Evolution and Islam
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Traditional and modern academic scholars understand the Quranic accounts of the creation of man, and of his sustenance growing from the earth, as special acts of creation, in line with the Judeo-Christian worldview prevalent in its late antique milieu (such as the very ancient belief that the first man was created from clay). In modern times, such interpretations of the Quran are widely regarded to be in conflict with the scientific theory of evolution. A common trend among modern Islamic scholars is to deny evolution as a scientific fact, at least with regard to the origins of mankind, even if evolution may be accepted as an explanation for the diversity of plants and other animals on Earth. A further, modernist approach, is to not only partially or fully embrace the theory of evolution as compatible with the Quran, but even to interpret its verses as alluding to the process. This article describes the verses and arguments that are sometimes employed for such purposes, as well as those cited by critics to challenge these interpretations.
Evolution of modern humans
While the study of human evolution is a field regularly enriched by new discoveries and uncertainty regarding the exact ancestral relationships between the various hominid species, there is a scientific consensus on common ancestry - that humans evolved as part of the family tree of life on Earth. It is beyond the scope of this article to provided detailed evidence of human evolution. It suffices to point out that the fact that modern humans evolved and share a common ancestor with all life on earth is backed by multiple lines of evidence, including overwhelming DNA evidence and the numerous fossils of pre-Homo sapiens species that lived on earth for millions of years prior to the evolution of modern humans.
To give just a couple of examples, powerful DNA evidence that humans have common ancestry with other primates includes endogenous retroviruses. These viral remnants in our genome are now thought to have played a role in our evolutionary development in many cases, but must have been passed down after infecting the germline cells of our common ancestors shared with various other primates. We know this because they appear in the exact same locations of our genome and that of certain primate families. Additionally, for the most part they correlate with what is expected from other evidence regarding the timing of the various points at which each primate family split off from our own lineage (or are otherwise explained by independent evidence). Another powerful genetic line of evidence is the fusion of two primate chromosomes to become chromosome 2 in humans.
Quranic verses about the creation of Adam and mankind's descent from him
Quran 32:7 et al. - Creation of the first man from clay
Since this verse says Allah "began" the creation of man from clay, it does not seem to leave a role for earlier ancestors in the beginnings of humanity prior to Adam.
One modern interpretation of this verse claims that instead of clay being a building material for the first man, the word "began" refers rather to the earliest pools of water and clay where life began according to one scientific theory (ultimately leading to the evolution of humans). But there is no major model of abiogenesis which considers clay itself essential for life (as opposed to a replication surface or catalyst).
More importantly, the very next verse clarifies that this refers to the first man, since his descendents are created from conventional sexual reproduction:
The word translated “seed” in Pickthall's translation quoted here is nasl نسل, which means progeny (i.e. descendants).
Even more explicitly, a few verses state that Adam was made from clay:
Other verses are quite specific that Allah created man with his "hands" from clay or mud as a material:
Academic scholars have noticed another parallel between the Quranic stories of Adam and Jesus. In Quran 3:49 and Quran 5:110 Jesus is said to have miraculously created birds with Allah's permission by forming them out of dust or clay, then breathing into them. See the section on Jesus and the Clay Birds in the article Parallels Between the Qur'an and Late Antique Judeo-Christian Literature.
Quran 7:27 et al. - All people are descended from Adam and Eve
The Quran is explicit that every person alive is ultimately descended from Adam and his spouse alone.
Y-chromosomal Adam, Mitochondrial Eve, and the minimum population bottleneck
Some modern Muslim scholars argue that the notion of two ancestral “parents” is consistent with recent scientific findings that show a common female and male ancestor of all modern humans. This results, however, from a confusion with the nicknames (Mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosomal Adam) by which scientists have referred to human's earliest genetic ancestors. These two individuals, however, are distinct from the Quranic characters as they are simply the last common male and female ancestors of everyone alive today and not of all humans in history. More importantly, whereas the Qur'an describes Adam and his mate (who, notably, was created after him and from him), Mitochondrial Eve lived some 50,000 to 80,000 years earlier than Y-chromosomal Adam.
