Islam’s Darwin Problem

By Drake Bennett in the Boston Globe

Three weeks ago, with much fanfare, a team of scientists unveiled the fossil skeleton of Ardi, a 4-foot-tall female primate who lived and died 4.4 million years ago in what is now Ethiopia. According to her discoverers, Ardi – short for Ardipithecus ramidus, her species – is our oldest known ancestor. She predated Lucy, the fossilized Australopithecus afarensis that previously had claimed the title, by 1.2 million years. The papers announcing the find described a transitional specimen, with the long arms and short legs of an ape and strong, grasping big toes suited to life in the trees, but also a pelvis whose shape allowed her to walk upright on the ground below.

That, at least, is what one discovered by following the coverage in the Western press, or by reading the scientific papers themselves, published in the journal Science. If you learned about Ardi on the Arabic-language version of Al Jazeera’s website, however, you discovered something else: The find disproved the theory of evolution. “Ardi Refutes Darwin’s Theory,” Al Jazeera announced, in an Oct. 3 article not available on the English version of the website. “American scientists have presented evidence that Darwin’s theory of evolution was wrong,” the article opened. “The team announced yesterday that Ardi’s discovery proves that humans did not evolve from ancestors that resemble chimpanzees, which refutes the longstanding assumption that humans evolved from monkeys.”

Americans familiar with the long and bitter battle over the teaching of evolution in our schools likely have a set of images of what creationism looks like: from the Scopes trial, and its dramatization in “Inherit the Wind,” to more recent battles over textbooks on school boards in Kansas and Georgia and in federal court in Pennsylvania. The doctrine of creationism, and its less explicitly religious cousin intelligent design, are extensively developed counter-narratives of the origin of life on Earth, fed by Christian concerns and shaped by Christian beliefs. In its more extreme forms, creationist thought is guided by a faith in the inerrancy of the language of the Book of Genesis, so that some creationists see in the fossil record evidence that Noah must have herded dinosaurs onto his ark along with the rest of creation. But there is another creationist movement whose influence is growing, and which is fueling challenges to science in countries where Christianity has little sway: Islamic creationism.

Campaigners in countries like Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, and Indonesia have fought the teaching of evolution in schools there, sometimes with great success. Creationist conferences have been held in Pakistan, and moderate Islamic clerics are on record publicly condemning Darwin’s ideas. A recent study of Muslim university students in the Netherlands showed that most rejected evolution. And driven in part by a mysterious Turkish publishing organization, Islamic creationism books are hot sellers at bookstores throughout the Muslim world. The phenomenon has raised concerns among scientists and educators – especially those in Muslim countries and in countries with growing Muslim minorities – who see in it a threat to scientific literacy, a drag on the potential for Muslim countries to build up their languishing scientific research sectors, and as another flashpoint in the Muslim world’s long-running struggle between religion and secularism.

Unlike in the West, creationist beliefs are not associated in the Muslim world with religious fundamentalism, but instead are often espoused by members of the mainstream intellectual elite – liberals, by their own lights, who see the expansive, scientific-sounding claims of creationism as tracing a middle way between the guidance of religion and the promise of modern science. Critics of the movement fear that this makes it more likely that creationism will find its way into policies there, especially when the theory of evolution is portrayed among Muslim thinkers, as it often is, as an instrument of Western intellectual hegemony.

“[T]he next major battle over evolution is likely to take place in the Muslim world,” Salman Hameed, a Pakistani-born astronomer at Hampshire College who has dedicated himself to researching Islamic creationism, wrote in an article in Science last December. It’s hard to say exactly how much support the theory of evolution enjoys in the world’s Muslim countries, but it’s definitely not very much. In one 2006 study by American political scientists, people in 34 industrial nations were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the idea that human beings evolved from earlier life forms. Turkey, the only Muslim country in the survey, showed the lowest levels of support – barely a quarter of Turks said they agreed. By comparison, at least 80 percent of those surveyed in Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, and France agreed. (The United States ranked second lowest, after Turkey, at 40 percent.)

