Voices: An old Earth for all Muslims but how does evolution fit in?

It’s no secret that many of the protests and rebellions in North Africa and the Middle East this year have been dominated by globally connected, young, educated Muslims. One of the stated goals of many of these young people is improving the science and technology programs in their countries. They understand that to compete in the global marketplace, strong science and technology programs are necessary. That bodes well for these countries’ futures. But there are still threats to the scientific futures of these nations — including the quiet but growing population of people who reject the principles of evolution.

When we talk about “evolution” in the Muslim world, it’s important to first separate out biological evolution from young-Earth creationism. Young-Earth creationism — the idea that the world and the universe are less than 10,000 years old — is completely absent in the Muslim world. The Qur’an, the Muslim holy book, does contain the six-day creation account, just like the Bible’s Book of Genesis. But the length of each day is explicitly ambiguous in the Qur’an: In one passage, for example, the length of each day is suggested to be 1,000 Earth days, but in another, it is said to be 50,000.

Most contemporary Muslims (including scholars) have concluded that the answer to the age of the Earth does not lie in the Qur’an, and they have come to accept the scientifically accepted age of 4.5 billion years. That’s the good news: At least there won’t be a battle like there is in the United States and Europe to a somewhat lesser extent about when Earth was created.

Although the acceptance of an old Earth allows for the possibility of biological changes in species over long periods, the not-so-good news is that many in the Muslim world don’t accept that biological evolution occurs. It may in fact be the vast majority of Muslims who reject human evolution outright. Only a few studies have addressed this question, but the results suggest that the rejection of human evolution in the Muslim world is much higher than in the U.S.

Contrary to what we in the U.S. might think, though, there is no single Muslim position regarding biological evolution. In fact, high school biology textbooks in several Muslim countries, including Pakistan, Iran and Turkey, include evolution as a fact of science. Furthermore, in 2007, the science foundations from 14 Muslim majority countries endorsed a statement in support of common descent and biological evolution of species, including humans. Of course, as we have seen in the U.S., endorsement from national science foundations does not necessarily translate into widespread acceptance of evolution.

At issue in the Muslim world are the many misconceptions about evolution. For some, the word “evolution” and the name “Darwin” are both associated with atheism — a notion that Muslims reject vociferously. For others, evolutionary theory accounts for the origin of life — an idea that many reserve for the domain of God. And of course, one of the most common misconceptions is the view that “monkeys directly evolved into humans.” None of these misconceptions are specific to Muslims; indeed, most are common among creationists all over the world.

But as the topic of evolution is just beginning to be discussed broadly in the Muslim world, scientists have a chance to get the right information out there and to resolve the misconceptions before they become increasingly ingrained. There already exists high interest in medicine, as well as fields such as biotechnology and biomedicine in much of the Muslim world. Principles of evolution are relevant to all of these areas, and educators and scientists can integrate the teaching of biological evolution (extending all the way to humans) with these practical applications and potential economic benefits. Because religion plays a central role in most Muslim societies, there also needs to be an explicit emphasis on the fact that an acceptance of evolution does not necessarily imply atheism.

The next decade will be crucial. The rising educated middle class of the Muslim world will be shaping the discussion of modern science and its relation to Islam. If biological developments of the last decade are any indication, we expect the topic of evolution to be at the center of scientific and ethical debates in the next century.

Looking at the faces of protests in Egypt and Tunisia, I cannot help but be optimistic that this generation will not reject one

Salman Hameed

Hameed is assistant professor of Integrated Science and Humanities, and director of the Center for the Study of Science in Muslim Societies at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass. The views expressed are his own.

Monday, October 24, 2011 - 08:00

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