"If you do not insist on a
materialistic interpretation of Darwinism, then it has no problem with
you ask any person on the street in an Arab state if they believe in science,
the likely answer will be a resounding yes. But ask the same person if they
believe in evolution, and you will be lucky if all you get are some degrading
looks. Normal reactions might turn downright hostile and offensive and
chances are you’ll be called an atheist.
The only problem is that the theory of evolution is the basis
of many fields of modern science. Ranging from how bacteria develop
resistance to how we raise crops and cattle, it is all interconnected to
evolutionary science. But does acceptance of evolution really dictate a
disbelief in a higher being or a god?
"For many years I thought that evolution was incompatible
with Islam but then I started reading more about the tradition of Islam and
about science of evolution and came to believe that there are many areas of
compatibility," said Nidhal Guessoum, professor at the American
University of Sharjah, UAE. "If you do not insist on a materialistic
interpretation of Darwinism, then it has no problem with Islam."
In fact, Guessoum quotes several Muslim scientists between the
9th and the 14th century who studied natural sciences and adopted various
forms of evolution.
But professor John Hedley Brooke of the University of Oxford,
UK, thinks that evolution and some faiths cannot be fully reconciled. "I
believe that ultimately [faith and evolution] are compatible, but there are
problems, and history shows that. And we need to discuss them."
The problem is that the theory of evolution is often framed as
a philosophical issue rather than a scientific issue, especially in
Muslim-majority countries. "There is widespread misinformation about
theories of evolution among Muslims," said Salman Hameed, associate
professor of Integrated Science & Humanities at Hampshire College, US.
New atheism, which strongly associates itself with evolution, is also
affecting the general attitude towards evolution in the Muslim world.
"But there is no clear doctrinal opposition to evolution in Islam,"
he told IslamOnline.net (IOL).
But creationists from the West who associate evolution with
atheism actively import those ideas into Muslim states. Due to its
intricately religious nature, this part of the world automatically refuses
During a conference in Alexandria, Egypt commemorating
Darwin's 200th birthday and 150 years since publication of his pivotal book
"On the Origin of Species", Reverend Michael Roberts, from the
University of Lancaster, UK, spoke about the spread of creationism from the
US to the world since 1980. But the US version of creationism, according to
him, is totally untrue and unscientific. "If creationism is given support,
science will be pushed back."
In fact, he stressed that teaching creationism can snap back
and expose religions as being ridiculous and encourage more secularism.
"So the end result we'll be asking, who is going to
shape the evolution debate? An emphasis on science or will it be seen as a
threat to religious belief?"
a survey that Hameed conducted on the acceptance of evolution amongst
Muslims, the highest scoring Muslim country was Kazakhstan (which was part of
the former Soviet Union) with 35 percent agreeing with the theory. The lowest
scoring country was Egypt, where only eight percent of the population accepts
Darwinism. In fact, all Egyptian school teachers surveyed said that, while
they had to teach evolution as part of the science curriculum, they explained
to the students that the theory was wrong and told them not to believe it.
"Teachers need to know about evolution, but also need
training on how to bridge the gaps between the students' worldview and the
scientific worldview and how to involve learners in arguments," said
Saouma BouJaoude, professor of science education at the American University
Hameed added that a lot of people in the Muslim world think we
should not even be talking about evolution. "We have no shortage of
medical students. There are many new biotechnology and biomedicine schools
opening up. Why stir the pot?" they ask.
"But the question is how far can one go without basic
research? Eventually the end result is you maintain a clientele with more
One of the main problems that Hameed sees is who will get to
interpret evolution in a religious context for Islam. "Unlike
Catholicism, for example, we have a fragmented authority in religion."
For Hameed, it is important to start having informed, serious
discussions about the theories of evolution in the Islamic world.
He stressed that in Islam, there is always a focus on the
harmony between religion and science. "So the end result we'll be
asking, who is going to shape the evolution debate? An emphasis on science or
will it be seen as a threat to religious belief?"
Giraffe's evolution to meet needs.
Davidson, chief executive of the British Council, UK, stressed the importance
of having these debates within a framework of cultural and religious
sensitivities. "A discussion about Darwin that ignores faith will fail,
but one that depends solely on it risks the same fate."
Guessoum added that scientific research in evolution is very
important, rather than being fixated on its relationship to faith.
In a discussion that Guessoum had with some students during
the conference held at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina from 14 to 16 November,
their initial reaction to the idea of human evolution was very hostile. They
were not even willing to discuss the possibility of the theory being right.
In addition, their scientific discussions were very dated, often citing
missing information from the theory of evolution that has long since been
"I urge you to go back and read about evolution. Educate
yourself and learn more of it and then make an informed decision," he
told the students. "If afterwards you still disagree with it, then
that's all right. The important thing is to base your decision on proper
But Guessoum's argument might have fallen on deaf ears. As the
students walked away, they did not seem to budge from their initial stance.
"No one will change someone's opinion in 10
minutes," Guessoum told IOL. "But maybe we'll meet again in a few
years and they would have read and learned more about evolution – enough to
make a balanced discussion."