Genetic evidence also overwhelmingly indicates that humans diverged from earlier species as a population rather than as a single couple.
Special creation of sustenance
The Quranic six day creation account describes in Quran 41:9-10 a four day period during which the nourishment on Earth and its mountains were created. The next two verses Quran 41:11-12 then describe the creation of the heavens in two days. Scientifically, however, the evolution of life on earth and food chains is an ongoing process which has never ceased.
Quranic verses purported to mention evolution
Quran 29:19-20 et al. - Repeated creation
At least one or some combination of the verses set out in this section are typically quoted by proponents of evolution (or human evolution) in the Quran because they mention that Allah "repeats" his creation. Supposedly, this sounds a bit like evolution. However, this is a distortion of the verses, which are about a future creation of each person after their death. This is so that they can return to Allah after death and be condemned or rewarded. This purpose is most explicit in the first verse quoted below, Q. 10:4. As with some of the other passages quoted in this article, according to classical commentaries these verses are concerned with the future resurrection of the dead. Indeed, the Quran has many other verses aimed at critics who doubted the possibility of resurrection. None of the verses unambiguously mention repeated creation as having occurred in the past on Earth.
In all of the verses quoted in this section, the verb "repeat" has the Arabic form IV imperfect tense. The form I imperfect tense is used for "begins" creation in each verse (except for Q. 21:104, which uses the perfect tense). The Form IV imperfect is also used for "will produce" in Q. 29:20. This grammatical information can be verified by following the links for each verse and viewing the "Roots" metadata. In Quranic Arabic, tense (or aspect) is a complicated topic still debated by academic scholars, giving rise to different English translations. Nevetheless, the imperfect tense can certainly serve a number of purposes including to indicate future events.
At least one commonly cited verse points to existing creation as an analogy to the repeated creation which will come on the day of resurrection. Certainly, the listener is asked to observe the original creation, though it is unclear whether they are also able to observe repeated creation already on Earth:
Two similar examples are:
Another verse sheds some light on the possible referent for this analogy (if indeed any of these verses at all mention repeated creation that has already occurred on Earth).
Another possibility occurs elsewhere (again, if existing repeated creation is meant at all). The first two verses are similar to others which detail the destruction and replacement of former faithless and disobedient peoples:
Then the end of those who did evil was the worst [consequence] because they denied the signs of Allah and used to ridicule them.Allah begins creation; then He will repeat it; then to Him you will be returned.
In Middle Eastern antiquity, the Great Flood (not evolution) was accepted as the reversal of creation, and the survival of Noah was the new creation. Since the Qur'an supports this story, this may also have been considered an existing example of repeated creation.
Quran 71:13-14 - Creation in stages
The word translated "stages" is aṭwāran (أَطْوَارًا), which means states or conditions There is no evidence given anywhere to indicate that these stages refer to evolution. Indeed, in responding to their lack of faith, these verses expect the Quran's 7th century listeners to understand the meaning, which could hardly then be evolution. The tafsir of Ibn Kathir suggests that the topic may have been the stages of embryology described elsewhere in the Quran. Since this verse comes immediately after a speech by Noah to his people, alternatively it could be a reference to the pre and post-flood stages of mankind's history.
A few verses which occur almost immediately afterwards (following a brief interlude about the seven heavens) may shed light on the correct interpretation:
These verses poetically mirror the original creation of man from mud or clay (according to tafsirs) with the burial of the dead back into the ground, and finally their future resurrection therefrom.
Perhaps the most likely interpretation then is that verses 13-14 refer to the existing and new creations of each person on the day of resurrection. This would be in keeping with the repeated creation theme of many other verses (discussed in the previous section above).
