Islam’s Evolution Question
Is Islam’s account of Man’s origin true, or has the Theory of Evolution shown it to be false? This article takes Evolution’s core mainstream claims and inspects them in the light of orthodox Muslim theology. In doing so, we will come to see that the Islamic view on Evolution isn’t one of wholesale rejection (as is often assumed), nor of outright, uncritical acceptance. Rather Islam’s theology should lead Muslims to take something of a middle ground, as I’ll hopefully show and demonstrate.
Along the way, we’ll address some common mistaken views people hold about the theory of evolution (like saying that it’s just a theory), and some alarmingly erroneous ideas some hold about God and Muslim theology.
What makes this discussion more charged than usual is that, while in the field of physics and cosmology arguments for God are given a ready hearing by most scientists, this is not so in the field of biology where the mainstream outlook is that the theory of evolution has buried God. To suggest that the Big Bang or that the fine tuning of the universe points to God instead of atheism, given that the impressions of design are so overwhelming, are claims deemed as scientifically plausible by most physicists; especially since they don’t challenge mainstream views of science, but rather are grounded in them. When it comes to evolution and biology, the situation is very different. Here, the mere mention of God or of a designing intelligence is considered pseudoscience. This is so, even though, as with cosmology, the natural world also gives us an overwhelming impression of design. Richard Dawkins even defined biology to be ‘the study of complicated things which give the impression of having been designed for a purpose.’1
An overview of what will be covered runs as follows: [i] What is evolution and what does it claim? [ii] Isn’t evolution just a theory? [iii] Where are the missing fossils? [iv] Criticisms of the theory. [v] Story of evolution overall. [vi] Story of mainstream human evolution. [vii] Islam and the theory of evolution, overall. [viii] Islam and human evolution. [ix] Theistic evolution, is that the answer? [x] How do we account for the hominid fossils? I’ll then conclude with some final remarks.
I. WHAT IS EVOLUTION AND WHAT DOES IT CLAIM?
1. Let’s start by asking what’s meant by the theory of evolution? Scientists tell us it refers to a carefully thought-out set of testable ideas and observations which explain how life on earth evolved and how biological organisms (living things) are related to each other.
Francois Ayala, Professor of Evolutionary Biology, explains to us that the theory of evolution makes three core claims: [i] All organisms are related by common ancestry; [ii] the details of when different species split from one another, and the changes that took place in each species; [iii] the way by which evolutionary change actually occurs.2
The first issue, he insists, is the one most vigorously supported by a large body of evidence and is agreed to by virtually every credible biologist. That organisms are related by common evolutionary descent is, we are told, beyond any doubt. As for the second and third issues, some aspects of them are firmly validated, while others are less so; and some are untested or highly speculative. On the whole, says Ayala, ‘uncertainty about these issues does not cast doubt on the fact of evolution.’3 By that Ayala means, the overall fact of evolution.
2. Why is it important to know the above? Well in order to honestly assess the evolution question, we must first know and understand the issue. Only then can its claims be weighed against well-established tenets of Islam to see how compatible or not they are. Muslim scholars works on the rule: hukm ‘ala shay’ far‘un ‘an tasawurihi – ‘Judgement about a thing comes after conceptualising it properly.’ In other words, how can you judge the validity of something if you do not know what it actually is?
3. The theory of evolution offers an explanation for how living things adapt to their environment or even how they evolve into other species: Natural selection (i.e. certain traits ‘selected’ by ‘nature’ which allows the organism to survive). It is via this mechanism that living organisms, over long periods of time, evolve certain traits which allow them to survive or adapt to their environment. These traits (or ‘selfish’ genes) are then passed to the next generation, thus increasing their chances of survival. Those not having such advantages or that do not pass on the advantage, die out over the long run. Sometimes, through nothing more than random chance, a gene mutates in an organism by which it acquires an advantage trait. Through ‘natural selection’ and ‘random mutation’ organisms adapt or can evolve into different species. This is what Darwin first proposed in his Origin of Species, and is what the theory of evolution says fits all the fossil records, observations and genetic data: not just of insects or animals, but of us human beings too.
II. ISN’T EVOLUTION JUST A THEORY?
4. A common objection against evolution is that “it’s only a theory!” That is, it’s just all guesswork or hunches; it’s not factual or true. But when scientists speak of a theory, they use the word in a different way than how it’s used in ordinary, everyday speech. Ordinarily, we speak of theory in the sense of a ‘speculation,’ ‘guess’ or ‘hunch.’ The detective has a theory, a hunch, as to how the crime at hand was committed; for example. In science, though, theory is used to mean: a set of ideas which explain a phenomena or group of facts that have been tested and confirmed by observation or experiment. In other words, a scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world based on facts, proofs and rigorous testing. Science uses the word hypothesis for any theory that has not been fully or adequately tested.4
5. Science has many theories which are not guesstimates, but are painstakingly constructed on accurate experimental observation and logical inferences. The atomic theory is one of them, which states as a matter of fact that all matter is made up of atoms and of subatomic particles. The theory of thermodynamics is another. It forms the grounds for how refrigerators and central heating in our houses work, to how engines move our cars, to how biological process in our bodies keep us alive. The knowledge behind this is all factual. And yet it is still called a theory. Then there’s quantum field theory and the theory of relativity. Both of these theories yield certain knowledge about how the subatomic world and gravity work, respectively. So much of what these theories state have been proven to be experimentally and observationally true, even if some aspects of them are still speculative and short on empirical evidence. And on the whole, the same goes for the theory of evolution.
