There is a Muslim in evolution class

Published: March 11, 2012
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A new conversation must be started about what it means to be a person of faith and yet practice science. PHOTO: AFP

Protest is becoming a fanatical obsession within Islamic discourse. In recent news, British Muslim students have been walking out and boycotting biology lectures that focus on the theory of evolution. Before we revert to citing the phenomenon of religious fundamentalism let us remind ourselves these are students that are clearly intelligent enough to study medicine in one of the most competitive universities within the country.

Clearly, we must move beyond stereotypical divisions of ‘faith vs. reason’. This is a complex issue because the issue here is clearly not about intelligence, scientific curiosity, hard work or open enquiry. These British Muslim students have enrolled and successfully qualified for these courses beating thousands of other applicants by exhibiting these very qualities. So calling these individuals backward or insulting their intelligence in any other similar type of fashion is wrong.

Having said that, I myself, as a British Muslim student studying medicine deeply disagree with this walkout; protest cannot be the way we engage with new scientific discoveries. Our faith cannot be so weak and so fragile that it shatters at the first sight of apparent contradiction and doubt. It cannot be held hostage to reactionary forces that channel emotional frustrations at the state of Muslim power in the world. Instead of seeking head on confrontation; dialogue must be sought for.

A new conversation must be started about what it means to be a person of faith and yet practice science. What are the possible interactions between faith and science? Are faith and science talking about the same questions or are they addressing different dimensions of human existence? Only by asking questions can we shed light on these difficult and complex issues. Simple yes or no answers cannot suffice or be satisfactory.

But the issue at hand is more theological and philosophical. Allama Iqbal in his work ‘’Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam’’ argued that,

“The task before the modern Muslim is, therefore, immense. He has to re-think the whole system of Islam without completely breaking with the past”, and furthermore,

“The only course open to us is to approach modern knowledge with a respectful but independent attitude and to appreciate the teachings of Islam in the light of that knowledge, even though we may be led to differ from those who have gone before us.”

The need of the hour is intellectual integrity; there must be some substance to the idea that evolution is a credible way of describing the intricate process of life if it has the support of leading scientists and institutions. Denying this is simply harboring a victim mentality and fostering an atmosphere of conspiracy that fuels paranoia about the ‘West’ – instead we must address the difficult questions that the theory of evolution raises for people of faith and not just Muslims.

In this respect, we must adopt the open minded thinking of the first philosopher within Islam, Al Kindi, who famously remarked that;

“We must not be ashamed to admire the truth or to acquire it, from wherever it comes. Even if it should come from far-flung nations and foreign peoples, there is for the student of truth nothing more important than the truth, nor is the truth demeaned or diminished by the one who states or conveys it; no one is demeaned by the truth, rather all are ennobled by it.”

Ibn Rushd, the famous Muslim philosopher, cited support from the Quran to exercise philosophical investigation in his magisterial work, “On the Harmony of Religion and Philosophy”; 

We maintain that the business of philosophy is nothing other than to look into creation and to ponder over it in order to be guided to the Creator — in other words, to look into the meaning of existence; for the knowledge of creation leads to the cognizance of the Creator, through the knowledge of the created. The more perfect becomes the knowledge of creation, the more perfect becomes the knowledge of the Creator. The Law encourages and exhorts us to observe creation.’’

In the spirit of reconciling ourselves with intellectual integrity and remaining faithful to the One we must renew our theological and philosophical understanding of Islam. With patience, dialogue and integrity British Muslim students must engage positively with the scientific community instead of protesting against it. Intellectual renewal and exertion (ijtihad) can come about only in an atmosphere of mutual respect and tolerance.

What accounts for the rising influence of ‘’Islamic Creationism’’ are the works of Harun Yahya.

Interestingly, Yahya has no apparent credentials as a reputable scientist yet his word is taken as gospel truth by millions of Muslims. On issues of science instead of reading the work of leading scholars in the field and reputable journals increasing numbers of Muslims are turning to a person who is essentially an evangelical preacher. In another example of this ‘’cultural resistance’’ is when Usama Hasan a London Imam at the ‘’Masjid al-Tawhid mosque in Leyton, east London, and a senior engineering lecturer at Middlesex University’’ started receiving death threats for even suggesting that it may be possible to believe in both the theory of evolution and Islam. A disturbing trend, that highlights how Muslims increasingly put importance on the ‘’Islamicness’’ of an individual instead of their methodology and reasoning. Scientific debate is being hijacked increasingly by a fiery brand of emotional politics that blackmails Muslims into accepting creationist accounts because if they dare to disagree they have strayed from the ‘Straight Path’.

Islam itself is eternal, but our interpretation of it always remains time bound and error prone due to the fallible nature of human beings. In this respect, the work of the French Christian philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (The Phenomenon of Man) is a praiseworthy attempt at reconciling religious metaphysics with modern scientific knowledge. In the spirit of past Muslim thinkers and philosophers, who characterize the open nature of rational enquiry emphasized in the Noble Quran, that evolution must be discussed rather than automatically discarded.

Read more by Ali here. Follow him @AhmadAliKhalid.

 

 

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Ahmad Ali

A medical student and freelance writer who tweets @AhmadAliKhalid

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.