Quran 6:2 - Allah decreed a term for us
This is an outright mistranslation and Muslim apologists even insert some words of their own liking in parentheses. You can see the valid translations here. A more typical and accurate translation is as follows (Sahih international):
Such language in typical of the Quran when it speaks of the time given to each person before his death or the time mankind has on Earth more generally before the last day. These are also the interpretations of this verse found in tafsirs.
Quran 6:133 - Raised from the posterity of earlier people
The phrase "raised you up from the posterity of other people" has been claimed to describe the hominid ancestors of man. However, it is in keeping with several descriptions of destroyed cities elsewhere in the Qur'an, all of which are attributed to Allah (for example the people of 'Ad as successors of Thamud, or the destruction of everyone except Noah and his family by the flood). Even supposing that the verse relates modern humans to earlier hominid species, other verses discussed above nevertheless trace mankind ultimately to the creation of Adam from clay, which is not compatible with the common ancestry of all life on Earth.
Quran 56:60-62 - Transformation of humans
This verse is also sometimes cited as a reference to human evolution. However, the context is clear a few verses earlier in Quran 56:47 that this is in fact the Quran's answer to critics who mocked the idea of a final resurrection of the dead ("And they used to say, "When we die and become dust and bones, are we indeed to be resurrected?"). This is also the interpretation found in classical commentaries such as the Tafsir of Ibn Kathir which says that death and transformation here pertain to the Day of Judgement.
Quranic verses purported to mention the origin of life
Quran 21:30 and 24:45 - All living things made from water
The key to understanding the meaning of these verses is the context apparent in the first verse, 21:30, which is about the creation of the world. Academic scholar Gabriel Said Reynolds notes in his academic commentary on the Quran an earlier parallel taught by the Syriac church father Ephrem (d. 373 CE). He writes, "[...] Ephrem, who explains that God created everything through water: 'Thus, through light and water the earth brought forth everything.' Ephrem, Commentary on Genesis, 1:1-10)."
Ephrem's comment is in the context of the Genesis creation story, much like the first Quranic verse quoted above, 21:30. Ephrem says that when heaven and earth were created there were no trees or vegetation as it had not yet rained, so a fountain irrigated the earth. Tafsirs say that when the heaven and earth were separated rain fell so that plants could grow. There is also a similarity with Ephrem in the other verse (24:45), which mentions creatures that move on two, four or no legs. Ephrem explains that as well as the "trees, vegetation and plants", the "Scripture wishes to indicate that all animals, reptiles, cattle and birds came into being as a result of the combining of earth and water". For many more parallels between the Quran and Syriac Christian literature see this article.
The tafsir notionally attributed to Ibn Abbas contains yet another interpretation, that Q. 21:30 refers to the dependence of all living things on water. There is nothing miraculous about the claim that water is a constituent of living things or that it is important for their survival. In fact, the Greek philosopher Empedocles had already proposed that all living things are made from water among other substances, hundreds of years before the Qur'an was revealed., while the ancient Greek philosopher Anaximander proposed that the first living creatures were made from evapourated water.
Scientifically, it is widely believed that life originated in water, most prominently in theories involving the heat and chemistry environment at submarine hydrothermal vents, or alternatively hot springs on the surface of the early Earth. However, there is no standard model of the origin of life that is accepted among scientists. Some of the models without water (or having important substances other than water) are listed below.
The "deep-hot biosphere" model says that life first developed not on the surface of the Earth, but several kilometers below the surface. The discovery in the late 1990s of nanobes in deep rock might be seen as evidence. It is now well established that microbial life is plentiful up to 5km below the surface of the Earth.
The "Zn-World" model postulates that zinc salts have the unique ability to store radiation energy, e.g. provided by UV light which was 10 to 100 times more intense in the distant past than now and provided the ideal energy conditions for the synthesis of informational and metabolic molecules. The primordial atmosphere was rich in carbon dioxide and the chemistry of water condensates and exhalations near geothermal fields would resemble that of modern cells. Ionic composition conducive to the origin of cells is shown to be more compatible with emissions of zones that have today become inland geothermal systems than with marine settings. The precellular stages of evolution may have taken place in shallow "Darwin-ponds" lined with porous silicates, metal sulfides, zinc, potassium, and phosphorus compounds.
