Professor Steve Jones is having trouble with students cutting class. This isn’t something stellar professors like Jones, who is well known in Great Britain for his popular science books and television appearances, are used to. His students aren’t skipping his lectures to stay in bed or go down to the pub. “They don’t come,” he told the London Sunday Times, “or they complain about it or they send notes or emails saying they shouldn’t have to learn this stuff.” The subject in question is evolution.
Based on the American experience, you might expect the absent students to be conservative Christians endorsing creationism. But they are not. Much of the British Evangelical intelligentsia accept Darwin’s theory wholeheartedly, and Catholics have not found a problem with it for several decades. “I had one or two slightly frisky discussions years ago with kids who belonged to fundamentalist Christian churches,” Jones told the Times. Nowadays, the creationists in Jones’ classes are Muslims. “It is a minority of students,” he says, but the minority “is definitely there and it is definitely growing.”
Jones must be mildly annoyed to have students boycott his classes. “I think if you are a creationist you are basically wrong and self-deluding,” he says, “but you are perfectly at liberty to go and study chemistry or English literature. But why study biology?”
For others, the situation is far more serious. In February last year, Dr. Usama Hasan was subjected to death threats for claiming that Darwinism is compatible with Islam. This didn’t happen in the Near East or Pakistan but in London, where Hasan used to lead Friday prayers at a Leyton mosque. Hasan, a senior lecturer at the University of Middlesex and a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, had made his views clear for years. Only recently have they led to his life being threatened.
The trouble started when a Saudi cleric, Salir al-Sadlan, visited England and declared that an imam should not believe in human evolution. Shortly afterward, a group of fifty protesters disrupted a lecture Hasan was delivering at his mosque. They handed out leaflets demanding the death penalty be applied to anyone who believes in or promulgates evolution. The mosque responded by removing him from his post for fomenting discord.
Rather than risk his family’s safety, he issued a formal statement on his blog: “I do not believe that Adam, peace be upon him, had parents.” In an interview with New Scientist a few months after his ordeal, Hasan said he would now need extra security at his home for life. He is not the only Muslim academic effectively silenced. “I have had a lot of support from Muslim scientists, but they wouldn’t speak out because they knew the reaction they were likely to get. They were scared.”
Even some of the best-educated English Muslims reject evolution. One of my own acquaintances, who in online debates calls himself Zameel, is a brilliant scholar at the University of Cambridge. But even this Muslim, working at Europe’s finest seat of learning, rejects evolution. For him, it is a weapon deployed by the West against Islam. “Darwin’s main use was in removing God as an explanation in biology,” he insists, “and for this reason any effort at challenging Darwin or Darwinism is shot down [by Western scientists] without any thought, as it is a direct assault on a central Western ‘myth.’”
By rejecting Darwinism, Zameel is simply repeating a view already well established within the Islamic world. It is easy to see why it continues to gain currency in England. Imams preaching at mosques in Britain tend to be trained in Muslim countries, and many do not even speak English. This means that attitudes formed in Pakistan or the Middle East are passed to the younger generation in Europe.
Most Muslims, as Hasan told New Scientist, “are taught that evolution is wrong, unproven, and a blasphemy.” A 2005 survey of religious commitment in Muslim-majority countries by the Australian sociologist Riaz Hassan found that over half of respondents in Indonesia, Pakistan, Turkey, Malaysia, and Egypt believed that Darwin’s theory of evolution “could not possibly be true.”
Despite their rejection of evolution, some Muslims make much of the alleged scientific accuracy of the Qur’an. In 1976, Maurice Bucaille, a French doctor who counted Anwar Sadat and King Faisal of Saudi Arabia among his patients, published The Bible, the Qur’an, and Science. In it, he made the claim that the Qu’ran is miraculously congruent with modern science. Bucaille’s book, widely read in the Islamic world, gave birth to an entire school of apologetics that celebrates the scientific content of the Qur’an. For example, “The Originator of the heavens and the earth! When he decrees a thing, he says only: ‘Be!’ And it is” (2:117) is taken as a reference to the Big Bang.
For many Muslims, this is evidence that the Qur’an is the very word of Allah. And because Allah is eternal and unchanging, the Qur’an too is believed always to have existed. The high status of the Qur’an privileges literal readings and means that, while metaphorical interpretations are possible, they usually need to find sanction within the text itself. For example, the Qur’an can be read to allow for an old Earth rather than one just six thousand years old, as a literal reading of the book of Genesis might imply, because although the Qur’an alludes to the six days of creation, it variously states that the length of these days is one thousand or even fifty thousand years. This means that young-Earth creationism has had relatively little traction among Muslims.
An old Earth supplies wiggle room for some Muslim countries to provide qualified support to evolution. In Saudi Arabian schools, Darwin’s theory is rejected outright. Biology textbooks in Pakistan, however, present evolution as a fact, albeit the books exclude humanity from the discussion entirely. The same is true for Iran, where students are taught evolution in detail and that “nearly all biologists today have accepted that Darwin’s theory can explain the diversity of life on earth,” but human evolution is conspicuous by its absence.
Muslims teach this limited view of evolution because, like the Bible, the Qur’an says that the first man was created by God (“He created man from dry clay like earthen vessels,” it says at one point, and at another “He began the creation of man from dust”). Given the literalistic way so many mainstream Muslims read their scriptures, humanity’s descent from apes is taboo, as it has been for many conservative Christians. Even in London, Usama Hasan felt compelled to offer a specific retraction on this point.
In the books for sale in English mosques, the only “biology” you are likely to find would be several creationist tracts authored by Harun Yahya. This is the pen name of the most prominent advocate of Islamic creationism in recent years, a Turkish interior designer called Adnan Oktar. His best-known work, a glossy two-volume tome called the Atlas of Creation, has been delivered free to schools across Europe and to thousands of scientists around the world.
The book illustrates hundreds of fossils, each paired with a modern-day counterpart purporting to show that the fossilized creature has not evolved in the interim. Not content with misidentifying many of the organisms pictured, the book even includes a photograph of a fishing lure labeled as a caddis fly.
Oktar’s publicity material promises an improbably large reward—ten trillion Turkish lira, roughly two trillion American dollars—for anyone who can prove Darwin’s theory to be true. He may have trouble getting his hands on that sort of money, but Oktar’s operation is undoubtedly well funded. His books are so popular that Islamic bookstores often have a special section devoted to his work. And when people can’t be persuaded to buy them, he is content simply to give them away. His disciples regularly embark on speaking tours of European countries with sizable Muslim populations, especially France, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. So it is that young English Muslims are bombarded with material warning them of the dangers of Darwinism.
In contrast, the Catholic Church and many other Christians have long accepted that the ability of nature to exhibit true creativity does not impinge upon the sovereignty of God. At least since the Middle Ages, Christian theologians have taught that although God fashioned and maintains the universe, he allows it to operate through the physical laws that he ordained. This theological judgment allows us today to say that God delegates to nature a creative power that manifests itself through evolution.
The Islamic tradition envisages Allah as much more hands-on. The precise arrangement of each atom at every moment is precisely as he wills it. Evolution usurps his authority. Yet we must hope that, as Muslims become more influenced by Western thought, they will adopt the Christian view of God’s relationship to nature. Indeed, teaching students to accept evolution, including human evolution, could help them better appreciate what Pakistan has set as the national goal of its high-school biology curriculum: to “enable the students to appreciate that Allah ... is the creator and sustainer of the universe.”
James Hannam is the author of The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution.