SCID04: Muslims and the Theory of Evolution by T.O. Shanavas. MD


This article challenges the commonly held creation story among the contemporary Muslims, and boldly uncovers that the theory of evolution was originally proposed by Muslims who lived centuries before Charles Darwin. These Muslim scholars, coupled with their literal reading of the Qur’an, advocated evolution of life and natural selection. The author points out that historians, scholars, and the text of the Qur'an itself concur that there is nothing intrinsically inimical to science in its pages. On the contrary, much of the Qur'anic scholarship and scripture seems to support the endeavor that we recognize today under the rubric of science.

Dr Shanvas's CV (short), publications and references are given after the main article.

The Main Article

As the western world celebrates Darwin on the 200th anniversary of his birth, it is a non-event in most of the Muslim world except for a Turkish Muslim copycat of the Christian Institute for Creation Research, Harun Yahya, and his western Muslim followers. He continues to vilify Charles Darwin as the source of all evils in the world. Unfortunately, many in the Muslim world listen to Yahya as if he is a credible source for the theory of evolution and Islam.

With all the respect due to Charles Darwin and western scientists for popularizing the theory of evolution and for collecting irrefutable evidence for the evolution of life, historically Darwin is not the original author of the theory of evolution by natural selection. The theory was originally germinated centuries before Darwin among theists, and it was a known fact for the western contemporaries of Darwin even far away in America.

Most people probably agree that there are three major components to the theory of evolution: 1. Existing animals and plants developed by a process of gradual and continuous change from previous existing forms of life over a period of three or four billion years; 2. Mutation: the mechanism of speciation; 3. Natural Selection: Animals with advantageous traits reproduce and outlive those with weaker traits. The origin of these elements can be traced to Muslim scholars lived centuries before Charles Darwin.

Abdul-Rahman Ibn Khaldun (who died in 1406 A.D) was a respected Islamic scholar, once Prime minister of Morocco, professor of Islamic Jurisprudence, a judge, and the author of the Muqaddimah (An Introduction to History). Eminent British historian, Arnold J. Toynbee, describes the Muqaddimah as the “greatest work of its kind that has ever been created by any mind in any time.”1

Ibn Khaldun accepted that human species belongs to the animal kingdom. He states, “[M]an belongs to the genus of animals” and that “God distinguished from them by ability to think, which He gave man and through which man is able to arrange his actions in an orderly manner.”2 Over 400 years before Darwin, Ibn Khaldun has described the key components of the theory of evolution. He did not see any conflict between his faith and the theory of evolution. He states:

One should then look at the world of creation. It started out from the minerals and progressed, in an ingenious, gradual manner to plants and animals. The last stage of minerals is connected with the first stage of plants, such as herbs, and seedless plants. …The word ‘connection’ with regard to these created things means that the last stage of each group is fully prepared to become the first stage of the next group. The animal world then widens, its species become numerous, and, in a gradual process of creation, it finally leads to man, who is able to think and reflect. The higher stage of man is reached from the world of monkeys, in which both sagacity and perception are found, but which has not reached the stage of actual reflection and thinking. At this point we come to the first stage of man (after the world of monkeys). This is as far as our (physical) observation extends.3

Ibn Khaldun understood the evolutionary origin of human based upon “physical observation.” It should be pointed out here that Ibn Khaldun is not describing a chain of being but an evolution from previously existing species. He states that “the higher stage of man is reached from the world of monkeys.” The existence of different hominid species before the emergence of Homo sapiens sapiens was known to Ibn Khaldun because he states, “the first stage of man (after the world of monkeys).” However, we know now that human species did not evolve from monkeys. Apes and human had a common ancestor, Dryopithecus.

