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Page last edited on 12 March, 2003

Biological Origins

Muslim Responses to Darwinism

Chapters in this essay

Muslim responses to Darwin and his successors emerged out of historical background which forms an integral part of the process of response. This background is characterized by extremely low standards of education, printing presses were non-existent, there were no scientific laboratories and the great tradition of scientific research had become virtually disappeared. In addition, the whole Muslim world was in strife from within. The Ottoman Empire had lost most of its European part and its eastern provinces were in revolt. Most of these revolts were of political and nationalistic characters. Ottomans did not recognized nationalism in the European sense and the millet system, only recognized and honoured non-Muslim minorities.

However, there was a growing sense that the entire system needed reform. The ‘young Ottomans’  movement (later to be called ‘young Turk movement’) was a product of this realization and in its earliest conception, the most influential theorist of the movement,  Ziya Gökalp, the author of Türkçügün Esaslari (The Essence of Turkism), saw the revival in terms of Islam and its motto was ‘Turkify, Islamise and Modernise’.[1]

But this movement was to take a secular turn with the arrival of Mustafa Kemal on the scene who saw Islam as the main obstacle in the modernization of Turkey. During the second half of the nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire was also under external threats. Russia, France and Great Britian claimed the role of protectors of religious minorities and refugees were pouring in from the European parts of the empire, which were being snatched from the Ottomans.  By 1890, Russia had completed its conquest of Central Asia. Gasparali (1851-1914), a Crimean Tatar, who had been educated in Europe and who had worked in Istanbul and Paris, had opened his first usul-u Jadid (new method) school in 1884 with the aim of increasing the standard of education of teachers and to create a literary language that could be understood by every Turk, from those living ‘along the shores of the Bosphorous to those living in Kashgar’. He also argued that Muslims must borrow from the West to revitalize their intellectual and social lives.

In the nineteenth century, except for Morocco and Yemen, the entire contemporary twenty-two sovereign Arab states that are now members of Arab League, were under the Ottoman rule in the century. Known to the Arab historians as the century of Christian missions, the 19th century was a time of declining Ottoman authority in its eastern provinces, accompanying by granting of concessions to European countries. Nineteenth century Syria (which included the present-day Palestine, Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and present-day Syria) had long acted as a cultural and commercial link between the Arab world and the West. Syrian and Lebanese merchants maintained active contacts with West, long before French invasion of Egypt in 1798. For example, during 1613-18, the Lebanese Amir Fakhr al-Din al-Mani allied with the Medici Court in Italy and invited Italian technologists to develop the mountainous land in Lebanon.

Education in the Arab World before the arrival of the Western system was just like anywhere else in the Muslim world: a grand system of madrassahs that had lost its vitality; a populace that had no interest left in the visionary pursuit of knowledge that had been the hallmark of their ancestors.

Soon after the Napolean’s invasion, the Institut d’Egypt was established in 1798. When Muhammad Ali came to power in 1805, he realized that his administrative structure as well as army was inferior to the European forces in its training, equipment and techniques. He started to import European teachers to set up new institutions. From these attitudes, as well as from the adoption of western models of governance, there arose in the traditional Muslim lands a complete system of Western education, from primary level right up to universities. And as the traditional religious schools receded into the backwaters, especially in the rural areas, institutions which provided western education flourished in the main cities, offering the only alternative to a populace which was increasingly becoming aware of its intellectual as well as material poverty compared to European civilization.

Another important factor was the arrival of printing presses. The first of these in Egypt was Bulaq Press in Cairo which produced its first prints in 1821; by 1850, it had published 81 Arabic works on various sciences. Muhammad Ali sent 400 students to Europe to study all branches of science. Intense translation activity followed. More than 200 books were translated during Muhammad Ali’s rule. When he died in 1849, many schools were closed and under the rule of Khedive Abbas and Khedive Said, a reaction set in. However, with Khedive Ismail’s coming to power in 1863, schools were re-opened and he sent another 120 students to Europe.

Egyptian rule over Syria and Lebanon from 1831-1841, brought Muhammad Ali’s philosophy and his son, Ibrahim Pasha, encouraged modern western education. The arrival of the printing presses was a major factor in change. Ulama had resisted printing presses in the Ottoman rule on the plea that God’s word could only be written by hand. But the first Arabic press came to the Fertile Crescent in 1733, through the efforts of a Catholic Deacon, Abdallah Zakhir, in al-Shuwayr, Lebanon. The press published religious material in Arabic. Egypt acquired its first printing press in 1821. American Protestant missionaries transferred their operations and press from Malta to Beirut in 1834. It was followed by a Jesuit press in 1847. By 1875, there were eleven printing presses in Beirut alone, four in Damascus and three in Aleppo.[2]

Ottoman Reform laws of 1846 and 1869 brought new curricula for all levels of education (primary, secondary and higher); schools were removed from the supervision of local religious communities and they were opened to all children, irrespective of religion. The laws of 1869 provided for a minimum compulsory education of four years. At the secondary level, mathematics, biology and chemistry were introduced.

