Does Islam Forbid Even Studying Evolution?

A few weeks ago, a story broke in the media about British Muslim students “increasingly” refusing to attend biological evolution classes. Even medical students, it was reported, were part of that worrisome development. The story quickly went quasi-viral; even the BBC and Al-Jazeera International ran shows about it.

Before I discuss this, I must note that one should be careful not to take sensational stories for a general trend, thus one should ask how many Muslim students in the UK and elsewhere are opposing evolution classes.

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.

Secondly, one must keep in mind other cultural aspects of this attitude by Muslim students in the west, issues of identity, minority, and law, as in the case of the hijab and niqab debates, for example. Or perhaps Muslim students consider evolution as a purely western theory, one which embodies a materialistic, atheistic philosophy; they then target it as an expression of a very different worldview. The rejection of evolution can perhaps be seen as an insistence on the part of a minority to its right to abide by its religious decrees (assuming this is established) even in educational curricula.

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 creatures (animals and plants) came from an original cell.

In my recent book, I reported on surveys that I conducted at my own university among students and professors, where not only did 60 % of the respondents state that “evolution is an unproven theory”, some 80 % of them either did not wish to see it taught or accepted that it be taught “but only as a theory”.

Among physicians, a survey was conducted in 2005, where 29 of the 40 Muslim doctors agreed more with Intelligent Design than with the evolution. Currently, Salman Hameed has been leading a project investigating the views of Muslim physicians and medical students Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and Turkey; the preliminary results show that most Malaysian doctors reject the theory of evolution, particularly with regard to humans, though the picture is much more complex than one might infer from such stunning numbers.

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”?

First, this attitude is a confusion of genres: the Qur’an should not be a reference against which any scientific theory or result is checked; the Qur’an is a book of spiritual, moral, and social guidance, and while it encourages people to explore the world and derive from it a worldview, one which conforms to its theistic teachings, it does not claim to present descriptions, much less explanations for how the world works.

Secondly, stating that evolution is “against the teachings of the Qur’an” stems from taking certain stories, particularly the creation story of Adam, literally and accepting the interpretations of the Holy Book by old scholars as the definitive meaning of those verses. As I’ve often told people, just as we do not reject the sun-centered model of the solar system just because the Qur’an says “the sun rises” and “the sun sets”, we must not reject evolution just because the Book says “God created Adam from clay”.

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…”

The rejection of evolution in today’s Muslim culture is then a reflection of the dominance of the literalistic, fundamentalist conceptions of Islam in many parts of the world, including among Muslim minorities in the west. And campaigns by Harun Yahya and the like are counter-productive and do not bode well for Muslims, whether with regard to science or modernity, more generally.

Last but not least, it is very unfortunate that Muslims keep claiming that knowledge and science occupy a high place in Islam but then many of them turn dogmatic, close-minded, and selective when they must at least learn a theory which challenges their old conceptions. How can knowledge and science be upheld and promoted when one insists on sticking to pre-adopted, un-informed positions?

Muslims everywhere must open their minds to all new ideas. They must be confident that their faith and worldview are robust enough to deal with modernity in its various facets; indeed, new viewpoints can help fine-tune beliefs and worldviews. Islam not only does not forbid studying evolution or any other theory; it welcomes new knowledge and deals with it objectively. Muslims are called upon to engage with science, philosophy, and art with confidence and open minds.

By Nidhal Guessoum, published in The Huffington Post, April 1st 2012.