 Turkey is widely seen as the most culturally liberal Muslim nation, and on attitudes about evolution, other polling has borne this out: A recent study of religious attitudes found that only 16 percent of Indonesians, 14 percent of Pakistanis, and 8 percent of Egyptians believed in evolution. And as the Internet facilitates the spread of both evolutionary and anti-evolutionary ideas, the debate over evolution seems to be sharpening. Islamic creationism does have its own distinctive character: While Islamic creationists borrow from the literature of their Christian counterparts, their concerns are not always the same. Without a Book of Genesis to account for, for example, Muslim creationists have little interest in proving that the age of the Earth is measured in the thousands rather than the billions of years, nor do they show much interest in the problem of the dinosaurs.

And the idea that animals might evolve into other animals also tends to be less controversial, in part because there are passages of the Koran that seem to support it. But the issue of whether human beings are the product of evolution is just as fraught among Muslims, and, as in the United States, the argument has played out around the question of what will be taught in schools. Turkey, with its longer and deeper engagement with the West, has had the most vehement debates. The first victory for Turkish creationists came in 1985, when the conservative political party then in control of the country’s education ministry inserted creationist explanations alongside the passages on evolution in the standard high school biology textbook (in Turkey, unlike in the United States, the public school curriculum is set by the national government).

Scientists and pro-evolution educators in Turkey have pointed the finger partly at Americans, arguing that the changes were the fruit of collaboration between government officials and American creationists, some of whom spent time in Turkey in the 1970s and 1980s on expeditions to Mount Ararat to find the remains of Noah’s Ark. However, Lawrence Ford, a spokesman for the Institute for Creation Research, a leading creationist organization and a sponsor of Ararat research trips, denied in an e-mail that his organization had worked with the Turkish government or Islamic creationists. “[M]any people all around the world read our material and learn from it, including those who would disagree with us, which would include Muslims, who do not accept the Christian Bible as inerrant or Jesus Christ as the Son of God, as we do,” he wrote. More recently, the debate in Turkey has been stirred up by the writings and public pronouncements of Adnan Oktar, a man who lacks scientific or religious training (he studied interior design in college and did not graduate) yet has become one of Muslim creationism’s loudest voices. Oktar, who writes under the pen-name Harun Yahya, is the leader of an insular Islamic religious organization that is also a multimedia publishing company, waging, though its website as well as videos and lavishly produced books, a vehement campaign against the menace of Darwinian thought.

Yahya’s 800-page, 13-pound opus, The Atlas of Creation, can be found in bookstores all over the Muslim world, and in recent years copies have been sent unsolicited to schools and biologists throughout Europe and the United States. Illustrated in the Atlas with hundreds of full-page photographs of fossils and modern-day animals, Yahya’s argument is that, though Earth may indeed be billions of years old, the plants and animals that live on it have not changed at all over that time, existing today in the same form in which they were originally – and divinely – created. “When one looks at a 100 million year-old spider fossil on one side and to a living spider on the other, he can not see the slightest difference.

He witnesses it himself and there is no need to be a scientist to grasp it. Even a primary school student can understand it. That is why Darwinists are at a loss,” Oktar wrote in response to e-mailed questions. Oktar’s work is easy to lampoon. Asked why biologists around the world espouse the theory of evolution, Oktar blames “a scientific dictatorship under the sway of Freemasonry.” The English biologist Richard Dawkins has pointed out that the original edition of the Atlas, among other basic errors, includes a photo of a fishing lure that it mistakenly identifies as an actual fly. And Oktar’s reputation has suffered in Turkey itself, where he is currently appealing a conviction for running a criminal organization. But Oktar’s main concern – that evolution is the tool of atheists bent on destroying Islam – does resonate there and in other Muslim countries. Many of Oktar’s followers come from the young, urban, wealthy Turkish elite.

