This article attempts to evaluate the theory of evolution(1) in the light of the textual sources of Islam. The focus here is on the methodology of investigating the relationship between evolution and Islam, both from the religious and scientific sides, rather than the result of investigation.
The Sunnan of Allah
Allah has His ways of doing things. These are called in the Qur’an the sunnan of Allah. They are described as immutable and eternal.(2)
There has been a debate within Islamic theology regarding the issue of natural “laws,” or more precisely, the issue of causality which is a prerequisite for the construction of natural laws. Scholars from Ash`ari school of theology, such as Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, denied the principle of causality, asserting that Allah is either acting directly or through the angels(3). This was done in order to uphold the omnipotence of God who, given a strict view of causality, would be subservient to the laws of nature, and, hence, would not constitute the ultimate reality.
Nevertheless, a close reading of, for example, al-Ghazali’s The Incoherence of Philosophers shows that he did not deny the appearance of causality to human observers. What is denied is the necessity of causality and its implication that Allah is acting by way of necessity and not by way of choice. Al-Ghazali, however, admitted that we can rely on causality, not because it is necessary, but because through repetition, it appears to be the way things happen. Building on al-Ghazali’s idea, one can readily accept naturalistic explanations of what happens in the universe. These explanations are our human attempt to know how nature works. At the same time, we need to exercise enough humility to acknowledge our own shortcomings and to recognize the fallibility of our science.
This introduction is important because Muslims believe that Allah is the Creator of everything. He is the uncaused cause; the being who caused the universe to exist but he himself does not need anything for existence or subsistence. Allah has his ways of doing things. And the question of how Allah created things, or what his sunnan of creation are, is a matter that we can know through revelation and observation, or not know at all because of limitations of our power of reason. The next section deals with the nature of revelation.
The Definitive/Speculative(4) Classification
Islam is based on Divine revelation; namely, the Qur’an and the authentic Prophetic traditions. These textual sources have a layer of meanings that is so self-evident and conclusive that no two persons of sound intellect and proper understanding of Arabic language disagree upon. This layer constitutes the foundations of the faith, the basic tenets of the Islamic creed, and the eternal and immutable core. But Divine revelation is language and language is inherently ambiguous. Therefore, in addition to the definitive layer of meaning there are many speculative layers that are open to a process of interpretation to be undertaken in conformity to the definitives and the rules of logic and Arabic language(5).
In order to assess whether an idea is consistent with Islam, we investigate it in the light of the Islamic sources. An idea is inconsistent with Islam if it contradicts a definitive of the faith, or if it cannot be reconciled with any plausible interpretation(6). Before embarking on this consistency check, we need also to define properly the idea under investigation.
What Is Evolution?
According to the theory of evolution, changes take place in the living organism by chance, i.e., with no forethought to the eventual needs of the living organism. These changes are acted upon by natural selection which promotes what is beneficial to the living organism and demotes, or eliminates, what is harmful(7). A question arises as to what we mean by chance. If we mean that things really take place haphazardly, then this would imply that humans are the blind byproduct of the evolutionary processes. That conclusion is in direct contradiction with the absolute divine wisdom, which means that Allah acts wisely and purposefully.
The Qur’an teaches us that life was created by Allah as a test for humans who have free will, i.e., the ability to choose. Humans are required to have iman (belief and conviction in and about Allah) and do `amal (i.e., have their iman reflected in a righteous course of conduct vis-à-vis Allah, fellow humans, and the environment). The creation of humans, and their existence on Earth(8), is a deliberate divine act not an unguided, purposeless event.
But chance can be understood as a methodology(9), i.e., as a way of describing observed systems. After all, it is absurd to assume that chance causes. Chance describes; chance does not cause. Even in normal linguistic definitions, when we say that two persons meet by chance, we do not mean that they are acting haphazardly in life. Given this understanding of chance, it is possible to consider evolution as the divine way of creating life on Earth, as we already accept the known law of gravity as a model for the way the cosmic order is held together. The validity of such consideration depends on two other steps, however; first, to understand the Qur’anic verses and prophetic traditions related to the story of creation in the light of evolution, and second to scientifically investigate the adequacy of evolution.
Evolution and the Qur’an
I am unqualified to undertake the task of checking whether there are plausible interpretations of the Qur’anic verses and Prophetic traditions that are consistent with the evolutionary account. This mission requires, as a first step, gathering together all the verses and authentic Prophetic traditions that pertain to the issue of creation(10). Instead, I only touch upon a couple of verses that are evoked to argue for the compatibility or lack thereof between evolution and Islamic texts.
Evolution is a scientific theory that, before attempting to employ it to understand the sunnan of Allah in creation, should be investigated using the internal logic of scientific inquiry and well-established scientific methodologies.
The Qur’an says in (38:75) about Prophet Adam, ﴾whom I created with My two hands?﴿ Though this verse is sometimes used as an argument against evolution, it does not categorically negate the possibility of the emergence of humans via some evolutionary process. The description ﴾created with My two hands﴿ can be a figurative expression of Allah’s special concern for this particular creation(11).
On the other hand, the Qur’an says in (2:30), ﴾The Lord said to the angels, ‘I will create a khalifah(12) on Earth.’ They said: ‘How do You install someone one who makes mischief and sheds blood? While we praise your mercy and glorify (Your Name)?’ He said, ‘I know what you do not know.’ ﴿ Some people take this to mean that the angels were referring to already existing beings on earth that were spreading corruption, and that when Allah said “khalifah,” He was referring to a successor creation. Nevertheless, there are other possibilities such as that God made the angels know, or that they predicted, that a limited being with free will is likely to misuse or abuse his capacity to choose. The word “khalifah” in the verse has multiple plausible meanings: khalifah of Allah, having the capacity to reproduce and produce khalifah, khalifah of some other beings, etc. And some scholars are of the opinion that it means all this simultaneously.
The point is that the verses that are often used by Muslims as clear-cut evidence for or against evolution are not conclusive. The Qur’anic language is rich with meanings and implications. In order to carry out the interpretive exercise properly, all the textual evidence must be gathered and analyzed objectively.
Adequacy of Evolution
Evolution is a scientific theory that, before attempting to employ it to understand the sunnan of Allah in creation, should be investigated using the internal logic of scientific inquiry and well-established scientific methodologies. The most basic question is whether the theory of evolution really delivers an adequate explanation of the complexity of life. Given the space constraints of this article, it is impossible to discuss all the alleged evidence supporting the theory. However, what is notable is that the theory has not provided any detailed account for the emergence of the complex organs, structures, and mechanisms observed in all living forms. This does not mean that there are no partial attempts aimed at that objective, nor does it mean the falsity of evolution.
The root of this problem can be understood as follows. Assume that to have a structure fitted to the environment, the organism needs two changes. These two changes may be two point mutations or two modifications to two already existing structures that do different tasks and which will make them come together to perform a new function(13). Now the simultaneous occurrence of the two required changes, on the basis of Neo-Darwinism, has an extremely small probability(14). Serial occurrence, i.e., one change after the other, does not solve the problem. Also, in the serial scenario, there is an additional problem if the occurrence of any of the two changes without the other causes a disadvantage to the organism. The Neo-Darwinian theory of evolution appeals to a series of slight successive variations under the presumption that, at every step, it is more likely that the occurring change would be beneficial to the organism, or at least not harmful. If that is the case, then it means that fitness as a function of the genetic makeup of the organism has a very special form of dependence that requires an explanation of its own(15).
What is more important than reaching a conclusive opinion regarding the relationship between evolution and Islam is to understand the nature of religion and science. Religion is defined by the language of divine revelation and addresses mainly the “why” questions, which are the most fundamental questions regarding our existence. The religious language has a clear-cut layer of meaning that is not open to interpretation. For example, that Allah is one, that He is all-powerful and absolutely wise, that nothing is done by Him haphazardly or in vain, that nothing is beyond His control, and so forth. In addition to this definitive layer, there are many layers of meaning that open to interpretation. Interpretation itself is not a process without rules and regulations, and is constrained by the definitives, and the rules of logic and language.
Science, on the other hand, is not about absolutes. The domain of science, albeit huge, is limited. Science is ever-changing. And the eternal truths of the Qur’an cannot be subjected to the science. Science may help us understand the Qur’an and may help us understand the ways of Allah operating in the universe. Nonetheless, we must keep in mind that this understanding depends on the best available evidence and this can change over time. Deifying science confuses the roles of science which deals with the “how” and religion which deals with the “why,” and sometimes the “how.”
