Islam and Evolution?
January 13, 2009 5:23 AM   Subscribe

I've recently started learning more about Islam, and it intrigues me. But I had a conversation today with my muslim boyfriend in which he was adamant that he can't be muslim and believe in evolution. I'm okay with agreeing to disagree, but it's got me thinking. I've known many muslims who are scientists, and who would take no issue with evolutionary biology - how do they reconcile the two?

For the record, my feeling is that the two aren't mutually exclusive, but I don't yet know enough about Islam to explain how it's possible to believe both.

I'm a bit worried that this might become a bigger issue. I don't expect to change his mind, but I need to show him that just because I believe in evolution doesn't mean I'm an atheist - probably the worst thing I could be in his eyes and something I am definitely not.

Help me understand how to explain this!
posted by scrute to Religion & Philosophy (17 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Based on this article (via a quick Google of Islam + evolution), it sounds like the situation is similar to Christianity: there's no single consensus. There are many moderates who accept science, but there are also many who dispute evolution and see science as a threat.

See the article for more detail on the differences between Christianity and Islam. But I'd use this as your starting point: there may be a problem with Islam and evolution, but there's a closely related problem with Christianity and evolution.
posted by Jaltcoh at 5:38 AM on January 13, 2009

Here's on article on how Muslim scientists in predominantly-Muslim countries do their work and reconcile principles of science with their religion.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 5:43 AM on January 13, 2009

See also this MeFi post.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 5:44 AM on January 13, 2009

I did find the MeFi post. I found the numbers interesting, and it gives me ground that other muslims do believe in evolution, but didn't find much there on how they actually reconcile the two.
posted by scrute at 5:59 AM on January 13, 2009

Perhaps a persuasive line of argument would be that early Islamic philosophers actually invented the idea of evolution - and there is some basis for that. Al-Jahiz is a notable example of someone who put forward a theory of evolution, as is al-Khazini.

Not survival of the fittest, of course - they didn't come up with Darwinism. But they serve to disprove any idea that evolution is a 'Western' idea.
posted by Phanx at 6:01 AM on January 13, 2009

Tons of Muslims believe in evolution! Much in the same way that many Christians believe in evolution - not taking the time/days of creation as literal, or in mere human units of time.

This wikipedia article on "Islamic creationism" is a good primer.

Also send your boyfriend this link:

Generally, the Muslims I know reconcile evolution as part of God's plan i.e., God oversees the evolutionary process. Generally Muslims believe that humankind is the ultimate perfect of God's creation, but they don't deny that there was/has been a process that led humans to this point. And now that humans are in the final stage of this creative process, the "test" begins...

There's also the widely held belief that anything God does, is way beyond human comprehension. God speaks in Its own language, Its own ways, allegory, analogy, and is rather competent in literary devices. For humankind to claim they "know" exactly how and why created is a major sin - for no human can pretend to comprehend God's thought process (the same for anything in Islam, all humans can do is try).

Many Muslims proclaim that the Quran includes a lot of science - the creation of the earth, the embryonic process, etc etc etc. And that evolution is just another part of God's miraculous plan. This is the worldview that I grew up in - and our family was indeed practicing. While I no longer consider myself Muslim, the fact that Islam and evolution melded together quite harmoniously, was one of the things I always found beautiful about the religion.
posted by raztaj at 6:24 AM on January 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

I believe the main argument against evolution is that it places a second creative power beside Allah, which would be shirk, incompatible with Islam.

Some argue that the bare fact of evolution is compatible with Islam, but not the idea that random mutation and suvival of the fittest powered the process without Divine guidance (especially in the case of human beings).

There doesn't seem to me to be any contradiction in saying that Allah brought about evolution by mutations and differential survival which were at all points under his complete direction, but which, unless we know better, seem like chance to us. But I can't quote anyone who has taken that line.
posted by Phanx at 6:24 AM on January 13, 2009

Also, have him read this book - it may help him realize that the two don't aren't wholly incompatible. Evolution and/or Creation: An Islamic Perspective, by T.O. Shanavas
posted by raztaj at 6:40 AM on January 13, 2009

Disclosure: I'm a Christian.

