Islam and Creationism – Imams join the Clergy Letter Project

First off, an important announcement – updates on this blog may be a bit spotty for the next two weeks, as I have a million house guests coming to visit me!  (Actually it’s only four, but still.)  I will still try to update twice a week, but probably not on a regularly schedule.  I hope you will all forgive me, and not worry that I have been eaten by a bear[1].

This week, the Clergy Letter project began an open letter from Imams who support the theory of evolution, and consider evolution to be no threat to their religious beliefs.  The Clergy Letter project has already drafted letters from Christian clergy, Unitarian Universalist ministers and rabbis in support of the theory of evolution, all urging American public schools to support the teaching of evolution.

In many ways, it’s actually more surprising that Imams in the US felt the need to publicly declare their support for the teaching of evolution than it is that such support exists.  I have no doubt that there are Muslims, as well as Jews, Unitarians, and Christians, from a wide range of denominations, who reject the theory of evolution and support the teaching of creationism in schools.  Yet as a political and social movement, creationism arises fairly clearly from the history of fundamentalist and evangelical Protestantism, and therefore many of its key arguments fit better with evangelical Protestant doctrine than with the belief structure of any other religious tradition.

By comparison, Islam has generally supported the compatibility of scientific thought and religious belief.  In the early and Medieval periods, the caliphs patronized astronomers, biologists, mathematicians and natural scientists.  This was true in the Christian kingdoms, as well, but in the Christian world, scientific and scholarly learning was generally confined to monastic movements, whereas Islam enjoyed a long history of lay intellectualism.

In many ways, creationism as a movement can be seen as beginning with a rejection of lay intellectualism in American Protestantism, and coincides with the American Protestant debates over Biblical criticism, the study of the Bible as a historical source.  Even today, the concepts of creationism and of Biblical inerrancy[2] are often directly linked by supporters of both.  Indeed, arguably one must support Biblical inerrancy in order to support the belief that the Bible can serve as an academic source without it being held to the same examination as historical sources generally (which is the point of Biblical criticism).

There are similar ideas of holy Scripture in Judaism and in Islam, but these ideas have always been present in these traditions, and so they have developed tremendously complex systems of analysis, abrogation, expansion and codification to create working systems of law, belief and ritual based on these texts.

Creationism as a concept is difficult to sustain in this system because, although the holy Scripture is understood as standing at the centre of all intellectual pursuit, it doesn’t stand alone.  Scientific knowledge can expand and enhance religious belief, in the same way as legal systems can be expanded and developed.  In this way, these traditions interlace religious and nonreligious belief, so that Scripture does not have to kept segregated from scientific thought, any more than scientific thought needs to be kept segregated from religious belief.

[1] After all, bears are very rare in England.

[2] The concept that developed in the nineteenth century in opposition to Biblical criticism, that argues for the Bible as fundamentally a single, unalterable unit with no internal discrepancies.  People often mistakenly describe this movement as ‘Biblical literalism’, but this is inaccurate – inerrancy does not require that the Bible be interpreted literally, but does require that all knowledge be plausibly derivable from the Bible.  For probably the best discussion of inerrancy as a concept, see the works of John Barton and of the late James Barr (who, sadly, had just passed away when I arrived in Oxford, but by all accounts was totally awesome).

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About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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