Evolution has become a Muslim Issue. This was inevitable: the self-fueling kinetic energy of “Darwin’s dangerous idea” is such that no religious tradition can remain immune to its sound and fury. Muslims were late-comers and ill-prepared for the discourse when it first reached their colonized lands in the nineteenth century. The post-colonial era (after World War II) did not immediately yield any radical change in the intellectual framework of the Muslim world; and much of the second half of the twentieth century was marked by various pseudo-starts—“revolutions”—that produced more heat than light. However, the ground is shifting.
It is now widely recognized that the Muslim encounter with Evolution is part of the Muslim encounter with modern Western civilization, which happened at a time when the Islamic enterprise of science—the longest historical tradition of scientific enquiry in recorded history—had already withered. This demise was, in turn, part of the general wearying of the Islamic intellectual tradition which had produced some of the most insightful and profound works on God, life, the cosmos, and the human condition. Muslim institutions of learning had already suffered severe blows prior to their encounter with modernity, but this encounter made them “epistemic” prisoners—much like the prisoners in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, who were forced to remain in an underground cave where all they could see was the prison wall in front of them, where shadows were cast by puppeteers. Since the prisoners could not turn to look at the puppeteers or the fire lit to produce the light used to cast shadows, they took the shadows to be real objects.
When released from the colonial yoke in some aspects of their collective life, Muslims woke up to find that the world had transformed; everything had metamorphosed and the rules of the game had changed. In addition, for various reasons, they were not able to reconnect with their past. Bewildered, they have been trying to make sense of twenty-first century dilemmas with numerous “Islam and xyz” (xyz = science, modernity, women, economy, technology, democracy, human rights, etc.) discourses thrust upon them. These discourses have not only defined much of the late-twentieth-century intellectual landscape, they have also consumed an enormous amount of the intellectual energy of two generations of Muslims. Only now is the hold of this framing loosening and a more mature discourse emerging.
The Muslim discourse on Evolution has developed to some extent (for example, the old “monkey to man” platitudes are not repeated anymore), but it has yet to produce a sizeable amount of academic works which engage with various scientific, epistemological, and credal implications of Evolution through a rigorous and critical analysis based on First Principles. There is an urgency to this task because certain Muslims are advocating for acceptance of what has now become an orthodoxy in the rest of the World. They do so without fully realizing what accepting this paradigm implies for the Muslim understanding and belief in the Qurʾan, which explicitly states that God created all human beings from a single soul and from it He created its mate, and from the two He has spread a multitude of men and women. That single soul is invariably glossed by all premodern commentators as Adam, the Father of humanity (Abu al-Bashr), the first prophet, upon him peace.
Some of the questions thus raised for Muslims are similar to those faced by certain Christian and Jewish circles in the nineteenth century when a theistic version of Evolution was proposed. Just like for those communities, “Theistic Evolution” does not resolve credal problems for Muslims. In addition, even though contemporary Muslims are heir to only a now-extinct enterprise of science, they still have all the theological and philosophical resources which once informed the likes of al-Biruni and al-Khawarizmi. (The latter are in no way dwarfed before Einstein and Heisenberg, when their contributions are viewed in serial history unfolding in Divine time.) Thus, for Muslims, it is also imperative to view Evolution within the larger intellectual and religious history of the civilization which gave birth to contemporary science (of which Evolution is but one aspect).
Seen from yet another aspect, what Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) said three hundred years ago still seems to hold true: “Truth, Sir, is a cow that will yield such people no more milk, and so they are gone to milk the bull.” For Johnson, “such people” were the skeptics of his time, but in our protean world, “such people” are people of faith who are keeping the Darwin industry afloat.
“Engaging Evolution”, a special issue of the Journal of Islamic Sciences, explores credal, scientific, and epistemic implications of Evolution on the basis of First Principles. These explorations, from within the conceptual framework of the Islamic spiritual and intellectual traditions, will also ameliorate the intellectual deficit arising from the lack of Islamic resources at various levels of the discourse on the origin and propagation of life on earth. This thirty-first issue of the Journal of Islamic Sciences is a small step toward the goal of a mature and robust Muslim engagement with Evolution and its proponents.