Mustafa Akyol is a liberal Muslim Turkish columnist and TV host who in the 1990s was briefly affiliated with Oktar’s organization. Though based in Istanbul, Akyol testified in the 2005 Kansas State Board of Education hearings over whether to teach intelligent design in science classes, speaking on behalf of the Discovery Institute, an intelligent design proponent, to counter the argument that its agenda was a purely Christian one. Akyol has since modified his views. He is now more dubious about intelligent design and the existence of the sort of the divine micromanager that the theory posits. “I still find it plausible,” he says, but he finds it more plausible that Allah set the initial conditions for evolution, then sat back and allowed it to unfold according to plan – a position Akyol likens to that of the prominent English paleontologist Simon Conway Morris, an outspoken Christian. Turkey is still the epicenter of the Islamic world’s argument over evolution, but the dispute is also playing out elsewhere.

 In Lebanon, the government excised the teaching of evolution from the public school curriculum in the mid-1990s. Surveys carried out by researchers affiliated with McGill University’s Evolution Education Research Centre found that in Egypt and Pakistan, while the official high school curriculum does include evolution, many of the teachers there don’t believe in it themselves, and will often tell their students so. The McGill researchers also found that in Indonesia, teachers used Yahya’s Atlas of Creation as a teaching aid. Prominent Muslim religious scholars, among them decided moderates, have argued that evolution cannot explain human development. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a professor of religious studies at George Washington University, has written that evolution “survived to this day not as a theory but as a dogma{hellip}a convenient philosophical and rationalistic scheme to enable man to create the illusion of a purely closed universe around himself.” For thinkers like Nasr, as with many Western creationists, the threat that evolutionary thought presents is its insistence on replacing a divine creator with the nakedly mechanistic forces of randomness and brutal competition for resources and mates. “I personally and many other religious people were influenced by this black and white dichotomy, that Darwinism equals atheism,” says Akyol.

For many Muslims, the fact that the theory of evolution was worked out in the West makes it even more suspect: Islamic creationists will often describe evolution as something foreign and invasive, even as a legacy of colonialism. “For evolution in the Islamic world, it’s very unfortunate that Darwin was a white Brit, because otherwise it would have gained wider acceptance,” says Ehab Abouheif, an evolutionary biologist at McGill who has spoken publicly about reconciling his Muslim faith and evolution. There are attempts within the Muslim world to try to ease the tension between the two by enlisting the authority of the Koran.

Salman Hameed points out that the biology textbook used in Pakistani high schools, while it does not mention human evolution, does have a chapter on the broader theory of evolution. That chapter opens with a quote from the Koran – “And He is Who had produced you from a single being.” – that could be read as giving support to the idea that many species descended from one single predecessor. A similar theological rapprochement explains why creationism has gained little purchase in Iran. Unlike in Sunni Islam, Shia Islam, Iran’s majority religion, has an established clerical hierarchy to interpret the Koran, making Shia’ism structurally similar to Catholicism. Iran’s clerics, like the Vatican, have decided that evolution needn’t conflict with Holy Scripture. “What happened in Iran is that the ayatollahs decided that evolution is OK, and that there was going to be none of this nonsense about creationism, and therefore there isn’t a lot of it in Iran,” says Taner Edis, a physicist at Truman State University and author of “An Illusion of Harmony,” a book on the relationship between science and Islam. Edis is quick to point out that the Iranian clerical establishment’s vision of evolution, in which a divine hand guides the process, is closer to intelligent design than to the mainstream Western version of evolution. Still, according to Hameed, it is this relative friendliness to modern biology – and one of its central ideas – that has allowed Iran to pursue an aggressive, state-sponsored stem cell research program unmatched anywhere else in the Muslim world.

