Islamic Theory of Evolution:
The Missing Link between Darwin and the Origin of Species
Book Review: Edip Yuksel
I agree with Dr. Shanavas’ main thesis that the anti-evolutionary stand promoted by contemporary Sunni and Shiite scholars contradicts the teachings of the Quran, as well as the scientific evidence and many of the prominent Muslim scholars who preceded Darwin. Like every book, this one too should be studied with an open mind and with critical reasoning, a natural epistemology which the Quran reminds us to use at 39:18 and 17:36.
This book was previously published under the title Evolution and/or Creation: an Islamic Perspective. We decided to publish the revised version under a new title, Islamic Theory of Evolution: the Missing Link between Darwin and the Origin of Species. The cover picture is not meant to disparage or vilify Darwin, but it is meant to describe the common attitude among the proponents of theory of evolution, as they ignore the important contribution of Muslim scientists and they abuse the theory by associating it with unwarranted philosophical conclusions such as atheism. We consider Darwin as one of the greatest scientists who unknowingly followed the instructions of the Quran in 29:19-20 (See, below).
In this book, Dr. Shanavas defends the theory of evolution both scientifically and theologically and provides historical background that has been eradicated from public memory. Though a great majority of people, regardless of their religion, consider Darwin as the originator of the idea of evolution, Shanavas reminds us that Darwin (1809-1882) and his grandfather Erasmus Darwin were influenced by the work of Muslim scientists who lived centuries before them. For instance, Dr. Shanavas quotes from John William Draper (1812-1883), first president of American Chemical Society, a contemporary of Darwin, and a former president of New York University summarizes the deliberately induced academic amnesia in the West. Draper acknowledges the fact that Muslims described the theory of evolution in their schools centuries before the West did:
“I have to deplore the systematic manner in which the literature of Europe has contrived to put out of sight our scientific obligations to the Muhammadans. Surely they cannot be much longer hidden. Injustice founded on religious rancor and national conceit cannot be perpetuated forever.”(Draper, John William. The Intellectual Development of Europe, p. 42.)
“[Christian] theological authorities were therefore constrained to look with disfavor on any attempt to carry back the origin of the earth to an epoch indefinitely remote, and on the Muhammadan theory of evolution which declared that human beings developed over a long period of time from lower forms of life to the present condition.” “Sometimes, not without surprise, we meet the ideas with which we flatter ourselves with having originated our own times. Thus our modern doctrine of evolution and development were taught their [Muslim] schools. In fact they carried them much farther than we are disposed to do, extending them even inorganic and minerals.” (The History of the Conflict between Religion and Science, John William Draper, pp. 118, 187-188.)
Ironically, this Western amnesia regarding the scientific contribution of muslims coincided with the decline in Muslim world. By abandoning rational thinking and scientific methodology which is according to Quran is the necessary condition for being a muslim, they followed dogmas and story tellers.
Will Durant, an American historian, reminds his readers that medical books authored by Ali Ibni Sina (980-1037) and Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi (844-926) were both used as textbooks in European universities for centuries, and that in 1395 Razi’s book Kitab al-Hawi was among the nine textbooks used by the University of Paris. The same book informs the reader that Avicenna’s Qanun fil Tibb, a science encyclopedia, was a main textbook at Montpelier and Louvain universities until the mid-17th century. We should mention two important Muslim scientists who had immense impact on scientific enterprise in Europe: Abu Bakr ibn Tufayl, known in the West as Abubacer (1107-1185) and philosopher Abu al-Walid Muhammad ibn Rushd who became famous in the West by the name Averroes (1126-1298).
Muslim scientists and philosophers of the medieval period had no qualms in accepting evolution as a divine system for creation. For instance, the prominent Muslim polymath, philosopher and sociologist Ibni Khaldun (1332-1406), after a paragraph about the origin of human species, reminds the reader with a verse describing the deterministic nature of God’s system: “You will never find a change in God’s system.” In his famous book Muqaddimah, Ibni Khaldun proposes a theory of evolution starting from minerals. Minerals, according to Ibn Khaldun, evolve and become seeded and seedless plants. Plants evolve and reach to their zenith with palm trees and vines. The evolution continues with snails and shelled sea animals. The diversification in animal kingdom reaches the zenith of creation by gradual evolution into human beings with consciousness and thinking skills. According to Ibn Khaldun, monkeys are the link between animals and the first stage of humanity. Ibn Khaldun presents the theory of evolution by using scientific language, arguing that the essence of creation (in modern terminology: genetic code) passes through various changes (mutations) generating one species after another.