Under Khedive Ismacil and Sultan cAbd al-cAziz of Ottoman Empire, freedom of press led to an exponential increase in periodicals and scientific journals. In Beirut alone, seven new periodicals were founded in 1870. In 1865, the first scientific journal, Yacoup al-Tib, was established in Cairo, this medical journal was followed by al-Muqtataf in Beirut in 1876. Even in Europe and North America, Arabic periodicals were founded. At the turn of the nineteenth century, Montreal had two newspapers and four periodicals in Arabic.

Following the English occupation, Egyptian schools switched to English as language of instruction in 1887; this had tremendous impact on the pace of westernization. Even the Syrian Protestant College (SPC) which had taught in Arabic for sixteen years, switched to English in 1882. Two prominent educators who dominated Arab intellectual life in the nineteenth century were Burtrus al-Bustani and Rifat al-Tahtawi. Al-Bustani, a Christian Arab, was born in Lebanon in 1819. Rifat al-Tahtawi was born in Egypt in 1801 and educated in France; both were champions of westernization.

In 1498, Vasco de Gama arrived in India via a new sea route; this tremendously changed the fortunes of the European economy and, later, political power. Thus accelerated by sea routes, commerce between Europe and India¾then ruled by Mughals, one of three dominant Muslim empires of that time¾increased exponentially. This economic activity eventually led to political interference and finally to colonization of a whole subcontinent¾a vast area that had been home to Muslims for centuries. This occupation produced an experiential awareness among the masses that their own institutions had failed. It was in the backdrop of these developments that a new educational system, based on Western educational curricula, came into existence. At first, it met fierce resistance. But slowly, first through quiet missionary schools that were greeted by the elite and later, through local versions of these western educational institutions, a fundamental change was accomplished.

In India, Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) was the leader of this new educational movement which saw tremendous merit in learning western sciences but which also strived to keep the Islamic ethics and at least a rudimentary layer of traditional curricula. By contrast, Dar al-cUlum, the famous seat of Muslim learning in the subcontinent, founded at Deoband in the Sharanpur district of Uttar Pradesh in India in 1282/1867 taught Tafsir, hadith, and fiqh, and to a lesser extent cilm al-Kalam and philosophy but none of the natural sciences. Thus Muslims who wanted to learn contemporary sciences went to the institutions like the ones established by Sayyed Ahmad Khan and those who wanted to learn the religious sciences went to the traditional madrassahs which had only a rudimentary understanding of contemporary science that was rapidly transforming the European societies.

This brief survey gives us an idea of the intellectual atmosphere of the nineteenth century Muslim world.  One additional point to note is the presence of Christian missionaries and minorities in the nineteenth century Muslim world for they had an important contribution in the formation of Muslim response to Darwinism, especially in the Arab world where the earliest response to Darwinism came from the Christians who had access to the European literature directed against Darwinism.

(i) Scientific Response

These western style educational institutions eventually superseded the traditional ones all over the Muslim world. By the dawn of the twentieth century, most of the Muslim world had embraced the western education but it is interesting to note that there existed no substantial scientific literature which dealt with issues like Darwinism¾issues that directly impinged upon faith. As if by an act of magic, Muslims were able to ignore all those theories that did not accord with their religious beliefs. This is not to suggest that the theological challenges were not recognized; so far we have only pointed out the lack of response from a newly emerging scientific community.

Thus the scientific impact of Darwinism on his contemporaneous Muslim world was minimal. Unlike the Christian world—which received his theory firsthand in the wake of a feverish scientific activity, which sought to provide answers to everything in an environment particularly suited for the rise of materialistic worldviews—the Muslim world had virtually no scientific activity in the nineteenth century.

(ii) Religious Response

The first Muslim intellectual to refute Darwinism was Jamal al-Din Afghani who wrote an essay entitled Al-Radd ala al-Dahriyyin (“The Refutation of Materialists”) while he was in British India in 1881. In 1885, Muhammad Abduh, one of Afghani’s disciples, translated this text into Arabic in reaction to Shumayyil’s ideas on evolution. Nikki R. Keddie published an English translation of the al-Radd in 1968.[3] Afghani’s response should be seen in the wider context of his efforts to awaken the Muslim Ummah against the Western expansionism and intellectual threat. He was, by no means, against Western education. In fact, he was an advocate of learning the useful arts of Europe and his response was not to the scientific challenge of Darwin’s theory, but to its materialism. It is a polemic that asks Darwin to explain the causes of variations of trees and plants of Indian forests. “Darwin would crumble,” he wrote, “flabbergasted. He could not have raised his head from the sea of perplexity, had he been asked to explain the variation among the animals of different forms that live in one zone and whose existence in other zones would be difficult.”[4] He cites Darwin’s illustration of how the continuous cutting of dogs’ tails for centuries would produce a new variety of dogs without tails and asks rhetorically: “Is this wretch deaf to the fact that the Arabs and Jews for several thousand years have practiced circumcision, and despite this until now not a single one of them has been born circumcised?”[5] In his later life, Afghani softened his stand but he remained a firm believer in the special creation of Man.[6]

In response to the scientific challenge, there was a general defence of the Islamic doctrines on the basis of superiority of revelation compared to reason. For example, Risalat at-Tawhid by Muhammad cAbduh (1849-1905), first published in 1897, expounded the doctrine of unity and emphasized that reason has a restrictive domain beyond which it cannot lead the intellect; it accepted revelation as central to human existence and thus all those scientific theories which could not be accommodated within the framework defined by revelation had to be discarded.

