To make this critical assessment, we need to ask: What theological consequences does the traditional understanding of Adam being created directly, without parents, have for Muslim acceptance or rejection of the idea that humans, as a species, evolved from other species of hominid ape? This question requires examining the account of Adam’s creation in light of what it says—and what it does not say—about human origins. This is needed to distinguish the mere assumptions that people make about it from what would actually be regarded as theologically binding upon Muslims. In other words, it needs to be determined where the principle of tawaqquf, theological non-commitment, must be applied.
The account of Adam that appears in the sacred texts addresses Adam’s direct creation without parents, his wife’s creation from him, and the idea that the two of them were ancestral to all people on Earth today. Those same texts are silent on what living organisms existed on Earth at the time. Therefore, nothing can be assumed about that on a theological level, and Muslims are not required to have any specific beliefs about it. Theologians would therefore not have grounds to claim that Homo sapiens, as defined by biologists in strictly physiological or genetic terms, were absent in the world before or during Adam’s time. They would have to remain non-committal on the issue.
Definitions matter. If someone were to define human beings as “the children of Adam,” then, by that definition, it would follow that “human beings” could not exist before Adam’s appearance. Of course, such a definition would have nothing to do with the physical or genetic characteristics that concern scientists. Moreover, Muslim theologians did not limit themselves to this idea when they defined human beings. Some were content to mention the ancient Greek definition of “rational animal” in their theological texts. Others preferred to define humans, in a theological sense, in a way that excluded all physical considerations. Indeed, al-Rāzī considers it to be incorrect to define the human being—at least where theological and philosophical matters are concerned—in physical, biological terms since he sees the meaning of “humanness” to be independent of the physical appearance of “humanness.” He writes:
The third opinion is that the human being is an expression of physical bodies possessing the qualities of life, knowledge, and capability that are only distinct from other animals in their physical forms and the structure of their limbs. However, this is problematic, because the angels can come in forms that resemble those of human beings, so here we have the human form without humanness. Conversely, in the forms of transformed beings, we have the meaning of humanness being realized while the human form is not being realized. Therefore, the consideration of the physical form in determining the meaning of what is human is false from both directions.26
Al-Rāzī then goes on to affirm that the human being is an entity that is neither the physical body nor anything of a physical nature and attributes this opinion to the majority of theologians, including al-Aṣfahānī and al-Ghazālī.27
Certainly, the concept of the human being (insān
) in Islam can have historical, scriptural, metaphysical, spiritual, and theological dimensions that are unique to Adam and his descendants. That is something for Muslim thinkers to decide. However, these considerations are independent of the biological characteristics that biologists use to define the species Homo sapiens
. The origin and development of that particular suite of biological traits within the animal kingdom is a question of biology, whereas the creation of Adam remains a question of faith. Theologians and biologists are asking different questions. Biologists, working within their field, have nothing to say about Adam and theologians, working in their field, have nothing to say about how any biological species evolved. To do so is to transgress the limits of their respective disciplines.28
Biologists are concerned with the physical properties of the human being. When biologists say that humans are descended from other hominid ape species, they are referring to creatures possessing particular anatomical and genetic features that distinguish the genus Homo from other genera. They are not referring to humans in philosophical, metaphysical, spiritual, or theological terms. The same can be said of when they speak of the species Homo sapiens. They are only concerned with the suite of features and genetic markers that distinguish that species from other species of the same genus.
Though classical Muslim theologians would assert that every specimen of Homo sapiens alive today is from the “children of Adam” to whom the Qur’an repeatedly speaks, they would not be able to say anything about whether other organisms who fit the biological definition of Homo sapiens predated the appearance of Adam and Eve. As a consequence, they would not be able to object to the idea that the species Homo sapiens evolved from other species of the genus Homo which in turn evolved from other species of hominid ape in a line of descent ultimately going back to the earliest life-forms on Earth. They would have to take a non-committal stance about human evolution. They would, on a theological level, neither accept it as true nor reject it as false. As individuals, they would be free to embrace whatever scientific position on hominid evolution they believe fits with the empirical evidence, since it is not a matter of religious faith, but strictly one of science.
The account of Adam’s special mode of creation, therefore, remains the story of Adam. It is not an account explaining the biological origins of the genus Homo or the species Homo sapiens. The idea that the story of Adam explains human biological origins is only an assumption people read into the texts, not something the texts indicate. This assumption is widely held by people today, and it clouds many discussions on the theological implications of human evolution, where we find the account of Adam’s origins being presented as if it is synonymous with an account of human biological origins. This is incorrect from the methodological approach of classical theology since it over-extends what the texts are actually saying about a matter of the Unseen. Therefore, adherence to the principle of tawaqquf, which is to take a stance of theological non-commitment in matters of the Unseen not expressly stipulated by the sacred texts, means that the story of Adam must be kept separate from the question of the biological origins of Homo sapiens.