III. WHERE ARE ALL THE MISSING FOSSILS?
6. Another bone some commonly pick with the theory of evolution concerns the poor state of the fossil record; of how few fossils there actually are. Biologists and palaeontologists (scientists who specialise in the study of fossils) are eager to get us to appreciate just how fortunate we are to have unearthed whatever fossils we thus far have. This is because the fossilisation of creatures, they say, is actually a rare occurrence. Francis Collins, who headed the Human Genome Project, explained: ‘The vast majority of organisms that have ever lived on Earth have left absolutely no trace of their existence, since fossils arise in only highly unusual circumstances. (For example, a creature has to be caught in a certain type of mud or rock, without being picked apart by predators. Most bones rot and crumble. Most creatures decay.) Given that reality, it is rather actually amazing that we have such a wealth of information about organisms that have lived on this planet.’5 This is why, argues Collins, the fossil records, although woefully incomplete, are still very useful.
7. Despite potholes in current fossil records, many paelo-evolutionists have, so it seems, unearthed transitional fossil forms that show a gradual change from reptile to bird, and from reptile to mammal. Archaeopteryx, an intermediate form between reptile and bird, is one such example of a transition. Another is Hyracotherium, an animal the size of a dog that has several toes on each foot, evolving into Equus, the much larger one-toed, modern horse. We are assured the gradual transition of the fossil record has been constructed in considerable detail.6 This claim is something one can research and decide for themselves; with a degree of patience, open-mindedness and objectivity. But without first putting in the required research, on what grounds can we dismiss the claim as false or erroneous? The protagonists of evolution have constructed at least two proofs for a visible transition from one species to another (called speciation), it is for the antagonist to intelligently deconstruct them, if they are able.
8. As for the human ‘missing link,’ then most evolutionary biologists feel pretty certain the missing links have been found. Paelo-evolutionists will point to the fossil record of various hominids – erect bipeds (walking upright, on two legs) that have varying resemblance to modern man, starting with Australopithecus, then Homo habilus, then Homo erectus, and finally us Homo sapiens. More will be said about this in Section VI. But for now, these telling fossils are held up as a missing link of sorts (or to be more precise, common ancestors) to humans. If we add to the fossil records, evidence from the science of genetics; especially DNA sequencing and genetic drifting, then the case for evolution – at least in its broad strokes – is considered by most scientists to be pretty watertight.
I say ‘common ancestor’ rather than ‘missing link’ because of a vital point that is grossly misunderstood today. From museum displays to editorial cartoons, the popular image of human evolution is depicted as a linear progression from primitive to advanced; from an ape on all fours that gradually straightens up, evolving into a stone age man with a club then a spear, to a modern human. We’re told by evolutionary scientists that the phrase, ‘man was descended from apes,’ is both unhelpful and a gross oversimplification, as is the popular notion that a certain extinct hominid is the ‘missing link’. This public misconception misrepresents how evolution really works. Rather the better image of evolution would be a tree, with a long trunk and a myriad of branches, sub-branches and shoots. It is this gradual branching process that best depicts the diversity of life, all having a common ancestor at the very base of the trunk. Some scientists are keen to get rid of those T-shirts and bumper stickers that depict evolution in a step-by-step straight line and replace them with a branching diagram, so as to make a more nuanced and correct point about evolution.
9. Evolution through natural selection is viewed by atheists as a knock-out blow to Religion. Through it, they say, one can explain the emergence of complex life (including human life) that were previously thought to require a Creator-God. In the words of Dawkins: ‘Natural selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered, and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind. It has no mind and no mind’s eye. It does not plan for the future. It has no vision, no foresight, no sight at all. If it can be said to play the role of watchmaker in nature, it is the blind watchmaker.’7
Today, many people believe it can’t be God and evolution via natural selection; they are mutually exclusive. It’s one or the other. And since we have evidence for evolution, then there is no God. Just how correct this line of thinking is will be tackled later, as will the mistaken belief that natural selection is an agent, rather than a mechanism.
IV. STORY OF EVOLUTION OVERALL
10. According to mainstream evolutionary claims, the Darwinian Genesis story, up until the arrival of Man, goes something like this:
Life on earth emerged about three billion years ago when a cocktail of simple chemicals combined to form more complex ones. This mixing took place in the seas of the early Earth; the ‘primordial soup’. Injection of energy was needed to spark-off a reaction between molecules, which may have come from lightning storms or from hot underwater springs. The molecules then joined together to form more complex ones, called amino acids which, in turn, went on to form proteins; the building blocks of all living creatures. Another complex molecule formed in these reactions was DNA, which has two traits that make it essential for life to exist. It carries all the information to make a living creature, and it can also replicate itself. Over millions of years the cocktail of molecules evolved into bacteria; thought to be the earliest ancestors of all life on our planet today.
