Comments on Science, Tafsir, and Evolution

by / Tuesday, 08 April 2014 / Published in Articles, Faith and Science


The following is based on an email exchange with a knowledgeable friend, who wanted me to explicate some of my views on evolution and Adamic creation.

I do not hold [belief in the non-evolutionary creation of Adam] as a necessary belief in the sense that it is necessarily known of the religion or would take someone out of Islam to believe otherwise. I am not qualified to make a judgment one way or another, in any case. I do think Adamic creation was an unquestioned assumption of premodern theology, which I think is significant in its own right. I am not aware of notable premodern views, for example, that speculated Adam being borne. If you know of any, please share.

I think that, too often, the broader premodern “metaphysical” views of the universe and human history are disregarded or overlooked by Muslims today in lieu of a focus on premodern law/ethical injunctions, the assumption being that the latter is normative but our predecessors most likely were wrong about those topics that modern science addresses. It is not just Muslims of course. Westerners do this with their own tradition, too. How many people know nothing of Descartes’ or JS Mill’s views on “natural philosophy” and physics but readily quote the Meditations or On Liberty?

Obviously, how one conceives the world around him is of utmost importance to the ethics one adopts. A scientific worldview comes with its own ethos and its own spiritual consequences, as someone like Seyyed Hossein Nasr, for example, is wont to argue. Along those lines, I am not convinced that embracing science with only the caveat of secondary causes, i.e., Allah being the ultimate cause of natural phenomena, is without pressing dangers to the soul of the masses. To look at it another way, how seriously can we take past generations that couldn’t get right even the basic facts about the world they inhabited? You see the kind of progressivist tendency that simply dismisses tradition because, obviously, “moderns are morally and intellectually more advanced than people 1000 years ago.” An unqualified, reflexive, whole scale endorsement of “science” per se only adds fuel to that raging inferno.

I think what I am saying falls within the parameters you mention, namely the question, what kind of scientific evidence could override the apparent meaning of the text, i.e., Quran and hadith. This is a foundational question that virtually no one has addressed because the scholars who are qualified enough to originate principles of tafsir of this nature are typically not authoritative in the sciences — let alone the philosophy of science — and vice versa.

What we see nowadays from Muslim commentators is hamfisted, ad hoc revisionist interpretations of revelation purely on the basis of “science says X.” It is rather pitiful. Ironically, most of the Muslims vociferously promoting Darwinism and generally calling for Muslim scientific literacy know very little actual science. And it is not their fault; the science related to evolution itself, for example, is extremely specialized. For example, I sometimes ask my biologist friends questions about evolutionary genetics and they tell me that that is not their area of expertise. Yet they are biology PhD students at Stanford and bioengineering lecturers/researchers at Harvard! If they do not have the level of specialized knowledge needed to speak authoritatively on this subject, who does?

When I say I am skeptical of science and technology, what I mean is, having been trained in Western philosophy and history of science, there are major unresolved issues in our understanding of what science and empirical inquiry actually are. This, to me, serves as an opportunity to philosophically engage those underlying issues, perhaps drawing on the epistemes of other eras and certainly not in a postmodernist, hand-waving manner. The state of the debate from what I have seen among Muslims is, should we be rejectionist, assimilationist, or compatibilist vis-a-vis science or hiss (roughly, “the perceptible”), as if science and empiricism — if we even want to conflate the classical category of hiss with empiricism — are perfectly transparent in and of themselves.

If that debate can be fruitfully shifted to, well, do we truly understand science, have we fully grasped this major development in human history and its significance for all human knowledge, in what ways does it depend on and influence other types of knowledge, why did modern science develop when it did, where it did, how it did, are there other possibilities, then that will be a step in the right direction. Modern mathematical science as we know it began with Isaac Newton’s Principia. Without Newton, it is not clear that science would have developed the way it did historically. Should we (as in Muslim thinkers interested in these issues) be studying this text to understand what that spark was? Obviously, I think that is part of the puzzle, but not even secular academics outside a couple sub-sub-specialties care about this, let alone Muslims, which is a shame given the stakes.

As far as narrations on the creation of Adam (as) , I am familiar with more specific narrations that go into the details of his creation, fashioning from clay by Allah, his sneezing when the spirit was blown into his body, the fact that he was in Paradise and not on earth, the creation of Hawwa from his rib, etc. Unfortunately, those with a skeptical bent or outright atheists will sneer at the mere existence of these texts regardless of the correct interpretation and explication. Not that we should be catering to their ignorance, but that response is interesting to me and makes me want to understand what kind of worldview is needed to produce that reaction or its opposite.

11 Responses to “Comments on Science, Tafsir, and Evolution”

  1. Abu Yusuf says : Reply

    Salam alaikum

    Thanks for the interesting blog. I understand the concern about science and evolution, but isn’t this something that has already happened to Muslim thought? The influence of the Mutazila and then Asharis in Muslim understandings of divinity are an obvious. The thought of someone like Ibn Arabi which permeated most of later sufism. The neo-literalist tradition that really kicks off with Shawkani, Shah Wali Allah and Ibn Abd al-Wahhab. The discussions amongst shii usulis and akhbaris. The reaction to colonialism represented by political Islam, and on and on. And just like the mutakallimun used to say the salaf were more submitted but the khalaf are more learned, nowadays we naturally sub-consciously think the same.

  2. Daniel Haqiqatjou says : Reply

    Wa alaikumussalam Abu Yusuf, I don’t understand what you are referring to with the “this” when you say, “isn’t this something that has already happened…” Yes, historically the Islamic intellectual tradition has come into conversation with many non-Muslim philosophies. Often, very intricate, complex discourses developed as a result. Just consider the schools of kalam or even the work of Muslim philosophers like Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, or Mulla Sadra. Now give me an example of a modern Muslim work of comparable sophistication and originality that takes on the subjects of modern naturalism, the hard sciences, and materialism and produces an integrative or, even, revisionist meta-philosophy that can begin to serve as a basis for something like, say, tafsir or hadith studies.

  3. Talha Rizvi says : Reply

    Assalaamu alaikum,

    Excellent site and great articles. I like your approach to this subject. I think it is OK if Muslims take an agnostic view to the exact origins of man – meaning all the fine details. I mean the current theories are really only based on what has been dug up thus far – and even that is with the dogmatic rejection of evidence to the contrary:

    Is science really the neutral philosophy that it claims to be or does it also have its biases? Furthermore, do we really want to stake our conviction on something that can be revised based on a couple of new skeletons being found somewhere?

    JazakAllahu khair!

  4. The first examples of tafsir can be traced back to the Islamic prophet Muhammad . As the Qur’an was revealed to him, he recited the verses to his companions, usually explaining their meanings to teach them. This was one of Muhammad’s responsibilities.

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