By Sheikh Mohamad Farouq Abdul Fareez
When Galileo challenged the Church, his geocentric argument was dismissed as it contradicted the mandate of the Church, and more importantly, it challenged the Church’s authority. As the Church held authoritative power, any claims of reason and science had to conform to its authority. Opposition to this incident has shaped modern-day dialectics of two extremes regarding religion and science, namely secularisation and fundamentalism. This discord is not alien to the Muslim world as we have seen a vast majority of Muslim intellectuals investing efforts to reconcile Islam with new scientific developments. The emergence of numerous scientific exegesis (tafsir ‘ilmi) in the 19th century to prove how Quranic verses predicted modern scientific discoveries that inevitably makes modern science ‘Islamic’ reflects this modern trajectory. Unfortunately, these integrative efforts lack the intellectual rigour to analyse the epistemological underpinnings of these two disciplines critically. As a result, it conditions the mind to blindly accept or reject a discipline without leaving any intellectual space for reflexivity and discursive thinking. Interestingly, Dallal argues that it is not reflective of the pre-modern period when Muslims were the leading producers of science in the world. They did not advocate the wedding of science and religion. Rather than seeing these two endeavours as separated, it is more helpful to understand this tension by looking at them as colliding epistemologies driven by power structures that aim to dominate the intellectual sphere. Ultimately, it is about who makes more sense that matters.
It is safe to argue that no other issue has characterised this tension more than the theory of evolution. In the Muslim world, when evolution is discussed, it is automatically linked with Darwinism and, in most cases, considered blasphemy. Surveys that have been conducted in the past indicated that at least three-quarters of Muslims reject entirely or have fundamental disagreements with the theory and often refuse to have it taught in Muslim circles. According to Dajani, this reaction is alarming as it makes one wonder whether other things have been denied in the name of religion. She claims that this reaction is operated by people who intend to restrict the minds and emotions of Muslims through ignorance and confusion. Although it might stem from a sincere place, such paternalistic tendencies can alienate Muslims from critically thinking about the scientific endeavour as it is. Evolution has different facets. There are Darwinians and non-Darwinians, yet these complexities continue to be ignored and show that it is crucial to address this issue from different vantage points and not look at it as a single cube. It was the approach of Muslim thinkers and scientists who discussed evolution before the emergence of Darwin. Most prominent among them was Al-Jahiz (d. 868) in his magnum opus, The Book of Animals (Kitab Al-Hayawan) where he observed signs of evolution and adaptability in some species of animals without resorting to anti-theistic arguments. Nonetheless, it is important not to read these works along the lines of evolution as it is understood today. It would be an anachronistic reading of the tradition simply because they were referring to the ‘Great Chain of Being’ rather than Darwinian evolution.
However, it is beyond the scope of the article to discuss the details of these different facets. Furthermore, many prominent scholars have expertly expounded on these complexities. Most recently, Shoaib Malik’s book on Al-Ghazali and the Modern Evolutionary Paradigm brilliantly summarised and explained four different responses to the theory of evolution in Muslim circles.
Nonetheless, this article will attempt to understand the antipathy of Muslims towards evolution through three factors that are interlinked with each other. First is the language variation between the scientific and religious communities. Second is the ‘scientisation of Islam’, and finally, the fragmentation of knowledge – arguably the most significant factor.
LANGUAGE AND EVOLUTION
According to Bourdieu, language is used as a means of communication and a medium where power dynamics are played out. It is akin to economic exchanges where there is an exchange of capital (social and cultural). Thus, all verbal exchanges are avenues in which the producer tries to maximise their ‘symbolic profit’ over the consumers.
In the case of evolution, the first encounter of Darwin’s theory in the Muslim world did not emerge through the translation of his book, The Origin of Species that was published in 1859. Instead, it was introduced through specific ideological avenues among Muslim intellectuals in 1876. The deliberations covered a broad spectrum, ranging from simplistic rejection to total acceptance. Nevertheless, it can be argued that a great deal of these deliberations did not transpire from a close reading of Darwin. Rather, he was instrumentalised by these groups to pursue their underlying motives that were essentially political. For some Muslim secularists, Darwin was the epitome of the modern scientific spirit, and it was the only way to save Muslims from backwardness. In response, Muslim reformists, most famously Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (d. 1897), launched a sharp rejoinder against Darwin’s theory in his Al-Radd ‘ala al-Dahriyyin (Refutation of the Materialists) in which he wrongly represented Darwin’s ideas. Afghani’s onslaught was not directed towards Darwin or science, but it was towards a group that, in his mind, were advocates of Westernisation of the Muslim world. It can be argued that the language of this discourse was shaped by the colonial wound which Muslims were attempting to make sense of.
In the same vein, the language dominating deliberations on evolution today is primarily shaped by the creationist school led by the controversial Turkish writer, Harun Yahya. He argues that evolution is antithetical to Islam as it is geared towards atheism. However, similar to Afghani’s rhetoric, Yahya’s interpretation of Darwin is misinformed, and in fact, most of his arguments are recycled from American Creationist literature on the subject. Like Afghani, Yahya was not interested in understanding evolution as understood by Darwin or the scientific community. He was capitalising on Turkey’s traumatic episode of aggressive secular reforms to pursue his ulterior motives. Interestingly, his personality is anything but Islamic as his cult was recently exposed and was charged for sexual crimes.
