By: Rana Dajani, Member of Muslim-Science.Com’s Task Force on Science and Islam
Evolution is used as an example of contradiction between Religion (Islam) and science. I am a scientist and a religious person from the Muslim faith. I see no contradiction. Why then does this contradiction exist? Who created this myth and why?
Islam has always been open minded asking us to seek knowledge and to question phenomenon around us. Islam asks us to observe, think and come up with hypotheses to explain phenomena. In other words it proposes to Muslims to adopt the scientific method as we call it today in discovering the world around us.
“Indeed, in the creation of the heavens and the earth and the alternation of the night and the day are signs for those of understanding, Who remember Allah while standing or sitting or [lying] on their sides and give thought to the creation of the heavens and the earth, [saying], “Our Lord, You did not create this aimlessly; exalted are You [above such a thing]; then protect us from the punishment of the Fire.” (Quran 3:190-191)
Our seeking of knowledge is a form of worship on itself. Because as we discover the elegance and beauty of Allah in the mechanisms He has created we start to appreciate His greatness and feel closer to Him. ”
“Only those fear Allah, from among His servants, who have knowledge.” Quran 35:28.
It is a way to understand Allah, a journey of discovery so to speak. Allah is the only constant. He does not change. Everything is constantly evolving and changing.
Early Muslim Responses to Evolution
Scientists during the Islamic civilization have been doing just that producing a civilization where scientific discoveries flourished. Amongst the scholars and scientists Ikhwan Alsafa, Al Jahez and Ibn Khaldoun produced theories similar although rudimentary to the theory of evolution as we know it today (1).
Al Rumi very nicely described his theory of evolution in this poem:
“Man first appeared at the level of inanimate matter
Then it moved to the level of plants
And lived year and years a plant among the plants
Not remember a thing from its earlier inanimate life
And when it moved from plant to animal
It did not remember anything from its plant life
Except the longing it felt for plants
Especially when spring comes and beautiful flowers bloom
Like the longing of children to their mothers
They don’t know the reason for their longing to their breasts
Then the creator pulled Man –as you know- from its animal state
To his human state
And so Man moved from one natural state
To another natural state
Until he became wise, knowledgeable and strong as he is now
But he does not remember anything from his earlier states
And he will change again from his current state” (1)
The demise of the Othman Empire, colonialism, dictatorships resulted in decline of education and science in the Islamic world in general.
Therefore, when Darwin published the Origin of Species in 1859, the Muslim world did not have the qualified natural scientists to understand what it was about. The actual book was only translated into Arabic in the early twentieth by Ismael Mazhar. However, the thesis of Darwin had reached the Islamic world through writings of others. Some of Christian religious groups at that time denounced Darwin as an atheist and that the theory of evolution was against religion. Other Christian groups on the other hand supported Darwin.
This disagreement among Christians did not go unnoticed to the Muslims. Muslim theologian scholars such as Jisr and Ahmad Medhat did not oppose Darwin and actually addressed the issue of evolution in a rational manner. However, during the first quarter of the twentieth Darwin’s ideas became associated with colonialism, imperialism, the West, atheism, materialism, racism by different thinkers and writers in the Muslim world (2). Therefore, the Muslim religious scholars gradually took a stand against Darwin and his ideas which the general public adopted. The Muslim scholars used the Creationist Christian arguments to support their stand against Darwin having no natural scientists of their own that were religious Muslims. (3) Therefore transferring the war between science and religion to Islam. Although, it had not existed before. Not to mention that there were religious groups who used each side of the argument to their advantage politically at some point.
Muslim Scientists’ Approach
In teaching science at the university in the Islamic world a number of important points should be taken into consideration on the topic of Islam and Science in general and evolution in particular:
2. Evolution is not about who created the universe. We explore what is in the universe. We believe there is a creator who set rules which govern physics, chemistry and biology. Science is about discovering the laws. Religion is about the why and science is about the how.
3. Confusion in terminology: the word ‘create’ does not necessarily mean spontaneous it could be interpreted as over a period of time. Muslims don’t have a problem with the sun and stars taking billions of years to be created but they do have an issue with living things or specifically humans taking millions of years to be created.
4. Time is a dimension and Allah is above all dimensions. Hence, Allah is not governed by time. Therefore Muslims should not have any problem with creation taking a long time.