What, then, is the story of Adam? What are its theological dimensions? It is the story of a prophet of God, one of many such stories in the Qur’an, and the particular miracles that pertain to him. As such, it is a matter of the Unseen, an account of the past that is known only by way of revelation and not through historical, archaeological, or anthropological accounts. It cannot be determined by empirical evidence and must be taken on faith. Like all other matters of the Unseen, it has no implications for science, and science, in turn, can pass no judgment over it.
Indeed, Adam’s manner of creation, as described in the Qur’an, is understood by Muslim commentators and theologians to be something unique and miraculous. This would actually prevent theologians from taking Adam’s creation as being representative of how other living things were created. Classical scholars understood the uniqueness of Adam’s creation from where the Qur’an states that God created Adam with His “two hands”:
O Satan, what prevented you from prostrating to that which I created with My two hands? Are you too proud or are you among the exalted? He (Satan) said: “I am better than he is. You created me from fire and You created him from mud.” [Sūrat Ṣād: 75-76]
Regardless of how the scholars differed in interpreting the meaning of God’s “two hands,” there is general agreement that this verse indicates that the manner of Adam’s creation was somehow special and distinct from the way(s) in which other things were created; this is clear from the context.
Ibn Taymiyyah mentions the different opinions held by Muslims with respect to the interpretation of the phrase “two hands,” then says: “In any event, they all agree that Adam has favor and distinction not possessed by anything else on account of God creating him with His two hands.”29
Al-Bayhaqī likewise discusses the various interpretations that can be applied to the phrase “two hands” and rules out the idea that they could convey the same meaning as the “hands” mentioned in verse 71 of Sūrat Yāsīn
He comes to this conclusion on the grounds that doing so would negate the honor and distinction that the verse is clearly conferring on Adam over Satan. He writes:
It cannot be interpreted to mean… (God’s) power, dominion, or providence, or be taken as an emphatic reference to the subject, because this would be something equally applicable to God’s devotee Adam and to His enemy Satan. This would negate what is mentioned of the favor that Adam has over Satan, since any meaning of distinction would be lost. There is no alternative but to interpret them as two attributes that relate to the creation of Adam—as an honor to him—that do not apply to the creation of Satan.31
“I created with my two hands” meaning: “I created Him by Myself without the intermediary step of a mother or father.” The mention of two hands is on account of what his creation entailed of additional capability and dissimilarity of action.32
Ibn Taymiyyah continues his discussion of this point by referring to some hadith in which the manner in which Adam was created is mentioned as one of the distinctions that he has over the rest of created things.33
He cites Moses enumerating Adam’s distinctive qualities and mentions among these qualities the mode by which he was created:
Adam won an argument with Moses. Moses had said to him: “You are Adam whom God created with His hand and breathed into you of His spirit and made the angels prostrate to you and gave you to dwell in Paradise. Then you brought humanity down with your mistake to the Earth…” [Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim (2652)]
Ibn Taymiyyah then cites another hadith foretelling that the believers will mention Adam’s distinctions to him when they plead with him to intercede on their behalf on the Day of Resurrection:
The believers will gather together on the Day of Resurrection and say: “If we could seek intercession with our Lord.” They will approach Adam and say: “You are the father of humanity. God created you with His hand and made the angels prostrate to you and taught you the names of all things, so intercede for us with your Lord so that He may relieve us of this place of ours.” [Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī (4476, 6565) and Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim (193-195)]
Ibn Taymiyyah comments on these two hadith, saying:
This is enumerated as one of the blessings that God had bestowed upon Adam when Moses said to him: “God created you with His two hands…” Likewise, it will be said to him on the Day of Resurrection. This is mentioned among the blessings that God had bestowed upon him exclusively and that other created things do not share with him. This is a clear indication of his preferential status over the rest of Creation.34
Another verse theologians cite is where the Qur’an compares Adam’s creation with the creation of Jesus:
Verily, the likeness of Jesus with God is the likeness of Adam. He created him from earth and then said to him: “Be!” and he was. [Sūrah Āl ʿImrān: 59]
Al-Nasafī explains this comparison as follows in his commentary on the verse:
He created Adam from earth without the agency of a father or mother. Likewise is the case with Jesus, even though coming into existence without a father or mother is stranger and more miraculous (akhraq lil-ʿādah) than coming into existence without a father. Therefore, He compares that which is strange to that which is stranger…35
The exact nature of how Adam’s creation by “two hands” was distinct from the process of creation for other things is not discernible from the texts. However, these texts are evidence enough to indicate that the mode of Adam’s creation was somehow unique. Consequently, there is no reason for theologians to assume that the creation of other life forms had to follow the same pattern as the creation of Adam.