This is where, we’re told, natural selection kicked in. Through this mechanism living organisms, over long periods of time, evolve certain traits which allow them to adapt to their environment. Via natural selection and random genetic mutation, organisms can both adapt as a species and even evolve into different species. Single-cell life in Earth’s ancient waters evolved into worms and jelly fish via this process about 700 million years ago; dinosaurs arrived around 225 million years ago and died out suddenly 65 million years ago. The fossil records suggest our early human like ancestors only branched-off from the great apes a mere 5 million years ago and that Homo sapiens (us humans) are a fairly recent appearance: anywhere from around 200,000 to 40,000 years ago.
V. STORY OF MAINSTREAM HUMAN EVOLUTION
11. As for how human beings came to be, then the theory of evolution says that: Around 4 million years ago, apelike hominids known as Australopithicus first appeared in Africa. Australopithicus was a biped and had a brain capacity about one-third that of modern humans. It is said that they eventually gave way to the Homo genus about 2.5 million years ago.
Homo habilis (“handy man” – so called because it was the first hominid to use tools) lived in tropical Africa around 2.5 to 1.5 million years ago. It had a brain size around half that of modern humans and it was also a biped. It was more chimpanzee than human though.
Homo erectus (“upright man”) is regarded as the dividing line: everything that came before it was apelike in character; everything that came after was human like. Homo erectus appeared 1.8 million years ago and persisted until perhaps 250,000 years ago. It had a vastly more sophisticated brain and was physically much stronger than modern humans. It appears that it was the first to hunt, the first to use fire, the first to fashion complex tools, the first to look after the weak and frail.
Humans, classified as Homo sapien (“knowing man” or “wise man”), originated in Africa around about 200,000 years ago and eventually colonised the rest of the world, replacing all other hominids. It was as recently as 40,000 years ago, say scientists, that Homo sapiens reached “behavioural modernity” when traits which define modern humans started to emerge: complex language, figurative art, abstract thought, jewelary for adornment, game playing, finely made tools and burials (referred to as the Behavioral B’s: blades, beads, burials, beauty and bone toolmaking). Homo sapiens living before 50,000 years were behaviourally primitive and almost indistinguishable from other extinct hominids.
There are a few other hominids, but this is just a simplified sketch of the story. Did each hominid evolve directly from the previous one in a linear fashion? Or is it that they each have common ancestors with those preceding them (and so are indirectly related)? Scientists today tend to talk of common ancestors and family branches more than they do linear evolution.
12. One last aspect of the evolution story that should be known. It has to do with the two type of evolution: microevolution and macroevolution. Microevolution is completely uncontroversial. It refers to small evolutionary changes in a species over short spans of time. Such changes are frequently observed and constantly being documented. Bacteria evolving to develop resistance to antibiotics is one well-known example of microevolution. Viruses mutating to develop resistance to antiviral drugs is sadly another.
Macroevolution, by contrast, refers to major evolutionary change of one species into a different one (also called “speciation”), over long periods of time. It seems most evolutionary biologists are advocates of gradualism: that macroevolution happens gradually over time. There’s a school of thought that proposes the idea of punctuated equilibrium; that speciation happens in isolated pockets of rapid macroevolution between long periods of little or no change.
VI. CRITICISMS OF EVOLUTION
Before moving on, let’s briefly consider some scientific critiques of the standard evolution story. Those wanting to dive deeper into these criticisms can chase up the threads discussed here under their own steam:
13. The first criticism, unsurprisingly, has to do with the transitional fossils. We might call it the criticism of imaginative palaeontology. Transitional fossils are fossils of animals or plants that are in the middle of evolving, over thousands or millions of years, from one type of species to another. Critics argue that even though some fossils may appear as if they are intermediate forms, there’s just no solid evidence to connect the separate lines of descent into a single common ancestor. To believe that there is, the critics say, is more wishful thinking than it is cut and dry, conclusive science. Detailed critiques of specific transitional fossils are also offered. The counter argument is confident that such fossils do represent evolutionary transitions between one kind of life and another. They insist that such fossil evidence linking them to the past, along with genetic and embryonic similarities, all imply a common descent from early forms. Counter arguments against specific transitional records, like the Archaeopteryx, are also robustly presented.
Another criticism concerns the issue of scientific repeatability. For any scientific principle or knowledge to be considered true or bonafide, any results obtained by an experiment or observational study must be reproducible to a high degree of accuracy, when it is repeated again using the same methodology by different researchers. Only after several successful replications can the results be taken as scientific knowledge. Evolutionists say that although we cannot replicate the macroevolution of humans, or a fish evolving into a horse (since it would take millions of years), we can replicate thousands of generations of certain species in a fairly short interval of time. Thus, since 1988, twelve populations of E.coli bacteria have been carefully grown in a lab to detect evolutionary changes. In 2020, 73,500 generations later, scientists observed certain staggering adaptions in terms of microevolution. Macroevolution, or speciation, however, has yet to be observed. Evolution’s detractors see this as a clear vindication. Its supporters say that while the bacteria should have reached peak adaption by now, maybe some mutations have altered the environment, causing it to remain in a state of adaption, instead of the adaptions being allowed to cumulatively add up to a new species.