5. Human fallibility and human religion, including issues of interpretation
6. One point of contention is that Muslims believe that humans are the epitomy of perfection and therefore cannot have evolved from a lower form. This is contradictory to the teachings of Islam. The Quran warns us from being arrogant as humans. “man does transgress all bounds” Quran 96:6. We are but one of Allah’s creations and that we are part of the bigger plan of creation. We have been created in harmony with the rest of creation and we hold a place in the balance of all things. Islam states that we are khalefa and should take care of this world living and non living with compassion, care and mercy. “Indeed, I will make upon the earth a successive authority.” Quran 2:30. This is important in the context of conservation of the environment and the concept of Global Civics that was coined by Dr Hakan Altany (4). We have developed a course on Global civics from the Science/ Muslim perspective for undergraduate science students in the Arab world.
7. The Quran is not a book of science. It is a guide how to live our lives. Therefore we don’t look into it for evidence for every scientific discovery.
The interpretation of the Quran is done by humans who try their best. However they are human and may err on one hand and on the other they are interpreting within the scope of knowledge present at that time. “When a judge gives judgment and strives to know a ruling (ijtahada) and is correct, he has two rewards. If he gives judgment and strives to know a ruling, but is wrong, he has one reward” (5).
Therefore when knowledge changes the interpretation may change and that is one of the beautiful tenets of Islam ijtihad. Ijtihad (every adequately qualified jurist had the right to exercise such original thinking, mainly ra’y (personal judgment) and qiyas (analogical reasoning) (6).
1. The story of Adam in the Quran as well as other stories should not be taken literary. They are metaphors to learn lessons. The process of human evolution was gradual and concerned groups of humans who evolved from former ancestors.
2. The development of consciousness is also an argument put forward by those who oppose evolution. They state that the development of consciousness requires divine spontaneous intervention. The response that I give is that science up till now is still trying to understand the development of the brain let alone coming up with an explanation for consciousness but that does not refute the theory of evolution. Example: In the past people assumed that certain disease were caused by bad spirits and later we discovered that the disease is caused by viruses.
3. Even as science advances and develops, we must keep in mind that we are limited in our cognition by our biology. For example ants can only comprehend two dimensions because of how their neurons are wired in the brain. Nothing in the world can allow them to comprehend a third dimension. Similarly we are limited by how are neurons are connected which will ultimately put a limit on the extent of our cognition of phenomenon around us.
4. Similarly, I propose that miracles are natural phenomenon that we have not yet discovered the laws for.
5. The soul is the result of complexity of cellular interconnectivity.
6. Science, with fallibility and provisionality, operating within the created order, but within these limitations, knowledge that deserves to be taken very serious
7. Science changes all the time. We may find something in the Quran that supports a scientific discovery and we may not.
8. If there is an apparent contradiction between religion and science we check the science first then the interpretation of the Quran.
9. Reflection on religious issues in the light of science
10. As history of science and Islam tells us there has never been a serious strife between religion and science. This new strife around evolution comes from our misunderstanding of our religion on one hand and lack of scientists on the other.
11. Decisions on issues that are not concerned primarily with theology should be made through the formation of committees of stakeholders which should include:
Some members should come in without prior knowledge of the religion matter so that they can be unlimited in their imagination and innovation to think of new solutions, ways of approaching the subject. The members should meet, discuss until they reach a consensus. In addition such a committee should meet regularly to discuss any new advances in the field. Science is dynamic and therefore we must keep up as Muslims in order to advance in both basic and applied sciences. Islam is a religion for all time.
“And those who have responded to their lord and established prayer and whose affair is [determined by] consultation among themselves, and from what We have provided them, they spend.” Quran 42:38.
Such efforts become paramount in issues that have an application such as stem cell research and therapy. A very good example of applying a multi-stakeholder committee that meets regularly is the example of the stem cell law that was passed in Jordan recently (7). The traditional way of conducting ijtihad at least today does not usually take into consideration all stakeholders. Nor do they meet on a regular basis because science is always advancing and changing therefore new issues arise and old issues contentions change. For example the last time abortion was discussed was in 1985
Most of these points could be addressed if there were a course at the university that explored the philosophy of science from an Islamic perspective. As well as encouragement of studying and researching humanities from with in the Islamic world to produce our own identity that will be the base for any discussion around any apparent controversy around science and religion.