A more accommodating line was adopted by the Lebanese Shica scholar, Hussein al-Jisr, who authored more than twenty-five books, including Al-Risla al-Hamidiyya fi Haqiqat al-Diana al-Islamiyya wa-Haqiqat al-Sharia al-Muhammadiyya.[7] Al-Jisr was born in Tripoli, Lebanon and he was the teacher of many prominent Arabs, including Rashid Rida, the editor of influential journal Al-Minar. Al-Jisr’s views on Darwin are also formulated in the context of western materialism but he makes efforts to reconcile the theory of evolution with the Qur’anic teachings. He quotes 21:30 (“We made every living thing from water. Will they not then believe?”) and then agrees with the theory of evolution.[8] “There is no evidence in the Qur’an,” he wrote, “to suggest whether all species, each of which exists by the grace of God, were created all at once or gradually.”[9]

A full treatment of this theme of accommodation was to find its way in the works of Abu al-Majid Muhammad Rida al-Isfahani, a Shicite theologian from Karbala, Iraq who wrote a book in two parts, Naqd Falsafat Darwin, Critque of Darwin’s Philosophy, in 1941.[10] Isfahani defended a God-based version of evolution and counted Lamarck, Wallace, Huxley, Spencer and Darwin among those who believed in God. He referred to the works of  Imam Jacfar bin Muhammad bin al-Sadiq (especially to his Kitab al-Tawhid) and to those of Ikhwan al-Safa’ to point out anatomical similarities found in Man and apes, claiming that Darwin could never provide full treatment of these similarities as compared to the Ikhwan. But he disputed the embryological similarities between man and other animals. He affirmed that the structural unity of living organisms was a result of heavenly wisdom and not a consequence of blind chance in nature; he  also demanded identification of first causes.[11]

In 1924, Haeckel’s book on evolution was translated into Arabic by Hassan Hussein, an Egyptian Muslim scholar as Fasil al-Maqal fi Falsafat al-Nushu wa-al-Irtiqa (On the Philosophy of Evolution and Progress).[12]

In his seventy-two-page introduction Hussein agreed with some scientific ideas propagated by Haeckel but he refuted all ideas against religion, though he tried to reconcile Islam and science. He insisted on a non-literal reading of six days verses in the Qur’an and he claimed that what Darwin was saying was heavenly wisdom (Hikmah Ilahyya).[13]

Four years after the publication of Hussein’s book, Ismacil Mazhar translated the first five chapters of Darwin’s Origin of Species into Arabic, adding four more chapters in 1928. The complete translation was published in 1964. He also wrote a book on evolution in 1924.[14] Mazhar is one of the many secularist Arabs who saw nothing of value in his own civilization. He advocated adoption of the scientific method not only in education but also in life.[15] He also published a journal, al-Usur, which had, as its motto, the phrase Harir Fikrak, “Liberate your thought”.  He thought man must be free in his thoughts, in his speech and even in his religion in order to progress. He also saw religion as being a private thing, between an individual and his God. He claimed that Islamic Law may have been suitable for the Arabs of the seventh century; it was totally incompatible with modern Arab society. He was, to no one’s surprise, an ardent follower of Mustafa Kemal of Turkey.

In Turkey, up to about 1850, higher education in the Ottoman Empire was controlled by the Ulama (religious scholars) through religious institutions headed by Shaykh al-Islam. But as a result of contact with the west, these educational institutions lost popularity and these fossilized structures, which used to be the hallmark of Islamic learning, had run out of creative energy and were totally abolished along with the Ottoman Caliphate in 1923 when Mustapha Kemal solidified his power and became the president of the new Turkish Republic. In that defining year, Turkey became a country rooted in contradiction of terms: a secular Muslim state, a state whose constitution forbade religious laws from having any role in the state and society (Article 2 of the Turkish Constitution, revised in 1982). During the initial fervour of Kemalism, the ruling junta tried to purged all expression of religion from public life: Arabic alphabet was replaced with Roman alphabet, Islam and its study was taken out of the educational curriculum, prayers which had always been recited in Arabic were translated into Turkish, religious education in traditional Tariqas and Zaviyes was banned, a new legal system based on the European model was adopted and most important for our study, the theory of evolution was introduced as an important part of biology curriculum. By the time Mustapha Kemal died in 1938, Turkey had been transformed into a secular state run by men and women who were fiercely against Islam as a way of life.

