Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Maududi on evolution

We may not agree with his politics, but Abul Ala Maududi (1903-1979) is considered one of the most influential Islamist thinkers of the 20th century and his writings have shaped much of the conservative Islam in South Asia. He was also the founder of Jamaat-e-Islami.

What does he have to say about biological evolution?

While not his main concern, he addresses the topic of evolution in his magnum opus, Tafhim al Qur'an, a six-volume translation and commentary on the Qur'an that took him thirty years to write. He references "Darwinism" multiple times in his commentary. Unlike his disciples, Dr. Israr Ahmad and Javed Ahmad Ghamidi (though they both split from Jamaat-e-Islami), he does not confuse biological evolution with evolution of the universe, nor does he use development and evolution interchangeably. The bad news is that he believes in complete creationism and places biological evolution in opposition to the Qur'an - as so both Dr. Israr Ahmad and Javed Ghamidi. After trashing "Darwinism", quite intriguingly, he leaves open the door for evolution - saying that if it turns out to be correct - then God must have used evolution for the diversity of species (see at the bottom of this post). At first glance, this looks like having it both ways. However, I take it as a positive thing that may provide an opening for conservative Muslims to accept a well-established scientific idea.

But before we get to this opening, lets look at Maududi's views on evolution. It is quite clear that he believes in a separate creation. In commenting on verse (32:13), "He began the creation of man from clay; then spread his progeny by an extract the nature of a despicable water", Maududi brings up the issue of the origin life and extrapolates creationism from there:
This is one of those verses of the Qur'an, which points to the direct creation of the first man. The scientists since the time of Darwin have felt greatly critical of this concept and have rejected it with contempt as unscientific. But the fact is that they cannot get rid of the concept of the direct creation of the first germ, if not of the first man, or of the first species of animals. If creationism is not accepted, then one will have to accept the utterly absurd idea that life originated merely accidentally; whereas even the simplest form of life as found in the single cell organism is so full of complexities and subtleties that regarding it as the result of an accident would be a million times more unscientific an idea than what the evolutionists think of creationism. And if once it is accepted that the first germ came into being by an act of direct creation, it would be no longer difficult to accept that the first member of every species of animal life was created by the Creator's own act of creation, and then its race started through different forms of procreation. If accepted this concept would explain away all those riddles and complexities which have remained unsolved in their theory of evolution in spite of all the scientific theorizing by the upholders of Darwinism.
Of course, this leaves one wondering that if scientists do solve the issue of the origin of life - and many are getting close - will the same reasoning automatically lead to atheism? This is why religious scholars should not hinge their ideas on specific unresolved issues in science. By the way, I'm listening to fascinating Teaching Company lectures on the Origins of Life by Robert Hazen. In contrast to "we don't know - hence God must have created life", it is so refreshing to see scientists grapple with this challenge (and it is indeed a big challenge), and devise ways to solve this mystery. If nothing else, just look at the description of the course and it will give you a flavor of the scientific approach. If you have a driving commute, I highly recommend these lectures - Hazen is really good (though only buy them when they are on sale - otherwise this will be waaay too expensive).

