by Animah Ferrer, guest columnist.
The controversial “creation or evolution” debate, originating in the West, is one that continues to draw heated and apparently irreconcilable arguments. Perhaps if it were discussed more openly and rationally a broader, a less antagonistic perspective might be achieved. While Europe experienced a dramatic parting of the ways between faith and science, Islam has always held that science is not inherently against faith, but rather plays an important role in supporting and strengthening it.
Personally I have never felt that the theory of evolution is diametrically or incontrovertibly opposed to the idea of Creation by Allah. However, since it is evidently a hot topic, I looked up some of the relevant verses in the Qur’an and tried to understand the possibilities of meaning from there.
I should emphasize that I am not a scientist, and therefore my comments do not refer to any particular theory of evolution, but only to the general idea of a gradual evolutionary process of creation.
There are several issues at play:
- What is the purpose of the Universe?
- How did Creation take place?
- How does man [I use this term generically, encompassing men and women] fit into the Universe?
The Qur’an explains and discusses all of these, and it is clear that they are interconnected.
The Qur’an and the Human Person
Firstly, the universe was created for man, in the sense that it was created specially to be a testing ground for man, so that man could, of his own free will, manifest his true humanity. Despite its perfection, its immense complexity and its stunning beauty, it only gains its meaningfulness from its habitation by man. In other words, man completes the universe (by Allah’s design).
Man himself is, physiologically, a part of the universe. He was “moulded from clay” – indicating that he is made from basic elements existing, in a multitude of combinations, in the universe. Numerous passages in the Qur’an (e.g. Q. 16: 5-8, 10-18) emphasise how Allah has created the universe to be “subservient” to man – that is, easy for him to use to support his life and enjoy its conveniences and comforts (therefore enabling him to fulfil the higher tasks that Allah decreed for him).
The Qur’an mentions things like rain which enables crops to grow; fish from the sea, and milk and meat (and transport) from cattle; coral and pearls from the sea to make ornaments; plants which are “alike yet unalike” – there are botanical laws which enable man to understand plant life and therefore practice agriculture successfully; the stars which, having a fixed arrangement in the sky and following regular trajectories, can be used for finding one’s way. And so on.
Secondly, let us consider the act or process of Creation. Importantly, for our purpose here, the Qur’an specifically states that, a) It took a long but indeterminate time to create; and b) The process of creation by Allah is on-going.
Q. 32: 4 states that Allah completed the creation of the universe in “six days”; 32: 5 (about Allah’s continued control of the universe) also talks about a “day”, saying that it is equivalent to 1,000 years by man’s way of reckoning. 70: 4 mentions a “day” (in exactly the same context) as being equivalent 50,000 years. In other verses elsewhere, Allah’s control and command take only “the twinkling of an eye”.
The message seems to that Allah’s “time” is not something which can be accurately measured using empirical methods. However, all the references to creation indicate that it was a long process, and very carefully ordered, step by step, so that the whole, and every detail within that whole, would be perfect, and each part, element or form perfectly integrated into the whole.
Q. 32: 7-9 goes on to describe the creation of man. “He who created all things in the best way, and He began the creation of man from clay/ And made his progeny from a quintessence of despised fluid/ But He fashioned him in due proportion, and breathed into him of His spirit. And He gave you (the faculties of) hearing and sight and understanding [or discernment]. Little thanks do you give!”
Thus we see that, while physiologically man is just another part of the rest of the universe, he has been distinguished by Allah from other beings, by being given additional unique faculties, which are to enable him to fulfil his true purpose in life: to obey and worship Allah of his own free will (Q. 51: 56 – “I have not created jinn and men to any other purpose that they should worship Me.”), and thus achieve success in this life and the next. Q. 82: 7 confirms this: “(Allah) Who has created you, and formed you in accordance with what you are meant to be, and shaped your nature in just proportions…” Part of this worship consists of recognizing, fitting into, and enhancing the manifestation of that purpose of the universe. People who wilfully and persistently refuse to do this are described as “spreading corruption on the earth”, which I think is a very apt phrase.