There’s also the issue of genetic entropy: how can chaotic, lifeless, random stuff give rise to highly defined ordered and consciousness? Douglas Adams, the self-professed ‘radical atheist’ of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame, remarked in his book: ‘Isn’t it enough to see the garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?’8 This, I feel, gets to the crux of the issue of chaos and lifeless stuff giving rise to order and beauty. To appreciate this splendid garden, we don’t have to believe in fairies. But it would be wholly reasonable, certainly not irrational, to believe in a gardener. A beautiful garden would cause us to believe that someone with skill, craft, ability and intelligence took time out to cultivate the garden. If, however, the garden was a huge sprawl of uncultivated chaos, weeds and mess, we’d be right in thinking there was no gardener. If we found that this huge sprawl had become an orderly picture of beautifully arranged flowers, cut grass and trimmed hedges, how could it not be the work of a gardener? Such is also the case with chaotic, lifeless matter in Earth’s primordial soup becoming highly ordered, intelligent and sentient. And, of course, this applies not just to life on earth, but also the universe as a whole; from the seismic, volatile chaos after the Big Bang to the order, beauty, majesty and intelligibility that the cosmic garden contains. Might not such compelling impressions of design on earth or in the starry heavens be because of an actual designer? Surely such design calls out for a transcendent explanation?
Then there is the matter of irreducible complexity. It would seem that there are certain ‘all-or-nothing’ vital organs that makes evolution impossible. Advocates of irreducible complexity argue that some biological functions, like the human eye, could not have evolved through slight incremental modifications. It needs all the parts to be there all at once, or else it doesn’t function. So the eye, such advocates say, could not have come about gradually through natural selection; thus falsifying evolution. Mainstream evolution, however, offers a model that shows how certain organisms evolved rudimentary aspects of an eye gradually, without being totally dysfunctional. Over millions of years, this ‘ancestral eye’ has evolved to be more and more complex, ultimately forming the human eye. Likewise, other examples of irreducible complexity, the mainstream says, turn out not to be irreducible; but like the human eye, reducible and gradual.
A final thing worth pointing out is that just because we are genetically related to chimps isn’t proof in itself of common descent. Otherwise fifty percent of our human genes (though not human DNA) are identical to banana genes, so what does that imply? We’ll leave that one for the party conversation. But on a more serious note, DNA is the reason for a final criticism. Let’s call this the criticism of cellular machinery. Put ever so simply, mainstream evolution states it is DNA that makes protein, and that protein is the building block of all life. However, it turns out that DNA itself requires protein for it to form. So which came first, the chicken or the egg; DNA or protein? Creationist critics of evolution respond with a God of the gaps argument: since science does not know the mechanism for it, it must therefore be God. Scientists do, however, offer the RNA world hypothesis as a possible answer. This suggests that RNA – which is like its sister molecule, DNA, and is present in all biological cells; can synthesise proteins; and carries the DNA instruction code – may have been the first thing to replicate and evolve in the primordial soup (and if not such chains of RNA, then something similar), eventually taking a back seat once DNA came on the scene. But as promising as it seems, such an idea still has obstacles to over come and is still very much a work in progress.
14. Yet with all this astounding science of molecular biology, does it not still beg the question: how do such extraordinary molecular machines perform the task of replication; regulation; transmission of genetic code; and all the other mind boggling functions they perform, through the product of mindless, motiveless mechanicity? To claim that blind, unguided processes produced highly complex biological information, the sort encoded in DNA, is more a leap of faith than it is hard science. To claim that blind chance assembled protein bricks into highly precise blocks of patterns without an ordering principle to guide it, requires far more of a leap of faith than does believing in a theistic account for the origins of life.
The same can be said for ‘natural selection’. The way the Darwinian mystery of natural selection is spoken of today, as being the end explanation for both the existence of life and all its variations, is misleading and false. At best, natural selection selects from already existing stuff. It doesn’t invent the stuff. So while it may be an explanation for the diversity we see in organisms and biological life, it certainly isn’t the ultimate explanation it is often made out to be. It’s the same for ‘random genetic mutations’. Such randomness can only act upon pre-existing stuff to mutate what is already there. Like natural selection, it doesn’t explain the origins of life; nor does it do away with the need for any underlying ordering principle. Theists have every right to be skeptical about blind chance, even if atheists have taken a leap of faith. An old Arabic proverb tells us: al-sarj al-mudhahhab la yaj‘alu’l-himar hisan – ‘The guilded gold saddle doesn’t make a donkey a horse.’