In addition to these, Muhammad al-Haytham (965-1039), who is known in the West by the name Alhazen, defends human evolution starting from minerals, plants, and animals in Kitabal Manazer, his book on optical science. Prominent leaders of Sufism such as Ibn Arabi (1165-1240) and Jaluluddin Rumi (1207-1273) also had no problem in accepting the idea of creation through evolution, an idea which was commonly held among Muslims. The Muslim Geologist al-Biruni (973-1048) in his book Kitab al-Jamahir also asserts that humans are created after long periods of evolution from simple organisms through natural selection.
Unfortunately, violent suppression of free speech and enforcement of anti-Quranic apostasy law by Muslim rulers and their hand-picked Sunni and Shiite scholars plunged the Muslim world into a dark age. Great Muslim scientists and philosophers such as Ibn Khaldun, Ibn Sina, and Ibn Rushd were later condemned as heretics and apostates. At present, Muslims appear to have lost their ability to grasp the fact that they live in a dark age. A crusade similar to the one waged by the Catholic Church against the heliocentric model promoted by Copernicus and Galileo is now being waged against the theory of evolution identified by the western scientist Darwin. Ironically, Sunni and Shiite apologists have established an alliance against science with wrong-wing Evangelical Christians.
A frontrunner of the Sunni crusade against the theory of evolution is a Turkish cult leader who puts his brand-name on dozens of fancy books written, edited, concocted, or plagiarized by his followers who, according to various Turkish newspapers, were snatched from their rich families by cult members while they were in high school or college. I have exposed the modus operandi of this character in an article, as he cleverly picked Jews and Evolution as his two main subjects in his ambition to declare himself as a Muslim demagogue. Appealing and provoking the religious and anticlastic emotions of Muslim population, the cult published books and articles on Jews and Masons, spewing misinformation and racist hatred. The cult also published books denouncing evolution. This mahdi wanna-be became a notoriously loud voice of a reactionary segment of the Muslim population. He owes his success to many factors, which include his cult’s vast financial resources, his self-importance, the zeal of his followers who are brainwashed into believing that they are the chosen few who will assist the Mahdi, and the ignorance endemic among his target audience.
A few years ago, I wrote a philosophical article titled The Blind Watch-watchers or Smell the Cheese: An Intelligent and Delicious Argument for Intelligent Design in Evolution. I included the article among the appendices of the Quran: a Reformist Translation. I argued that contrary to the claims of religious people and atheists, acceptance of the theory of evolution does not reduce the power of arguments for God’s existence, including the teleological argument. Evolution of species through mutation and cumulative selection, as subscribed to by the modern scientific community, provides sufficient evidence for the existence of immanent intelligent design in nature. The article elicited strong reactions from fanatic adherents of both groups. Below are two excerpts from the article:
IN SUM, millions of organic and inorganic compounds, including the ones that yet to be discovered, with their distinct chemical and physical characteristics, must be the materialization of the information immanent in the tiniest building block of the universe, that is, Hydrogen. Going backwards, the same qualities must be imputed for the most fundamental subatomic particle. No wonder Heraclitus had brilliantly inferred that intrinsic law permeating the universe, and called it “logos.”
Furthermore, when a particular combination of a particular set of elements in particular proportions and order generates the function we call life, the laws or rules of such an event must have existed before the event occurred. In other words, the laws and rules determining how a particular DNA sequence would behave must have preceded the actual occurrence of the event. Why should a particular configuration of particular molecules made of a particular combination of elements lead to a cell or a living organism? Who or what determined such a magical configuration? None, just chance? No, not a chance! No, not by a chance! Chance does not lead to laws. In fact, chance itself is subject to the laws of probability. The laws dominating the universe came into existence with the first moment of Big Bang. If you bet your entire wealth in a casino you will most likely lose it and you will deserve the title of “another mathematically challenged person” and you may even receive a silver medal in the next Darwin’s Award. But you can bet your entire wealth on a scientific prediction based on natural laws and you will most likely win.
It is because of the natural laws of cause and effect that scientists can employ reason and predict events. Mendeleyev knew that elements were not acting haphazardly, so he discovered the periodical table. Thus, it is irrelevant how many millions or billions of years passed before the first organism came into existence among random and chaotic chain of chemical and physical events. Starting from the first seconds of creation of material particles 13.7 billion years ago, the pre-conditions and laws of life must have come into existence too. What scientists do is not inventing, they merely discover. Scientists do not invent laws of physics or chemistry; they learn those laws bit by bit, after tedious experimentation, and based on the information they acquire they put together the pieces of Lego. The characteristics of each newly discovered shape was coded in their nature since the beginning of the universe.
