My Reaction When a Believing Muslim Tells Me Evolution is Only a Theory

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I am told by many believing Muslims that they do not believe in evolution. The reasons for their “unbelief” (pun intended) are varied, and they are usually excellent armchair scientists on the matter, poking holes in it by saying things like “if we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” (I’m kidding, I’ve never heard that one, but it is not far off).

They often punctuate their argument by reminding us that evolution is just a theory, not a fact. And while I understand that a “theory” is for all intents and purposes accepted as a fact in the scientific community, I have to admit that I understand their point.

Because while I am no expert on the theory of evolution, but I do love reading about it, and it is stunning how little physical evidence there actually is supporting evolution. In most cases, it is just a few bone fragments that have been found that support each “link” in the evolutionary chain, and researchers will admit freely that they have so few artifacts that a new physical specimen tomorrow could alter their hypotheses in an instant.

Much of our understanding of evolution relies on genetic testing and radiocarbon dating, as well as inferences made from geological studies, all of which are based on such minute and sensitive data that the average person simply cannot relate to the conclusions that scientists draw from them.

In other words, while I believe the theory of evolution is probably a pretty good descriptor of our origins, I also feel that the data that underpins this theory is so thin by the standards of a layperson, that it is quite understandable why one might think of those who talk about evolution as a “fact” as being a little arrogant. In reality, evolution is what we think happened. Nobody knows for certain.

But let’s contrast the theory of evolution with another theory: The theory of the divine origins of the Qur’an, and the divinely ordained prophethood of a certain Arab merchant, which I will refer to in this essay as “the Theory of Islam.”

To begin with, no believing Muslim would even regard the Theory of Islam as a “theory.” For Muslims, it is as much of a fact as a fact can be, and any “evidence” that would challenge it is, by definition, the result of either ignorance or arrogance. To those who subscribe to the theory of Islam, it is a fact that cannot be disproven, because there is no event that could possibly disprove it in the minds of many believers, short of the Prophet himself materializing by the will of Allah and correcting the record (of course if that happened, it is frightening to imagine what some Muslims might do to him if they did not believe his claims!). The theory of Islam persists despite the fact that, similar to evolution, nobody alive today was a witness to the events that could confirm the theory.

“That’s a ridiculous comparison,” says the believer. “The Qur’an was revealed in the full light of history, only 1400 years ago. Evolution is supposed to have occurred over millions of years. We know about the origins of the Qur’an and life of the Prophet in a way we could never know about evolution. There is no comparison at all.”

Okay.

In response, I might start by pointing out that whether we are talking about an event from 1400 years ago or an event from 1.4 million years ago, the believer himself was no more present as an eyewitness for one as he was for the other. In either case, he must rely on the evidence that confirms the theory.

In the case of the theory of Islam, believers rely on a handful of types of evidence:

· They rely on two biographies of the Prophet written by men who were not born until well after the death of the Prophet. The first, by Ibn Ishaq, who was born 85 years after Hijra, has never been found, but the notes of his student, Ibn Hisham, have sufficed instead. The second, by Tabari, was a more voluminous work. But Tabari was even more removed from the events he was describing, having died 310 years after Hijra, well into the Abassid era (Islam had undergone the Shia Sunni split, least 3 assassinations of caliphs, and two revolutionary “regime changes” by this time). It is understood that oral traditions may have been passed down to both of these men, and that their works are likely to be based on real events. But how difficult must it have been to get accurate information on highly political events that took place between 3 and 10 generations prior to the time in which the author was writing? Think about how hard it would be for you to write an accurate biography on your great-great-grandfather today. Now, imagine if this ancestor of yours was a hugely important person that an authoritarian government was deeply interested in how you presented him. And imagine doing this all at a time when the primary way to gather information was simply by talking to people. That should give you an idea.

· They rely on Hadith, which were compiled in much the same manner and environment that the two biographies of the prophet were compiled, with roughly the same time lag between events or longer.

· They point to the sheer beauty of the prose in the Qur’an- although many believers seem to talk more about how others have talked about the beauty of the Qur’an. Many have not really read it in detail, they have simply heard verses cherry picked for different occasions, and been raised to respect it (and seen the consequences of what happens to those who don’t). They may not even find it particularly beautiful themselves, though they would never admit as much. This is not to say everyone does not find the Qur’an beautiful. Some people do indeed testify it is such an amazing book, that only God Himself could have authored it.

· They rely on a handful of “famous” scientists who have supposedly confirmed that there are no “scientific errors” in the Qur’an, implying that this is miraculous. Perhaps. But also miraculous is how believers manage to focus on the same three scientists that say this, while managing to ignore the legions of physicians, biologists, geologists, physicists, geneticists, archaeologists, historians and other specialists in various fields who would voice their disagreement with this claim if they did not consider it to be patently absurd.

· They sometimes claim that the “preservation” of the Qur’an in original form over a period of 1400 years is evidence of God’s will that it be preserved, despite the fact that the Qur’an was assembled in its present form approximately 20 years after the death of the Prophet, from assorted writings and the memories of the companions. All the non-standard versions of the Quran were ordered destroyed by Uthman, the third Caliph.

