Islam and evolution

Umar asked:

Hi there,

I am a Muslim, but I’m struggling to reconcile evolution with my religion. I completely accept the evidence for evolution, and honestly, I’m more likely to give up my religion than I am to take up creationism. Despite this though, I am a firm Muslim, and would certainly not like to leave Islam.

I find it difficult to believe in a metaphorical Adam and Eve. The Quran specifically calls them prophets, so how can prophets, whom we revere, and attach the suffix A.S to, be a metaphor?

Similarly, science tells us that Noah’s ark and the flood are not tenable. How can Noah be a metaphor when we regard him as a prophet?

Many Christians talk about how Thomas Aquinas mentioned how the Genesis story was not meant to be taken literally. Is there an Islamic precedent for regarding Adam and Noah as metaphorical?

I know you are not a scientist, but I am really hoping you can help me in this journey.

Thank you,

Umar

Hi Umar,

First, my apologies both for the delay in this reply and for the substance, which I fear will only be a very early starting point for what is a very big issue.

Also, I feel I should admit that I’m always quite nervous to respond when people ask me questions about religion that stem from their own conflicts of faith because I am, myself, an agnostic, meaning I’ve never managed to resolve any of these questions to my own satisfaction, so I feel like my response can’t be much better than ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

However, your question is an important one, so I will do my best to point to some of the themes I’ve found in reading around this topic that I think might help.  To start with, you are definitely not alone in having these questions, and there seems to be a range of responses of how other Muslims have found parallels between the stories of the Qur’an and the messages of scientific research.  I’d suggest checking out Islamic Theory of Evolution by T.O. Shanavas, articles by Usaama al-Azami, and keep an eye out for the forthcoming Anila Asghar (ed.), Islam and evolution education: Historical and contemporary perspectives.  For what it’s worth, these are also questions that Muslims have always had and used to further expand their own understand of God’s message – Jamal al-Din al-Afghani was a contemporary of Darwin who defended that latter’s research, pointing quite rightly to many of the themes of The Origin of Species as being no different from work done by Medieval Islamic biologists and naturalists.  All of this is just to say that I don’t think these questions are either frivolous or blasphemous, but important for understanding how we as humans can understand God’s plan.

In my own reading of both Christian and Muslim responses to evolution, I think the theme that resonates the most with me is that any wisdom, including divine revelation, needs to be comprehensible to the community who receives it in order to be effective.  It’s no good sending Sagan’s Brief History of Time to Ancient Rome – even if it were translated into Latin, there are way too many concepts that just aren’t going to translate.  

I think this is particularly important in thinking about the messages of the Qur’an because if the Qur’an is the final revelation humanity will ever receive from God, then it would make sense that it carries within it many layers of wisdom, so that as we become more intelligent and understand more about the world, we can find more and more wisdom in it.

Take the story of Noah, for example.  On the one hand, that something similar could have happened on a small scale is not impossible.  That would be the first level of meaning, a rather amazing story that highlights both the impressive capacity of humans when we set ourselves to a task and the tremendous power of God to change the world through our actions.  But the story of the flood is also not a bad way to introduce the idea of mass extinction to a population who don’t yet know nearly enough about geography, geology, or biology to understand it in full.  They wouldn’t understand all of the dynamics of mass extinction if you just gave them all of the science in a giant info dump, but they’ll remember the crazy story about a man and a giant boat.  And in a few thousand years, they will know more about science, and understand that mass extinction is possible, and maybe they’ll read that story again and realize that Noah was able to save the human race because he was willing to act as steward for every other species and save them, a rather painful lesson we’re currently being taught by global climate change.

I feel like the story of Adam and Eve could be similarly multi-leveled.  We may have evolved from apes, but there was still a first human, particularly in terms of human consciousness, the sentience that allows us to love and fear and hope and doubt.  In the sense of awareness, there was some ape-person whose consciousness first emerged from the shapeless void of pure survival instinct.  If we take the ‘personhood’ of the Genesis story as consciousness, I think it actually makes a great of sense – it’s not hard to imagine that the first self-aware human would look at his ape-cousins and believe them to be more peaceful and more content.  Anyone who has experienced heartbreak or dread about the future can understand how consciousness could be considered a curse.  From this angle, the Qur’anic version of the Genesis story is particularly powerful – God recognizes that the first few humans have emerged from the peaceful garden of non-sentience to the fear and anxiety of sentience, and so sends Gabriel to them to ease their minds and explain that this is merely the next step in their existence, and that while it will bring with it pain and fear, it also carries the potential for incredible new experiences, like love, hope, and faith.

I’m not sure if any of that helps – I appreciate that I’ve much more talked around your question than actually addressed it – but hopefully the writers I’ve suggested can offer some more substantial guidance.  I think it’s also worth remembering that we still don’t know everything – I think we have a tendency to compare ourselves to communities in the past and pride ourselves on how much more clever we are than them, and forget that in a few generations, someone will do the same with us.  We may yet find new information that draws further parallels between the Qur’an and modern science, but we can only do so by continuing to ask challenging questions and to continue to revisit the text with new, more learned eyes.

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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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One Response to Islam and evolution

  1. Catherine says:

    Just wanted to say that I love this way of thinking about scripture – I’m a Christian, and my experience of the tradition has been that people are either very much ‘it’s all metaphor / written by inspired but still fallible humans’ or ‘it’s absolutely literal truth’. I think a lot could be gained by both camps from approaching the Bible in the way you suggest approaching the Koran – it’s a very rich and thoughtful way to explore the stories.

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