Thus, when a blind watch-watcher refers to the age of the world and its size to explain the marvels of blind cumulative selection, we should not be blindly accepting his argument. The information or laws of life existed billions years before the emergence of life. So, we should demand an explanation regarding the a priori information creating the design of living organisms. …
Dawkins provides probability calculations of a random work on a computer using 26 alphabet letters and a space bar, totaling 27 characters. To randomly type Hamlet’s 28-character statement, METHINKS IT IS LIKE A WEASEL, it would take 27 to the power of 28 key strokes, which would be a very small odd, about 1 in 10,000 million million million million million million. Instead of single-step selection of random variation, Dawkins suggests us to program the computer to use cumulative selection. The computer generates some random 28 characters and selects the one that most resembles the target phrase, METHINKS…
“What matters is the difference between the time taken by cumulative selection, and the time which the same computer, working flat out at the same rate, would take to reach the target phrase if it were forced to use the other procedure of single-step selection: about a million million million million million years. This is more than a million million million times as long as the universe has so far existed. … Whereas the time taken for a computer working randomly but with the constraint of cumulative selection to perform the same task is of the same order as humans ordinarily can understand, between 11 seconds and the times it takes to have lunch… If evolutionary progress had had to rely on single-step selection, it would have never got anywhere. If, however, there was any way in which the necessary conditions for cumulative selection could have been set up by the blind forces of nature, strange and wonderful might have been the consequences. As a matter of fact that is exactly what happened on this planet, and we ourselves are among the most recent, if not the strangest and most wonderful, of those consequences.” (Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker, Norton, 1987, p.49)
Though he is a bright and articulate scientist, Dawkins takes too many facts and events for granted without even mentioning them: such as the number of characters, their proportion, the computer programmer and program that selects the right characters, the energy that accomplishes the work, the material that make up characters, time and space, the continuity of their existence, etc. In the following page, Dawkins distinguishes his METHINKS example from the live evolutionary process.
“Evolution has no long-term goal. There is no long-distance target, no final perfection to serve as a criterion for selection, although human vanity cherishes the absurd notion that our species is the final goal of evolution. … The ‘watchmaker’ that is cumulative natural selection is blind to the future and has no long-term goal.” (Id, p.50).
Here Dawkins acknowledges that he added his intelligence and teleological intention by determining a target, criterion for selection. Thus, Dawkins takes for granted many facts and events, and gives an analogy of a simple computer program in which he interjects his intelligence, a target, and a selection criterion to explain something that according to him has none of them.
As some scientists have allergy to the idea of considering God, many religious people are eager to ignore the overwhelming evidences supporting the theory of evolution.
Why is it that some people cannot accept the theory of evolution from primates? Though they have no problem with evolution from a drop of stinky white substance and an embryo, from a frog-like fetus, or from a baby who tries to suck everything in close proximity, they cannot fathom a chimpanzee to be their distant cousin? I would like to share with you a paragraph from Hulusi Başar Çelebi, a participant of the Turkish forum at 19.org. In response to a Sunni critic of my article defending the theory of evolution, he wrote the following:
“Which one is a more serious business: eradicating the taboos or protecting them? Monkey, or cat, snake or bat… What lowly animals, aren’t they? They stink like carcass and walk on dirty lands. My stomach is revolting! As for the human beings, they are exceptional as far as their bodies are involved. They smell like roses and flowers. Made up from entirely different substances… Perfect skin, with no hair or hormones… They are odorless and transparent. Spill milk on their bodies and lick it. Do not bury their dead bodies; hang their lungs to the wall so that your eyes and hearts will have a feast. What a delusion! All share the same ingredients. This is also another divine sign; sure for those who have vision. If you do not like, pass Darwin, pass materialism, but evolution is a fact. All living beings that have passed through mutations for millions of years have changed their shapes and characteristics too.”
Ironically, those who placed the planet earth at the center of universe centuries ago had problems with a revolving earth, and their ditto-head followers are now repeating the same thing. This time, instead of planets they are indulged in another human-centered fantasy: humans are entirely separate from other creatures; we are perfect beings, and we are the meta-species!
We should not distort and compromise our reasoning with primitive hormones. Opposition to scientific theories due to reliance on emotions shaped by culture and dogma has served as a major cause of problems in the past. The Quranic depiction of creation does not contradict the theory of evolution. In fact, it supports it:
15:26 We have created the human being from hardened clay of aged mud.
This verse above, describing the mud with the word masnun, pulls our attention to the lengthy time span of creation. Creation from clay has two meanings. (1) clay as the substance of origin, and (2) clay as a place of origin. Both meanings could be true at the same time. We learn from other verses that clay is not the only substance used in our creation; water too is a vital ingredient. Like the Quran, the Bible mentions water and ground as the main origin or ingredients of life (Genesis 1:20-21;2:19).
