Academic journal article Islam & Science

Darwin's Shadow: Evolution in an Islamic Mirror

Academic journal article Islam & Science

Darwin's Shadow: Evolution in an Islamic Mirror

Article excerpt


On December 31, 2009, the "International Darwin Year" came to an end and numerous ceremonies, celebrations, and conferences commemorating the bicentennial of Darwin's birthday and sesquicentennial of the publication of his On the Origin of Species became part of history, leaving behind a much strengthened Darwin industry poised to flourish for decades to come--not because of Darwin but because of the innate attraction of humanity to the question of the origin of species, "that mystery of mysteries," (1) which Darwin strove to solve upon his return from the Malay archipelago in 1837, "by patiently accumulating and reflecting on all sorts of facts which could possibly have any bearing on it." (2)

While neither Darwin nor the International Year named after him (3) were able to conclusively resolve that mystery of mysteries, the year did produce and regurgitate a tremendous amount of material on the questions related to the origin, propagation, and diversity of life through numerous books, papers, conferences, websites, and exhibitions. (4) Only a few events focused on Darwin's reception in the Muslim world or on Islamic perspectives on his ideas, even though some sensationalists found in this year more opportunities to denigrate Islam and Muslims through provocative articles (5) and popular magazines included articles highlighting the need to promote evolution in the Muslim world. (6) The few conferences that made overtures to Islamic perspectives or Muslim responses to Darwin generally did so through inviting non-Muslims to speak on behalf of Islam and Muslims, demonstrating once again the old colonial adage made famous by Edward Said that natives are incapable of representing themselves. (7)

In the Muslim world the year was a non-event, proving yet again that Darwin and what he wrought has little relevance to most Muslims and much contemporary Islamic thought, and that the problem he poses for religion is typically of European--and now increasingly American--scope, a problem that emerged from and remains rooted in one specific scientific and intellectual tradition to which Darwin himself belonged, a problem radiating the heat of the post-Renaissance European revolt against religious beliefs, institutions, and authorities.

This is the same revolt that gave birth to the one specific formulation of the relationship between religion and science that is now proclaimed the only way to formulate this relationship and which renders religion and science two distinct and disjointed entities posited for or against each other. (8) This "two-entity model," and the dichotomy arising out of this compartmentalization and latent severance of religion and science, is utterly foreign to Islam as attested by the absence of any discourse on "Islam and science" during the long period of eight hundred years (ninth to the sixteenth centuries) when the Islamic scientific tradition was the most robust scientific tradition anywhere in the world. Yet, once imposed on Islam and Muslims, the Islam versus science--as well as its specific applications such as evolution versus Islam--nevertheless took shape, and since then the need has existed for Muslims to participate in these typically non-Muslim issues.

Generally speaking, Muslim responses to Darwin and post-Darwinian discourse on evolution are found wanting when judged from Western academic standards. Most religious scholars who have written on the subject (either 'for' or 'against' evolution) have added little scientific or religious and philosophical content to the discourses because of their lack of scientific understanding of the subject, while most Muslims trained in natural sciences have no framework independent of modern science itself to examine and explore various meta-scientific issues involved in the claims, inferences, and postulates of various aspects of the theory of evolution. Thus the discourse remains hung, straddled between a knee-jerk reaction to a single-strand ape-to-man understanding of Darwinian and post-Darwinian evolutionary discourse, and an uncritical surrender to evolution as a scientific fact--and hence a valid truth by itself, requiring no further investigation, whether scientific or meta-scientific--merely because it carries the formidable weight of "scientific truth". …

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