And in those places where the theory of evolution is seen more warily, the fact that there is a creationist debate at all can be seen as a sort of progress – a symptom at the very least of a newfound interest in science. In the most conservative parts of the Muslim world, creationism isn’t a political or philosophical force because it doesn’t need to be – there aren’t enough people who believe in evolution, or have even been exposed to it, to require a counter-doctrine. The rise of Islamic creationism, then, may be a sign that more of the Muslim world is at least wrestling with the idea of evolution, and more broadly with the power of scientific explanations. Much though it may alarm Western scientists, creationist thought may offer people an acceptable point of entry into a science-driven world.

“It’s modernizing Muslims, Muslims who want to say they have mastered the modern world and do well in the globalized technological economy and at the same time retain traditional values and so forth,” says Edis. “It’s this sort of audience that creationism appeals to.”

Drake Bennett is the staff writer for Ideas.

Courtesy Boston Globe


Filed under Islam, Science

18 responses to “Islam’s Darwin Problem

  1. Rashid

    My understanding on subject of Creation and Evolution is that per Holy Quran individual species were created and they all continuously go through evolution. Just the word ‘Rub’ name of Allah refers to this concept. Anyways, may be poster Jay can help us on this subject.

  2. Afzal

    As an agnostic Muslim, I think Muslims everywhere (and indeed followers of all Abrahmic religions) need to pause and think about their idea of God. Do you think of Him as personal or impersonal? Why do you create God in your image? Is your God so limited that it expects a strict adherence to certain laws and gets easily upset and punishes people in retaliation? Even a child would show more maturity than the spiteful God of the Koran or the Old Testament. You have to accept at least conceptually that the impersonal God more powerful. Impersonal God can be thought of as the pure intelligence and wisdom inherent in nature. God cannot be bound by its own laws can it? Now push this idea a bit further.
    Can evolution not be, this very intelligence inherent in nature. It is God in nature that propels it to higher consciousness through evolution. Nature is created by God and ultimately returns to God by becoming God through evolution – from matter, to life and to spirit.

  3. It’s very encouraging that Akyol has modified his views. His testimony at the Kansas school board hearings was completely unscientific, consisting mainly of the idea that evolution encouraged rampant materialism in western society and that this quality was completely repugnant to the spiritually-based Middle Eastern countries. His proposal for creating a bridge between the two was for Kansas to embrace Intelligent Design in its teaching standards as a form of outreach – a sign that Americans weren’t completely materialistic.

  4. Jay

    If earlier it was Heliocentric views of Galileo and his contemporaries, now it is Evolution that is source of conflict between Theological and Scientific thoughts.

    However, Quran actually nurtures the latter in the debate where it alludes to evolution of man. It took about five million years for human ancestor Ardipithicus ramidus to evolve into current Homo sapiens sapiens commonly known as the “Modern Man” who is in existence for only last hundred thousand years. Quran clearly is cognizant of this evolutionary time line:

    76:1. There did pass over a human being a while of a long space of time when he was not a thing worth mentioning.

    Obviously, it is the Homo sapiens stage of man that deserves any “mentioning.” It at this stage of evolution that Quran discusses the Homo sapiens and his propagation by reproduction, development of intelligence and finally achieving a stage of moral maturation to distinguish right from wrong and capacity to receive divine guidance:

    76:2. We have surely created a human being from a sperm drop uniting (it) with (an ovum); We wanted to bestow Our favour on him. That is why We made him hearing and seeing (- enjoying discretion and volition, and so responsible for his actions).
    76:3. Verily, We have shown him the path clearly (giving him the full choice) whether he be grateful or ungrateful.

    The ongoing and future physical and moral evolution of man is further referred to in the following verses:

    56:58. Have you given thought to (the sperm drop, your life-germ) that you emit?
    56:59. Is it you that create it yourselves, or are We the Creator (of it)?
    56:60. It is We that have ordained death for all of you. And We cannot be stopped from (it),
    56:61. From replacing you with beings similar to you, (or from) evolving you into a form which is unknown to you (at present).
    56:62. And you certainly know of the first evolution. Then, why do you not reflect?

