Melding modern science with the ancient beliefs found in faith is a problem that adherents of many different religions face. Some people turn to science to prove their faith is correct. For example, there are some Buddhist groups who focus on using neuroscience to prove the existence of reincarnation. Others reject science in favor of faith, such as Christian New Earth Creationists. Still others take up science as their new “religion.” Most people, however, try and find ways to make science and faith mesh. Muslims are no different in this regard. Bloggers, Muslim religious scholars, every day Muslims and authors have written extensively on the compatibility of Islam and evolution, and they have taken a variety of different stances.
One commonly referenced story that argues for the incompatibility of Islam and evolution is the story of Adam. According to the Quran, Adam had no parents and was a fully formed human being. Quran 3:58 states that “[Allah] created [Adam] from dust, then said to him: “Be.” And he was.” When this passage is interpreted literally, it is completely incompatible with modern evolutionary theory. It is creationism.
A literal interpretation of the Quranic creation story is also incompatible with the wider theory of evolution, not just human evolution. Like many creation myths, the Quran describes Allah as separating the conjoined heaven and earth and creating a variety of living creatures which walk on their “belly…upon two legs and…upon four” in Quran 24:45. The sudden creation of complete modern organisms is naturally incompatible with Darwin’s theory of evolution.
In holding with the idea of incompatibility, some Muslims go as far as to claim that the theory of evolution is a religion in and of itself. Dr. Oktar Babuna in particular has been quoted as claiming that evolution is a “false religion,” not a theory. Muslims who believe that evolution is a religion would, naturally, be unable or unwilling to find ways to mesh the two “religions” as doing so would contradict some of the basic underpinnings of Islam and be seen as apostatizing.
Some Muslims hold that evolution is partially compatible with Islam. At “Have Muslims Misunderstood Evolution,” a London event organized by the Deen Institute in 2013, Shaykh Yasir Qadhi argued that Islam is compatible with all of Darwin’s theory of evolution except in the case of humans. He claimed that, from an Islamic theological perspective, a Muslim can say that Allah inserted a created Adam into the natural order. This would be, he explained, as if Adam were the last domino placed in a line by Allah. Non-believers would see Adam’s domino as a casual connection or continuation from all the previous dominos, but faithful Muslims would see Adam’s existence for the miracle it was. This position allows for a person to accept most of modern science but also preserves the miracle of Adam’s creation from a theological perspective.
At the same event, Ehab Abouheif took a slightly different stance, but did argue for at least the partial compatibility of Islam and Darwinian evolution. He claimed that the facts of evolution cannot be disputed. There is, after all, ample evidence of evolutionary processes. Abouheif did say, however, that which processes took place during an organism’s evolution and how those processes took place are up for debate.
Agreeing in part with both the tenets of faith and the laws of science is a common way for people of many faiths to reconcile potential conflicts between science and religion. Many Muslims, Christians and Jews agree with modern scientific theories but with the understanding that God’s will underwrites the laws of physics and is the ultimate creator and sustainer of those laws. From this position, He can allow the miraculous to occur.
Fatimah Jackson, a Muslim convert and professor of biological anthropology at the University of North Carolina, also spoke at “Have Muslims Misunderstood Evolution.” She took a stance that can be argued as claiming at least partial compatibility, if not complete compatibility, between Islam and evolution. Jackson claimed that science only explains how things happen, not why.
Jackson argued that modern day humans can trace the human genome back to the “genetic Adam and the genetic Eve” who lived in modern day Africa. These individuals, Jackson pointed out, could be identified as the Adam and Eve from the Quran.
Jackson also showed several diagrams that illustrated the expansion of the forehead in the homo genus over time. The increased area, she noted, is filled with the brain’s frontal lobe which controls a modern human’s emotions and houses their personality. She also pointed out that verse 16 of Surah al-Alaq focuses on a man’s “lying, sinning forelock,” and she claims this references the unique skull- and brain-shape found in modern humans.
In addition to highly educated experts speaking at widely attended events, everyday Muslims have taken to the internet to make their case for the compatibility of Islam and evolution. Some Muslims reference the verse Quran 71:14 which states that “Allah created you in diverse stages” and claim that these “diverse stages” are the various stages of evolution. Similarly Quran 71:17, “And Allah has caused you to grow from the earth a [progressive] growth,” is interpreted as accepting the progressive growth of organisms through evolution. The Quranic verses Quran 64:3, “[Allah] designed you then made your design better,” and Quran 40:64, “[Allah] formed you then made your forms better,” are also referenced when it comes to proving that Islam and human evolution are compatible. If humans were already perfect, some argue, there would have been no need for Allah to improve mankind. These betterments would then have come about through evolution.
In Islam, just as in many religions, the debate over the compatibility of faith and science has raged for decades. Some Muslims reject evolution entirely. Others accept it wholeheartedly. Given the size of the worldwide Islamic community and the diversity of Muslims everywhere, there is unlikely to be a consensus on the issue anytime soon. Instead, every Muslim will have to decide for themselves: can they believe in both Islam and Darwin’s most famous theory?