have been paying attention to this issue, had escaped my attention. Their efforts and interest show the importance of paying some attention to this subject.
‘Adams’ before ADAM
Regarding the creation of Adam, the majority of ‘ulama believe that Adam and Eve were created in their complete form in Heaven. They were then sent to earth after partaking from the forbidden fruit. Their progeny populated the earth and thenceforth started the history of mankind.
What is not explained explicitly by Allah SWT in the Quran is how Adam is created. Was he created in stages or in just one process? A fraction of tafsir scholars are of the opinion that when Allah SWT created Adam, it was not until 40 years later that his ruh (spirit) was blown into him. In this is clear the influence of Ancient Persian tradition towards this tafsir.
Another fraction of ‘ulama are of the opinion that Adam was not the first man created to be on earth. In their opinion, hundreds and thousands of previous ‘Adam’s have existed before Adam our father. Each previous ‘Adam’ had their own progeny and life, were destroyed completely, and replaced by the following ‘Adam’, until the time came to Adam, our father. Adam our father is seen as being the last of the ‘Adam’s on this earth.
Then there are also ‘ulama who are of the opinion that Adam and Eve were not created in Heaven, but on earth, and from the earth.
(Refer al-Maqdisi: Al-Bad’ wa al-Tarikh and Ibn al-‘Arabi: al-Futuhat al-Makkiyyah)
Ikhwan al-Safa too explained a bit more on this aspect. They state that all creatures were created from dry clay and inhabited the Equatorial regions, unaffected by weather extremes. This created a good environment for procreation. It is in this environment that Adam was created (takawwana). Ikhwan al-Safa are also of the opinion that Adam and Eve spent the first half of their life on earth (Rasaa’il Ikhwan al-Safa, chapter 181, pg 229. There is a possibility that this concept was taken from come Biblical concepts, where Heaven is termed the Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve lived in purity).
Some of us might see the above-mentioned issues as trivial and unimportant. It could easily be labeled khurafat, victims of Israiliyyat, made-up imaginings, etc. What should not slip from our minds is that it is not the factual details that are important. I say this because, whether seen from the aspect of religious textual interpretations, or from the aspect of scientific achievement itself, this field is still inundated with hypotheses. In fact, it should never be forgotten that Allah said “I KNOW WHAT YOU KNOW NOT”.
Our knowledge is not limitless.
What we should hold as important is the questioning of ideas related to evolutionary biology, the existence of ideas related to the possibility of previous ‘Adam’s before Adam, and the opportunity for these questions to be researched by Muslims. This will prevent Science students from feeling guilty merely because they think that evolution is completely against Islam.
As was demonstrated previously, the principles of evolution have already been in the minds of Muslim historians as early as the 10th century. If it was accepted as a subject worthy of study by Muslims then, why is it that in this day and age, we feel that there is no more room for discussion regarding this matter? Evolution is against Islam, 100% we say!
What worries me is that the behaviour of religious people towards these issues will create problems for Muslims in the same way that the arrogant attitude of Christian religious leaders led to the distancing of the scientific community from religion. Their simplistic and narrow-minded pronouncements resulted in religion being discarded as the source of truth, without even discussing the question of the truth of their religion itself.
People turned to science due to their disgust with religious zealots whose ideas were static and unappealing.
The Divine Evolution
Even in the West, some researchers try to harmonize between evolution and religious doctrine. Even though theologians and the Church are adamant in rejecting evolution, there are some who accept the rules and laws of the natural world without denying God’s process of creation. They believe that the Hand of God is behind the evolutionary processes of this world, and that man is at the end of this evolutionary process.
This explanation is called ‘The Divine Evolution’.
There also exist church leaders who accept that the texts of the Holy Book are imperfect and who see the Theory of Evolution as being in tune with Christian belief (see Maurice Bucaille, What is the Origin of Man? The Answers of Science and the Holy Scripture).
Regular checks and updates should also be carried out by us, the Muslims.
Muhammad Iqbal and other learned men accepted the idea of evolutionary biology. However, Iqbal explains that evolution only affects man’s physical development. It has nothing to do with the non-physical or spiritual dimensions of man (see Muhammad Iqbal, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam).
This issue involves Islam’s stand on fossil finds, matters related to the truth of a primitive man as the start of life, issues related to the great flood, as well as Gog and Magog, among others.
In America, genetic science and paleontologists at the end of the 20th century unanimously supported the theory of mtEve after researching ancient fossil remains. This theory suggests that current mankind descended from one man and one woman. This acceptance opened up a path to the religious establishment who then went on to forward hypotheses related to the ship of Noah and the Garden of Eden.
If Muslims take the easy way out and call all this nonsense, then it will become much easier for Islam itself to be seen as being nonsensical. This will happen if we fail to interact with the scientific achievements and genetic technology of today.
I worry about a fraction of our community who extricate themselves from others due to ideas presented in the mainstream media, ideas that are comfortable with the thought that science and religion are at loggerheads.
It is my hope that sharing this information with you will prove how ‘ulama, scientists, and historians, are in need of each other in order to better understand religion, Allah SWT, mankind and the rest of creation.
Let us not be the cause of the destruction of Islam and Muslims by succumbing to simplistic musings.
This article was written for those who are familiar with the subjects discussed: perspectives related to the history of Darwinism, biological science, genetic engineering, and a little exposure to early Islamic scholars. If some terms are confusing, please utilize Wikipedia. Thank you.