While Islam remained the religion of the majority of Turks, the elimination of Arabic from public life, the forced removal of Islamic studies along with the traditional dress, practices and norms of a society based on revealed doctrine made it increasingly difficult for the adherents of Islam to articulate anything based on their faith. The dominant voices were secular voices that considered anything that came from the West a divine writ. This is not to say that there was no resistance to this secularism. In spite of state violence against religiosity and religious worldviews, there remained, at all levels of society, Islamic organizations that tried to preserve values, ethics and worldview based on Islam.[16]

This struggle spilled over into the field of biology. During the rise of the Welfare party (from 7.2% votes in 1987 to 21.4% in 1995) and especially during its coalition government (with secular True Path Party) in 1996, its leader and Prime Minster of Turkey Necmettin Erbakan was able to introduce reforms in curricula. But more importantly, evolution has become a case of political and ideological stance with pro and anti-evolutionists organizing conferences. With Science Research Foundation (known in Turkey with its Turkish initials as BAV) and pro-evolutionists locked in a deadly campaign of kill or die, tens of local meetings and rallies for and against evolution have far greater consequences than merely the verdict on a scientific theory. Pro-evolutionists depict BAV as a fundamentalist organization which was established in 1991, BAV has published several books on evolution. The person who has been singled out as the author of a large number of books on evolution is Harun Yahya, a person whose identity is questioned by pro-evolutionists. His opponents claim that Harun Yahya is not a single person but a group of writers formed by BAV. They even claim that Harun Yahya is actually Necmettin Erbakan himself, or collaboration between Erbakan and Adnan Oktar.[17] His website <http://www.harunyahya.org> has an impressive range of books and it states that Harun Yahya is the pen-name of Adnan Oktar, who devoted his life in explaining the existence and unity of Allah. The biographical note states that he is the author of over 100 books.

The opponents of BAV also accuse it of having an active alliance with the Institute of Creation Research (ICR) in the United States. They trace the history of these links and of the establishment of BAV to the report on Darwinism that was commissioned by the Minister of Education, Vehbi Dinçerler, in 1985. Adem Tatli wrote the report and it was distributed to various educational institutions as a “working paper”. In a recent article, Arthur M Shapiro, Professor of Evolution and Ecology at the University of California, Davis and a member of National Center for Science Education (NCSE) accused Vehbi of making a phone call to ICR in San Diego and asking for material on creationism that would be suitable “for translation and distribution in Turkey”.[18]

He also says that the report by Tatli “reproduced the ICR’s arguments, but omitted all Christian fundamentalist hobbyhorses as the age of the earth. Predictably, it concluded that evolution had been falsified by scientists and was still being taught only because of its ideological value to Marxists. Soon afterwards, Tatli’s effort was amplified into a booklet called Evolution, a Bankrupt Theory, widely distributed by the political Islamists.”[19]

Shapiro also points out that American creationists were invited to BAV conferences. He says the BAV held three international conferences in 1998 with “star speakers recruited from ICR and other American sources... between August 1998 and May 1999, BAV staged local meetings and rallies in some 60 Turkish cities.”[20] The Americans who attended BAV conferences are: John Morris, Duane Gish, Carl Fliermans, David Menton, Edouard Boudreaux, Michael Girouard and Kenneth Cummings.

In response to activities of BAV, Turkish Academy of Sciences (TUBA) issued a declaration on September 17, 1998.[21] It opens with a quote from Mustafa Kemal, which states: “I do not leave any scripture, any dogma, any frozen and ossified rule as my legacy in ideas. My legacy is science and reason.” 

Because of the importance of this declaration in understanding the nature of conflict in Turkey, we are reproducing the text from the TUBA website:

Science is the most successful enterprise developed by mankind in order to understand and explain the universe and nature, we live in, by the way of observation, experiment, and testing. For centuries scientists have not submitted oppression and obstruction, defending the supremacy of man’s reasoning and intellect, and its ability to attain the truth against prejudiced ideas and traditions. Today science is the greatest and most reliable pathfinder for human civilization’s goals of investigating nature and magnifying and advancing the happiness of societies.

Science, due to its nature, works through free thought and its product of testable hypotheses. Scientific facts can only be endorsed and approved by the international scientific community after long years of unfettered debate and repeated testing by independent methods. Those opinions which pass this merciless test of science, which can explain many phenomena at once and which make it possible for new hypotheses to be tested, receive the right to be called scientific theories. Science, being a system of thought which assumes the existence of an external reality and its comprehensibility, is differentiated from dogmatic systems of faith primarily through its continual openness to debate, and the fact that even the theories considered most successful can be revised when a more advanced explanation appears.

In the past few years an organized campaign against modern science and science education has been started in our country. These efforts, which especially manifest themselves through attacks on scientific theories concerning the origin and development of the universe and of life, are furthered by the collaboration of certain religious groups from within the country and from abroad. In reality, the concepts these groups proposed are nothing but opinions that various Christian organizations have tried to spread for many years but which have been wholly rejected in scientifically advanced countries. These groups, which see the belief that the universe and life was created within a very short period of time by extraordinary and paranormal forces as an undebatable fact, have especially declared war upon the theory of evolution, which determines that all life is derived from common ancestors over long periods of time and that they undergo constant change. Today the theory of evolution is a fundamental concept that brings clarity to many problems concerning life; it finds very widespread acceptance in the world of science and it is strongly supported by reputable scientists and scientific organizations. Furthermore, though evolution was first proposed in the biological sciences, it has today found extremely interesting applications in fields such as epistemology, sociology, and economics, being used to investigate and explain all processes of development where acquired information is passed from one generation to another. The dogma-based propaganda which claims that the theory of evolution is no longer accepted and that it has been demonstrated to be scientifically false is totally incorrect.

