1. Upsetting the Applecart
“What is happiness? Do humans beings have a purpose? What is the meaning of life? Such questions are truly perennial; they have been asked for perhaps as long as human beings have been able to ask anything, and no doubt they will continue to be asked for just as long again.”
For some, the question about life’s meaning has itself lost all meaning. Most people, though, at one or another point in their lives, have had occasion to ask such questions; some to even reflect deeply over their implications. For Man, in the words of Jonathan Sacks, “is a meaning-seeking animal” and “Our fundamental questions are Who am I? and To which narrative do I belong?” No doubt, the instinctive urge to ask the ‘big questions’ may be dulled by hedonistic pursuits and material comforts, but nothing can entirely surpress it. For its echo continues to reverberate in the deepest recesses of the human soul. In fact, “The search for God,” says Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project, “is a broadly shared attribute of all humankind, across geographic areas and throughout human history.”
The Qur’an tells us that life is essentially teleological: that is to say, it has purpose. Human beings are not mere products of random chance or selfish genes. Instead, our existence is intended. This is expressed in the conviction that God created creation with a purpose and has a plan for its future: We created not the heavens and the earth and all that is between them in vain, proclaims the Qur’an.
Traditional notions of Man’s place in the cosmos have though, over the past four centuries or so, taken a considerable pounding from some of the revelations of science. The late sixteenth century witnessed science displace the earth from the centre of the universe and assign to it a less grandiose place orbiting around our Sun. Later we would learn that the earth itself – possibly five billion years old – is a tiny planet, close to the edge of a small galaxy, in a universe made-up of billions of other galaxies; each containing over a hundred billion stars and, presumably, planets. For those whose worldview committed them to a geocentric universe, where the earth was at the significant center and purpose of all things, these assertions came as a devastating shock. With the new scientific paradigm it was becoming a clear case of what Shakespeare’s Hamlet intuits: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
A more serious challenge to religion came at the end of the nineteenth century when Darwin published his Origin of Species. Its significance was not so much its proposal that species evolved and adapted (this notion had been around for a while), but for suggesting a mechanism by which this happened without there being a need for a Creator-God: Evolution via Natural Selection. Horatio’s philosophy would never be quite the same again!
2. The Darwinian Genesis
Darwin’s epic, with some modern tweaks and realignments, essentially goes something like this: Life on earth seems to have emerged about three billion years ago when a cocktail of simple chemicals combined to form more complex ones. This mixing took place in the seas of the early Earth, which are often referred to as the ‘primordial soup’. Some injection of energy was needed to spark-off a reaction between these molecules. This, it is suggested, may have come from lightning storms or from hot underwater springs. These molecules then joined together to form more complex ones, called ‘amino acids’, which, in turn, went on to form proteins – the building blocks of all living creatures. Another complex molecule formed in these reactions was DNA, which has two traits that make it essential for life to exist. It carries all the information to make a living creature, and it can also replicate itself. Over millions of years this cocktail of molecules evolved into bacteria; thought to be the earliest ancestors of all life on our planet today.
This is where Darwin’s natural selection comes into play. Through this mechanism living organisms, over long periods of time, evolve certain traits which allow them to better adapt to their environment. In other words, these traits are ‘selected’ by ‘nature,’ giving certain organisms a survival advantage over others. These traits are then passed on to the next generation, thus increasing their chances of survival. Those not having an advantage, or unable to pass it on, don’t survive. Sometimes, through nothing more than random chance, a genetic mutation occurs in an organism by which it acquires an advantage trait.