This higher level of human character and life is indicated by other verses in the Qur’an, which describe the human faculties of sight and hearing as being not just physical, but closely linked to the accompanying faculty of understanding or discernment. And in other passages the related faculties of gathering and analysing knowledge together with the ability to record and communicate this knowledge with others are mentioned (for example, 96: 4-5, and 5: 1-4). Also implied in these faculties is a built-in awareness of right and wrong, and of the existence of Allah as well as of “the unseen” – that is, of matters beyond mere empirical knowledge.
This unique ability to gather knowledge, to think and to communicate that knowledge and the fruits of that thinking to others, is mentioned in conjunction with the creation of Adam and Eve: “And He taught Adam the names of all things.” (Q. 2: 31). This then marks Adam as the first of the species commonly called homo sapiens
; however, nowhere in the Qur’an is it stated that there were no other hominids residing in our world before the emergence of homo sapiens
Creation as a Process
Another passage indicates clearly that Allah’s act of creation is an on-going process. “See they not how Allah originates creation, then repeats it? Truly, that is easy for Allah/ Say, ‘Travel through the earth and see how Allah did originate creation; so will Allah produce a later creation; for Allah has power over all things…” (29: 19-20), “…who originates Creation, then repeats it…?” (27: 64), and, “It is He who begins the process of creation, and repeats it…” (10: 4).
With regards to Adam, it is worth noting that some reputable scholars are of the opinion that the mention of “Adam” in the Qur’an sometimes means humankind in general rather than an individual (and the same therefore goes for Eve. This is true of Q. 2: 30-39 (about the creation of Adam), and 3: 59, for example. Could this, then, be a symbolic reference to the appearance of homo sapiens
in the world? “O humankind! Behold, We have created you all out of a male and a female, and We have made you into nations and tribes…” (Q. 49: 13). Mention of Adam as the first prophet could, in this case, be meant to indicate that Revelation was sent to intelligent man from the earliest times, wherever he resided.
This refutes the long-held theory (which is in any case now being questioned), that man started off by having “primitive” religions, and gradually worked things out for themselves, ending up with more sophisticated belief systems and forms of worship. The Qur’an, on the other hand, seems to indicate that man received Revelation from the earliest times, but many communities, through neglect or wilfully for worldly reasons, subsequently corrupted those Revelations and abandoned the accompanying forms of worship.
Revelation and Evolution
Returning to our topic of evolution, it is interesting to note that even Revelation itself, sent to mankind (homo sapiens
) over the ages has undergone a process of evolution. The Qur’an tells us several times that the basic
message sent from Allah since the beginning of human time has never changed – believe in Allah the One, and in the Day of Judgment, and do good in the world. However, it is known that the rituals and requirements given to the people of each prophet were not the same; neither were any of the earlier Revelations anywhere near as comprehensive as the Qur’an, in terms of either contents or explanation. Nevertheless, the Qur’an tells us repeatedly that each of these messages was equally valid, and all prophets equally noble in Allah’s eyes, and all must therefore be duly respected.
Since each Revelation was sent to a specific community, the details of belief and practise were made suitable to the needs, environment and capabilities of that people, especially since the Qur’an also states that no community was left without a Revelation; this indicates that the chain and interrelatedness of all Revelation is not restricted to the Middle East, the home of the Abrahamic faiths and of other prophets mentioned in the Qur’an.
Only by the time of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), the final prophet, was the complete and timeless form revealed and explained (in great detail) to man, because by this time, also, the ability to record, communicate and disseminate the message was adequately and widely developed. They also had the intellectual capacity to comment on it, sharing the thoughts, opinions and ideas of scholars from many parts of the world, so that it would remain dynamic and flexible, and yet at the same time remain true to its fundamental, unchanging message, including its spirit.
Even the Qur’an itself was revealed step by step (see Q. 15: 9), so that there was time for the followers to fully understand each part as it was revealed and gradually adapt their way of life accordingly, first as individuals, and later as a community.
Finally, a concluding thought for my fellow Muslims: aren’t the lives of each of us equally a gradual evolution, a step-by-step personal journey of self-realization, guided by Allah in the same wise, meticulous and compassionate way He designed and created the universe for us?