Facts vs. Interpretations: Understanding Islam & Evolution
Published: August 31, 2018 • Updated: January 13, 2021
Author: Dr. Yamina Bouguenaya,
بِسْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمٰنِ الرَّحِيْمِ
In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.
For more on this topic, see Evolution in the Scales of Scripture
Faith is not Blind
Interpreting the Qur'an
What is ‘Science’?
The Qur'an Invites Us to Observe and Reflect
The Qur'an Calls Us to Reflect on the Here and Now
The Theory of Evolution and the Qur'an
The Weakest Point of the Theory of Evolution
Why is it that proponents of the Theory do not see its contradictions?
A Note on Methodological Naturalism
A Note on Politics
Appendix: Reflections from a biologist trained in Qur'anic approach by Dr. Ilhan Akan
1. Survival of the fittest
2. Why does my heart beat? Ironic “Trade-Offs” and “Rules” of Evolution
3. Who is digesting my food? Challenge of Self-Sacrifice and Interdependence
4. Viruses: A Major Problem for Evolution
5. Mothers Challenge the Theory
6. Beautiful leaves: Shapes and Beauty as a Problem for Evolution
7. Apples: Another Example of Interdependence and Cooperation in Nature
9. We are Destined to Die
10. Y Chromosome
1 There are many Qur'anic passages that call for reflecting on the universe. For a more detailed discussion of the Qur'anic approach to evidence as well as Qur'anic interpretation discussed in this section, see Yamina Bouguenaya, Living with Genuine Tawhid: Witnessing the Signs of God through Qur'anic Guidance, Receiving Nur Publications, 2017. Throughout this article, we gratefully acknowledge our indebtedness to Said Nursi’s works, Risale-i Nur [Epistles of Light]. Its major volumes have been translated by Sukran Vahide into English and are also available in electronic format at www.saidnur.com/english. See also the forthcoming Living the Qur'an: Selections on Tawhid from Said Nursi’s Epistles of Light (Gorgias Press, 2019).
2 For instance, if it is my boss who tells me ‘you are fired,’ it will have a grave consequence, whereas if it is my friend, it might be just a tease. Even in the context of such a simple human utterance, the meaning of the sentence changes depending on by whom and for what purpose it is being said. In understanding the Qur'an, we need even more awareness of its purposes.
3 In the famous parable, a group of blind men encountering an elephant come to different conclusions about the animal, the one touching its trunk presumes it to be a snake, the one touching its ear presumes it to be a fan, the one touching its leg presumes it be a tree trunk, and so on. Originating from India, this parable was cited by Muslim scholars like Abu Hamid al-Ghazali in Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-din and Jalal al-Din al-Rumi in his Mathnavi.
4 For a detailed discussion of principles of Qur'anic interpretation, see: Yamina Bouguenaya and Isra Yazicioglu, “Said Nursi’s Qur’anic Hermeneutics, ”in The Companion to Said Nursi Studies, ed. by Ian Markham & Z. Sayilgan, Pickwick Publications, 2017, 51-66.
5 Whether implicitly or explicitly, metaphysics is and has been part of science and it can and does contribute to the advancement of science. For instance, in the case of Muslim scientists, science historian Rom Landau wrote: “The Muslims who believed that God reveals Himself in this world at every moment of existence and that this world is constantly created by Him, regarded the universe not as finite, not as being, but as becoming. In Mathematics, it was al-Biruni, the great eleventh-century mathematician, who finally expressed that conviction by elevating numbers to the status of elements of function. Function, however, implies movement, dynamism… Al Biruni, by treating numbers as elements of function, divorced them from their static and purely spatial character, and linked them to time…The change from the Greek conception of a static universe to a new dynamic one was initiated by al Khwarizmi (780-850), the creator of modern algebra, the first mathematician to make algebra an exact science.” Rom Landau, Arab Contribution to Civilization (California: American Academy of Asian Studies, 1958), 31.