Through natural selection and gene mutation organisms can both adapt as a species and evolve into different species. Single-cell life in Earth’s ancient waters evolved into worms and jelly fish via this process about 700 million years ago; dinosaurs arrived around 225 million years ago; and their reign came to a sudden end about 65 million years ago. Fossil records suggest that our early human like ancestors only branched-off from chimpanzees a mere 5 million years in the past and that humans are a relatively recent appearance: anywhere from around 100,000 to 35,000 years ago. For many people today, evolution through natural selection and genetic transformation has dispensed with the belief that life on our planet – including human life – has a divine origin; let alone a divinely ordained purpose. “The universe we observe,” according to the ardent atheism of Richard Dawkins, “has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”
3. Prayer-Mats and Telescopes
Darwin’s own belief seems somewhat ambiguous. At one time he says about himself: “Agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind.” At another time he wrote of being greatly challenged by “the extreme difficulty, or rather the impossibility, of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe, including man with his capacity of looking far backwards and far into futurity, as a result of blind chance or necessity. When thus reflecting I feel compelled to look to a First Cause having an intelligent mind in some degree analogous to that of man; and I deserve to be called a Theist.” This, though, is somewhat beside the point. The theory of evolution has, for the past one hundred and fifty years, been a source of deep discomfort in faith communities and theistic discourses. Godless materialists see in evolution a decisive victory of science over religion; of microscopes over prayer beads; of empirical observations over illuminated hearts. Yet though there is a lot to learn from science and much to thank it for, the atheists’ jubilation is seen by the believer as being premature and their aggressive insistence that belief in God a delusion immature.
Muslims are forever quick to point out that the Qur’an is remarkably free of the scientific inaccuracies encountered in other religious texts and scriptures. Many further point out that the Qur’an is astonishingly in harmony with modern science. It is true some of the faithful have thrown exegetical caution to the wind in their zeal to wed scripture to the scientific cause. Nevertheless, there are significant passages in the Qur’an which seem to so clearly speak to the scientific mind in modern man. Let me illustrate the point with a few such verses:
The Qur’an is silent about the age of the Earth as well as, for that matter, when life first appeared on it; though it does say: And We made from water every living creature. A reference to the primordial soup in the Earth’s early waters perhaps? Another interesting verse has it: We built the heaven with might and it is We who are expanding it. A highly probable pointer to cosmology’s modern tenet that galaxies are moving apart from each other as the universe expands. Lastly, as an example, is the vivid Quranic description of how a human embryo forms in the womb of its mother: We created man from a product of clay. Then We placed him as a drop in a safe lodging. Then We fashioned the drop into a clot of blood that clings, then We fashioned the clinging clot into a chewed-like lump, then We turned the lump into bones, then We clothed the bones with flesh, and then produced it as another creation. So blessed be God, the Best of Creators!  What is significant here, as in the other two examples, is that at the time of their revelation these Quranic assertions ran completely counter to the science of the day. In fact, science was only able to discover the truth of these claims within only the last century or so!
One must not be tempted by these verses into thinking that the Qur’an is a text-book on science or a catalogue of scientific facts. These verses are primarily asserting the i‘jaz; the miraculous and inimitable nature of the Qur’an, thereby demonstrating it truly is the Word of God and guidance from Him.
Turner, I think, captured the essence of the matter when he said,
“The Qur’an describes God, the principles of belief and the fate of man in the world to come, but it is no work on theology; it contains accounts of past prophets and faith communities of old, but it is no history book; it contains invocations and words of inspiration; but it is no book of prayer.
“Legal issues are discussed in it, but it is no book of law; it tells us how the Creator fashions the cosmos and makes the world turn, but it is no treatise on cosmology; it describes the alternation of day and night, and the development of the foetus in the womb, but it is no compendium of natural science.
“It examines the heart and mind of man, and the existential dilemma of being human but longing for the divine, yet it is no work on popular psychology.
“It is all of those things and it is none of those things: more than any other book can it truly be said of the enigmatic Qur’an that it is far more than simply the sum of its component parts.”12
4. On Fossils and Theology
This still leaves us with the question: what does Islam have to say about the Theory of Evolution? Any sober religious response to the question must, if it wants to remain true to the scriptural texts, be tethered to the following theological givens:
Firstly, that God’s attributes are beginning-less and endless. Imam al-Tahawi said in his famous creedal tract: “As God was, along with His attributes, in pre-existence, so shall He remain throughout all eternity.” What this implies is that no time elapses except that God as the Creator (al-Khaliq) is creating; as the Bestower (al-Wahhab) is bestowing His gifts; as the All-Merciful (al-Rahman) is administering His mercy; etc. Muslims do not believe as Deists do that God initiated creation and fashioned its laws, but then just left it to pursue its own course. On the contrary, Islam teaches that God is actively involved in creation and is continuously creating. Say: “God is the creator of everything;”  even our actions and moments of stillness: God created you, and all that you do.
