More than 850 delegates flocked to a seminal conference in London on Saturday about the compatibility of modern evolutionary theory and Islamic theology – despite scaremongering and the refusal of Islamic student societies to participate. Determined organisers had overcome pressure to cancel by changing the venue from Imperial College to Logan Hall at the University of London. The event was the brainchild of the Deen Institute, which runs courses to promote critical thinking among Muslim students and kindle rational dialogue within Islam. The need for dialogue is urgent, because to date there has been little open discussion within British Muslim communities on this divisive subject. Recent debates in the US suggest that evolution is not as much of a problem theologically to Muslims as it is to Christian creationists, but there is work to be done to clarify the situation.
One of the speakers was Professor Ehab Abouheif, an evolutionary biologist at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. "Muslims must revolutionise their perspective on evolution if they are to move forward in the 21st century," said Abouheif, who considers himself to be both a scientist and a sincere believer. He is a veteran of debates like this. "Biological evolution is a fact. The evidence is overwhelming and indisputable," he said.
Beamed into Logan Hall via satellite was Dr Oktar Babuna, a spokesperson for Harun Yahya – founder of the controversial Turkish creationist movement that has often been accused of obscuring clear scientific thinking.
Babuna's impenetrable polemic was relentless. "Evolution is not a scientific theory," he said, "as it has yet to be verified by scientific evidence. In fact, evolution has already been falsified."
He maintains that no evolutionary mechanism has been found. His logic is that if successive minor changes had accumulated into a big change during speciation, transitional forms would outnumber the original and transformed species in the fossil record. But, according to palaeontologists Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould, the record showed otherwise.
Much to the amusement of the audience, Babuna repeatedly offered a £5m cash prize to anyone who can find a transitional fossil.
Abouheif's swift rebuttal fell on deaf ears. He pointed out that the expectation of finding transitional fossils erroneously presumes a gradual and linear model of evolution (Gould and Eldredge proposed the theory of punctuated equilibrium in 1972 to explain the absence of transitional species). He lamented that Babuna was dragging us back to Darwin's 1859 version of evolution before the discovery of DNA.
Fatima Jackson, a biological anthropologist at the University of Maryland, offered a compelling alternative narrative. Nothing in biology would make sense outside the evolution paradigm, which she defined as a "basic organising tool". She reconciled her faith with science by holding to the belief that the singularity of life is a manifestation of the unity of God. In her view, exploring natural phenomena helps to bring us closer to God. "Evolution doesn't replace faith, it complements it."
Each primate, she said, "has its own trajectory from a common ancestor which has diversified". Humans are a part of the natural world and not a unique creation. "You can't just push the fossils away," she cautioned, citing an article by Sheikh al-Turayri, who asserts that the question of evolution is purely a matter for scientific inquiry.
Dr Usama Hasan, a senior researcher in Islamic studies at the Quilliam Foundation and a part-time imam, said Yahya's creationist arguments were easily discredited (though he later confessed to previously teaching Yahya's fallacy, before deeper research into the subject). His current stance has provoked outrage and even death threats.
Hasan courageously presented evolution as a theory initially recorded by Muslim thinkers. For instance, he said, William Draper refers to the "Mohammedan theory of the evolution of man from lower forms, or his gradual development to his present condition in the long lapse of time."
Unsung champions of evolution from the Muslim world included Al Jahiz and Ibn Maskawaih, a 10th century scholar. Ibn Khaldun's The Muqaddimah explicitly describes an animal hierarchy, said Hasan.
But these claims were vehemently refuted by Shaykh Yasir Qadhi, Islamic instructor for the Al-Maghrib Institute, who said the descriptions were meant in a different context and that these scholars were not experts in either theology or biology.
Hassan argued that his views on evolution were firmly within the limits of Islamic thought and that difference of opinion was permissible. Qadhi disagreed: "It is sacrilegious to have two different Islamic opinions on this issue."
But Qadhi distanced himself from Yahya's creationist camp. "It is a mistake for Muslims to say we don't believe in evolution." Most of the principles of evolution posed no problems for Islamic theology, he said.
It was fine for Muslims to believe there were dinosaurs, speciation among hominids and even a common ancestor for all animals on Earth – except for one exception – mankind. "We are an honoured species distinctive from animals in terms of meta-cognition, language, morals, creativity and religion."
He addressed the ultimate sticking point for the majority of Muslims: "God created Adam to fit into the grand scheme of things. Adam and Eve did not have parents – they did not evolve. Any other position is scripturally indefensible."
Hasan denied that belief in evolution inevitably leads to atheism. "Science tells us how we were created, revelation tells us why." Just as science could not measure the existence of souls there was no experiment that could validate or deny the existence of God, he said.
Qadhi pointed out that Muslims were not historically anti-science in the way Christianity had been. But he went on: "We need to put science in its proper place". In his view, "science is the study of understanding Allah's creation".
Hassan responded by suggesting that religious scholars who do not understand the sciences should not interfere. "It is not the job of theologians to dictate what scientists can and cannot do. Isn't your attitude holding back the Muslim ummah?"