Ahh..now let me drag myself back to Maududi's version of the creation. In response to (7:11), "Indeed We planned your creation, then We shaped you, and there We said to the angels, "Bow yourselves before Adam", Maududi takes a literalistic interpretation of the creation of man:
As regards the creation of mankind, first of all, Allah made a plan for it; then He got ready the necessary material for this purpose; then He gave it the human shape, and when Adam came into being in the shape of a living man, then the angels were commanded to bow before him, who was the representative of the whole human race.
Now, of course, one can argue a metaphorical interpretation here - or one can bring in theistic evolution. While expressing ambiguity in the language, Maududi places Darwin's idea in direct opposition to the Qur'an:
It is very difficult for us to understand the exact nature of the creation of the first man, for we cannot comprehend fully how man was made from the material of the earth, how he was shaped and perfected and how the Spirit was blown into him. However, it is quite clear that the story of man's creation as stated in the Qur'an is quite different from Darwinism. According to this doctrine, the evolution of man has taken place from a non-human and semi-human state by a continuous process of elimination, selection and adaptation, and in this there is no line of demarcation to denote the end of the non-human state and the beginning of the species of `man' as such. On the contrary, the Qur'an says that man started his life as man; that in the entire history he has absolutely no connection whatsoever with any non-human state. Allah created him as man from the very first day of his life on the earth and endowed him with wisdom and enlightenment from the very start of iris life.
Ok - so the objection to evolution has moved from the origin of life to the notion that humans have a link with other animals (sorry to break it to Maududi - but we are all primates). Now comes the interesting twist. First, Maududi brings up one of the standard misconceptions - that evolution is only theory:
Now let us consider an objection to the Divine conception of man howsoever high sounding this may be from the moral and psychological points of view: how can we reject the scientific Darwinian conception merely on this account? In answer to this, we put a counter question: has the Darwinian theory of the `Origin of Species' been scientifically proved? Only those people who have a cursory knowledge of science may be suffering from this misunderstanding that the theory of evolution has been scientifically proved to be true, but the majority of the scientists know that it is merely a theory in spite of its high-sounding technical terms, and that the arguments in favor of this are not conclusive, but merely hypothetical.
But after saying all that, he leaves open the possibility of accepting evolution:
The most that can be said in this connection is that both the theories of the creation of the species may be equally possible. Their creation might have taken place according to the Darwinian theory of evolution, or each of the species might have been brought into existence individually.
Hold on. After all of the above, Maududi's conclusion is: "Most that can be said...is that both the theories...may be equally possible". This is quite an open statement. In fact, Maududi here seems to be displaying fewer misconceptions than the more modern sounding Ghamidi (or with the ranting Zakir Naik). It is also important to realize that the possible accommodation of evolution is included in Maududi's Tafsir of the Qur'an - widely read in the conservative circles. Who knows? The odds are low, but may be Jamaat-e-Islami may turn out to be relatively reasonable on the issue of evolution.

Also see:
Ghamidi on Islam and evolution
The evolution of Harun Yahya's "Atlas of Creation"
Zakir Naik's rant against evolution
Yusuf Estes' ignorance and hilarity combo about evolution

16 comments:

Atif Khan said...

Hmmmm. Do you think that Jamaat-e-Islami leaders will agree with evolution possibility? I don't think so. Accepting evolution as a possibility contradicts with many other aspects of faith and religion.

Salman Hameed said...

I think people are quite flexible when it comes down to practical matters. Think about it: Noah's flood as a worldwide event could have been a huge issue. However, in the face of geologic evidence, most Muslims (including conservatives) believe that it was probably a localized event. I think the same is going to happen with evolution also - and if a conservative scholar such as Maududi can leave such an opening - then indeed it is possible.

Will the Jamaat follow? I think this is depends on the political environment. If it serves their purpose of displaying modern credentials - then they may use it. However, if it becomes a rallying cry against the West - then they may end up rejecting it. But Jamaat's reaction will be political not religious.

AYDIN Ă–RSTAN said...

I am curious to know if Maududi ever referred to the old Great Chain of Being (Scala Naturae) idea. In the past, some Ottoman religious scholars wrote about that, including the silly idea that the date tree was a transition point, so to speak, between plants & animals. In present day Turkey, certain university professors, who should know better, use those writings to demonstrate that Islamic ideas are not against biological evolution. They don't realize that the Scala Naturae was not an evolutionary concept.

Muhammad Akbar Hussain said...

"Of course, this leaves one wondering that if scientists do solve the issue of the origin of life - and many are getting close - will the same reasoning automatically lead to atheism?"

Getting close? No Salman, it is not so. We are only getting close to know that these natural processes are even more complicated than we ever thought. The more we discover, the more we know how less we know and how far we have to go. This is the beauty of science...an endless journey, every step of which opens up more destinations...and possibilities.

Salman Hameed said...

"I am curious to know if Maududi ever referred to the old Great Chain of Being (Scala Naturae) idea."

Aydin,

I'm don't know if Maududi himself ever mentioned the Great Chain of Being. But others have certainly used it and attributed to medieval Muslim ideas of evolution. At the same time, there were some speculation on explaining variations w/o Scala Naturae - but we need to know more about it. Currently, the claims are based on relatively thin scholarship. I won't be surprised if people find more sophisticated ideas about evolution (in line with pre-Lamacrkian ideas) - and that would be important to know.

