04 Jun What does Islam say about evolution?
What does Islam say about evolution?
What does Islam say on evolution? Is it strictly creationism?
I’ve gotten this question a few times, and I think the difficulty in answering this question is that there is no central authority in Islam, and thus, the question of evolution is one that varies from scholar to scholar. That being said, I think there are a few things that we should be clear on before proceeding.
This question is posed to Christians as a sort of challenge, and thus, the frame of reference within Western discourse is to create the schism between secular and religious knowledge, otherwise known as the split between “science and religion.” These are seen as mutually exclusive fields, and this has as much to do with the structure of the religion of Christianity as it does with the history of Western epistemological development.
So, why do I say that the “structure” of Christianity lends itself towards this bifurcation between “science” on the one hand, and “religion,” on the other? In this regard, I am classifying Christianity as a “religion of faith,” rather than as a “religion of law,” such as Judaism or Islam. As a religion of faith, the tenants of what define one’s faith become uncompromising, to varying degrees, and thus the central tenant of Christianity becomes the cosmology, or world view, that defines the religious involvement of the believer.
Contrasting this with the “religion of law” of Judaism or Islam, set tasks or actions must be done, and take up a sizable portion, if not a majority, of religious doctrine and concerns. However, this is where Islam and Judaism find a difference in their “source material,” in that, the Torah, like the Bible, has a very distinct and specific world-view of how the world was created and this is central towards belief and towards one’s view of the world as dictated by their religious scripture.
The Qur’an, on the other hand, while alluding to God’s creative involvement in the world, the cosmology set about in The Qur’an is far more metaphorical and far less specific than the stories in the Torah or the Bible. Like many things, The Qur’an alludes to the stories found within the Torah and the Bible, but creates various seemingly small yet extremely important distinctions. Thus, Muslims have a far greater latitude with not only their ability to interpret The Qur’an, but also in finding harmony between what their faith’s Scripture says about the world and what the science of their day says.
Thus, not only is there a distinct ambiguity found within The Qur’an, but the religious structures that have emerged within the historical experience of Muslims has meant that they do not see knowledge of God as distinct from knowledge of the world. This is a Western-specific bifurcation, and one that motivates the discourse, and it is also why Islam’s rich history with science did not require Muslim scholars to engage in “apologetics” with their scripture.
The second element to the schism between “religious” and “secular” knowledge, besides the religious structure issue, is of the historical developmental aspect. I am of the opinion that the historical development followed from a combination of the religious “foundation” and the socio-political developmental aspects. So, not only do we have an issue of the West’s religious structure, but how knowledge, as an idea, was conceptualized and how people perceived of knowledge relative to their morality, religion, and culture.
Within the Muslim world, it was through the educational institutions of the religion of Islam that we get what we would term “secular” knowledge, i.e. science, history, mathematics, etc. So, Islam came to be the avenue through which historical Muslims were able to rationalize their world, whether that was the current one, or the hereafter. As a result, Muslim scholars, whether focusing on Islamic topics, medical, scientific, or otherwise, would look at Islam as the motivating force behind their study, and as a guide towards this study, and thus they were able to pursue knowledge with an appreciation for Islam because of this institutional structure, but also because of what is found within The Qur’an.
Earlier, I had said that The Qur’an refers to things metaphorically, and there is one passage in particular that fluctuates considerably with translation.
The Sahih International translation, reflects this problematic translation of Surah Al-A’raf, with:
“Indeed, your Lord is Allah , who created the heavens and earth in six days and then established Himself above the Throne. He covers the night with the day, [another night] chasing it rapidly; and [He created] the sun, the moon, and the stars, subjected by His command. Unquestionably, His is the creation and the command; blessed is Allah , Lord of the worlds.” [7:54] Sahih International.
The Yusuf Ali translation, which is seemingly the most common translation in America, also exhibits the flaw of literally translating this phrase into “six days,” which is derived from The Arabic: sittati ayyamin.