    95:4. (That) We have surely created the human being in the finest make and the best proportions (with enormous capabilities for an all round advancement through the process of evolution).

    The Book actually encourages man to explore and discover metaphorically the “Origin of Species” and its subsequent evolution:

    29:19. Do they not see how Allah originates creation, then repeats it? (Think of the emergence of organic matter, its decay and then re-emergence of life). This, verily, is easy for Allah.
    29:20. Say, “Travel in the earth and find out how He originated creation. And how afterward, Allah brings forth entirely new forms. Verily, Allah is the Designer of all things.”

    For clarification, it may be noted that concept of “intelligent design” is incompatible with logic of “intelligence of design and evolution”, as the former is the result of non-reconciliation of belief and scientific logic whereas the latter is a complementary result of belief and science. In the latter we see inherent evolution in both within the life span of the member of the species as well as the life span of species itself. Evolution is the Holy Grail for development towards perfection of body, mind and soul.

    By its very definition evolution is embedded in the very first attribute of Him in Quran i.e. “Rabb” which means Lord, Creator, Nourisher, Maintainer, Evolver:

    “Rabb means not only Creator, but also One Who imbues every object with the capacity of ultimate development, and Creator of all those means and aids whereby such development is achieved through all the many stages of development. I find the following in a Quranic roots dictionary [by Imam Raghib Isfahani] written centuries before the theory of evolution was ever imagined in the West: “The fostering of a thing in such a way as to make it attain one condition after another until it reaches its goal of perfection.” Consider the words I italicize. Do they clearly not sum up the theory of evolution…”[ The Existence of God by Khawaja Kamal-ud-din, The Woking Muslim Mission and Literary Trust, The Shah Jehan Mosque, Woking, England, pg 6-7.]

    [Quran translations by: Allamah Nooruddin; Shabbir Ahmed]

  5. Saeed

    I did not find any verse in Quraan or in authentic teachings of Islam which refutes Evolution. Rather Quraan correctly explains it. It was not Muslims, It was Darwinists who claimed their theory against Religion. It was Roman Catholic Church and their Pope who shut eyes on scientific theories. I remember once Hopkins was invited to Vetican and advised by Pope, not to think about creation theories because they are God-Forbidden. I dont find any Theory which is God-Forbidden by Quraan. Quraan repeatedly invites people to think in natural and physical phenomenas. Islam’s God(Allah) is neither week, nor afraid of Modern theories and researches. I am a Physicist and I know the limitations of Darwin’s Evolution Theory as well as Big-Bang Theory. I believe them within their limitations and still I am a devote Muslim (By The Grace of Allah). By the way Quraan is Perfect with no limitations or contradictions. I would invite Darwinists to at least study Quraan, or the related verses with their context and subjects.

  6. rex minor

    It is not important whether you believe in Darwin’s evolution “theory” or not. Nor your devotion to Islam. The question before the jury is the teaching of Darwin’s theory in the elemantry schools ? And inview of latest discoveries the theory has been called into question for the first time in the christian world. Therefore it is quite logical for christians and muslims as well to delete this from the school books. This is not to say that you as a Physicist cannot continue your research in this subject. To be able to read a reference or a message in Quraan on any contrvertial subject one needs to have the expertise in Quraan’s language and a certain spirtual level. Unlike current ptractice by some Quraan was never meant to be a reference book!!

  7. vajra


    Very curious. And what pray are these latest discoveries? could we have a flavour of them?

  8. rex minor

    Intelligent design, and DNA details. I reckon that it would be prudent not to teach children the Darwin’s theory of evaluation as well as the religous teachings.I reckon the debate of atheists with the believers and further research work in the field of biology should continue.

  9. Vajra


    I am horrified that you believe that intelligent design has any credibility in your thinking. Is there lack of evidence that it is flawed at its root?