Our Creator started the biological evolution of microscopic organisms within layers of clay. Recent scientific research led some scientists to consider clay as the origin of life, since clay is a porous network of atoms arranged geodesically within octahedral and tetrahedral forms. This design creates sliding and flexible layers that catalyze chemical reactions. Humans are the most advanced fruits of organic life started millions years ago from layers of clay. See 29:18-20; 41:9-10; 7:69; 24:45; 32:7-9; 71:14-17.
24:45 God created every moving creature from water. So some of them move on their bellies, and some walk on two legs, and some walk on four. God creates whatever He wills. God is capable of all things.
It is noteworthy that humans are included in the classification of living creatures according to physiological characteristics. This is in line with other verses that indicate an evolutionary method in creating Adam’s biological body. Millions of years ago, the ability of mammalian Homo Erectus to walk on two feet was considered a critical point in the evolution of the human brain and the creation of Homo Sapiens. Walking on two feet might seem like a simple orthopedic change, but its effect on the neuropsychological transformation is huge. See 29:18-20; 41:9-10; 7:69; 15:26; 32:7-9; 71:14-17.
29:19 Did they not observe how God initiates the creation then He returns it? All that for God is easy to do.
29:20 Say, “Roam the earth and observe how the creation was initiated. Then God will establish the final design. God is capable of all things.”
Archeological surveys show that the human race came into existence through mutation and natural selection starting from microscopic organisms. Chapter 71, which focuses on the story of Noah, informs us of our creation on this planet in terms of evolution rather than an instantaneous one.
71:13 “Why do you not seek God humbly.”
71:14 “While He created you in stages?”
71:15 “Did you not see how God created seven heavens in harmony?”
71:16 “He made the moon to illuminate in them, and He made the sun to be a lit flame?”
71:17 “God made you grow from the earth as plants.”
71:18 “Then He returns you to it, and He brings you out totally?”
71:19 “God made the land for you as a plain.”
71:20 “So that you may seek in it ways and paths?”
71:21 Noah said, “My Lord, they have disobeyed me and have followed one whose money and children only increased him in loss.”
Evolution is an assembly line designed by God. The verses above provide an interesting association between Noah and evolution by mere juxtaposition. This hint is supported by another verse. From the following verse we may infer that humans passed through a major evolution during Noah’s time:
7:69 “Are you surprised that a reminder has come to you from your Lord through a man from amongst you to warn you? Recall that he made you successors after the people of Noah, and He improved you in creation. So recall God’s blessings that you may succeed.”
This verse evaluated together with the verses in chapter 71, informs us of the evolutionary stage or genetic improvement in our creation after Noah.
I disagree with brother Shanavas’ interspersing quotes from hadith, which is contradictory hearsay reports falsely attributed to Muhammad centuries after his death. Contrary to his expectations, they devalue the power of his argument. I also disagree with brother Shanavas regarding the meaning of khalifa. I cannot accept humans to be the representative or successor of God. Humans are successors (khalifa) of a previous species, replacing them on top of the food chain. From the confusion of controllers (angels) who express their negative expectations of human behavior, we may infer that they had witnessed violent primates roaming the planet.
2:30 Your Lord said to the controllers, “I am placing a successor on earth.” They said, “Would You place in it he who would corrupt it, and shed blood, while we sing Your glory, and praise You?” He said, “I know what you do not know.”
2:31 He taught Adam the description of all things, and then He displayed them to the controllers and said, “Inform Me the descriptions of these things if you are truthful.”
Verse 2:31 pulls our attention to our innate ability to relate and discriminate by using sophisticated abstraction skills and language.
Shanavas’s book provides persuasive arguments for evolution, while demonstrating that it was an accepted theory among Muslims long before Darwin introduced overwhelming evidence for it. I hope that this book will lead contemporary Muslims to question the dogmas that contradict scientific facts. This will also serve as a reminder to the Western world about the roots of some of the important scientific discoveries. I would like to end this introduction with a quote from Dr. Shanavas:
“In our survey of early Muslim thought and the study of the Quran, we have learned that Muslim scholars described the evolutionary process in detail. Although they and the Quran did not use the terminology used by scientists today, they believed in the ever-growing bush called life long before modern scientists such as Stephen Jay Gould or Ernst Mayr. Not only did Western scholars hijack the fundamentals of the Muslim theory of evolution and present it as their own pristine idea, but they also excluded Muslims from their archives knowingly or unknowingly. For example, The Encyclopedia of Evolution by Richard Milner, with foreword by Gould, excludes Muslim authors from the history of the theory of evolution. That omission is comparable to writing the history of the United States without mentioning George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, or Abraham Lincoln.”