15. Let’s park such criticisms and take the theory in its standard form, as taught in colleges and universities, and as found in standard text books on the subject. Let’s not get into trying to debunk the science. Rather, let’s take the mainstream claims at face value: given that the knowledge needed to argue, counter argue, or even counter the counter argument, requires immense expertise that most of us simply don’t possess. At best, we might know the overall arguments for one view, but not the counter arguments. In Islam, such people might be considered educated followers of the experts, but they are not experts themselves who can evaluate evidences, claims or counter claims with the right systemised method. Until a person can do that, in Islam, such a person is not usually considered an expert in the matter who can make their own informed evaluations. So instead, let’s just take the mainstream claims and postulates of evolutionary theory and ask: What does Islamic theology have to say about it all?
VII. ISLAM AND THE OVERALL THEORY OF EVOLUTION
Having spent some time mapping out what evolution is and how it works, it is time to subject the theory – with all of its facts, claims and speculations – to an Islamic theological critique.
16. So as Muslims (whose beliefs, values and ideals are rooted in the Qur’an and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him), does Islam allow us to believe in the theory of evolution? Justice and scholastic integrity demand that we not generalise, but rather take to what our scholars term tafsil – detail, nuance or distinction. So let’s break the question down. If we are talking about microevolution: life forms adapting to their surrounding via genetic changes in order to better survive, but remaining the same species, then Islamic theology has no problem with this at all. This is provided such microevolution has sound evidence to support it (which it does), and is tied to the following three beliefs: [i] That God alone is the creator of all things and all changes. [ii] That nothing happens without God willing it to happen. [iii] Causes and effects are created by God and have no autonomy from Him (this includes the mechanism of ‘natural selection’ and ‘random genetic mutation’). So with such conditions, to deny this type of evolution is Islamically unjustified and empirically uncalled for.
17. As for macroevolution, one species slowly evolving into another species over long periods of time (not necessarily in a linear fashion, but through branches and sub-branches), then this is something we as Muslim can believe in and is theologically possible from an Islamic viewpoint: provided the science is sound; the above three conditions are believed; and that we not include human beings in this. Macroevolution might be rejected in terms of the science, either out of ignorance (willfull or otherwise); confirmation bias; or different interpretations of the actual evidences. But it cannot be rejected in terms of Islamic theology and what is rationally possible for God to do. This is especially so when Islam’s Revelation says nothing for or against the notion of non-human evolution, thus leaving it up to worldly evidence.
The long and the short of it all is that one who believes that it is impossible for God, through His divine will and creative act, to cause one species to evolve into another, through whatever mechanism or timescale He choses, has a defect in their grasp of Islamic theology and of what is rationally possible (mumkin) and impossible (mustahil) for God.9 To outrightly deny non-human macroevolution is theologically erroneous and incorrect, and possibly at odds with a large body of empirical evidence. And Allah knows best. But since we are taking evolution’s claims at face value, then for Muslims there would be no theological obstacle in believing in macroevolution, as long as we exclude humans from this process. For the Qur’an has something very specific to say about that.
18. A similar answer to the above applies to questions such as: What does Islam say about dinosaurs or about life on other planets? Since neither the Qur’an nor the Holy Prophet have pronounced on such issues, not by way of affirmation or negation, then it is less a religious question and more one which depends upon secular or scientific evidence. If the evidence for it is sound; i.e. if it constitutes sound knowledge, one can believe in these things; if not, then not (or at least suspend judgement). In Islam’s epistemology (madarik al-‘ulum), knowledge is defined as true, justified belief and is arrived at by one of three sources: truthful reports (khabari), empirical proof (hissi) or rational inquiry (‘aqli).10
VIII. ISLAM AND HUMAN EVOLUTION
19 – The Qur’an has quite explicit things to proclaim about Man’s origins. In one verse, it states: And when your Lord said to the angels: ‘I am creating man from clay, from formed mud. When I have shaped him and breathed into him of My spirit, fall prostrate before him.’ [Q.15:28-29] This creation, along with this spirit or ruh being infused into him, was fashioned in a unique manner, unlike other humans: ‘O Satan! What prevents you from prostrating to that which I created with My hands?’ [Q.38:75] The Qur’an also says that Adam was intelligent and articulate: He taught Adam the names of all things … then He said: ‘O Adam, tell them their names.’ [Q.2:31-33] We also have the verse rebutting the false belief in Jesus’ alleged divinity: for if his virgin, fatherless birth is a miracle pointing to his divine status, then Adam was born without any parents; by the same logic, he should be more divine! The likeness of Jesus with God is like that of Adam. He created him from dust, then said to him, ‘Be’, and he was. [Q.3:59]
20. The voice of Islamic theology is best captured in an authentic hadith which says that on the Day of Judgement humanity, in their state of trepedation, will seek intercession with God’s prophets for judgement to commence. They shall start by first coming to Adam, where they begin their plea to him, saying: ‘You are Adam, father of humanity. God created you with His own hand, caused you to dwell in His garden, ordered the angels to prostrate to you and taught you the names of all things …’11 So from the above perspectives, to believe the first human being was born via the evolutionary process, eventually birthed by two proto-human parents, is to be at complete odds with what the Qur’an explicitly reveals about Adam, upon whom be peace.