There is also a "Primitive extraterrestrial organisms" model, which finds support in the studies of Martian meteorites found in Antarctica and in studies of some microbes' survival in outer space. Studies which apply the equivalent of Moore's Law to evolution have proposed that life began 9.7 billion years ago, billions of years before the Earth was formed. Life may have started "from systems with single heritable elements."
Different forms of life with variable origin processes may have appeared simultaneously in the early history of Earth.
Scientists have discovered petroleum-degrading bacteria that can live without water.
Lastly, even though water is a necessity for animals and plants to thrive, it would be a stretch of imagination to say that it is a more defining characteristic of life on Earth, than say, DNA.
Quran 71:17-18 - Growth from the Earth
This verse is sometimes claimed to contain an inkling of evolution from the simplest lifeforms to humans, though it remains hard to see how "a growth from the Earth" could be interpreted in an evolutionary context given that in the tree of life, the animal kingdom has a common ancestor with the kingdoms of plants and fungi, but does not descend from them. These verses are, however, consistent with the story of the creation of Adam from dust or clay, which is the interpretation found in classical commentaries for these verses. Even supposing it is possible to interpret them in isolation as a reference to evolution, the fact remains that some of the other verses discussed in this article explicitly trace all human descent to a single couple, and state that Adam was specially created from clay. Indeed, Q. 71:17-18 quoted here poetically mirrors the original creation of man from mud or clay with the burial of the dead back into the ground, and finally their future resurrection.
Quran 4:1 - Creation from a single soul
Major translators write the Arabic phrase nafsin wāḥidatin as "single being", "one soul" or "one person". Other translators use "self" or even "cell". Any claim of this verse referring to earliest unicellular lifeforms is contradictory both to the rest of the verse ("many men and women") as well as another verse, 7:189, in which this soul and its mate have sex, a pregnancy and invoke Allah about their child:
If this verse is about the first unicellular organism, then the claim of it having a mate must also be true. But the earliest organisms were prokaryotes whose reproduction is overwhelmingly asexual; they do not have any mates.
Regarding 7:189, all the classical exegetes state that this “single soul” (نَّفْسٍ وَٰحِدَةٍ ) refers to Adam. Both classical Sunni and Shia Tafsirs confirm this.
All Mankind are the Offspring of AdamAllah states that He has created all mankind from Adam, peace be upon him, and from Adam, He created his wife, Hawwa' and from them, people started to spread.
قال أبو جعفر: يقول تعالى ذكره: ﴿هو الذي خلقكم من نفس واحدة﴾ ، يعني بالنفس الواحدة: آدم
Abu Ja'afar said: "Allah the Most High mentioned it: "He who created you from one soul" meaning by means of one soul: Adam.
المَسْألَةُ الأُولى: المَرْوِيُّ عَنِ ابْنِ عَبّاسٍ ﴿هُوَ الَّذِي خَلَقَكم مِن نَفْسٍ واحِدَةٍ﴾ وهي نَفْسُ آدَمَ
The first issue: Almarwi from ibn 'Abaas: "He who created you from one soul" and this soul is the soul of Adam.
The saying of Allah the Most High: "he who created you from one soule"--the community of mufassirun has said: the intended meaning is by means of one soul, Adam.
See also: The Tafsirs of Qurtubi, Uthaymeen, Qummi (Shia), Tusi (Shia), Tabrisi (Shia)
Additionally, there are even Mutawatir hadith narrations (mass transmitted reports) attributed to Muhammad which allude to the belief that Adam is theologically the first human in existence. One such narration can be found here:
Ibn Kathir classified this Hadith as Mutawatir in his book Al Bidayaah wan Niyaah.
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