Unfortunately, Yahya’s ideological capital is transposed to most parts of the Muslim world that accordingly shapes our language on Darwin and the theory of evolution today. It is important to note that there are serious intellectual arguments against evolution that are not influenced by Yahya’s and born out of a close reading of Darwin and religious scriptures. However, there is no denying the influential role of his works in shaping the discourse on evolution in Muslim circles. Also, not forgetting famous Muslim televangelists like Zakir Naik, who shoddily describes evolution as “just a theory”, conflating the term’s colloquial designation for the scientific one. Such conflation substantiates the language dissonance between the religious and scientific communities.
‘SCIENTISATION’ OF QURAN
As mentioned earlier, the attempt to reconcile Islam and science as two separate endeavours is a relatively modern phenomenon that emerged within a specific socio-political milieu. Although there is some truth in which modern science as understood today is devoid of the metaphysical, it should not prevent us from engaging nor accepting science blindly, or what is described as the ‘scientisation’ of the Quran. It is not to be mistaken with exegesis that focused on the internal coherence and philosophy of the Quran that invokes the religious imagination to make sense of the cosmos. This school of interpretation is closely linked to reform movements pioneered by Muhammad Abduh who were deeply invested in proving Islam’s compatibility with modernity. The danger of such attempts is that it links the perennial wisdom and truth of the Quran with the transient ideas of modern science. In other words, not only will it increase the misrepresentation of convoluted theories as understood by the scientific community, but it reduces the space of theological non-commitment (tawaqquf) in matters that are not elaborated by the text.
In the case of evolution, Jalajel takes this position in which he argues that the Quran explicitly talks about the creation of Adam as a miraculous creation and our lineage traced back to him. However, it does not deny the possibility of pre or co-Adamic human beings. Thus, Adam could or could not have been the first humankind, so there is space for tawaqquf on this matter. Malik argues that the Adamic exceptionalism argument addresses the scientifically challenging issue of whether Adam’s descendants practised incest. Suppose Adam and Eve were not the only human beings, there is a possibility that their descendants intermingled and procreated with other types of humankind that bypasses the genetic bottleneck problem. This position draws similarities with the idea of dihliz – an in-between space in which the scholar situates himself between different disciplines that contribute to a new discourse without dislocating the tradition.
FRAGMENTATION OF KNOWLEDGE
Contrary to Cartesian dualism, which has shaped how we view the mind and body today, the intellectual habitus that cultivated Muslims’ pursuit of knowledge was driven by an epistemological integration (al-takamul al-ma’rifi), which produced scholars who have an encyclopedic knowledge of things. Such individuals were able to link the different fields of knowledge when analysing an issue. This creative phenomenon was certainly a distinct feature of the Islamic golden age. Thus, the phenomenon of specialising in a particular science is a rather modern occurrence. According to Malkawi:
“The exponential growth in information and data has resulted in a mass of knowledge so vast that, in order for us to be able to cope with it, it has had to be divided up into separate fields and specializations, and the more our knowledge increases, the more it has to be divided and fragmented.” 
As a result, this phenomenon has produced educational systems occupied in fragmenting knowledge into different specialisations to the extent that it has produced individuals with a reductionist view of the world. Malkawi further argues that these individuals focus excessively on parts of the truth that are immediate and direct while losing touch with historical facts and the broader picture of the cosmos. In the case of evolution, it is therefore not surprising that its proponents would regard its opponents as intellectually regressive while those who oppose would at times resort to takfiri rhetoric by accusing those who believe as heretics. On the one hand, scientists expect the religious community to appreciate the complexities of scientific deliberations concerning evolution. While on the other hand, the religious community expects the same consideration for the metaphysics and hermeneutics involved in the subject matter.
Interestingly, both are equally valid vantage points that need to be taken into account. However, fragmentation creates conflicting sovereignties that do not help make sense of the issue at hand. Instead, it forces people to see things in black and white. It means that one can transmit the details of the discipline well but fail to understand the comprehensive philosophy of Islam.
However, this epistemological integration is not to be confused with the Islamisation phenomenon that is intrinsically engaged with the otherising of sciences even if its proponents would argue otherwise. Rather, there is an element of interdisciplinary reasoning that is fluidly integrated into the pursuit of knowledge and truth.
This article is not a defence for or against evolution; instead, it encourages Muslims to be intellectually and conscientiously informed when dealing with evolution. Instead of resorting to a normative language skewed by ideological and sociopolitical agendas of both camps, any considerations of evolutionary theory must first be ‘de-ideologised’ and evaluated on its terms. This article has briefly presented that the responses to the evolution theory in Muslim circles are considerably diverse and certainly not monolithic. However, what binds these responses together is that it rejects the theory should it be devoid of the metaphysics and God. Therefore, a constructive debate on evolution in Islam can be materialised if its ideological and political struggles do not skew it, and God is not relegated to the periphery of the deliberations. In addition, it is crucial to avoid further fragmenting knowledge and pursue the broader meaning of ‘ilm without leaving out the metaphysics. It will enable us to develop a discursive language; that is to understand the language as understood by the community, critically engage and creatively conceptualise a new science that is neither ideologised nor misinformed. Consequently, it will shift our intellectual circles from a republic of piety to a republic of letters.