6 Yazicioglu, “Perhaps their Harmony is not that Simple: Said Nursi on the Qur’an and Modern Science,” Theology and Science, (2013), 11:4, [339–355], 346. See also Yamina Bouguenaya, “The Hermeneutical Dimension of Science,” in The Muslim World, Vol. LXXXIX, No. 3-4, July-October 1999. For a helpful and accessible overview of Islam and science, see Yamina Bouguenaya, “Islamic Philosophy of Science,” accessible at https://www.receivingnur.org/islamic-philosophy-of-science.html
7 See, for instance, Qur'an, 2:264, 7:107–8, 13:3, 16:65ff., 21:22; 22:73; 29:42; 30:20ff.; 31:28; 56:57-70. Indeed, the Qur'an calls us to question our mistaken interpretations of reality. We often think that things happen on their own. Or we think insentient and lifeless things, such as water, produce intricate life in a plant, simply due to its proximity to it. The Qur'an encourages us to question these, by making us ask: “Can this thing be really the maker of life? Can this ignorant substance, water, really be source of intricate design and beauty and benefit in this plant? Does it have the qualities of knowledge, creativity, wisdom, power, to be its creator?”
8 For a more detailed Qur'anic reflection on nature through this verse on the fly, see Receiving Nur animation: “The Miracle of the Fly & How It Glorifies its Maker” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w0xrevmZUN0
9 For further details, we recommend Said Nursi’s works, such as 22nd Word, 33rd Word in Words and 23rd Flash, in Flashes, tr. by Sukran Vahide. Also relevant is Nursi, The Supreme Sign: The Observations of a Traveller Questioning the Universe, tr. by Hamid Algar.
10 Such a claim ignores the fact of immense cooperation and harmony within nature. Also, attributing “selfishness” and “concern for survival” to a chemical structure like the DNA is not a factual statement, nor does it not become scientific simply because it is claimed by a biologist such as Richard Dawkins.
11 For a brief but strong refutation of the view of chance explained in accessible language, see Said Nursi’s “Treatise on Nature,” (Flashes, 23rd Flash, 232-254, tr. by Sukran Vahide); see esp. pp. 235-236.
12 For instance, let us just reflect on one event: the union of an egg and a sperm. Sperm released from the father race toward the egg in the mother. Once a sperm enters the egg, the egg membrane becomes impermeable to further sperm. This set of facts alone indicates comprehensive knowledge and purpose at work. Someone/something clearly knows 1) the way each sperm and egg is formed: that each contains half of a set of DNA; 2) that only one sperm should unite with an egg in order to constitute a full set of DNA; 3) that the sperm should be equipped to travel to the egg; 4) once one sperm enters the egg, no other sperm should enter it so that there is no excess DNA, and so on. How reasonable is it to presume that the sperm or egg know all this? Is it at all possible that somehow through mistakes in the genetic code, a sperm is equipped to go toward the egg and egg closes its membrane purposely and wisely? Just this one event shows how things are interrelated and harmonized with each other. The events are so interconnected that it is impossible to claim that some random events or things could work together to produce this outcome. Furthermore, there are countless other interrelated events happening within the womb, and in the human body, let alone in all other species, all of which indicate immense comprehensive knowledge and purposefulness that rejects the possibility of things complementing each other by chance.
13 To be sure, such intention applies to only some of the scientists, especially to those who are leading in defending the theory. Other scientists follow their lead without questioning, and their inability to see the contradiction stems from having no intention to judge the theory on its merits.
14 Nursi offers simple metaphors to clarify how one’s intentionality can make the impossible look possible. See the moon example noted in Words, 144.
15 For instance, one motivation may be to feel good about rejecting religion. Another motivation may be to make up for excesses committed by some religious people, like the medieval Catholic Church censoring Galileo (though we should also keep in mind that the clash between religion and science even in the Western context has been exaggerated for Christianity has supported scientific study more often than it challenged it). The political benefits of the theory in the colonial period was also a reason; the European colonialists invoked the theory of evolution to wipe out native populations, such as in Australia, claiming that the people they killed had not yet evolved to become fully human.
16 Jeffrey Koperski, The Physics of Theism: God, Physics and the Philosophy of Science (Blackwell, 2015), 212, (italics added.)