Secondly, that nothing can happen independently of God’s will. About this, the Tahawiyyah states: “Everything happens by His decree and will, and His will is accomplished. …What He wills for them happens and what He does not will, does not happen.” Nothing is random or fortuitous. Nothing occurs by ‘chance’. Nor do causes or effects have an autonomous independence from the divine will. This is not to say that Islamic theology denies causes and effects as such, rather it denies that causes have effects in and of themselves; for God is the creator of all things. For someone to literally believe that ‘random’ mutation or ‘natural’ selection have a causal independence from the will of God, as most evolutionists do, would be clear disbelief. The shari‘ah does, though, grant a dispensation to use certain phrases figuratively; like when someone says, ‘the food filled me up’ or ‘the fire burnt me’, providing one does not believe such things to have causal autonomy from God’s will. Expressions such as ‘nature does such and such’ are also, in all probability, included in the above dispensation. To believe in the literalness of such expressions would be to set up a partner with God in terms of His Lordship and actions. In other words, it would be committing shirk in His Lordship. Now as for the rule in respect to worldly causes (asbab), it runs as follows: “To rely on worldly caused is shirk in tawhid; to deny their efficacy is deficiency in intellect; and to shun their use is mockery of the shari‘ah.”
Thirdly, Evolution’s piece de resistance: that species are able to evolve into entirely new species over long periods of time, seems not to be at odds with any established tenet of the faith. Most books of theology have sections detailing what is necessary (wajib), possible (mumkin, ja’iz) and inconceivable (mustahil) with respect to God. The category of the possible refers to all those things that can possibly exist; i.e. whose existence is neither necessary nor impossible. That living organisms can evolve or undergo genetic transformation, by the will of God, is subsumed under the category of the possible. Belief in it, provided one not include the creation of Man (dealt with next), nor believe in causal independence, is neither shirk nor disbelief. Rather, its correctness depends entirely upon whether or not there is any credible scientific evidence to substantiate the claim.
Fourthly, Darwin’s claim that human beings evolved from a common ancestor; the great apes, in an evolutionary chain which extends back to life in the primordial soup, is incompatible with the Quranic account of Man’s origin. The Qur’an is categorical about the common ancestor of humanity being the Prophet Adam, peace be upon him. When your Lord said to the angels, informs the Qur’an, “I am creating a human being from clay. So when I have fashioned him and breathed into him of My spirit, then fall down before him prostrate.” The angels fell down prostrate, all of them. Except Satan; he was proud and became one of the disbelievers. He said: “O Iblis! What prevents you from prostrating before that which I created with My two hands? Are you too proud, or think you too exalted of yourself?” He said: “I am better than him, You created me of fire while him you created of clay. What the above goes to show is that the creation of the first human being is special, unique and different than all other life forms; even if there are physical and biological similarities with other terrestrial life. For God not only fashioned him, but did so with His two hands, and breathed into him of His spirit. Those learned in Quranic exegesis explain the spirit (ruh) to mean – not that ‘a part of God’ was breathed into Adam – but to: “An incorporeal, life-giving substance coursing through man, which God ascribes to Himself as a mark of honour and distinction.” Which is to say that Adam, the first human being (as well as all his descendents), is a sacred, exalted and noble creation. To claim man evolved from a non-human species contradicts the truth told to us in the Qur’an about Adam’s special creation, and is therefore disbelief.
