by Bilal Muhammad (Islamic Movement, Crescent International Vol. 47, No. 5, Shawwal, 1439)
Some Muslims have started to have doubts about the story of creation as narrated in the noble Qur’an after reading about evolution. Prior to Darwin’s theory of evolution, the Muslim civilization was usually not keen on hindering scientific progress, and in fact did much to propel it. With modern evolutionary biology however, there appears (at least on the surface) to be a clash between science and scripture. What are the forces at play here? What variables must be considered when dealing with this problem?
The common stem from which these doubts sprout is an epistemology grounded in naturalism. The scientific method obviously has a place in truth-seeking: it draws its conclusions from sensory observation, and gives us indubitable truths about the universe in which we live. One should not abandon the scientific method as a tool in the quest to understand reality, but it is a tool nonetheless. Science is always at the drawing board, revising old research, devising new methods, and challenging old conclusions. The basis of science is reason, which is why an experiment begins with a hypothesis (an educated guess of what we logically expect to take place) and a null hypothesis (what we expect will not take place). This presupposes cause and effect, and the law of non-contradiction; the idea that our universe operates in an orderly way, and that events do not happen at random. In the same way that logic is the foundation of science, it is also the foundation of our kalami arguments for the existence of God.
The scientific method as a tool will not be able to answer every question on ethics, anthropology, cosmology, purpose, metaphysics, consciousness/life/being, and epistemology — and although these areas are more uncertain and immaterial than the hard sciences, they are ultimately what we live for. So when one sees New Atheists dismiss philosophy, or religion, this is quite naive, because philosophy is the incorporeal foundation of science, and religion is the incorporeal foundation of society; with science being a tool with its own scope. New Atheism merely grew out of the carcass of occidental Christianity, and its logical conclusion is postmodernism, which is nihilistic, hedonistic, confused, and suicidal.
So with that in mind, when science, which is sensory observation with inconclusive fluidity, becomes the criterion by which convention is confirmed or denied, there will naturally be clashes. Sometimes, those clashes exist only in the mind, because they are a clash between an interpretation of convention and a perceived reality. Other times, the clash can be based on flawed or incomplete scientific research. This writer does not deny evolution per se. But there are gigantic discoveries that occur periodically, discoveries that challenge previously-held beliefs in evolution and clash with existing hypotheses, discoveries that may have their own flaws, which may be exposed with the next discovery. This is partly why one finds it difficult to answer questions on evolution; it is like the Big Bang: some are quick to find references to the Big Bang in the Qur’an and hadith, but if the Big Bang theory were ever superseded by science (and alternative hypotheses do exist), then that would throw those interpretations out as well. What this writer has realized after obtaining three university degrees is that these educational institutions have their own faith-based biases, assumptions, and ideologies, which guide their research — this is far more pronounced in the social sciences of course, but not necessarily limited to them.
Ultimately, we won’t achieve 100% scientific certainty in either the present evolutionary conclusions or in the Adamic story. This then poses a question: is there any conventional value to the Adamic story? Whether or not it physically took place (and I believe that it did, in some way or another), it is an origin story that has resonated with billions of people worldwide for thousands of years, with profound psychological truths and practical sociological lessons. Of course, the Islamic version is a bit more in line with naturalistic thinking — with the earthly setting of the story, the earthly origins of mankind, no mention of timeline/genealogy, and no “original sin” — but one has to go deeper into the story. The Qur’an avoids historicizing events, and so it lacks many dates, names, and places, and instead, encourages us to reflect on the lessons taught in each story.
On one side, the story talks about humanity’s vicegerency of God on Earth, humanity’s ability to comprehend the ‘aql (Logos), and humanity’s eloquent mastery of language; on the other side, it talks about humanity’s naivety, its base desires, and the sorrow after its fall. The story highlights the dualistic nature of man: that we are both celestial in one sense and earthly in another; spiritual and physical, supernatural and natural, “human” and animal. It is a story about the great natural telos of man, followed by his tragic fall, followed by his humble ascent. On another level, it talks of humanity’s common, meek, and worldly origin, so as to avoid tribalism, racism, and chauvinism.
According to the teachings of the Ahl al-Bayt, Adam (AS) lived in this very same world that you and I share. His “garden” was the state of his faith; he was living in the higher consciousness of the mind and the heart. Eventually, he “fell” into the lower, base desires of man (the stomach and genitals/nakedness), which made him shameful and regretful, because God has created man for spiritual ascension, not decline. That regret brought him back to God in a corrective effort.
This same story is reflected in mankind both on a microcosmic and macrocosmic level. We all have our own individual falls, where we immaturely decline into heedlessness. But on a civilizational level, we continue to fall vertically, from holistic celestial worldviews to our base desires. Philosophically, we have fallen from religious philosophy (philosophy of the spiritual hierarchy), to rational philosophy, to naturalist philosophy, to contemporary relativism (philosophy of the base human self).
The problem with the evolutionary worldview is that it views mankind simply as bonafide tool-making animals. Evolution replaced the perennial notion of man’s fall with a theory of material progress. It gives us the illusion of progress. But the reality is that we are falling from the divine to the mundane. The Christian world went from the leadership of prophets, to apostles, to false apostles, to pseudo divine kings, to secular materialist rulers, to the current White House spectacle. They went from traditional Christianity, to Protestantism, to capitalism and socialism, to modern base identities (vegetarians/what one eats, gays/ who one has sex with, race/what colour we are born as).
The Muslims went through a similar fall, from prophethood, to imamate and false caliphate, to colonialism, to militant secular states, to chaos. While this time is certainly noted for the rise of its science and technology, we can see mankind falling into dogmatism, nihilism, social decadence, frivolity, vanity, impatience, and depression. Jahiliyah was a Fall to the bottom, from where the Prophet (pbuh) brought his people back up. The hadiths describe the degeneracy of the End Times, but the night is darkest just before the dawn, and as soon as even the dimmest of light appears on the horizon, the very nature of people will pull them toward it — the Mahdi.
In this sense, conventional truths, which are the sifted and sieved amalgamation of human thought and experience, have a meta-historical archetypal nature that is often more authentic than sensory truths. It would be foolish to disregard either one, because one deals with how, and the other deals with why. With a purely evolutionary worldview, man is a tool-making animal, and our progress as a species is measured in the linear paradigm of scientific and technological advancement. But this says little about our quality of life, purpose of life, why we live, how we should live, where we come from, what it means to be human, the power of thought and conscious experience, and whether we really are “better” or more developed than our ancestors. It gives the illusion of upward ascent, but I see a downward regression during what should be humanity’s most enlightened time, and that regression comes from our killing of our father — tradition, convention, religion, and ritual.
The Fall gives meaning to human anxiety, depression, and alienation; and a promise of an ascent through effort, hope, promise, responsibility, and a return to being, vicegerency, sainthood, “And from the evil of darkness when it overspreads” (113:3).