For many, the evolutionary mechanisms of natural selection and random mutation are unconvincing explanations for the diversity of life on Earth. Around half of the U.S. population rejects the theory of evolution, coming in second behind the world’s leading country in doubt of Darwinism – Turkey.
Six panelists gathered at the Redpath Auditorium last Tuesday for a symposium titled “Islam and Evolution” to discuss the relationship between Islamic societies and science.
The panel was moderated by Dr. Brian Alters, founder and director of the Evolution Education Research Centre, which recently concluded a three-year quarter-million-dollar study on the symposium’s title topic.
“A lot has been researched on the Christian view of evolution, but there is really a dearth of information concerning the Islamic view,” said Alters.
A reoccurring point of discussion throughout the symposium was the recently published Atlas of Creation by Harun Yahya. Propagating the notion that, “life forms on Earth have never undergone even the slightest change,” this 870-page-long volume has been exported from its Turkish origin to science departments throughout North America and Europe, unsolicited and free of charge.
“This is a monstrosity of a book,” said panelist Dr. Tanner Edis, associate professor of physics at Truman State University and author of An Illusion of Harmony: Science and Religion in Islam.
Issues of evolution education also have an impact on a more local level in the Islamic world. Panelists Anila Asghar, assistant professor at the school of education at the Johns Hopkins University, and Jason Wiles, Associate Director of the Evolution Education Research Centre, recently conducted a series of interviews with Muslim science teachers, students, and scientists in Indonesia, in the hopes of gaining further insight into how evolution is taught. Though Muslim scientists generally agreed with the theory of evolution, most high school science teachers not only rejected it, but also displayed limited knowledge regarding the role of evolution in the topics covered in the classroom.
“The teachers had a vague, superficial understanding of evolution,” said Asghar. She also noted that educators were hesitant when presented with physical evidence of evolution. “Most of them said that they wanted to avoid conflict around Islam.”
Misconceptions regarding evolution are not unique to high school teachers. Panelist Salman Hameed, assistant professor of integrated science and humanities at Hampshire College, noted that evolution is tacked with a range of meanings for Islamic scholars. The word itself can be used interchangeably with “development” or even applied exclusively to other species of the animal kingdom besides humans.
Hameed commented that scholars often dismiss evolution entirely as a Western import. There is also a misconception that accepting evolution means concurrently subscribing to atheism.
“Religion is so important that if it is presented as a choice, [Islamic scholars] will always chose religion,” said Hameed.
Even biology textbooks that accept Darwin’s theory often preface evolution chapters with religious epigraphs.
Not all realms of science are treated with such caution. Hameed pointed out that even a strict interpretation of the Qur’an does not mandate acceptance of a young Earth. A six-day creation story is mentioned, but the scripture leaves the length of each day open to interpretation.
“For Muslims, in that context, they have actually looked at the scientific accepted age. They say, ‘Four and a half billion years old? Well that’s fine, because that’s what geologists say!’” explained Hameed.
Edis said that applied sciences have achieved modest success in Islamic countries, since fields like engineering are seen as practical and beneficial. Evolution, however, is not regarded as one of those practically applied theories.
“The argument has to be made that this is a concept that has an important role in areas like medicine,” noted Edis.
The complete webcast of the panel is available at mcgill.ca/eerc/webcast/