I suppose a summary of Islam’s stance towards the theory of evolution can be distilled in the following points: (i) God alone causes all that is to be or to not be. The flora and fauna of the world is His work alone, without associate. (ii) Causes and effects are both created by God and have no autonomy from Him. To believe causes have efficacy in and of themselves is shirk – ascribing ‘associates’ to God. Causal autonomy is what is generally understood by terms like ‘natural selection’ and ‘random mutation’.(iii) To believe that man evolved out of lower life forms is disbelief, regardless of whether the process is ascribed to God or to ‘natural selection’. This denies what the Qur’an tells us of Adam’s special creation. If, as the fossil records show, fairly-intelligent tool-using bipeds existed in Earth’s past history, they are not the ancestors of humanity nor the predecessors of Adam. Facts about human-like fossils are one thing, theories and wild speculation about their links to human beings are another thing altogether.
5. On the Knife-Edge of Improbability
Though rancorous debates continue to rage about evolution’s validity, there seems to be no real reason at all to dismiss the theory outright. In fact, insists Collins, very little makes sense in the field of molecular biology and genetics, except in the light of the theory’s predictions. The sticking point for theists, though, above all else, concern the fossil records of humans which, despite some revealing discoveries over the past few decades, still remain woefully incomplete.
Science faces other nagging concerns about the bigger picture. Human consciousness, for instance, and what gives rise to it? Why there exists what some call ‘the moral law’: an intuitive knowledge about the basic rules of right and wrong shared by all people (our voice of conscience, as it were). Then there is the grandest conundrum of them all. Life on Earth aside, how did the universe come into existence so finely tuned in a form hospitable to life?
Most scientists do not hesitate to acknowledge this remarkable fact of how tailor-made to life our universe actually is. Cosmologists tell us, for instance, that had the force of gravity been a tiny fraction weaker than what it actually is, matter could not have lumped together to form stars or galaxies. The universe would have been a lifeless sea of drifting gas and interminable darkness. Had gravity been ever so slightly stronger, the universe would have collapsed back on itself; neither being able to expand nor allow life to evolve. A similar tale holds true for the force binding protons and neutrons together in an atom (the strong nuclear force). Had it been slighter weaker, only hydrogen atoms could have formed in the cosmos; nothing else. If, on the other hand, it had been slightly stronger the nuclear furnace within stars would not be able to produce heavy elements like carbon, which is critical for life. Actually, the nuclear force appears to be tuned just sufficiently for carbon atoms to form. That our universe seems uniquely tuned to give rise to life, more specifically; human life, is known as the Anthropic Principle. And it remains a source of intense wonder, debate and speculation among scientists, philosophers and theologians since it was fully appreciated a few decades ago.
All in all there are fifteen cosmological constants which, because they have the values and parameters they have, allows the emergence of a universe capable of supporting complex life. In his Just Six Numbers, Britain’s Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, states that these finely-tuned cosmological constants, “constitute a ‘recipe’ for a universe. Moreover, the outcome is sensitive to their values: if any one of them were to be ‘untuned’, there would be no stars and no life.”
“The chance,” says Collins, “that all these constants would take on the values necessary to result in a stable universe capable of sustaining complex life forms is almost infinitesimal. And yet those are exactly the parameters we observe.”
6. Making Sense of the Mystery
Three possible responses have been put forth for this fine-tuning. The first response is a shrug of the shoulder one. Things are what they are, or else we wouldn’t be here; so there’s nothing to be surprised about. To this it’s just the way things are attitude, Rees says: “Many scientists take this line, but it certainly leaves me unsatisfied. I’m impressed by a metaphor given by the Canadian philosopher John Leslie. Suppose you are facing a firing squad. Fifty marksmen take aim, but they all miss. If they hadn’t missed, you wouldn’t have survived to ponder the matter. But you wouldn’t just leave it at that – you’d still be baffled, and would seek some further reason for your good fortune.”
The second response, like the third, does offer an explanation. There are multiple universes parallel to our own; governed by different laws and defined by different values. Our universe is simply a result of trial and error in that it is one in which all the fundamental constants work together to permit life. A drawback with this ‘multiverse’ hypothesis is that, leaving alone its incredulity, it only re-jigs the ultimate question. Instead of asking how our universe arose, we now must ask how these multiple universes emerged.