The true purpose of these attacks on accumulated scientific tradition, which is centuries old, is to bring up unthinking, unquestioning and uncritical individuals who do not test ideas and who accept dogmatic and incorrect information exactly as they are given to them. It is obvious that those circles who conduct an open or covert war against secular government, freedom in education, and advancement in science and technology in our country do not desire independent-thinking civilized people. These segments of society initially work towards including non-scientific beliefs along with scientific ideas in educational curricula, and in the long term they have the goal of totally eliminating the theory of evolution from textbooks. Such primitive enterprises have been rejected years ago in countries with a high and established tradition of science and removed from the agenda.

The Turkish Academy of Sciences (TUBA) believes that science is the correct path and approach to understanding the universe in which people and societies live, defining nature and determining its laws, and progressing in social, economic and cultural platforms. The citizens of our country have the right and responsibility not only to consume the products of science reflected in technology, but to learn the methods and ways of thought of science and contribute to its progress. Therefore we consider it our duty to warn and inform the public on the matters of eliminating the non-scientific elements of our educational system, installing modern methods of scientific thought and its products in our educational curricula, and taking necessary precautions to ensure that as we hail the twenty-first century a democratic and secular generation with “free thought, free knowledge, and free conscience” is brought up.



Let us also note that the general decline of intellectual activity in the Muslim world also had an exception: Iran. As mentioned earlier, by the time Darwin arrived on the scene, the tradition of philosophy had almost died in the Sunnite Islamic circles, though, the transmitted sciences, cUlum al-Naqliah, remained the bedrock of Sunni traditional madrassahs.

But unlike the Sunni world, Islamic Intellectual tradition remained alive in Iran throughout the course of the rise of Darwinism in Europe, but there was virtually no activity in the experimental and physical sciences to match the intellectual vigour of the philosophical tradition[22] that had been revived in Iran during the Safa’vid period.[23] The emergence of the “School of Isfahan” with towering intellectual figures, such as Zayn al-Din ibn cAli ibn Ahmad Jab’i (911/1505-966/1558), cAli ibn cAbd al-cAli cAmili, known as Muhaqqiq-i Karaki (d. 945/1538), Muhammad Taqi Majlisis (1003/1594-1070/1659) and his son Muhammad Baqir Majlisis 91037/1628-1110/1699), the greatest theologian of the Safa’vid period, revived Islamic Philosophy but not natural sciences. Among the hukama of this period are Sadr al-Din Shirazi (979/1571-1050/1640), better known as Mulla Sadra, Sayyid Ahmad cAlawi, Mir Damad’s son-in-law and the commentator of Ibn Sina’s Shifa’, Mullah Muhammad Baqir Sabziwari (d. 1090/1669), Rajab cAli Tabrizi (d. 1080?/1670), a student of Mulla Sadra, cAbd al-Razzaq Lahiji (d. 1071/1661), the author of some of the most important works of hikmat in Persian, like the Gawhar Murad, Sarmay-i iman and the Mashariq al-ilham, and Qadi Sacid Qummit (1049/1640-1103?/1692), the author of The Arbacinat, Kilid-i bihisht and a commentary on the Athulujiyya which was attributed to Aristotle but is now known to be a paraphrases of the Enneads of Plotinus.

Mir Damad, one of the most influential figures of the Safa’vid period, was unique in the Islamic Wisdom tradition because the organization of his work did not follow the traditional pattern of Muslim philosophy that usually started with logic and then proceeded to natural philosophy (tabicyyat), mathematics (riyadiyyat) and theology (ilahiyyat). The ten chapters of his Qabasat deal with various meanings of creation and the division of being, kinds of anteriority, multiplicity, appeal to the Qur’an and the Hadith, nature, time and motion, criticism of logic, divine omnipotence, intellectual substances, chain of Being and finally predestination.[24] Mir Damad sought a solution to the old dispute between the notions of the world being created (hadith) or eternal (qadim) by dividing reality into three ontological categories: zaman or time, dahr and sarmad; the latter two referring to two different kinds of eternities. But this scheme is within the neo-Platonic tradition of Great Chain of Beings rather the western secular scientific tradition.

After the death of Mir Damad’s most famous student, Mulla Sadra, Persia continued to enjoy a high degree of intellectual activity, mostly in its philosophical tradition. For example, Haji Mulla Hadi Sabziwari (1212/1797-98-1289/1878), the most famous hakim of the Qajar period, produced, among other works, a complete and systematic summary of hikmat, Sharh-i manzumah (composed in 1239/1823) which forms the basic text of this Wisdom school along with Shifa’ of Ibn Sina, al-isharat of Nasir al-Din Tusi and Asfar of Mulla Sadra.[25] Qum, Mashhad, Isfahan and Tabriz remain major centers of Islamic philosophy even today and the tradition of celebrating centenaries of Muslim philosophers has further helped in dissemination of the works of these masters.[26] There exists in this tradition, a detailed exposition of the Muslim position on the generation and corruption of beings, which links these recent thinkers to the Islamic philosophical tradition. But none of the Iranians mentioned above, not even those who were Darwin’s contemporaries, dealt with his theory directly.