Rejecting science out of hand is not a good practice. For Allah always describes the believers as “the people of sound intellect”(16). These are people who always ponder over the signs of Allah, and do not pay attention to science only when it appears to confirm their preexisting beliefs. In addition, twisting divine truth to suit the fallible science and making false assertions about Allah, such as that He does not leave signs in the universe that challenge us to think, reflect, and respond in faith, are detrimental to both science, turning it into a dogmatic endeavor rooted in metaphysical naturalism, and religion, rendering it an irrelevant source of knowledge about ourselves, our universe, and our Lord.
This article reflects solely the opinion of the author.
By Ahmed K. Sultan Salem
1 – By theory of evolution, I mainly refer to the Neo-Darwinian model which is explained below.
2 – ﴾For you shall not find any alteration in the sunnah of Allah; and you shall not find any change in the sunnah of Allah﴿ (35:43). Sunnan is the plural of sunnah, which literally means the course of conduct.
3 – Other schools, such as Mu`tazili school of theology, openly accepted the concept of a natural law. They differed from the materialists and naturalists in their belief that these laws were created by Allah and are not independent forces. Note that the different schools, despite the disagreements, firmly asserted divine omnipotence and that Allah is the ultimate reality.
4 – In Arabic: qat`i/zanni.
5 – This issue is thoroughly investigated in the books of Usul al-Fiqh, the principles of jurisprudence. For an English source on this highly interesting and important topic, please refer to Hashim Kamali’s The Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence.
6 – This method is general in scope and not limited to the theory of evolution.
7 – “Beneficial” means giving an advantage to the organism in its struggle for survival and reproduction in its specific environment.
8 – The existence of humans on Earth was not because Prophet Adam disobeyed Allah and ate from the tree. Allah wanted to create a deputy on Earth from the beginning. Adam and Eve in the Garden was training for the test of life. They were asked to enjoy the blessings of the Garden but to avoid the tree, which symbolizes the doable commandments of God. Because of (a) external temptations from Satan, and (b) internal weaknesses, they disobeyed Allah. It was a slip. They asked Allah for forgiveness and He forgave them. And the test of life began.
9 – The belief that chance is ontologically real is a metaphysical not an empirical position. That many scientists believe in that shows that the methodological naturalism of science sometimes degenerates into metaphysical naturalism masqueraded as science.
10 – Of course, by being selective, one can reach any conclusion he/she wants.
11 – The vast majority of Muslim scholars realized from the early days of the various Islamic sciences that figurative interpretations are indispensable for understanding the Qur’anic text. There are some Qur’anic verses which, if taken literally, produce meanings that contradict the definitives and the main themes of the book. For example, verse (33:57) says, ﴾Those who annoy or harm Allah and His Messenger.﴿ Certainly, no one can annoy or harm the Supreme Being. What is meant by the verse is to “speak ill of” or “harm the cause of,” etc., as these are legitimate interpretations that conform to the rules of Arabic language. Another example can be verse (45:34), ﴾It will also be said: ‘This Day We will forget you as you forgot the meeting of this Day of yours!’ ﴿ But Allah does not forget. The verse means that Allah will forsake them or exclude them from His mercy because of their corruption and persistence in evildoing. The general rule is that metaphorical interpretations are valid if being too literal generates contradictory meanings that conflict with what is mentioned explicitly in the text.
12 – Khalifah has the meanings of vicegerent, successor, etc.
13 – Here I ignore the emergence of these preexisting structures. Also, in reality, numerous changes are required, not two.
14 – The probability of two statistically independent events is the product of each respective probability. Since Neo-Darwinism asserts the occurrence of changes with no forethought to the eventual need of the living organism, it entails statistical independence of the events.
15 – One explanation may be that life was front-loaded with tools that have aided in the process of evolution. This transfers the problem to the field of the origins-of-life, which is, strictly speaking, not part of evolution, because evolution relies on natural selection that presumes the existence of replicators in the first place. Some scientists believe that the origins of life belong to the domain of the unknowable, such as Hubert Yockey in his book Information Theory, Evolution, and the Origins of Life. Another explanation, which is consistent with the view of chance presented in this article, is that there are some deterministic biochemical laws at action.
16 – ‘Aolou al-Albab in Arabic