Just as there are things about which reasonable Christians can disagree (e.g. Six Days of Creation), so too are there things about which reasonable Muslims can disagree.

Just as there are Christians who do not accept evolutionary science in any form, so too will there be Muslims who feel the same way.

Attempting to dislodge someone from such a position is difficult. I wish you luck.
posted by DWRoelands at 6:51 AM on January 13, 2009

In my experience, it is very difficult to change the mind of someone who is so devoted to his particular conception of his religion. I don't have much personal experience with Islam specifically, so I could be completely off base, but I have plenty of experience with closed-minded religious people. And I would imagine that a Muslim who considers evolution incompatible with his religion would argue that those who do accept it are "not really Muslims," just as fundamentalist Christians would say that Christians who accept evolution (or many other things, e.g. abortion, homosexuality, or Catholicism) are "not really Christians."

Thus it's entirely possible that you could show him as many Muslims as you like who accept evolution and he would not be swayed, because to him they are "Muslims," where the scare quotes should be pronounced "so-called" -- not true Muslims. It think is also quite possible that even if he accepts that you are religious, he will in the end not be satisfied because you are not religious enough for him. I assume you are a Christian and that he would say that you can't be a Christian and believe in evolution any more than you can be a Muslim with such a belief, although he may cut you some slack if you argue that you are certainly more familiar with your own religion than he is.

Doesn't mean you shouldn't try, of course, but I would keep my expectations low-ish if I were you.
posted by kindall at 6:55 AM on January 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Scrute, bear in mind that "Islam" is not possessed of a single authoritative body of teachings and monolithic doctrinary authority like the Roman Catholic Church. There are at least two major factions (Sunni and Shiite) and countless more subtle sects, divisions, schools, traditions, etc.

For your boyfriend, it basically may come down to which set of Imams he listens to, or which set of Fatwas (edicts) he subscribes to. I'd not be surprised to find that the Imam of his mosque, or the tradition that Imam follows, has a specific edict calling Evolution heretical. And that is that, even though other Imams or other communities may have the opposite position.

Find other topics. You'll only alienate him by pushing this issue. Especially if you presume to argue with him on grounds of Islamic or Arabic traditions.
posted by BigLankyBastard at 7:01 AM on January 13, 2009

just because I believe in evolution doesn't mean I'm an atheist

Right. An atheist isn't someone who believes in evolution. An atheist is someone who doesn't believe in God. If you believe in God in any way, shape or form, you're not an atheist. Perhaps, via some people's dogma, you're not a good theist, but you're definitely not an atheist.

Also, this question (and many others like it) trivializes belief. Belief is a complex phenomenon, and it's more akin to an emotion than an intellectual philosophy. It is possible for an individual to believe almost anything. You could say that a particular belief isn't grounded in logic. You could say that two beliefs aren't compatible with each other. But neither of those statements negate the fact that the belief itself exists.

Telling someone that she can't believe in God and evolution is like telling a cancer victim that she can't be happy. "You can't possibly be happy. You have cancer." To which the cancer victim can truthfully reply, "Sorry, but I am happy."

Though it's possible for beliefs to be affected by logic, they often aren't. Some beliefs may be fully or partially under the believer's control, but many aren't. In other words, you can have a belief without choosing to have it, and you may continue to have it, even if you don't want to have it. (Have you ever heard someone say, "I know ghosts don't exist, but I believe in them anyway"?)

There's a sort of romantic belief out there -- one that romanticizes the intellect -- that seems especially prevalent amongst geeky types (who were, perhaps, raised on tales of Mr. Spock), that if you can just prove X, Y or Z to someone, he will necessarily stop (or start) having certain beliefs. Once in a blue moon this works. Usually it doesn't. Belief is not first and foremost a rational process.