Al-Alūsī, while discussing the verse “O mankind, fear your Lord who created you from one soul and created from it its mate…
” quotes Zayn al-ʿArab going so far as to declare as unbelief the Twelver Shi’ite claim36
that God independently created numerous thousands of unique Adams in succession, each with his own progeny. Al-Alūsī then says, concurring with Zayn al-ʿArab’s incredulousness, if not necessarily with his ruling of unbelief:
This Adam of ours was preceded by other creations like the angels, the Jinn, numerous animals, and other things about which only God has knowledge, but not by a creation of the likes of him.37
Why was Adam’s mode of creation of such an exceptional manner? From what preceded, we have seen the theologians repeatedly assert that it was as a sign of distinction and honor for him, and by extension, for his descendants. This is understood from the context of the verse where God challenges Satan by asking, “O Satan, what prevented you from prostrating to that which I created with My two hands?” It is also understood as being an honor when mentioned by Moses and by people on the Day of Resurrection.
To the extent that Adam’s creation without parents is regarded by theologians to be a miracle showing honor to Adam and his descendants, it would be understood to be contrary to the natural order of things, not indicative of that order. Adam’s mode of creation would not be seen as an archetype representing the mode by which other genera or species were created. Consequently, it would not inform anything on a biological level. It is the story of an individual, one of the many stories of the prophets in the Qur’an.
Muslims who accept the traditional account of Adam’s creation, therefore, would have no reason to object to the idea that the biological species Homo sapiens evolved from other species of hominid and shares a common genetic origin with all other living things. They could accept this fully and without reservation, while also accepting on faith that Adam was specially and miraculously created by God for reasons best known to Him, and that he is a forefather to all people living today. That is the limit of what a traditional approach to the texts requires to be taken as a matter of faith. Therefore, Muslims would not be obligated to deny the idea of human evolution in order to remain faithful.
Conversely, by being such a miraculous event, by its very nature it falls outside the scope of scientific inquiry. Scientists cannot disprove the story of Adam’s creation any more than they can disprove any other miracle. Such stories, by their nature, are accepted by believers on faith. Science does not investigate claims of singular and supernatural acts of God’s intervention. They simply do not fall within its scope.
The same distinction between theological and scientific considerations applies to the belief that the people on Earth today are descended from Adam. This is, as we have determined, the position of classical Islamic theology. Anyone who believes this cannot doubt that Adam’s descendants have diversified in color, stature, and physical appearance as they spread throughout the Earth. In the absence of any unequivocal textual evidence describing Adam’s earliest descendants in detail, there would be no way to gauge the extent or rate of genetic and phenotypic change that has taken place among Adam’s later progeny. Therefore, scriptural evidence cannot be used by theologians to indicate whether Adam’s earliest descendants would have been classified biologically as Homo sapiens or possibly as some earlier human species. This means that theologians would not attempt answers to questions like whether Homo neanderthalensis were from Adam’s descendants, any more than they could argue whether or not creatures that scientists would classify as being biologically Homo sapiens had already evolved on Earth and were populating it before Adam’s arrival upon it. All the evidence for hominid evolution, up to and including the evolution of Homo sapiens in a direct line of descent, is empirical, and there is nothing in Islamic scriptures that confirms or contradicts the existence of those hominids. Consequently, it is not a matter of religious belief to accept or reject the scientific account of hominid evolution up to and including organisms that are taxonomically Homo sapiens. It remains purely a scientific question. From a scriptural standpoint, it is not possible to determine precisely when Adam and Eve made their appearance on Earth nor whether they may have met any pre-existing hominid species.
Could there have been hominid species prior to Adam? Scripture does not rule it out. Could these hominid species have co-existed with Adam and his descendants? Again, there is nothing explicit from scripture to negate this. Could the descendants of Adam have intermarried with other populations that were already present on Earth? Once again, scripture is silent.38
The theological stance of tawaqquf
necessitates that we refrain from affirming or negating such scenarios in the absence of direct scriptural evidence, as all such questions constitute baseless speculation about matters of the Unseen. Addressing such scenarios is of neither scientific nor theological importance since the sacred texts do not bring them up and science does not deal with them.