1 Dawes, G. Galileo and the Conflict between Religion and Science. New York: Routledge, 2019. pp. 21-22
2 Guessoum, N. Islam’s Quantum Question. London: I.B. Tauris, 2011. p. 146
3 Malik, S. Islam and Evolution Al-Ghazali and the Modern Evolutionary Paradigm. New York: Routledge, 2021. p. 2
4 Dallal, A. Islam, Science, and the Challenge of History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010. p. 170
5 Dajani, R. Evolution and Islam’s Quantum Question. Zygon®, 47(2), 2012. p. 347
6 Guessoum, N. Islam and Science: The Next Phase of Debates. Zygon®, 50(4), 2015. pp. 858-859
7 Dajani, R. Evolution and Islam’s Quantum Question. Zygon®, 2012. p. 347
8 Guessoum, N. Islam’s Quantum Question. I.B. Tauris, 2011. p. 278
9 Ibid, p. 306
10 Malik, S. Old Texts, New Masks: A Critical Review of Misreading Evolution onto Historical Islamic Text. Zygon®, 54(2), 2019. p. 347
11 Malik, S. Islam and Evolution Al-Ghazali and the Modern Evolutionary Paradigm. Routledge, 2021. p. 11
12 Bourdieu, P. Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991. pp. 66-67
13 Ghaly, M. Evolution and Muslim Responses to It. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Science, and Technology in Islam, I. Kalin, ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. p. 1. Accessed 2021, September 6 at: https://www.cilecenter.org/sites/default/files/uploads/2017/09/Ghaly-Muslim-Responses-Evolution-Theory-Oxford-Encyclopedia-of-Philosophy-Science-and-Technology-in-Islam.pdf
14 Guessoum, N. Islam’s Quantum Question. I.B. Tauris, 2011. p. 308
15 Dallal, A. Islam, Science, and the Challenge of History. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010. p. 165
16 Ghaly, M. Evolution and Muslim Responses to It. Oxford University Press, 2014. p. 3
17 Guessoum, N. Islam’s Quantum Question. I.B. Tauris, 2011. p. 109
18 Ibid, pp. 316-317
19 Ibid, p. 239
20 MacDonald, A. Adnan Oktar: The rise and fall of a Turkish sex cult leader. Middle East Eye, 2021. Accessed 2021, September 6 at: https://www.middleeasteye.net/big-story/turkey-adnan-oktar-cult-sexual-abuse-rise-fall
21 Malik, S. Islam and Evolution Al-Ghazali and the Modern Evolutionary Paradigm. 2021. p. 47
22 Elshakry, M. Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860-1950. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013. pp. 164-165
23 Guessoum, N. Islam’s Quantum Question. 2011. pp. 149-150
24 Malik, S. Islam and Evolution Al-Ghazali and the Modern Evolutionary Paradigm. 2021. p. 328
25 Jalajel, D. Tawaqquf and Acceptance of Human Evolution. Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research. 2018. Accessed 2021, September 6 at: https://yaqeeninstitute.org/read/paper/tawaqquf-and-acceptance-of-human-evolution
26 It would not be an issue from a divine command theory perspective in the Asharite theology, as everything is contingent on God’s will and wisdom.
27 Malik, S. Islam and Evolution Al-Ghazali and the Modern Evolutionary Paradigm. Routledge, 2021. p. 328-329
28 Moosa, E. Ghazali and the poetics of imagination. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. p. 67
29 Gendle M. H. The Problem of Dualism in Modern Western Medicine. Mens sana monographs, 14(1), 2016. pp. 141–151. Available at: https://doi.org/10.4103/0973-1229.193074
30 Malkawi, F. Epistemological Integration Essentials of an Islamic Methodology. Washington: The International Institute of Islamic Thought, 2014. p. 2
31 Ibid, pp. 6-7
33 Malik, S. Islam and Evolution Al-Ghazali and the Modern Evolutionary Paradigm. Routledge, 2021. p. 3
34 Ghaly, M. Evolution and Muslim Responses to It. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. p. 6
35 Malik, S. Islam and Evolution Al-Ghazali and the Modern Evolutionary Paradigm. Routledge, 2021. p. 11
36 Ghaly, M. Evolution and Muslim Responses to It. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. p. 6
38 Moosa, E. What is a Madrasa? North Carolina: The University of North Carolina Press, 2015. pp. 122-14
Sheikh Mohamad Farouq Abdul Fareez is a Research Analyst at the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA). He holds a Master’s degree in Islamic Thought and Applied Ethics. His area of interest involves issues concerning religion, human development and ethics.
This commentary was also published in The Karyawan, October 2021, Volume 16, Issue 4.
Photo Source: Elisa Calvet B on Unsplash