17 In other words, the questions we ask shape the answers we find. To give a simplified example, say a person, a few centuries ago, was presented with a laptop and asked to investigate it; how would he have proceeded? How revealing would his questions be, if he had no idea what a computer was and no clue about the purpose for which it had been assembled? Unless he were given some hints, could he ask meaningful questions to discover the reality of the object before him? How far could his experiments take him? For instance, through experiments, he could show that the laptop works quite well as a tray. Could he then say that he knows the truth about this object? The situation of this man claiming to understand the laptop is like the situation of a scientist who assumes naturalism (i.e., that nothing beyond nature is real) and believes that he is in no need of any cues beyond to understand nature. How do they know they are not missing crucial aspects of the object of inquiry? What if there are 'things' that they’re totally unaware of and they don’t even know that they don’t know?
18 For instance, because this claim of chance is so unreasonable, in popular definitions and school textbooks the term “random” or “chance” is often evaded in explaining the theory of evolution. They even introduced a new term, “non-random,” in a desperate attempt to discourage critical thinking of the theory. Richard Dawkins, for instance, vehemently claims that “natural selection” is a “non-random” process and claims the theory does not reduce all life to random chance. What do they mean by “non-random”? Does “non-random” mean “purposeful”? No, not at all. Does it mean a consistent phenomenon that is observed regularly? No, not at all. But by throwing in this term “non-random,” they blur the vision of the common person who can otherwise see that the emperor has no clothes. And, even if we were to grant Dawkins’ claim that “natural selection” (which is also a vague term) is “non-random,” he can only invoke it as merely a subtractive phenomenon, eliminating organisms of lesser reproductive fitness; it cannot generate organs or organisms. The generative mechanism invoked in the theory of evolution is that of random mutations. As Lenski and Mittler admit, “A fundamental tenet of evolutionary biology is that mutations are random events” (Lenski RE, Mittler JE. 1993. The directed mutation controversy and neo-Darwinism. Science 259: 188–94). Moreover, the notion of abiogenesis which asserts the emergence of complex cellular life from random interactions of atoms and molecules in a primordial soup also entails reducing all life ultimately to chance.
19 For instance, Harvard faculty Douglas Dewar, the author of TTransformistIllusion, and molecular biologist Michael Behe, the author of Darwin’s Black Box. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, “On Biological Origins,” in Islam, Science, Muslims, and Technology ed. by Muzaffar Iqbal, Dost Publications, 2009, (147–172); pp. 155-156. Nasr also discusses other scientific dissents in Europe as well as logical and mathematical problems with the theory (pp. 147-160).
20 See Nasr, 159-160. Similarly, Philip E. Johnson, a professor of law who wrote Darwin on Trial, explains how the theory of evolution functions as a foundational story for naturalistic ideology that rejects God. See “Introduction,” in his Reason in the Balance: The Case against Naturalism in Science, Law and Education, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Press, 1995), 7-17. Johnson also offers a noteworthy discussion of the dissonance between scientific evidence and the presentation of the theory to the public in an interview entitled “Philip E. Johnson on Darwinism”, accessible at: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ww6T8xjp9Vo>
22 Yamina Bouguenaya “Islamization of Knowledge: A Paradigm Shift,” in Muslim Education Quarterly, 12 (4), pp. 4-29. According to Nursi, the universe reflects glimpses of various divine laws, such as “ the law of mercy, law of wisdom, law of justice, law of beauty (kanun al-rahma, kanun al-karam, kanun al- ‘adl, kanun al- jamal)” and so on. If we could have such a paradigm shift, science could become a venue for discovering such laws that point us to the One indicated by the beautiful names. (See Nursi, Words, “30th Word, 2nd Aim on ‘Transformation of Particles,’ 3rd Point, ” tr. by S. Vahide, pp. 578-582)
23 He gratefully acknowledges the perspective he gained through Qur'anic study through Bediuzzaman Said Nursi’s exegesis, the Risale-i Nur, which he studied with Dr. Ali Mermer, a scholar of Islam and university chaplain in New York. Dr. Mermer is also the founder of Islam from Within YouTube channel and one of the main contributors of www.Ha-mim.org with many essays, discussions, and audio recordings.
24Research continues to identify and hypothesize new roles for what was formerly considered “junk.” For instance, see: Jagannathan M, Yamashita YM. Function of junk: pericentromeric satellite DNA in chromosome maintenance. Cold Spring Harbor Symposia on Quantitative Biology. 2018:034504. Also see Erika Check Hayden “Human genome at ten: Life is complicated,” Nature 464, 664-667 (2010).