This may be because the direction taken by the western science after the Renaissance was totally alien to the intellectual climate of the Muslim world. Increasing interaction with the West did produce a major change in the Muslim world which resulted in the creation of two kinds of intellectuals: those who were well-versed in the traditional subjects but without much knowledge of contemporary western thought and especially sciences and those who felt totally disarmed against the advances of western thought and science.

In the Indian subcontinent, there were only a few responses to Darwin. Muhammad Iqbal (1876-1938) has two oblique references to Darwin in his Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam.[27] Originally delivered in 1930, these six lectures form an early Muslim response to materialism. Iqbal wrote:

The discoveries of Newton in the sphere of matter and those of Darwin in the sphere of Natural history reveal a mechanism. All problems, it was believed, were really the problems of physics. Energy and atoms, with the properties self-existing in them, could explain everything including life itself, thought, will, and feeling. The concept of mechanism—a purely physical concept—claimed to be the all-embracing explanation of Nature. And the battle for and against mechanism is still being fiercely fought in the domain of Biology. The question, then, is whether the passage to Reality through the revelations of sense perception necessarily leads to a view of Reality essentially opposed to the view that religion takes of its ultimate character. Is Natural Science finally committed to materialism?[28]

Iqbal further states that though natural science can produce verifiable data about matter, life and mind, it is merely generates “a sectional view of Reality”. He then delineates the limitations of natural sciences: “... the moment you ask the question how matter, life, and mind are mutually related, you begin to see the sectional character of the various sciences that deal with them and the inability of these sciences, taken singly, to furnish a complete answer to your question.”[29]

Muhammad Hamidullah, perhaps the best Muslim scholar of the twentieth century to write in French, delivered a series of twelve lectures at the Islamia University Bahawalpur, Pakistan in March 1980.[30] The lectures, delivered without even the help of notes, covered a vast range of areas, ranging from the history of the Qur’an to the educational system in Islam and they truly reflect the depth and breadth of a unique scholar who has devoted his life to solitary pursuit of scholarship. Each lecture was followed by a question-answer session. During the question-answered session that followed the lecture on “Religion”, someone asked Dr. Hamidullah: “If Darwin’s theory of evolution is correct from the scientific point of view, there is conflict between science and Islam. Kindly explain.”

Dr. Hamiduallah’s answer is totally astonishing. He said:

It has been presumed that Darwin’s theory has been rejected by Islam. It appears to create complications for us because we presume that Darwin was an atheist, although he believed in God. When he completed his medical education and entered his family profession, Darwin went through a metamorphosis. Being sick of the world he became interested in God. He studied Christianity in the Faculty of Religion at the University of Cambridge. Comparative Religion was one of the subjects taught in the University. Darwin also learned Arabic in order to understand Islam. In the collection of his letters that have been published, a number of them are addressed to his Arabic teacher. They are couched in extremely reverent and respectful language.[31]


This is indeed an amazing statement that belies all known facts about Darwin and what is more disturbing is the authoritarian tone of the statement. Dr. Hamidullah then goes on to state another astonishing theory:

Among the text books prescribed for Arabic studies at that time were selections either from The Epistles of Ikhwan al-Safa’’ [Brethren of Purity] or al-Fawz al-Asghar of Ibn Maskawayh. Both the books mention the theory of evolution. Nobody ever criticized their Muslim authors on this account nor were they dubbed as unbelievers. The books in question belong to the third or fourth century of the Hijrah.[32]

One can only say that it must have been the blind desire to accommodate Darwin within the Islamic worldview that produced this statement for it is inconceivable that Dr. Hamidullah would not know about the true nature of this theory or hundreds of criticisms that exist on The Epistles of the Brethren of Purity, including the well-known and reasoned attack of al-Ghazali who states in his al-Munqidh min al-Dalal: “Among them [the Taclimites] was one who claimed to know some of their lore. But the substance of what he mentioned was a bit of the feeble philosophy of Pythagoras. The latter was one of the early ancients, and his doctrine is the feeblest of all philosophical doctrines. Aristotle had already refuted him and had even regarded his teaching as weak and contemptible. Yet this is what is followed in the book of the Brethren of Purity, and it is really the refuse of philosophy. One can only marvel at a man who spends a weary lifetime in the quest for knowledge and then is content with such flaccid and thin stuff! Yet he thinks he has attained the utmost reaches of knowledge!”[33]

