Is Evolution Compatible with Islam? (Part 2)
In Part 1 we discussed how the Quranic account of human origins directly conflicts with evolutionary theory. The purpose of the “Three Pronged Dilemma” is to show that one has to diverge drastically from a plain-reading of the Quran in order to reconcile the story of Adam with evolutionary theory. Obviously, some Muslims have no qualms diverging drastically from plain-readings of the Quran, so, to them, all this would be much ado about nothing. But a significant portion of the Muslim community do take such plain-readings — as moderated, informed, and guided by traditional exegetical sciences, i.e., tafsir — very seriously. At the same time, every rational person in this day and age must take science seriously. If these two sources are in direct conflict, then there is potential for a major crisis of faith, as other religious communities have amply demonstrated.
All or Nothing?
In light of the contentions made in Part 1, an obvious question that one may ask is: Can Muslims accept the rest of Evolution without having to accept the evolutionary account of human origins? In other words, can Muslims believe that Evolution applies to all other life forms, but, in the case of mankind, Evolution is wrong and the Quran is right?
Sh. Yasir Qadhi made just such a claim in a recent debate organized by the Deen Institute, where he argued that orthodox Islamic theology cannot sanction the notion that Adam was born of parents or was an ape-like proto-human, as Evolution would require. At the same time, however, Islamic theology does not require that Muslims accept or reject evolutionary accounts concerning life forms outside of humankind.
I think this is both a reasonable and a pragmatic position. Many Muslims will feel most comfortable reconciling scientific consensus and theology in this way. Perhaps Muslims can accept Evolution as a correct theory of the origins and development of life in the same way that they can accept that Cosmology is a correct theory of the origins and development of stars and galaxies. Of course, the understanding is always that it is God’s will that underwrites the laws of Evolution and Cosmology in the sense that God is the ultimate Creator and Sustainer of the laws themselves. As such, He can also will such laws to be suspended at any time, in effect, instantiating a miracle. In general, seas do not part and the dead cannot be brought back to life. But, every now and then, by Divine Providence, the miraculous can occur.
Why can we not understand the origins of man in the same way? Evolution dominates in the day to day, but the emergence of man is something sui generis and miraculous, as revelation itself makes clear. Certainly, Muslims can be committed to science while still believing in miracles. Thus, the compatibility of Islam and Evolution is preserved.
Beyond Reasonableness and Pragmatism
Personally, I believe that this approach to Evolution vs. Religion, though pragmatic and conciliatory, is fundamentally limited. In my view, evolutionary theory is theologically problematic on two levels. On one level, there is the conflict regarding the origins of man, which can be reconciled in the manner outlined above. On another level, Evolution undercuts one of the primary and most powerful evidences for the existence of God.
Many “New Atheists” will argue that the fact that “science explains everything” dissolves the need for religion and appeals to a Creator. What do they mean by this? Historically, theists have always appealed to the grand mysteries of life and nature as irrefutable signs pointing to the existence of an all-powerful, all-wise Creator. Reflecting on the sublime in the world around them has always inculcated a powerful sense of numinous in human minds, a sense that we are not alone and that all this has a purpose and a deeper meaning. By claiming that “science explains everything,” atheists mean to undercut precisely this sense of grandeur and transcendence.
The idea is that if science, in principle, can explain all there is to life and the universe, then this elevates the status of the human mind as ultimate arbiter of Truth. This is particularly deleterious to organized religions revolving around the notion of “revealed Truth,” where knowledge of the truly Real is sent to humanity via Divine revelation.
Of course, most modern theists have embraced science as simply a means to better appreciate the masterwork of the Almighty. Quantum theory or relativistic physics, for example, are theories of great mathematical and conceptual complexity and elegance. If those theories truly explain something about the universe, then, if anything, they should only deepen one’s wonderment at the beauty of Creation and evoke appreciation for the power and wisdom of its Creator. Even a committed atheist, like Einstein, experienced religious sentiments, despite himself, upon reflecting on theoretical physics and its implications:
“To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong in the ranks of devoutly religious men.” (Living Philosophies: The Reflections of Some Eminent Men and Women of Our Time)
In stark contrast, however, Evolution — of all the major scientific theories of today — is alone in its crass and irreverent treatment of nature. Evolution, and specifically Darwinism, at its core, is not intricate, complex, or elegant. It takes the form of a banal truism and, if anything, squelches any sense of deeper meaning. This is because Darwinism is essentially the claim that all that ever was and ever will be is accidental. Any complexity or intricacy that we observe in the world is not significant, purposeful. In actuality, things just happen; they evolve; they evolve some more, and that’s it. A beautifully colored bird, with bright golden feathers, could not help but be the way that it is. There are no deeper laws or mathematical principles governing its development. There was no Creator to shape and fashion it nor is there any significance to its existence. It merely subsists, the product of a billion random accidents.
Imagine a detective investigating a seemingly intractable mystery. At the end of his investigation, he is left with two possible solutions to the case. One possibility is extremely elaborate, involving dozens of moving pieces all perfectly coordinated, coming together to cause the mysterious circumstances. The second possibility is that all that occurred was just a simple, uninspiring accident.
This is the contrast between Darwinistic Evolution and other scientific theories. Whereas other scientific theories amaze us with their intricacy, Darwinism is deflationary. Whereas other scientific theories may even independently inspire thoughts of the Divine, Evolution is a wet blanket on the seeker’s mind. This is precisely why Darwinism is so enthusiastically championed by New Atheists and secular thinkers in general. As a theory, it is unparalleled in its ability to flatten and demystify the universe.
For these reasons, as Muslims, we have independent grounds for being opposed to Evolution outside of its conflict with Adamic creation. Not only is Evolution not compatible with Islam in the specific case of human origins, it is also anathema to the Islamic spirit of seeking God’s signs (ayat) in the majesty of the world. ♦