You and your boyfriend can continue to discuss whether the logical frameworks of evolution and theism can merge in a sensible manner, but that's a different discussion from one about belief.

Are Muslim scientists being rational if they believe in both God and evolution? Maybe. Maybe not. But many of them DO believe in both God and evolution. And they will continue to do so.
posted by grumblebee at 7:19 AM on January 13, 2009 [4 favorites]

If you're just taking the Koran into account, it's entirely possible that God exists AND the universe is as old as it is, AND evolution happened. The "days" described in the Koran where the earth was created are loosely interpreted, and could be any length of time (other than the traditional 24 hours). Of course, this is only the Koran, and I'm guessing (as others have said) that your boyfriend is part of a more specific sect of Islam, which means he could believe something just because some imam said so.
posted by azarbayejani at 8:51 AM on January 13, 2009

[few comments removed -- keep this to the narrow topic, please]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 9:06 AM on January 13, 2009

This article by Sheikh Nuh Keller is about the most lucid piece I've seen on what evolution could mean when viewed through the lens of the Quran and Sunnah.
posted by Burhanistan at 9:31 AM on January 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

It's intellectually interesting, if perhaps ultimately futile, to explore exactly where your worldview diverges from his.

Is the Earth billions of years old?
Did life first appear here billions of years ago?
Did this life appear in the fossil record simply as like algae mats and then change over time?
Did these changes result in more complex organisms?
Do these organisms appear to have developed these changes by descent-with-modification over billions and billions of generations?
Is the general sequence of simple marine life -> fish -> amphibious fish -> reptile -> mammal -> ape -> hominid -> man?

If you get this far then the question becomes one of whether or not selection pressure is sufficient to result in the impressive functional capability of life forms in all its diversity that we see today -- the aerodynamics of the seagull, the millennia-spanning hardiness of the Sequoia -- or has there been an unseen hand that has been guiding this process.

Here, "reasonable" people can, perhaps, disagree, though the random-walk nature of apparent evolutionary change over time strongly implies that these changes do indeed come from mutation and not the crafting hand of an intelligent designer.

I do like the counter-argument that it is the sin of human hubris to deny the possibility that the Creator employs evolution as his means.

Having said that, you may find it dismaying that the only nation that disbelieves evolution more than the US is Turkey, in a recent poll.
posted by troy at 9:43 AM on January 13, 2009

Yeah, thanks to Harun Yahya. He's very influential, but also new on the Islamic scene. It's fair to say he's responsible for bringing into Islam the Creation v. Evolution bruhaha that was not previously a faith issue for muslims, as I think Raztaj pointed out above.

That Shaykh Keller article that Burhanistan linked to was awesome. Since it's a bit long, I'm pasting in the conclusions:
Allah alone is Master of Existence. He alone causes all that is to be and not to be. Causes are without effect in themselves, but rather both cause and effect are created by Him. The causes and the effects of all processes, including those through which plant and animal species are individuated, are His work alone. To ascribe efficacy to anything but His action, whether believing that causes (a) bring about effects in and of themselves; or (b) bring about effects in and of themselves through a capacity Allah has placed in them, is to ascribe associates to Allah (shirk). Such beliefs seem to be entailed in the literal understanding of "natural selection" and "random mutation," and other evolutionary concepts, unless we understand these processes as figurative causes, while realizing that Allah alone is the agent. This is apart from the consideration of whether they are true or not.

As for claim that man has evolved from a non-human species, this is unbelief (kufr) no matter if we ascribe the process to Allah or to "nature," because it negates the truth of Adam's special creation that Allah has revealed in the Qur'an. Man is of special origin, attested to not only by revelation, but also by the divine secret within him, the capacity for ma'rifa or knowledge of the Divine that he alone of all things possesses. By his God-given nature, man stands before a door opening onto infinitude that no other creature in the universe can aspire to. Man is something else.
In short, evolution is fine as long as it is remembered that Allah is the sole cause of all things, and that Man was specially created.
posted by BinGregory at 8:40 PM on January 13, 2009

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