Early last month, a conference was held in London, entitled "Have Muslims Misunderstood Evolution?" under the auspices of The Deen Institute, an organization which aims at promoting engagement between the Islamic tradition and modernity. The event sparked off a debate on social media and op-ed columns regarding the place of evolution in the Islamic worldview.
The conference, whose lectures were recently published online, brought together scientists like Prof. Ehab Abouheif and Prof. Fatimah Jackson with theologians like Dr Usama Hasan and the prominent Shaykh Yasir Qadhi. Also invited was Dr. Oktar Babuna, representing the hardcore creationist ideas of Harun Yahya, who is deemed by many Muslim scholars to be a charlatan. Sadly, by the end of the day, Babuna was reduced to such a laughing stock that even Qadhi distanced himself from him.
Abouheif and Jackson made their case for evolution in a style reminiscent of the bestselling and quite compelling book, "The Language of God," by devout Christian geneticist Francis Collins. Babuna's creationist ideas were roundly rejected by all the other panellists. What I found most interesting, however, was the theological discussion.
Although Qadhi, who is more of a specialist in theology than Hasan, soundly rebutted Hasan's apparent suggestion that Muslim scholars had discovered and believed in modern evolutionary theory centuries ago, his response that scientific evolution and Islamic theology are at loggerheads is considerably overstated. For one, Hasan pointed out that preeminent center for Sunni Islamic learning, al-Azhar University, holds that the theory of evolution does not fundamentally contradict Islamic belief. In addition, the influential, if controversial, Egyptian scholar, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, stated three years ago on a special Arabic Al Jazeera show dedicated to this subject that even if evolution were true, there is no reason for it to conflict with Islamic theology. Some conservative Muslims have attacked (in Arabic) al-Qaradawi for his statements.
My own suggestion to Muslims grappling with such an issue is to recognize that when it comes to what we believe, science and religion address two kinds of truth: empirical and revealed. Empirical (observation-based) truth is the stuff of science. It's contingent on our sense perception, and humanity's current state of knowledge. It's truth with a lower-case t. It's relative to what the human senses can access at a given point in time, and makes no claims to being absolute. This is not to belittle it, as most empirical truths are what we consider facts, like the fact that the spherical earth goes around the sun.
Revealed truth, by contrast, is based upon revelation which, if you believe it, is Truth with a capital T. For the believer, it is absolute, not relative. Our knowledge of empirical truth can and has improved over time; just as the once held 'fact' that the sun goes around the earth has been corrected with the passage of time. No reasonable person believes this 'fact' today; though the ancients may have been justified in thinking it was genuinely scientific. Revealed truth, on the other hand, claims to be constant, absolute, and unchangeable.
Problems of this kind are nothing new for Muslim theologians. An example is the statement of the Prophet that: after the sun sets, it goes to the Throne of God and prostrates, before rising again from the East. This statement is recorded in multiple collections of Prophetic statements including the respected Sunni collections of Bukhari and Muslim. Muslims additionally believe that such statements from the Prophet constitute revealed truth. The reality is that virtually no Muslim theologian has ever taken such revealed truths to be statements of empirical truth. In such an instance, a Muslim will believe in the revealed truth, but not think this means that the empirical truth is wrong. Rather, the two kinds of truth address different domains, the moral and the empirical (what is observable through the senses). The first addresses what Muslims should believe as a matter of faith, and how they should behave; and the other is whatever a reasonable person believes about the observable world based on the current state of human knowledge.
How does this relate to the theory of evolution for Muslims?
I'm not arguing for the truth of evolution in this piece, for that I recommend Collins' book mentioned above. I'm only presenting how, if it were deemed empirically true, as it nearly unanimously is in the scientific community, it should cause Muslims no trouble with respect to their traditional Islamic beliefs. If the Qur'an appears to be making empirical statements about creation, like the Prophetic statement above, it doesn't need to be understood in an everyday literal sense, even if we hold it to be True in an metaphysical sense. Many Muslims will be familiar with the fact that same logic applies to the many seemingly anthropomorphic descriptions of God in the Qur'an.
Some commentators have described this conference as marking a Galileo moment for Muslims. I would argue that this isn't quite the case, as Islamic religious authority is decentralized, and there is no formal 'religious establishment' that has binding authority over Muslims. With even the historic center for Sunni learning, al-Azhar University, and influential scholars like al-Qaradawi accepting that Muslims could believe in evolution--though neither seems to--it doesn't seem like this is a serious issue in theology. Rather it seems to be so only in the popular Muslim consciousness. As Muslims continue in the path of learning, as encouraged by the Prophet, I hope that a more nuanced attitude to this issue will emerge at a popular level, and then we can focus on more important discussions like that of climate change or alleviating poverty. This conference was an important step in that direction.