Salman Hameed said...

"Getting close? No Salman, it is not so. We are only getting close to know that these natural processes are even more complicated than we ever thought. The more we discover, the more we know how less we know and how far we have to go. This is the beauty of science...an endless journey, every step of which opens up more destinations...and possibilities."

Akbar,

You are mixing up challenging problems in science with the endeavor of science. For many problems, the more we discover, the more we solve them. For example, the energy source of the Sun was a major problem in the late 19th century. But with our information about fusion, the larger problem has been resolved. Astronomers still work on the details - or in cases of specific stars - but over all the problem is more or less resolved. Similarly, formation of the Earth was a major problem in the 17th/18th century. In fact, it was considered a problem outside the domain of science. Not so much any more. We have a very good understanding of the formation of the solar system - including the planets. Of course, there are many details to be worked out (and we have to figure out a general theory of solar system formations - in light of extrasolar planets) but I doubt that nebular hypothesis is going to be challenged. So is the case with plate tectonics, etc. etc. So yes, many discoveries open new doors - but they also close some of the unsolved problems.

Now, the origin(s) of life is a hard problem. But there has been tremendous progress in the last 50 years. We know that life's chemistry, we know organic compounds were common on early Earth, we know that complex molecules essential for life - like amino acids - form easily (in Miller-Urey experiment, in high-pressure environments near volcanic vents, and also in comets and meteorites), we know that lipids can self-organize and replicate.

Usual reply from creationists is: Aha - but this is still not life.

Of course, its not. This is the reason scientists are working on it. This is a tough scientific problem (i.e. within the realm of natural science). Scientists don't work on solved problems - that would be a bit boring. How long will it take to solve the origin of life question? I don't know. But by no means this looks like an unsolvable problem. For that - possibly look at the multiverse issue - and I would even be careful with that.

Muhammad Akbar Hussain said...

Salman, you didn't get my point. The point is...the more complex the process gets, the further it gets away from "accident". Soon our precious fifteen billion years of Universe's age will not remain enough to explain the formation of neucleotides and DNA, and their complex organization into mere "simplest" cells.
Yes the question has been answered that how Sun is giving out energy - fusion of hydrogen into helium. But it opens up hundreds of unexplained questions about the atomic nucleus, its constitution, its interactions, the emmission of photons, and so on. There is no end. The complexity is infinite, yet the perfection is ultimate. Perhaps the old man was right.

Muhammad Akbar Hussain said...

Multiverse theory is total crap!

Salman Hameed said...

"Salman, you didn't get my point. The point is...the more complex the process gets, the further it gets away from "accident". Soon our precious fifteen billion years of Universe's age will not remain enough to explain the formation of neucleotides and DNA, and their complex organization into mere "simplest" cells."

I have no idea what "it" means here? I also have no idea what age of the universe has any thing to do with life's origin on Earth. We know that life started very quickly - soon after the age of the bombardment (about 4 billion years ago). This is the reason why scientists are trying to simulate conditions of early Earth.

"Yes the question has been answered that how Sun is giving out energy - fusion of hydrogen into helium. But it opens up hundreds of unexplained questions about the atomic nucleus, its constitution, its interactions, the emmission of photons, and so on. There is no end. The complexity is infinite, yet the perfection is ultimate. Perhaps the old man was right."

hmm...ok. Yes, there are always more questions to answer - but not the same questions. For example, we don't have much mystery regarding the energy source of the Sun. This was a particular problem - and now we know the answer. Origin of life on Earth is a specific problem - and we will have a specific answer for that - and then it won't be a mystery any more. People like Maududi are banking on origins of life on Earth to be an unexplainable problem. Not so. Of course, there will always be other questions - Did life originate only once here on Earth - or multiple times? Is DNA a necessary molecule for life or can life use some other molecule on another planet? etc. etc. But these are different questions - and scientists will try to answer those in due time.

Re: Multiverse.
Sure..it is a highly speculative idea. At present, whether it is crap or not depends on opinion. But it starts making testable predictions - then it is those tests that will determine if it is crap or not - not opinion or belief. By the way, see a more detailed discussion over multiverse here.

Muhammad Akbar Hussain said...

