Monday, January 09, 2012

Does Islam Forbid Even Studying Evolution

This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science. 

A few days ago, The Huffington Post published an article by me under the above title. It quickly caught fire, clearly hitting a raw nerve: within 12 hours there were more than 500 comments, and some three days later, more than 100 Facebook pages had picked it, and 25 tweets were sent about it. I’ll let you check out the number of comments it has now received… Things went so fast that I could not reply to any of the comments at all. (When I got the notification that the article had been posted, and due to the time-zone difference, it had been up for 5 hours and 200 comments had been posted, so I realized what was happening, and I just resigned myself not to comment or reply.)

I’ll excerpt a few paragraphs from it below, though I wish to note that in the posted version, the editing was less than perfect, and some sentences turned out a bit strange (including the reference to Salman Hameed’s project and results). Here below I quote from the version I submitted, which is 98 % similar to what was published.

What was interesting was that many of the reactions had nothing to do with Evolution or with Islam. Many of the comments had to do with Religion in general, whether it makes sense to have any faith, i.e. whether science leaves any room for belief. I have found the discussion on the Huff Po to be very tense, harsh, and polarized; the moderate voices are few and difficult to hear… Perhaps that’s why balanced articles (as I hope mine was) are so necessary and needed.

Here are a few paragraphs:
Evolution, while largely rejected as a paradigm by Muslims, including highly educated ones, is nonetheless studied in countries like Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, and the UAE. No case of students boycotting evolution classes in those countries has ever been reported. There have been occasional reports of students “resisting” the study of evolution in some western universities (in Holland, more specifically), but nothing widespread to make it a general trend. Perhaps Muslim students elsewhere are also rejecting evolution but pragmatically “compartmentalizing” its study as simply part of the curriculum, without turning it into a political issue.
Surveys have shown Muslims almost everywhere largely rejecting the main concepts and results of the theory of evolution, particularly when it applies to humans. Even educated Muslims – and this is where today’s Muslim culture stands out – consider evolution as “only a theory” and refuse to accept that we humans share common ancestors with apes, and that all living creatures (animals and plants) came from an original cell.
Indeed, there is no uniform Islamic position on the theory of evolution. Ever since its earliest formulation by Darwin (and subsequent improvements on it), Muslim scholars have reacted to it with a variety of viewpoints, including sometimes a full acceptance of its scenario on the origin and history of humanity. In such cases, religious scholars insist on a theistic interpretation: God planned that whole evolution, by writing it in the laws of nature, and perhaps even “guided” it.
But there are also strongly creationist positions in today’s Muslim culture, the clearest and strongest one being expressed by Harun Yahya and his group, who for the past decade or more have launched an aggressive campaign targeting Muslims throughout the world, including the UK and France, where lecture tours are organized and books (such as the infamous Atlas of Creation) are massively distributed either freely or in subsidized sales. A full review of the spectrum of Islamic positions can be found in my book, including a detailed critique of the claims made by Harun Yahya.
So if there is a large spectrum of Islamic position vis-a-vis evolution, why do those students claim that “it is against the teachings of the Qur’an”?
The openness of the Qur’an to (re-)interpretation was recently underlined by Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, perhaps the most influential Muslim scholar of the past few decades, who stated that: “If Darwin’s theory is proven, we can find Qur’anic verses that will fit with it…”

You can read the whole thing (and the flood of comments) here.
Let’s see how many comments we get here now… ;-)


Gary said...

Salaams Nidhal

I read the Huff Po article and decided not to comment on it because I knew what would be coming. I guess since I am first cab off the rank here I may as well have a brief say.
Actually I agree 100% that some balance is needed but so rarely seen. I regularly look at the postings on both atheist blogs and on religious blogs and what passes for discussion seems to boil down to a mutual exchange of insults. This leaves people seeking the middle ground branded by both sides as accommodationists. Most people don't really care either way but if you are intelligent enough to understand and accept the findings of modern science and still retain some form of religious belief then finding a compromise becomes an issue. Either/or is not an answer. Whether deciding to treat science and religion as two separate fields or trying to find some form of integrated approach, the mutual insults will not help. Evolution will not go away nor will religion. Some sort of civilised discussion is the obvious answer.

Saif said...

Congrats Nidhal, you're an Internet celebrity now!

I think the solution is that instead of going to Masjids and being brainwashed by Imam's/Maulvis, all Muslims should grow up watching Carl Sagan's Cosmos. They can learn Islam later on once they're adults. ;)

Anonymous said...

I think we should learn evolution from Zakir Naik and Harun Yahya and learn religion from Richard Dawkins. They have a thorough knowledge of the said subjects.

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Salam Gary,
I fully agree with you. I knew of course that Evolution is a subject that tends to inflame passions and fire up convictions, but I thought that since all comments on Huff-Po are reviewed before they get posted, that somehow this would soften the discourse. Not so. It's too bad that when moderate voices speak, they get drowned by the shouting of the two sides over them.

Nidhal Guessoum said...

Saif, I would gladly give up any "internet celebrity", which I realize you state in tongue-in-cheek manner, for meaningful contributions to these kinds of debates.
And while there are indeed some religious preachers whose work amounts to brainwashing, I think it is not constructive to present "going to the masjid" in such cartoonish manner. Many people go to the mosque/church/temple to improve themselves spiritually, socially, etc. And many imams and priests do a great job at this. Let us please stop presenting sides in such biased manner.
Oh, and I too am a fan of Carl Sagan, but I think what is important is to present science in its own glory; too much emphasis on personalities may not be best.

Student of Allah said...

Shalom aleikhem,

Out of all the explanations of origin of man, Evolution makes the most sense (so far). And the problem of muslims is the glorification of arab traditions which stop them from understanding it. God surely created all life from water... and I am a form of life too.

---------- Student of Allah

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