In sum of the above, that is more or less the evidence for the Theory of Islam. Putting aside my obvious skepticism, I am not saying this evidence is worthless. Far from it, in fact. It is clear that the Prophet led a remarkable life, and the Qur’an is a remarkable book. These things are clear from the evidence, and not something that can seriously be questioned (although a few researchers do make interesting claims that the Prophet’s life story is based more on legends than on fact, that grew up long after his death, this is not a mainstream view).

But it is not merely this- that the Qur’an and the Prophet were remarkable- that the Theory of Islam lays claim to.

The Theory of Islam claims that the Qur’an is the literal word of God, for all mankind for all eternity, to the point where it is never to be directly contradicted by a Muslim. And it claims that Muhammad was not merely a good man who impacted his society whose example might offer lessons for us today; but rather, that he was chosen by God to not only receive the Qur’an and transmit it, but to demonstrate the ideal life to those around him and all who came after him by his perfect example.

That’s the Theory of Islam.

And this “theory” for Muslims is so airtight, that to question it after being sufficiently exposed to it is not merely a mark of ignorance; it is not simply absurd and ridiculous; it is offensive to Muslims- and to God- that anyone would disregard all this evidence. And moreover, the Qur’an warns about such people, and conveniently offers suggestions about how they might be dealt with. Because clearly, anyone who would wantonly challenge all this evidence this is too uninformed to even bother debating, or too driven by their Islamophobic agenda to make the effort worthwhile, unless their devious intentions could be exposed to the public in the process. So goes the thinking.

Let’s go back to the theory of evolution now:

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I agree that evolution is “only” a theory, and a relatively new one at that (only 150 years old compared to the theory of Islam, which has persisted for 1400 years now). But it is a theory that burst onto the scene precisely when the West stopped listening as much to the stories their fathers told them, and started actually looking at God’s Universe with both eyes wide open.

It is a theory that shattered the spectre of Christianity that blanketed the Western world, and while Christianity is still with us (for both good and ill, depending on your perspective) Christianity would not and could not ever be the same as it was. Only Muslims have been pious and steadfast enough to avoid having their minds be corrupted en masse by this deviation from our ancient, revealed notions about where we came from.

It is true that there were no people present to witness evolution, as there were during the foundational events of the Theory of Islam. Instead, we have only the quiet artifacts, the bones and telltale signs of a handful of the people who would have been our evolutionary ancestors. That and the scientific tools of detection that come from the same minds who have already demonstrated a deep understanding of the laws of the universe in so many other areas- having not claimed to have received revelation, but who have pulled back the curtains on their own (even if it was the Will of Allah that they do so).

 

That’s all we have.

But these people who died and left us their bones were not part of any political disputes that we would recognize. The skeletons found in Africa that geological, genetic and radiocarbon dating tests indicate are several million years old were not involved in the Shia-Sunni split. The story of evolution did not come to us via long dead authors writing after the fact themselves, whose motives and methods we can never know, whose sources we can never examine for credibility and bias.

Unlike the Theory of Islam, the Theory of Evolution is not maintained by men and women whose entire training and credibility is based on continuing to find new ways to repeat the same story that has been passed down over centuries by people on whose shoulders we stand, but who knew much, much less than we do. It is not maintained by those who would risk losing everything they ever believed in and worked for, if they ever failed to affirm the same old story every time.

Rather, it is maintained by those who assume as little as possible about the world. By those who absorb the wisdom of their fathers and mothers, but who also are told to question what they are told, so everything can be double and triple checked; and who are not swayed by echoes of what God supposedly said to one man in a cave in a completely different time and place. No, these men and women have learned to keep their voices low, precisely so they can hear what God is telling them through His signs in nature today.

And yes, the best of those men and women are those who are humble enough to remember that no matter what evidence they uncover, they can never hope to understand the totality of Allah’s creation. Yes, the scientists whose work leads them to forget that they are studying the work of God, and not acting as gods themselves, are dangerous people. But the reality is that all of these men and women are brought up in a tradition that allows them to change their conclusions when they learn something new. These people are not ignoring the signs of God. In fact, they are the people in the best position to listen for them.

All this having been said, believers in the theory of Islam will rightly point out that belief in evolution requires faith too. The question is, which theory do you choose to have faith in: the theory based on what God may have told another generation 1400 years ago? Or the theory based on what we think God is telling is now?


The above post is a guest post by Ibn bin Rushd.

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One Comment

  1. Absolutely beautifully constructed. I would pose that the reader may read this as a false dichotomy, especially at the end where it states “The question is, which theory do you choose to have faith in: the theory based on what God may have told another generation 1400 years ago? Or the theory based on what we think God is telling is now?”

    Of course there is no such binary; you can believe in the myths of old (theory of Islam, for example) yet also “believe” in the theory of evolution. I believe the story of Adam and Eve to be a nice folklore, that could be hummed over the crackling campfire, for instance, with the added sweet touch of the moral of humility. The theory of evolution has exceeding and unparalleled explanatory power, yet there are still so many questions left to ask. Perhaps the strongest point of a scientific theory is it has the humility to crumble in light of new knowledge and evidence. Perhaps it is time for religion to adopt this model too.

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