21. Some, in recent times, have claimed that the Quranic story of Adam is only a metaphor or allegorical, and that the apparent meaning is not intended. That the account contains profound symbolism and metaphors of a deeply spiritual and existential nature isn’t in question. What is objected to, though, is to deny the apparent (zahir) meaning. Scholars agree that the basic rule in interpreting the Qur’an is to understand it according to the zahir – its obvious and apparent meanings, without recourse to a figurative or metaphorical one (ta’wil), unless there is proof to warrant it. That is, the apparent meaning – ‘the meaning that strikes the listener in the manner of a spontaneous understanding’12 – is taken to be the correct one, provided there is no external indicator (qarinah) to state otherwise. The rationale is that since the Qur’an was revealed in clear Arabic, the apparent meaning that Arabs of the prophetic age would have immediately grasped from the text, cannot be ignored without firm proof. Even then, verses with apparent meanings are open to grades of clarity and textual explicitness. Here qualified legalists will speak of explicit meanings (‘ibarat al- nass), implict meanings (isharat al-nass), inferred meanings (dalalat al-nass) and required meanings (iqtida al-nass).
22. The Qur’an seems to have gone out of its way to inform us about the various states the clay underwent in Adam’s formation, tallying with the various stages in his creation. We read: He created him from dust [Q.3:59], from clay of moulded mud [Q.15:26, 28], of potter’s clay [Q.55:14], of sticky clay [Q.37:11], from a product of mud [Q.23:12]. It is hard to see how all this could be a metaphor or allegory. The language, for one, is far too vivid; the detail far too explicit. Instead, what the Qur’an is trying to bring home to the reader is the factualness of the event: that it isn’t pious fiction; that there was a human being called Adam; and that he was created uniquely.
23. One more reason why the story of Adam is not a symbolic metaphor. When the Qur’an says: God chose Adam, Noah, the Family of Abraham, and the Family of ‘Imran over all other people. [Q.3:33], are we to believe that since Adam wasn’t a real person, but rather a fictional one representing deep religious symbolism, that the same is true for Noah, Abraham, ‘Imran and their families; given they are all mentioned together in the above verse? Again, when the Qur’an states that: The likeness of Jesus with God is like that of Adam.[Q.3:59], so is Jesus also meant to be read as a non-literal, allegorical story? Certainly not! The Quranic references to Adam are too specific and too numerous to be read as a metaphor! Rather, they are what they are: portraits of actual events that occurred in Man’s pre-history; reminding us we are creatures of flesh and blood, fashioned from the earth, condemned, ultimately, to fall back into it; filled with unappeasable desires we are constantly tempted to satisfy at the lowest level; compelled to live beneath ourselves, save for the Grace of God.
In short: I hope this has demonstrated that reading the story of Adam’s creation as pure metaphor is a serious error, and that for those who insist on doing so, the evidences showing the fallacy of this notion have the misfortune of being pretty overwhelming. The starting point of any sound interpretation of the Holy Qur’an is the original language in which it was revealed: lucid, perspicuous and clearly expressed Arabic. If there is to be any departure from the default, zahir reading of the text to an allegorical one, there should be an evidence to warrant doing so in terms of the grammatical, semantic or stylistic complexities of the Arabic; or due to sound corroborative indicators. Otherwise allegorical readings, without a systematic, well-defined hermeneutic, are likely to be nothing more than whimsical misguidance.
IX. THEISTIC EVOLUTION, IS THAT THE ANSWER?
24. A number of eminent scientists who are also theists or believer in God, have sought to square their religious beliefs with their scientific worldview through “Theistic Evolution.” This, as Francis Collins says, ‘is the dominant position of serious biologists who are also serious believers … It is the view espoused by many Hindus, Muslims, Jews and Christians, including Pope John Paul II.’13
A typical account of theistic evolution says that while the precise mechanism of how life on earth originated remains unknown, once life did emerge and once the process of evolution did get underway, no divine intervention was required. It is as if God made the evolution “clock,” initially wound it up, and then just left it to unwind by itself without any involvement. So God sparked-off life on earth, choosing the elegant mechanism of evolution to do the main work and bring about earth’s biological diversity and complexity. Collins, says: ‘This view is entirely compatible with everything that science teaches us about the natural world. It is also entirely compatible with the great monotheistic religions of the world.’14
25. Unfortunately, this isn’t how Islam’s mainstream theology sees it. The core objection to theistic evolution lies in its premise that once evolution got going, the divine hand withdrew. But such causal autonomy from God flies in the face of certain core beliefs in the Qur’an. Firstly, it goes against verses which tell us: Say: ‘God is the creator of everything.’ [Q.13:16] This includes our actions as well as our moments of stillness: God created you, and all that you do. [Q.37:96] That is, no time elapses except that God, as the Creator (al-Khaliq), is creating; as the Bestower (al-Wahhab) is bestowing; as the All-Merciful (al-Rahman) is sending down His mercy; etc. Secondly, that nothing can happen independently of God’s will. Everything happens by His decree and will, and His will is accomplished; what He wills for them happens and what He does not will, does not happen. For believers, nothing is random or fortuitous. Nothing occurs by ‘chance.’ Nor do causes and effects have an autonomous independence from the divine will. Thirdly, along with giving cause and effect autonomy to evolutionary processes, theistic evolution assigns to Adam proto-human parents; it doesn’t account for his unique creation; it fails to account for his knowledge and articulate speech; and it plays fast and loose with the Quranic language in terms of what is or is not allegorical.