Qadhi's reply provoked rapturous applause from the audience. "The Qur'an compels us to believe in the super rational; that which is beyond our comprehension."
The debate stimulated intense discussion and I found myself agreeing with different strands from different speakers, but to varying degrees. I am convinced that the scientific rationality of Abouheif and Jackson outweighs the droll scepticism of Babuna. But I was torn between the theological cerebral flexibility of Hasan and the unwavering categorical rhetoric of Qadhi.
As the event closed I was left restless and sensed that others felt similarly conflicted. I tried to envisage how to establish a consensus of Muslim opinion on this topic. Where was the call to action? Who would bring the necessary scholars and scientists together to form a legitimate committee?
The debate has lifted the lid on this Pandora's Box, but the next steps are uncertain. Without more structured engagement with Muslims, the concept of human evolution will continue to be both an intellectual and spiritual minefield.
Yasmin Khan is an independent cultural adviser. Follow her on Twitter @Ya5min_BL
The closure of the secondary section of the Al-Madinah free school in Derby will be celebrated by those who oppose free schools and what are euphemistically labelled “faith” schools.
Whatever the stated objections to them it is left to bloggers to warn of indoctrination. The bloggers say what many people fear and fear to say – that Islamic schools are closed “indoctrination centres” where creating open and critical thinkers is not an educational aim.
There is some historical evidence that would support this view. Peter Watson in Ideas: A History From Fire to Freud argues:
“One of the most poignant moments in the history of ideas surely came in the middle of the eleventh century. In 1065 or 1067 the Nizamiyah was founded in Baghdad. This was a theological seminary and its establishment brought to an end the openness in Arabic/Islamic Scholarship which had flourished for two or three hundred years.”
But this tragic moment cannot be generalised across centuries. It wasn’t all downhill from 1067. On the other hand, it would be wrong to deny that there is no truth in the closing down of the Islamic openness that characterised this period.
Cultural trends in the West adopted by Islamic, and many other, educationalists, such as well-meaning policies emphasising diversity and multiculturalism, and the adoption of the politics of identity, may reinforce a closing of Islamic thought and of critical thinking. They celebrate what you are, rather than what you can become.
The end of the openness that characterised a great cultural epoch for Islam and its consequences, is the broad historical and philosophical context in which we have to discuss Islamic education today. In the UK, there has been an increase of Muslim free and independent schools along with the rise in small-scale part-time madrassas attached to mosques throughout the UK. So the question has to be asked: will this tradition mean these schools may or must produce uncritical young people?
I offer here two arguments, one from religion and one from certain general facts about life, that mean an Islamic education can and will be critical.
In her book Moral Clarity, Susan Neiman identifies two moral paradigms that are common to the Abrahamic religions, whether Jewish, Christian or Islamic.
…the first paradigm [is] that of Abraham at Sodom, who refuses to rest in the humility of resignation and demands that his world makes sense. Those who subscribe to this paradigm hold fast to the principle that there must be reasons for everything that happens, and that those reasons are up to us to find. This is the fundamental law to which everyone, including God, must answer and it leads us to seek not only justice, but transparent justice. The second paradigm is that of Abraham at Mount Moriah, who doesn’t ask anything at all. To do so, he thinks, would be an act of superstition, even violence. Does trust mean asking no questions? Does love mean never having to say you’re sorry? The man of faith is certain: The demand to find reason after reason is at odds with a grateful acceptance of creation, and arrogant at that.
Neiman contrasts the usual idea of morality or religious belief as a matter of blind faith – exemplified in the binding of Issac – with Abraham’s stand for reason and truth at Sodom. The former “sustains orthodoxies of every kind”, the latter points to reason and criticism, even of the highest authority. This is why the example of Abraham at Sodom is so important. If criticism of the highest authority is allowed, then “criticise everything” is the injunction.
However, in the suras of the Koran which refer to Sodom, Ibrahim is given short shrift by the angels who come to tell him of the pending destruction of the city.
The shortness and brief dispatch of the objection might lead a reader to think that the Islamic version gives less credence to reason. But this is incorrect: however short the objection, it exists.
Although for many political and even more for cultural reasons, the belief in reason is often mentioned only rhetorically in contemporary debates about Islam, it is inescapably present. The “golden age” of Islamic openness may have passed, but reason and critical thinking need not be an historical artefact.
At the same time, we are all subject to hard knocks. Even the most restrictive form of Islamic education takes place in a world where there are accidental happenings. People die in tragic ways, individuals fall in love with others that their religion bans relations with, and natural, political and economic events cause social and personal turmoil.
These hard knocks will cause individuals to think, however strictly and uncritically they have been reared, and there is no possible way of shielding young people from accidental experience. In fact when strict families lock young people up or severely restrict them, this is of course another accidental experience, a hard knock that can turn them towards criticism.
An Islamic education has a rational tradition, as well as a wealth of history and culture to pass on. Equally, so has a Jewish or a Catholic education. That is why it is often more valued by parents today when secular state schooling has had its educational content hollowed out.
Part of what it passes on to future generations is necessarily critical, and even if some schools play this down, young people, more than their elders and “betters”, will face the hard knocks that will force them to think and be critical.