Dr. Hamidullah then elucidates the theory contained in “these books” which, according to him,

state that God first created matter and invested it with energy for development. Matter, therefore, adopted the form of vapour which assumed the shape of water in due time. The next stage of development was mineral life. Different kinds of stones developed in course of time. Their highest form being mirjan (coral). It is a stone which has in it branches like those of a tree. After mineral life evolves vegetation. The evolution of vegetation culminates with a tree which bears the qualities of an animal. This is the date-palm. It has male and female genders. It does not wither if all its branches are chopped but it dies when the head is cut off. The date-palm is therefore considered the highest among the trees and resembles the lowest among animals. Then is born the lowest of animals. It evolves into an ape. This is not the statement of Darwin. This is what Ibn Maskawayh states and this is precisely what is written in the Epistles of Ikhwan al-Safa’’. The Muslim thinkers state that ape then evolved into a lower kind of a barbarian man. He then became a superior human being. Man becomes a saint, a prophet. He evolves into a higher stage and becomes an angel. The one higher to angels is indeed none but God. Everything begins from Him and everything returns to Him.[34]

This statement, which even does not state the thesis propounded by Ikhwan, as we will see shortly, is revealing for it shows how certain Muslim thinkers can “Islamize Darwinism”. But what follows is even more revealing of this attitude.

Dr. Hamidullah states that

when all this has been stated by Muslim thinkers and no Muslim scholar ever took them to task for making such statements, one should pause and ponder over these facts. In the Qur’an it is stated that God made man out of clay. Our concept of the creation of man is that God, like a potter, molded clay into shape and breathed His spirit into it and Adam was thus created. Possible this was the process but what does one do with verses 18:37, 22:5, 35:11, 40:67 which state time and again that God created man from clay and sperm? It is obvious that clay does not create sperm; it comes from an animal and a human being. It means that the mention of all intermediary stages of evolution has been omitted and attention is drawn to the original source which is clay. The last cause is the sperm of man which stays in the womb of a woman.[35]

But perhaps the worst example of this attitude is the definition of evolution that he produced from the Qur’an: “Take yet another verse of the Qur’an (71:14): “He created you in stages”. The word tawr is the basis of tatawwur which means evolution.”[36]

This is then further defended: “This can also mean that God created man as a mineral in the first instance. Minerals developed into vegetation which developed into animal life. There is no contradiction.”[37]

We wish to look at work of Brethren cited by Dr. Hamidullah in detail and examine his claim in the light of Islamic scientific tradition which has, as one of its most consistent themes, the study of Nature within the general cosmological principles which dealt with the generation and corruption of beings but let us first state the main thesis of this paper.

[1] Svante Cornell and Igvar Svanberg, “Turkey”, in Westerlund, David and Svanberg, Ingvar (eds.) ,  Islam Outside the Arab World,, Surrey: Curzon, 1999, p. 128

[2] Ziadat, Adel A., Western Science in the Arab World--The Impact of Darwinism, 1860-1930, London: Macmillan Press, 1986, p. 2

[3] Al-Afghani, Jamal al-Din, Al-Radd ala Dahriyyin (Refutation of Materialists), Cairo: 1955, quoted from Ziadat, op. cit. p. 85

[4] Quoted from Ziadat, op. cit. p. 86

[5] Ibid, p. 87

[6] See al-Makhzumi, Muhammad, (ed.) Khatirat al-Afhgani, “The Thought of Afghani”, Cairo: 1931, quoted from Ziadat, op. cit.

[7] A Hamedian Essay on the Truthfulness of Islamic Religion and the Truthfulness of Islamic Law, Beirut: 1887; Hamid in the title refers to al-Jisr’s patron Sultan cAbd al-Hamid.

[8] Al-Jis, Risalah, op. cit. p. 298, quoted from Ziadet, op. cit. p. 94.

[9] Ibid. p. 94

[10] Baghdad, 1914, hereafter al-Naqd .and quoted from Ziadat.

[11] Ibid. p. 103

[12] Cairo: 1924, cited by Ziadet, p. 110.

[13] Ibid, 114

[14] Mazhar, Ismacil, Malqa al-Sabil fi Madhhab al-Nushu wa al-Irtiqa, Cairo: 1926, quoted by Ziadet, p. 114.

[15] Ibid. 116

[16]In the political arena, there has a long tradition of declaring Islam-oriented parties illegal. The Progressive Republican Party, the Free Republican Party and the National Party were all banned before 1955. The National Order Party was outlawed in 1971. The National Salvation Party (NSP) became popular in the 1970’s but on September 12, 1980 a military coup crushed it, its leaders were persecuted and imprisoned and the military, which is the stronghold of Kemalists, tried to push the country into the secular state model. The most recent example of this tradition of outlawing Islamic parties is the ban on the Welfare party on February 28, 1997.

[17] Ümit Sayin and Aykut Kence, “Islamic Scientific Creationism: A New Challenge in Turkey”, in Reports of the National Center for Science Education, vol. 19, no. 6, Nov/Dec. 1999, pp.18-29. This issue of the Reports has extensive coverage on the fierce battle being fought in Turkey between the proponents and foes of evolution.