26. This is not to say that Islamic theology denies causes and effects, rather it denies that causes have effects in and of themselves; for God is the creator of all things. For someone to literally believe that ‘random’ mutation or ‘natural’ selection have a causal independence from the will of God, as most scientists do, would be disbelief (kufr). Islamic theology, however, grants a dispensation to use certain phrases figuratively; like when someone says, ‘the food filled me up’ or ‘the fire burnt me’, providing one does not believe such things to have causal autonomy from the will of God. Expressions such as ‘nature does such and such’ are also, in all likelihood, included in the above dispensation. But to believe in the literalness of such expressions would be to set-up a ‘partner’ with God in His lordship. Or to employ Islam’s theological vocabulary, it is shirk fi’l-rububiyyah, or shirk fi’l-asbab.
As for the rule in respect to worldly causes (asbab), it runs as follows: ‘To rely on worldly causes is shirk in God’s oneness (tawhid), to deny their efficacy is deficiency in intellect; to shun their use is mockery of the shari‘ah.’15
X. HOW DO WE ACCOUNT FOR THE HOMINID FOSSILS?
If Adam was the first man, and wasn’t birthed through the usual evolutionary method, how can we explain the hominid fossil records going back hundreds of thousands of years? In trying to square the evolutionary circle, a few responses have been advanced by contemporary Muslims:
27. The first has been called the bashr-insan dichotomy. In a nutshell, it says that when bashr is used in the Qur’an, it refers to the evolutionary hominids that in their physical form resemble humans. Insan, on the other hand, is used when this bashr has evolved intelligence and metaphysical capacity. Those who advocate this view suggest that at some point God selected one of these bashr-hominids and endowed it with a ruh, thus creating the first insan who went on to populate the earth, replacing all other bashr-hominids.
This thesis, however, is problematic. For one thing, it attributes parental agency to Adam and so belies the Qur’an. Another is that the bashr-insan distinction is a flawed one. There are some verses of the Qur’an where this peculiar notion runs aground. For example, we read in the Holy Qur’an: That was because their Messengers kept coming to them with clear proofs, but they retorted: ‘Shall mere mortals guide us?’ [Q.64:6] Those who rejected God’s prophets complained that they were mortal, bashr. So how can prophets be described as bashr, which in the above dichotomy refers to hominids who have yet to develop intelligence and cognition? Also, the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, is told to say to the faith deniers: ‘Glory be to my Lord! Am I but a mortal messenger?’ [Q.17:93] Again the word bashr, mortal, is used. And just to show that bashr and insan are synonymous and equivalent, as per classical mainstream scholarship, we read about Mary, mother of Jesus: ‘So eat and drink, and be consoled; and if you meet any person say: “I have vowed a fast [of silence] to the All-Merciful, and will not speak to any human being this day.”’ [Q.19:26] So bashr; person, and insan; human being, have been used interchangeably.
28. So if the Adamic story is not a metaphor, and if the bashr-insan dichotomy doesn’t quite do the trick, then what does? What can affirm Adam’s miraculous nature and also affirm the hominid lifeforms that roamed the earth hundreds of thousands of years before us? What asserts the truth of the Qur’an as well as the hard to ignore facts of the hominid fossil records? Well one plausible way to do it, that does not involve contorting the classical Arabic language to force it to fit scientific sensibilities nor inventing far-fetched explanations at odds with clear-cut Quranic verses and Muslim scholarly consensus (ijma‘), is to propose: Human exceptionalism. In other words, at some point when God had caused the earth to be polluted by pockets of hominids, creating them and everything else through the mechanism of evolution, God, in His wisdom then created human kind; starting with the direct, miraculous creation of Adam. Having put him on earth; and having taught him speech and suffused into him a ruh – endowing him with worldly and metaphysical intelligence – He caused Adam along with his wife and offspring to populate the earth, either causing other hominids of the Homo genus to become extinct before their arrival on earth or after. This is something God informed humanity about through the agency of scripture and prophethood, even if it might not be determinable by science.
If we recall in point no.11 that Homo sapiens are said to have become modern and reached behavioural modernity about 40,000 years ago, we might further speculate that Adam was the leap from primitive Homo sapiens – who, though physically and biologically resembling us, were devoid of a ruh and so almost indistinguishable from other hominids – to us modern Sapiens. Being endowed with a ruh became the game changer: And when your Lord said to the angels: ‘I am creating man from clay, from formed mud. So when I have shaped him and breathed into him of My spirit, fall prostrate before him.’ [Q.15:28-29]
29. That God could have introduced Adam, this modern Homo sapien, into the mix at the right time; with the correct genetic make-up; and as the significant branch of the various Homo branches (that evolved from much earlier common ancestors, rewinding the branching tree metaphor) is a theological possibility and something which science does not disprove. As for why God would chose to do so in this manner, it isn’t in the realms of science to ask or answer. As for a theological response, it would be to say: He cannot be questioned about what He does, but they shall be questioned. [Q.21:23] Or to offer a balder reply: Why not?!