"We know that life started very quickly -"
Yes, this is what I mean :-)

Salman Hameed said...

""We know that life started very quickly -"
Yes, this is what I mean :-)"

You mean "God did it"? If yes, then you will make an excellent scientist!

Actually, quickly is on astronomical scales. Life started within a million years - this is a very short time compared to the 4.5 billion life span of Earth. The implications are that life is most likely a high probability chemical event given the conditions of early Earth. Thus, life may even have had multiple origins on Earth (may be) - and is likely to be found on other planets (or satellites of large planets) in multiple places in our galaxy (possibly even in our own solar system - Europa?).

Muhammad Akbar Hussain said...

"God did it?"
For Accident's sake, please open up your mind for a little argument. I nowhere mentioned "God", did I?...a sciencist's worst phobia.
And yes, life originated fairly quickly, much sooner for mere accident to make it happen, for the structure of DNA itself is way too complex...let alone a cell. The cell of blue green algae only is perhaps a million times more complex than this pocket PC that is in my hand. For such a thing to happen by itself in no matter how favourable the environment might be is absolutely non-scientific in itself.
Yes I am a doctor and an astronomer and a scientist in making but not a sciencist. I would rather look for saner reasons about origins of life and universe and marvellous laws of nature than promoting fancy ideas like things happening by themselves.

Salman Hameed said...

"I nowhere mentioned "God", did I?...a sciencist's worst phobia."

Hmm...its not phobia - it is called the end of inquiry. The invocation of God for an explanation (not God the existence of God necessarily) is indeed antithetical to scientific endeavor.

"And yes, life originated fairly quickly, much sooner for mere accident to make it happen, for the structure of DNA itself is way too complex...let alone a cell. The cell of blue green algae only is perhaps a million times more complex than this pocket PC that is in my hand. For such a thing to happen by itself in no matter how favourable the environment might be is absolutely non-scientific in itself."

Two things:
a) I have no idea what you mean by "accident". I never said any thing about an accident. Life arose through chemical processes governed by natural laws. It is no more an accident than we have rainfall on Earth or we have mountains on Mars. Actually, complex molecules essential for like, like the amino acids, nucleotides, and some fatty acids, have been to shown to form within days in the Miller Urey experiment, in experiments simulating high pressure environments of thermal vents, etc. Timescale for complexity is actually not a problem in current experiments on the origins of life. Still, as I have said multiple times above, it is an unsolved and exciting area of research - and that's the reason why scientists are working on it.

b) "I would rather look for saner reasons about origins of life and universe and marvellous laws of nature than promoting fancy ideas like things happening by themselves."

Since you are not talking about God (as per your statement), will you illuminate us about your "saner reasons" other than natural causes? (note - we are not talking about who/what created the laws themselves - that is a different topic altogether - but rather that life emerged from natural processes governed by natural laws).

Anonymous said...

Dear Dr. Salman Hameed,

You arguments are falling apart! Sometimes, you are not confident enough what are you talking about.

Regards,

Salman Hameed said...

"You arguments are falling apart! Sometimes, you are not confident enough what are you talking about."

Actually, now that I reflect on it, I think Maududi and Akbar are absolutely correct. Origin of life is the mystery of mysteries. I can now see the folly of Miller, Hazen, Morowitz, etc. who think this is a scientifically solvable problem, and are simply wasting their time on this line of research. My confidence is all back up now. Thanks!

dr usama khan said...

dr usama here
all we read is "genetic make up of all homosapians mean men women is such that if there is no men all would be women and from fossils it depicts that all men women are desendents of a single LUCY 2 lac year back as we hav discoverd now skeltons of nenderthals so we cant totally deny evolution but we cant even deny the creation of adam by God himself i think might 7000 yr back from the desendent of Lucy the common mother of all human one men is selected as adam coz ulema are divided over the issue of jannat most believe that it was on earth so might adam is selected for this jannat and he was given wisdom as dr israr also says so i think dr israr point of view appeals more as he was a medical dr by profession and no medical men can totally reject the idea of evolution but being believers we also believe that adam was first homosapian given wisdom and only his offsprings remained and survived and rest all races disappeared becoz they dont know to cultivate or were uncivilised and were gentile and were not able to speak even