Divine providence is the final response. This is the belief that a wise, omniscient, beneficent Creator formed the universe, endowing it with purpose, meaning and remarkable beauty; with the specific intention of producing man. Stephan Hawking, in his best-selling A Brief History of Time, wrote – in what seems to be a moment of epiphany: “It would be very difficult to explain why the universe should have begun in just this way, except as the act of a God who intended to create beings like us.” Indeed!
For believers, the moral law within us (which is part of our primordial nature, or fi†rah), and the anthropic fine-tuning of the starry heavens above us, both point, undoubtedly, to a purposeful cosmic designer. In this regard, the Creator has let it be known: We shall show them Our signs in the creation around them, as well as in their ownselves, till it becomes manifest to them that this [Revelation] is the Truth.
SURKHEEL (ABU AALIYAH) SHARIF
1. Jonathan Hill, The Big Questions (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2007), 215.
2. The Persistence of Faith (New York: Continuum, 2005), 9.
3 Sacks, The Dignity of Difference (New York: Continuum, 2003), 41.
4. The Language of God (London: Pocket Books, 2007), 161.
5. Qur’an 38:27. Also cf. 3:191, 10:5, 29:44.
6. Dawkins, River Out of Eden (London: Phoenix, 2001), 155.
7. Cited in Kenneth Miller, Finding Darwin’s God (New York: HarperCollins, 1999), 287.
8. Dawkins’ recent best seller, The God Delusion – which contains a collage of overstated factoids, riducle of religion, shoddy theology, reductionist arguments, straw-man assertions, but skillful penmanship; along with a few other tenets in his dogma of atheism – has been robustly and elegantly critiqued in: Alister MacGrath, Dawkins’ God (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005); and The Dawkins Delusion (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2007); Cornwell, Darwin’s Angel (London: Profile Books, 2007); Latham, The Naked Emperor (London: Janus Publishing, 2007).
9. Qur’an 21:30.
10. Qur’an 51:47.
11. Qur’an 23:12-14.
12. Islam the Basics (Oxon: Routledge, 2007), 41. I have replaced Koran, used in the original passage, with Qur’an – so as to keep the spelling consistent with the rest of the essay.
13. Cf. Hamza Yusuf (trans.), The Creed of Imam al-Tahawi (USA: Zaytuna Institute, 2007), 50; pt.14.
14. Qur’an 13:16.
15. Qur’an 37:96. The orthodox doctrine regarding man’s deeds is that, “Human actions are God’s creation but humanity’s acquisition.” Cf. The Creed of Imam al-Tahawi, 74; pt.107.
16. Cf. The Creed of Imam al-Tahawi, 52; pt.24, 25
17. Qur’an, 39:62. Imam al-Safarini states that God is the Cause of causes (musabbab al-asbåb): “meaning, that He is the creator of all causes and conjoins them to their effects.” In other words, God alone creates causes, creates effects, and combines the two. Cf. Lawami‘ al-Anwar al-Bahiyyah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1991), 1:39.
18. Ibn Abi’l-’Izz, Sharh al-‘Aqidah al-Tahawiyyah (Beirut: Mu’assassah al-Risalah, 1999), 2:696. Also consult: Keller, Evolution Theory & Islam (Cambridge: The Muslim Academic Trust, 1999), 8-9.
19. Al-Safarini defines the possible as: “That whose existence and non-existence is equally acceptable, as per the sound intellect and rational inquiry.” Lawami‘ al-Anwar al-Bahiyyah, 1:58. As for what is necessary in respect of God, this would include: God’s existence and Him being pre-eternal. Under what is possible would be subsumed: sending of prophets, revealing of heavenly scripture, and legislating sacred laws. The impossible, as theologians state, include: God being non-existent, Him not being one or unique, and Him not being omnipotent or omniscient. Cf. Lawami‘ al-Anwar al-Bahiyyah, 1:58; al-Bayjuri, Tuhfat al-Murid ‘ala Jawharat al-Tawhid (Cairo: Dar al-Salam, 2006), 68-75.