The issue here is that the translation of the word “ayyamin” or its root: yawm seems curious, because it seems to mistake something specific or literal for something that is clearly metaphorical. We deduce this metaphorical meaning by comparing the time God used to create the world with its connection to God’s throne. It is widely agreed upon that the “throne” referred to in this verse has a metaphorical connotation, although, there are certain groups of Muslims (however small) that insist that we take this literally. Regardless, all credible scholars realize that God requires no literal throne, and that this “throne” is clearly metaphorical in nature. Thus, the amount of time described cannot be translated as “days.”
Instead, using the vastly superior Muhammad Asad translation we have this:
“Verily, your Sustainer is God, who has created the heavens and the earth in six aeons, and is established on the throne of His almightiness. He covers the day with the night in swift pursuit, with the sun and the moon and the stars subservient to His command: oh, verily, His is all creation and all command. Hallowed is God, the Sustainer of all the worlds!” [7:54] Muhammad Asad
Muhammad Asad’s translation follows the logical deduction, but also, one that follows the actual patterns of linguistics of Arabic. The base word here is yawm, from which we derive the phrase in question. The word “yawm” is not only a word which denotes the physical time of a “day,” but also underlines the possibility of a much longer space in time, many times, in the abstract sense. Thus, if you take the Arabic phrase ayyam zaman, which roughly means, “the [good] old days,” we see that “day” within this context is clearly not to be translated as such, but rather, in a far more expansive and metaphorical way, especially in light of the connection of the phrase with the metaphorical “throne” of God.
Yet, it was not verses like this one that pushed scholars to pursue knowledge of their world. It had more to do with phrases like this:
“Verily, in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and in the succession of night and day, there are indeed messages for all who are endowed with insight, (191) [and] who remember God when they stand, and when they sit, and when they lie down to sleep, and [thus] reflect on the creation of the heavens and the earth…” [3:190-1] Muhammad Asad
It is within these two particular verses, which we see an example, of the many exhortations in The Qur’an from God to His creation to finding the proof of God’s existence through that which surrounds man. Thus, it was more than just institutional structures that inclined Muslims scholars towards science, it was the religion itself.
Thus, in order to prove God’s existence, one does not look to the existence of pain and suffering, these things are tests for the believer to end, not God. Instead, the proof of God’s existence is found within studying the world which surrounds us, and thus, if we discover that evolution is what is scientifically true, then that is the glory of God, the structure of God, and thus not only do we see God’s proof through science, but we must learn from it.
There are a myriad of verses within The Qur’an which point to things which we find to be scientifically true, such as:
“Are, then, they who are bent on denying the truth not aware that the heavens and the earth were [once] one single entity, which We then parted asunder? – and [that] We made out of water every living thing? Will they not, then, [begin to] believe?” [21:30] Muhammad Asad
Here we find two distinct claims, one that everything in this universe is derived from a single-source, alluding to the Big Bang Theory; and that all life emerged from water, which, I’m pretty sure is how life emerged on earth. I don’t have any aptitude for science, so, I might be wrong, and thus, taking this meaning improperly.
Another instance of The Qur’an sophistication is:
“And it is We who have built the universe with [Our creative] power; and verily, it is We who are steadily expanding it.” [51:47] Muhammad Asad
This phrase alludes to the ever-expanding universe, which is what science currently holds to be true.
Regardless of these allusions to things that we currently understand as scientific fact, and that the scientific method was actually created by a devout Muslim scholar (Al Hazen), the reality is that Islam has never found evolution as particularly contradictory issue relative to the scripture because the nature of The Qur’an as a work is that it is made up of metaphors, allusions, and poetry. Thus, the stories that are found within The Qur’an constantly vacillate between the specific and the metaphorical. This can either be taken as an indication of The Qur’an’s perfection in creating an argument through which any challenge to it can be easily dismissed, or that The Qur’an is the scriptural equivalent of Eddy Gordo in Tekken: it can beat anything with ease and this is just a “cheap trick,” of The Qur’an structure. Regardless of whether this ability to move between broad exhortations and context-dependent injunction is “fair” or not, the simple fact is that The Qur’an still wins the rhetorical argument, just like Eddy Gordo.**
So, does Islam have a “strict” sense of creationism? I would argue that it does not. The reason I went into so much detail before was to not only illustrate why Islam does not have this issue, in regards to other scientific questions, but also, so that we are working from the same context in order to answer this question. Essentially the issue of evolution, for many people, hinges on whether one takes the story of Adam and Eve literally or not.