Classical theologians, of course, refrained from discussing in their theological texts how Adam and Eve’s children married and had families of their own. They kept their silence on the matter, even though there were theories in circulation, some of which had been recorded in works of tafsīr
Theologians would not speculate on a matter of the Unseen. The contemporary Ash`arī scholar, Muḥammad Saʿīd Ramaḍān al-Būṭī, explains:
Know that we have, in this matter, no business investigating how Adam descended from the Garden, the precise location of his descent to Earth, and how Adam and Eve’s progeny multiplied after that, since none of this has a place in matters of creed (`aqīdah) which are built upon rulings established with unequivocal evidence. To address such matters is to engage in superfluous investigations and opinions, since there is no decisive evidence for any of it in the Qur’an and Sunnah. Therefore, God does not require us to have any belief about it… Respect for God’s book and the Prophet’s Sunnah entails consigning to God’s knowledge the knowledge of matters about which God does not inform us, except where the matter lends itself to empirical and experimental investigation, since God’s words invite us to seek the truth and prospect for certainty in that way.40
What is important is that a belief in Adam’s direct creation does not prevent Muslims who hold that belief from accepting the possibility that beings who were biologically human could have evolved on Earth from other species, beings anatomically identical to the descendants of Adam. This means that traditional Muslims would still be able to view humanity biologically in the context of a broader evolutionary perspective and engage actively in the scientific investigation of human biological evolution without hesitation.
If God created all the creatures by way of evolution and then decided to honor one individual member of one species by creating it ex nihilo, then there is no reason to assume that He would be obliged to furnish that individual with physical or genetic markers to set it and its descendants apart from their fellow creatures. A distinction enjoyed by Adam was the honor he had in God’s regard but this was not necessarily due to some physical or mental characteristic and, even if it were, we have no way of pinpointing with any level of certainty what that characteristic might be. The distinctions that can be found in the hadith, as we have seen, are all honors that God bestowed on Adam, and not inherent physical or mental qualities. Therefore, the idea that Adam was directly created does not make his descendants any less a part of the broader biological human family that they are genetically a part of, any more than Jesus being born of a virgin makes him any less human—biologically or otherwise. Admittedly, Jesus’s miraculous birth has a direct consequence on his historical lineage—he is not attributed to the family of any man but rather called “the son of Mary”—but his membership in the broader human family is not in the least way compromised.
The Qur’an emphasizes that Jesus is fully human in every possible sense of the word, right down to the most basic of physical needs:
The Messiah, the son of Mary, was none other than a Messenger; other Messengers had passed away before him. And his mother was a truthful one. They both used to eat food. Look how We make clear to them the signs. [Sūrat al-Mā’ida: 75]
This verse comes to refute the claim that Jesus was divine.41
In Islamic thinking, it is seen as a fatal error to take the virgin birth of Christ as proof that he was somehow other than fully human. This is understood to be what led to the Christian doctrine of divinity in Christ—either as having a dual nature, both human and divine, or as being wholly divine. In this verse, Christ is compared in his biological nature to other human beings in the fact that he was born and in the fact that both he and his mother ate food.42
The idea of his divinity is also refuted in the Qur’an by likening the creation of Jesus to that of Adam, as we have already discussed. There is no evidence that God created physical markers to distinguish Jesus from his fellow humans to highlight his unique mode of creation. Jesus looked like everyone else. So why would it have to be otherwise for Adam?
It must be conceded that the example of Adam is more extreme than that of Jesus since a directly-created Adam has no direct physical kinship to any other being whereas Jesus does have a direct biological kinship to his mother. Just as Jesus cannot be attributed to any man before him, a directly-created Adam and Eve cannot be attributed to any particular individuals—from Homo sapiens or otherwise—who might have lived before them or contemporaneously with them. This is a historical, genealogical position that Muslims who adopt it can only accept on faith. All the same, just as Jesus is fully part of the human family—and in spite of having no father to provide a Y chromosome is fully a man—Adam’s descendants can be seen as full members of the broader human family as well as of the animal kingdom and, in fact, all living things, with which they share an unquestionable genetic kinship.
Science, for its part, can only speak about the empirical evidence it finds, which indicates that Homo sapiens evolved from other hominid species. If an individual specimen of one species were created by God ex nihilo, this would leave no empirical trace for scientists to identify. For believers, it would be a miracle, grounded in scripture, and by definition, beyond the laws of nature—something which science cannot address and has no interest in exploring.