Under this last catagory comes a favourite conundrum of many atheists: Can God create a stone He cannot lift? The paradox being that if God can create such a stone, then He is not omnipotent; all-powerful. If God cannot, again He is not omnipotent. This oxymoron, sometimes referred to as the ‘omnipotence paradox’, is a fallacious argument; a logical impossibility – as Ibn Abi’l-‘Izz explains: “Ahl al-Sunnah believe God has power over all things, and that whatever is possible falls under this omnipotence. As for what is intrinsically impossible – such as something existing and not existing at one and the same time – then this has no reality, nor is its existence conceivable, and nor is it termed a ‘thing’ by agreement of those with sound minds. Included in this catagory would be [the questions]: can God create the like of Himself; can He be non-existent; and other such absurdities.” Sharh al-‘Aqidah al-Tahawiyyah, 1:206. The above serves as a reply to the stone paradox, and whether or not God can create a four-sided-triangle, etc.
20. For a good discussion about humanoid fossil records, the non-specialist lay reader can consult: Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything (Great Britain: Black Swan, 2004), 522-62.
21. Qur’an 38:71-6. As for the mention of God’s hands, or His ascending, or any other quality which seems to smack of the sin of anthropomorphism (tashbih), Ibn Kathir explains: “People have, in this issue, taken many [conflicting] positions; but now is not the place to discuss them. Rather, in this regard, we traverse the path taken by the Pious Predecessors (salaf al-salih): Malik; al-Awzå‘i; al-Thawri; Layth b. Sa‘d; al-Shafi‘i; Ahmad; Ishaq b. Rahawayah; and other leading Muslim scholars, ancient and recent, which was to let the verse pass as it came – without inquiring how (takyif), committing resemblance (tashbih), or denying it (ta‘til): the apparent meaning that comes to the minds of the anthropomorphists is negated from God. For nothing created resembles Him in any way.” Tafsir Qur’an al-Azim (Beirut: Dar al-Ma’rifah, 1987), 2:30.
22. Ar. “jismun latifun yahya bihi’l-insan wa adafaha ila nafsihi tashrifan wa takriman.” Al-Sam‘ani, Tafsir al-Qur’an (Riyadh: Dar al-Watn, 1997), 3:138; al-Qurtubi, Jami‘ li Ahkam al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-’Ilmiyyah, 1996), 10:17.
23. The Islamic stand is also untenable with Theistic Evolution which, Francis Collins tells us, “is the dominant position of serious biologists who are also serious believers … It is the view espoused by many Hindus, Muslims, Jews and Christians, including Pope John Paul II.” The main objection to it lies in its premise that once evolution got under way, no divine intervention was required, as well as believing that humans share a common ancestry with the great apes. This, along with their belief that it was God who created life on earth, choosing the elegant mechanism of evolution to bring about our planet’s biological diversity and complexity. Cf. The Language of God, 199-201.
For further readings on evolution from a Muslim perspective, one may consult: Shaikh Abdul Mabud, Theory of Evolution: Assessment from the Islamic Point of View (Cambridge: Islamic Academy, 1992); Ruqaiyyah Waris Maqsood, Thinking About God (Indiana: American Trust Publications, 1994); Nuh Ha Mim Keller, Evolution Theory & Islam (Cambridge: The Muslim Academic Trust, 1999).
24. The Language of God, 141.
25. Just Six Numbers (Great Britain: Phoenix Books, 1999), 4.
26. The Language of God, 74.
27. Just Six Numbers, 165-6.
28. Hawking, A Brief History of Time (New York: Bantam Press, 1998), 144.
29. Qur’an 41:53. Also cf. the discussion of the Anthropic Principle given by the eminent physicist and Christian theologian John Polkinghorne in Beyond Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 80-92.