[18] Report, op. cit. p. 16

[19] ibid. p. 16

[20] ibid. p. 16

[21] Complete text of the declaration is available at:


[22] It must be pointed here that the actual time of the oft repeated notion of decline of science in the Muslim world is highly disputable. Historians of science have been continuously revising this date as more manuscripts come to light. We know for sure that Nasir al-Din Tusi(1201-1274), known to his compatriots as Muhaqqiq-i Tusi, Khwaja-yi Tusi or Khwaja Naisr, the famous student of Farid al-Din al-Damad--who was linked to Ibn Sina through four intermediaries--has left nearly 150 treatises and letters (25 in Persian, the rest in Arabic) most of which deal with advanced theories in geometry, astronomy and mathematics. For example, in his outstanding treatment of the relationship between logic and mathematics, Tusi elucidates the conditional conjunctive conjunctive (iqtirani) syllogism; he converts logical terms into mathematical signs and gives precise definitions of these signs. With his colleagues at Maraghah, Tusi began to develop computational mathematics that was later pursued by al-Kashi and other mathematicians of Timurid period. And as Nasr points out in his outstanding The Islamic Intellectual Tradition in Persia (ed. by Mehdi Amin Razavi, Richmond: Curzon Press, 1996), it is Tusi’s Shakl al-qita’ to which we owe the beginning of trignometery as an independent branch of pure mathematics. Tusi’s experimental work in astronomy not only continues the long tradition of Islamic astronomy but crowns it. With the support and financial assistance of Hulagu, he was able to supervise the construction of the first modern observatory. But more than that, the history of this outstanding institution clearly establishes the fact of that even at that late date, there existed a research institution that brought together scientists and philosophers of the first rank. Those who were associated with the observatory included Qutb al-Din al-Shirazi, Muhyi al-Din al-Maghribi, Fakhr al-Din al-Maraghi, Mu’ayyad al-Din al-cUrdi, cAli ibn cUmmr al-Qazwini, Najm al-Din Dabiran al-Katibi al-Qazwini, Athir al-Din al-Abhari, Tusi’s sons Asil al-Din and Sadr al-Din, the Chinese scholar Fao Munji and the librarian Kemal al-Din al-Ayki. The instruments used in the Observatory included a giant mural quadrant, an armillary sphere with five rings and an alidade, a solstitial armill, an azimuth ring with two quadrants, and a paralactic ruler. (Nasr, op. cit. p. 211). What is meant here is no more than the fact that during the time of Darwin, there was virtually no experimental science left in the Muslim world.

[23] Safavids began as a Sufi brotherhood which traced its lineage (and name) to Shaykh Safi al-Din Ardibili (647/1249-735/1334), whose tomb in Ardibil remains an important place of pilgrimage. He was the disciple of Shaykh Zahid Gilani. Safavid developed into a well-organized political force. The Sufi order continued under the spiritual guidance of a series of descendants of Shaykh Safi. In the ninth/fifteenth century, its members adopted a twelve-sided red hat (for which they became known as the qizil-bash (red heads). Under Shah Ismacil (892/1487-930/1523-24), Safavids succeeded in unifying the whole of Persia for the first time since the fall of Sassanid Empire. The crowning of Shah Ismacil (905/1499) in Tabriz marks the proper beginning of the Safavid reign which lasted until 1133/1720 when the Afghans conquered Persia, sacked the Safavid capital at Isfahan and killed Shah Sultan Husayn, the last of the Safavid rulers. It was during the Safavid rule that Persia became completely Twelve-Imam Shicah.

[24] The Islamic Intellectual Tradition in Persia, op. cit. pp.248-49.

[25] The Islamic Intellectual Tradition in Persia, op. cit. 306.

[26] For example, the millinery of Ibn Sina held at the Tehran University in 1951 during which many of his works as well as works on him were republished, the seven hundredth anniversary of Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, the four hundredth anniversary of Mulla Sadra (1961) which triggered a series of publications on him, the eleven hundredth anniversary of Muhammad ibn Zakariyya al-Razi (1965), the hundredth anniversary celebration of the death of Hajji Mulla Hadi Sabziwari (organized by the Mashhad University in 1969) and the millinery of Shaykh Muhammad al-Tusi (Mashhad University, 1970).

[27] Iqbal, Muhammad Allama, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, ed. by M. Saeed Sheik, Lahore: Iqbal Academy, Pakistan and Institute of Islamic Culture, 1986, p.33 and 154; of the two, only the first has a discussion on biology, the second is merely a passing reference mentioned for the sake of pointing to Nietzsche’s failure to grasp the spiritual aspects of Reality.

[28] ibid, p.33

[29] ibid, p. 33-34

[30] These twelve lectures were first published in original Urdu and later translated into English by Afzal Iqbal as The Emergence of Islam, Lectures on the Development of Islamic World-view, Intellectual Tradition and Polity, Islamabad: Islamic Research Institute, 1993.

[31]          Emergence of Islam, op. cit. 143-144

[32]          ibid. 144.

[33] al-Ghazali, Al-Munqidh min Al-Dalal, tr. by Richard Joseph McCarthy as Freedom and Fulfillment, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980, p. 89

[34] ibid, 144.

[35] ibid. 144-145

[36] ibid. p. 145

[37] ibid. 145