30. That there were beings who in some way resembled Adam, and who dwelt on earth before his arrival, can be inferred from this passage of the Qur’an: And when your Lord said to the angels: ‘I am setting on the Earth a vicegerent.’ They inquired: ‘Will you place therein one that shall work corruption and shed blood, while we praise You and sanctify Your name?’ He said: ‘Surely I know what you know not,’ [Q.2:30] Now how did the angels know what man’s nature would be like (working corruption, shedding blood)? One widespread opinion in the tafsir literature is that there were beings resembling Adam who inhabited the earth prior to him. Ibn Juzayy wrote about the verse: ‘It is said that there were jinns inhabiting the earth and causing corruption, so God sent against them an army of angels to slay them. The angels thus made an analogy between them and humans.’16
On the other hand, as it has not been confirmed by any explicit verse, prophetic hadith or scholarly consensus – as far as I’m aware – that these creatures were in fact jinn, there’s room, perhaps, to suggest they were hominids or primitive (pre-ruh) Homo sapiens. And that what the Qur’an calls insan, bashr and Adam is modern Homo sapiens endowed with a special quality called Spirit. For once infused with this ruh, this conscious-giving Spirit, it was no longer only an animal whose physical and psychological processes were all directed towards purely material and earthly ends. For once Man was ensouled with this ruh, it caused to descend upon him, both on his psychology and his physiology, a new kind of consciousness which could say ‘I’ and ‘me’; which could look upon itself as an object that knew God; and which could make judgements of truth, beauty and goodness. That is, it had the ability to be self-conscious, God-conscious and value-conscious. Whatever the truth, what I propose is only food for thought. It isn’t intended to be an iron-clad assertion. And in keeping with Islamic pietistic norms, I will remark at this point: wa’Llahu a‘lam – ‘And God knows best’.
Of course, we don’t need religious faith to do science. The religious faith (or lack of it) of a scientist who makes a discovery isn’t proven by the discovery. Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, or Newton’s law of gravity, no more validate theism than does Watson and Crick’s discovery of the DNA double-helix prove atheism. What science does repeatedly demonstrate is that discoveries are made without having to necessarily assume there is a God, even if some people are inspired to do science by their religious faith. No doubt, both theists and atheist do bring their own philosophical assumptions to science. Naturalism or materialism are the preferred atheistic assumptions. That there’s an ordering principle behind the universe; behind how conscious life arose from lifeless matter; and behind why there is something rather than nothing is the theistic one. The question of whether science points to theism or atheism, that’s still being passionately and vigorously debated. What scientists must avoid doing is to assume that because science demonstrates a mechanism for a particular natural phenomenon, that there is therefore no agent behind the mechanism. For mechanism and agency aren’t of the same category. Such a reductionist outlook is unbefitting, although Albert Einstein had a point when he wrote: ‘It has often been said, and certainly not without justification, that the man of science is a poor philosopher.’
1. Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (London: Longmans, 1986), 1.
2. Am I a Monkey? (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), 20.
3. ibid., 20-21.
4. Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth (Great Britain: Black Swan, 2010), 9-10; Collins, The Language of God (Great Britain: Pocket Books, 2007), 141-2.
5. The Language of God, 94.
6. As stated in Ayala, Am I A Monkey?, 50-51.
7. The Blind Watchmaker, 14.
8. See: J.C. Lennox, God’s Undertaker (Oxford: Lion Books, 2009), 40; A. Wilson, If God, Then What? (England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2012), 66-9.
9. In respect to what is rationally necessary (wajib), possible (mumkin, ja’iz) and impossible (mustahil) for God, in Islamic theology, consult: al-Safarini, Lawami‘ al-Anwar al-Bahiyyah (Riyadh: Dar al-Tawhid, 2016), 1:263; al-Bayjuri, Tuhfat al-Murid (Cairo: Dar al-Salam, 2006), 68-75.
10. See: al-Saffarini, Lawami‘ al-Anwar al-Bahiyyah, 3:736-46.
11. Al-Bukhari, no.7516.
12. Consult: Ramic, Language and the Interpretation of Islamic Law (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 2003), 198.
13. The Language of God, 199.
14. ibid., 201.
15. Cited in: Ibn Abi’l-‘Izz, Sharh al-‘Aqidah al-Tahawiyyah (Beirut: Mu’assassah al-Risalah, 1999), 2:696. Also cf. Keller, Evolution Theory & Islam (Cambridge: The Muslim Academic Trust, 1999), 8-9.
16. Al-Tashil li ‘Ulum al-Tanzil (Makkah: Dar Taybah, 2018), 1:299.