I am of the personal opinion that this story is not literal, and that is predicated on the view of my grandfather, who was born in the 1800’s, who was a Sheikh from Al-Azhar, and whose specialization was tafseer or Qur’anic exegesis, and my father, a man of tremendous Islamic knowledge, as well as a man who has a PhD in genetics. When asked about Adam and Eve, my grandfather responded very calmly with a very simple question: “where in The Qur’an does it say that Adam is a homo sapien?”
Personally, this question was extremely important in me returning to my faith, because it was through this question that I realized I had continually approach Islam through the lens of a Western educational and historical methodology, and that to do so would be to rob myself of Islam’s immense complexity and nuance. I realize that there are Muslims who disagree with this characterization, and justify evolution through different means, but to me, taking the story of Adam and Eve as metaphorical makes the most sense to me.
I realize this might make some Muslims angry with me, but, it was this concept that allowed me to return to Islam, and thus, as I read over the story of Adam and Eve, I become increasingly convinced by this idea. I see the story of Adam and Eve as the time in which we became truly conscious beings, rather than just animals, in that as conscious beings we are not only aware of ourselves, but that we are able to destroy the natural order set about by God, the order of nature, to which all other aspects of this earth follow, except us. We, alone, are able to destroy this earth, we alone are able to justify our actions outside of instinct, and thus, this is the only thing that differentiates us from other animals. Therefore, the story of Adam and Eve is, for me, the story of when we shifted in consciousness, thus, Adam and Eve are the firsthuman beings, in that they were the first animals to be conscious of knowledge and themselves and able to either follow or turn away from God’s orders.
That is simply a summary of my personal viewpoint, but, again, I think that the evidence that I illustrated earlier for a harmony between Islam and science earlier, allows me to even entertain this concept. How the individual believer decides to understand various aspects of The Qur’an will determine their relative openness to evolution, or any other scientific fact. However, I think the most important “decider” has more to do whether the believer sees scientific knowledge as either in harmony or as antagnostic towards Islam. The evidence, I believe, overwhelmingly illustrates that scientific knowledge and religious knowledge, within an Islamic framework, are one-in-the-same, thus if evolution is actually true, then that is the methodology of God.
However, the scientist, whatever their religion (or lack thereof) must be aware of the constant change in science. There was a recent discovery of neutrinos that travel faster than the speed of light; which would overturn one of the most basic and fundamental laws of the universe. Thus, the idea that science has this unshakable sense of certainty, must be tempered, and that scientific knowledge, like all aspects of humanknowledge, are subject to change as we advance.
So, what does Islam say about evolution? Nothing. Islam doesn’t have to. We are the one’s who must make sense of our world, this is the commandment of God. If evolution is correct, then that is indeed what God ordained. The question is not what Islam says about evolution, rather, the question should be what Muslims think the evidence illustrates, independent of any “religious” considerations, because, again, scientific evidence and religious evidence are the same.
I would like to close with a teaching from my father. He started his career as a professor, and when speaking about Islam and Science he said: “When we find something in science that contradicts what we find in The Qur’an, we do not necessarily have a problem. If what we discover in science is indeed true, that does not mean that the science is wrong, nor does that mean that The Qur’an is wrong. Rather, it means that our understanding of The Qur’an was wrong.”
Insha Allah, I hope I answered your question and that if you or anyone else has a question on this, or any other topic, please do not hesitate to ask me.
**Note: This Eddy Gordo parallel is a joke, please do not message me if you do not understand this.