Back to top

The Importance of Evolution and Islam debate in London

I'm now back in US and I'm glad that I had a chance to attend the London debate, Have Muslims Misunderstood Evolution? It was organized by The Deen Institute and I posted some quick thoughts on Saturday.

You can find a good summary of each speaker's presentation at Farrukh's blog.

Here are a few reasons why I think the London debate on evolution and Islam may turn out be a game-changer in the way Muslims look at evolutionary biology, and science, in general.

This was an intra-faith debate. There is no question that the topic was controversial. However, the conversation on evolution often gets derailed by common misconceptions and juvenile creationist ideas. The debate would have been a failure, had it been simply between biologists and those who follow Harun Yahya. There is no common ground - as Yahya's group has no understanding of science.

The reason for the success of the debate was that almost all of the speakers (with the exception of Harun Yahya acolyte, Oktar Babuna) accepted the scientific consensus on evolution. Then the question became: Can Muslims reconcile human evolution with their faith? Now this is an important question.

Here are a few take-aways from the London debate:

1. It is crucial for Muslims (and non-Muslims) to know that there are Muslim scientists out there, who not only understand evolution but have thought about its implications for their own personal faith. Both Ehab Abouheif and Fatimah Jackson talked about their own personal belief and the way they reconcile evolution, in particular, human evolution, with Islam. What is important here is that they accept mainstream evolutionary ideas - and not some fringe ideas of directional evolution or the American version of Intelligent Design (ala Irreducible Complexity of bacterium flagellum). Furthermore, they are first rate researchers who take a no nonsense approach to science, and a no nonsense approach to religion. Fatimah Jackson, a convert to islam, teared up when talking about her faith - and she emphasized that no one can question her Iman. She took the position that science tells the how - and not the why.

Both Ehab and Fatimah are spectacular role models for budding Muslim scientists. When a genetics student asked about potential experiments to test evolution, Ehab invited him to join his lab, which is doing cutting-edge research on ant evolution (he has two papers in published in the prestigious journal Science just in 2011!).

Usama Hasan

2. The theological debate between Usama Hasan and Yasir Qadhi was also interesting. The important thing to note is that both accepted the science of evolution. Usama Hasan's main position was that science is clear on human evolution as well and Islamic theology has room to incorporate it. Yasir Qadhi, on the other hand, said that he has no problem with almost all of evolution, except for human evolution. However, he made it clear that he is not speaking on the science of human evolution, but rather on human evolution from an Islamic theological perspective. He went after Usama, and I think, he was quite condescending towards him. Though to be fair, Yasir Qadhi had also come really prepared for the debate. But if you listen carefully, the difference in their positions is razor-thin.

Why do I say that? On the one hand, Yasir Qadhi insisted that theologically, Muslims cannot accept human evolution. On the other hand, he said that the "maximum we can go" from the theological perspective is to say that Allah inserted Adam in the natural order - and while we may not see any difference, it is actually a miracle. He used the example of dominos. He asserted that Adam was the last domino. Now, in his perspective, we are seeing the last domino, and that domino is specially placed by Allah. However, for non-believers, it may seem to be connected to all other dominos. This way, the miracle of Adam is preserved.

Usama and Yasir could have easily agreed on this point. However, it seemed to me that Yasir was insistent on inflating the differences between his position and Usama's. As it turns out, they both know each other from way back, and their rivalry goes beyond the topic of evolution. Overall, Usama was interested in emphasizing the lessons from history about the changing religious (including Islamic) interpretations in wake of new sciences (for example, earth-centered to sun-centered universe), whereas Yasir was focusing on a close textual reading of the text, claiming that this current interpretation is really definitive.

But notice that overall, this is a subtle debate on the theological acceptance/rejection of human evolution only. Even if one takes a conservative position, almost all of evolution is okay for both of them.

3. The audience was diverse and deeply interested in the topic. There were 800 people in a packed auditorium. The talks started at 11am and went till 6pm (with lunch and prayer breaks), and it was amazing to see that almost all of the audience stayed until the end. This is all the more amazing since most people lined up to get in the auditorium from 9am. Plus, there was no heckling or disruption. This was a very civil debate on a controversial topic. A lot of it had to do with the host, Mariam Francois-Cerrah. She was fantastic in not getting the debate out of hand, and in handling the questions.