    I simply cannot understand your stand that Darwinian evolution should not be taught, only on the grounds that some obscurantists have brought out a totally indefensible concoction which they dignify with an intelligent-sounding name.

    Intelligent design is a theory with little or no evidence to back it, and except for the most benighted sections of Americans, it is difficult to think of it gaining acceptance elsewhere.

    Please do not bring such regressive ideas to these columns.

  10. Milind Kher

    Evolution is a process that keeps happening. As Jay has rightly pointed out, the Holy Quran supports evolution too.

    However, it is not random mutation that happens. DNA has a code. A code is a language. And a language cannot be evolved without a mind. This very clearly points to a Mind that has created it.

    That being said, we must not condemn atheists. We must value them as human beings, and understand that at a spiritual level, they are yet struggling to make sense of this world and its teleology.

  11. Vajra

    Hmm, the numbers are increasing. Et tu, ‘Milind Kher’?

  12. yasserlatifhamdani

    Intelligent design is – to put it mildly- creationism’s trojan horse into the citadel of rational and scientific thought.

  13. Majumdar

    Interestingly I have not seen too many Hindoo leaders opposing evolution. I guess we have too many mythological stories about rats, goats etc. turning into humans and vice versa to be seriously bothered about the prospect of having monkeys as great great grand parents.


  14. Milind Kher

    @Majumdar Saheb,

    Monkeys even have temples dedicated to them, so in the Indian context, they are not just accepted, but revered too.

    Therefore, there is not too much of a crib about Darwin.

  15. Milind Kher


    Ultimately, the Trojan horse strategy worked. Are we saying history will repeat itself?🙂

  16. rex minor

    let us calm down. My understanding is that in the great United States of America, and I am not an american, the evalution theory was being taught to children in the elementary school. My position is that you cannot teach simeltaneously Mr Darwin’s theory and the God almighty’s commandments to the school children. Let the children grow up and and decide for themselves their position in this matter. I personally believe in God almighty and then in science and not the other way around. Sorry, I do not mean to belittle those with opposite views and equally respect the aetheists.

  17. Vajra


    Your calmness of temper is exemplary.

    Let me merely state that I wholly and completely oppose organised religion and its ramifications, including ‘intelligent design’, and will nevertheless defend your right to be mistaken in these respects. Let us agree to differ.

  18. Michael McGrath

    Perhaps we should look into the death process to explain human life, to the numerous factual instances recorded of death experiences of people who survived death and returned .

    In particular of obvious interest are their stories of the point of their death, when they ‘ hovered’ over their dead bodies with no ‘ feelings’ at all , not even toward their nearest and dearest in life gathered around their dead bodies .

    This is because feelings , I believe, are centred in the human brain, in the personality of the ‘ego’ that dies with that particular body , not the universal soul, the spirit, that survives . ( and, some say, though I am not convinced of it, goes on to reincarnate into another body ) , building yet another ego in which to learn, to do, to think , and to discover more – because, as usually taken for granted, the ‘soul/spirit’ is not in fact omniscient as ; God’ or ‘ Allah’ is .

    It is believed that the ancient wise men of Ireland, who never wrote anything down, the Druids, knew of and taught thus, and believed in reincarnation or a form of it called metempsychosis that the Pythagireans also believed in and taught . Such ideas and understandings were thus never confined to the East until the triumph of State Christianity in the West .

    Ancient books such as the Bible, the Koran, the Upanishads, also have their truths, and all combined , even with some of Darwinism, together help and assist us as we study the origins of humanity and the Hereafter ( or the HereBefore ) – and ‘ God ‘ .

    There is so much we cannot explain, we look to the religions and the philosophers and the old books and traditions of the world in our quest for that ultimate understanding that we may never reach as it may be too great for our human brains to be able to realise it . And we look to each other and to all religions and belief systems, and especially science, to help us get a glimpse that we may be able to understand , if not put into any language known to man .

    Michael McGrath,
    Archdruid of Ireland ,
    Ireland .