Another point is that in any discussion which we envision disagreement we should strive to establish a common ground first then start exploring the contentions.
The important point here is not whether we are able to convince our students to agree or disagree with evolution. What we should strive for is to teach/instruct our students to develop a rational methodology of assessing the natural world around them and to think independently to come up with their own opinions, hypotheses and theories. If we succeed in that endeavor the rest of the controversies between science and religion will be resolved and we will contribute to the creation of a generation of Muslim scientists who are free thinkers.
There have been a few free thinking Muslim pioneers who have attempted to accommodate evolution from an Islamic point of view. Examples are: The Book and The Qur’an: A Contemporary Reading by Mohammad Shahrour, The book and the mountain by Mohammd Hassan, Islam and Biological Evolution: Exploring Classical Sources and Methodologies by David Solomon Jalajel. My father Adam by Shaheen. The approaches adopted vary from author to author. Regardless of the validity of the arguments adopted by each author it is a step towards providing multiple explanations to remove the contradiction and to open the field to research and discovery.
Damina Howard proposes three categories to describe the relationship between science and religion in this case Islam. In my approach towards science I lean towards the following relationship where to me it is an ongoing dialogue between religion and science. Where one (religion) seeks to guide how to live our lives and the other (science) deals with discovering how the world works. Both will cross over each other. For example as science seeks to understand the higher functions of the brain and what does conscience means. One ultimately enters into the realm of religion. Therefore, my approach to both religion and science is an ongoing journey of discovery i.e. the relationship is fluid. It flows like a stream which fits the description stated by Damian Howard:
“Hence, there is a real and pressing need for dialogue and mutual critique. But it’s not about achieving “harmony” once and for all as in cognitive propositionalism but a constant dialectic of mutual interrogation. Which is rather a good description of one’s actual experience of the field. There is no final answer, no ultimate stability.”(8)
This is the path I propose Muslim scientists should adopt.
I want to highlight that the notion that evolution contradicts Islam, is a myth, and is an example of what happens when we misunderstand our religion. Islam calls for freedom to think and explore. The lack of freedom to think which comes from misunderstanding of our religion results in borrowing from other cultures.
Other examples are modern women rights, modern education systems. These issues have all came up against west colonialism, imperialism
Can you think of others?
Our aim is not so much to debate evolution as it is to suggest that the mainstream approach to the theory is a symptom of a larger problem. This problem consists of certain attitudes towards science and culture being imported into Muslim societies in a process of Western globalization that often precludes the development of a uniquely local approach. In the case of Muslim societies, now is the opportunity to think independent of the received framework in order to pursue more rigorously our relationship to science, and the world at large
The issue is not religious authority versus scientific authority it is an ongoing process based on rational methodology in seeking the truth.
1. Nidhal Guessoum Islam’s Quantum question I. B. Tauris 2011 p308
2. Marwa Elshakry, “Muslim hermeneutics and Arabic views of evolution”, Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 46 (2, June 2011), 330-344,
3. Dajani, R Evolution and Islam’s Quantum Question Zygon vol. 47 no. 2 page 343-353 June 2012
4. Hakan Altany Global civics
5. Bukhari (b00), 9.133: 7352 (a2)
6. Aksoy, S. (2005) Making regulations and drawing up legislation in Islamic countries under conditions of uncertainty, with special reference to embryonic stem cell research. J Med Ethics, 31, 399-403.
7. Dajani, R Jordan’s stem-cell law can guide the Middle East. Nature. 2014 Jun 12;510(7504):189.
8. Damian Howard’s commentary on Stephano Bigliardis article on harmonizing Islam and science. http://social-epistemology.com/2014/09/24/some-reflections-on-stefano-bigliardis-on-harmonizing-islam-and-science-damian-howard/#comments
Rana Dajani is Ph.D. in molecular biology, University of Iowa, USA. She is currently working as a consultant to the Higher Council for Science and Technology in Jordan. She has written in Science and Nature about science and women in the Arab world. She is also on the UN Women Civil Society Advisory Group in Jordan.
The paper was submitted to the Task Force on Science and Islam (‘Muslim responses to Science’s big questions’). The big question that the Task Force sought to address is: Can Islam’s theological teachings be reconciled with cutting edge discoveries in the world of science?