But what struck me the most was the diversity in audience members. There were some whose religiosity was explicit (with hijabs, niqabs, beards, etc) and there were others that did not show that. In conversations, I found a film-producer, a pharmacist, a philosophy undergraduate, a chemist, a science communication professional, a hedge-fund manager, an IT professional, a medical doctor, a nurse, a genetics student, a biology postdoc, etc. Most of them were there to simply hear the debate. None of them had a strong position on evolution, one way or the other, but were interested in hearing Muslim positions on it.

It is a shame that the debate did not take place at Imperial College. I had posted a few weeks ago about the opposition to the debate by the Islamic Society there. The success and the tenor of the debate shows that the Islamic Society at Imperial College may simply be a step behind much of the community. Ultimately, it is the students at Imperial College that may have missed out on a high quality debate.

4. The debate exposed the shallowness of Harun Yahya brand of creationism. Those of us who follow Islamic creationism have known this for a while (for example, see the crude quality of his Atlas here). However, the media has often portrayed him and his group as the leading "intellectual voice" of Islamic creationism. However, they only have a few talking points: Evolution is an evil ideology, evolution is false, quoting Darwin out of context, and a constant reference to fossils. Well, Ehab Abouheif in his opening remarks did a fantastic job of neutralizing most of their arguments by showing the common misconceptions about evolution.

This would not have been enough had the debate lasted only hour. People who are not familiar with the debate would have seen two people disagreeing - and would have left undecided. However, the conversation went deeper, in particular with the introduction biological anthropology by Fatimah Jackson, and then a historical and philosophical discussion between Usama Hasan and Yasir Qadhi. The response of Oktar Babuna was - "fossils". The conversation had moved along - but Babuna had nothing new to add. And the audience figured it out. Towards the end, Oktar Babuna was serving as a comic relief. Other panelists would be talking about something substantial, and Oktar Babuna would bring up his fossils. People were rolling in their seats with laughter. I even started feeling bad for him towards the end.

The bottom line is that the Yahya position of no evolution at all (and with almost no change in the DNA) is akin to those who still believe in a universe where the Sun goes around the Earth. Yahya people have been able to gain traction by using evolution as a synonym for atheism and eugenics and by presenting evolution as an ideology pushed by non-Muslims against Islam. Their claim to present an alternative "scientific" idea, however, did not work when they were confronted by world class Muslim biologists. Furthermore, they don't offer any sophisticated theology either.

London is one of the strongholds of the Harun Yahya group amongst Muslims (much more so than most of the Muslim world). The debate may have permanently exposed their shallowness in both Islamic theology and Islam. And yes, even in the evolution debate, Oktar Babuna brought up Mahdi, and the End of Times. (see earlier post on Harun Yahya's fascination with Mahdi and if sees himself as The One).

5. Ultimately, this was a grown-up debate. This shows a maturity within Islam on dealing with a serious challenge from a scientific idea. Instead of a knee-jerk reaction, The Deen Institute managed to bring together a fantastic panel that engaged with the topic. And this can serve as a good model for other issues as well (freedom of speech, gender equity, etc.). I'm curious to the see the direction they will take after this event.

There is going to be a circus reaction as well. There will be some who will be upset by the debate. The Harun Yahya people will also go on the offensive and may try to manufacture a controversy. It will be unfortunate, if the press focused on some of the outliers.

Salman Hameed is an astronomer and Associate Professor of Integrated Science & Humanities at Hampshire College, Massachusetts. Currently, he is working on understanding the rise of creationism in contemporary Islamic world and how Muslims view the relationship between science & religion. He is also working with historian Tracy Leavelle at Creighton University to analyze reconciliation efforts between astronomers and Native Hawaiians over telescopes on top of sacred Mauna Kea in Hawaii. He teaches “History and Philosophy of Science & Religion” with philosopher Laura Sizer, and “Science in the Islamic World”, both at Hampshire College. Salman and Laura Sizer are also responsible for the ongoing Hampshire College Lecture Series on Science & Religion, and you can find videos of all these lectures below. Contact information here.

This was first published on the Irtiqa blog