Ibn Khaldun knew that environmental factors could alter the physical characteristics in species. This fact is reflected in his explanation of the origin of human race. He rejected medieval Christians’ explanation of the origin of the black and white races. They held the view that black Africans are children of Ham and their blackness is due to Noah’s curse on Ham. On the other hand, Ibn Khaldun attributes the whiteness of the inhabitants of northern zones to the influence of excessive cold climates that occur as a result of the greater distance between the sun and the zenith in those regions. He also attributes to climatic conditions northern people’s lack of bodily hair, their blue eyes, freckled skin, and blond hair. He considered it a mistake for Christians to attribute the traits of whole nations to one of their prominent ancestors.

Ibn Khaldun also argues that “[There also is disregard of the fact that physical circumstances and environment] are subjected to changes that affect later generations; they do not necessarily remain unchanged. This is how God proceeds with His servants. . . . And verily, you will not be able to change God’s ways.”4

So, environmentally induced alterations in all life forms, including in human species, are an accepted fact among Ibn Khaldun’s generation of Muslims and before him.
Darwin had gathered enough evidence to prove that living creatures are changing and diversifying over a long period of time. He did not know the processes or mechanisms that drive biological diversity (variation in life forms), or how physical traits are passed on from one generation to the next. Pangenesis was Charles Darwin's mechanism for heredity and variation. Darwin thought that particles called “gemmules,” that contain information about the organs, would travel through the body to the sperm and eggs in the reproductive organs where they stick together. The information could be passed on to the next generation in this way, thus explaining the heritability of variation.5 Modern science has now discredited Darwin’s mechanism of pangenesis.

The mechanism of speciation by Ibn Khaldun is as much a modern theory as it can be. He states that Active nature (kiyan) “has the ability to generate substances and change essences;”6 He further explains, “The essences at the end of each particular stage of the worlds are by nature prepared to be transformed into the essences adjacent to them, either above or below.”7 Here, Ibn Khaldun posits that essence determines the nature of species and active nature generates changes in the essence to create new species. Our modern science explains the process of “generation of substance” in the essence of species (genotype) by the word “mutation.”

If we substitute the phrases, “generate substances,” “change essences,” and “worlds” in the above quotes from Ibn Khaldun with our modern scientific terminologies, “generate mutation,” “change genotype,” and “species,” Ibn Khaldun’s understanding of speciation emerges manifestly: Active nature (kiyan) has the ability to [generate mutations] (substances) and [change genotypes] (essences). The [genotype] (essences) at the end of each particular stage of the [species] (worlds) is by nature prepared to be transformed into the [genotype] (essences) adjacent to them, either above or below.

The transformation of species is further explained by Ibn Khaldun: “The word ‘connection’ with regard to these created things means that the last stage of each group is fully prepared to become the first stage of the next group.”8 If he were writing the Muquddimah today, he would say: Gradual evolution can be explained in terms of small genetic changes (mutation) in the species and by the ordering of this genetic variation by natural selection.

The third component of the theory of evolution is natural selection. We have seen above Ibn Khaldun describing active nature creating genetic variation in a population. Centuries before Darwin, other Muslims accepted the concept of natural selection. Abu Raihan al-Biruni (973-1048) was born in Khiva, Uzbekistan. Al-Biruni was among the most educated and cultured men of his time, with a brilliant intellect “encyclopaedic in scope.”9 He excelled in numerous fields of knowledge, and particularly in astronomy, mathematics, chronology, physics, medicine, and history. The following quotes from al-Biruni support the idea that, long before Malthus and Darwin, he knew about the disparity between reproduction and survival. He describes here speciation and natural selection as a result of structural advantages or beneficial trait in some species of plants and animals. Al- Biruni states:

The life of the world depends upon sowing and procreating. Both processes increase in the course of time, and this increase is unlimited, while the world is limited. When a class of plants or animals does not increase any more in its structure, and its peculiar kind is established as species of its own when each individual of it does not simply come into existence once and perish, but procreates a being like itself or several together, and not only once but several times, [italics added], then this will, as single species of plants or animals, occupy the earth and spread itself and its kind over as much territory as it can find.10

Eight centuries later, Darwin (1809-1882) concurred with Al-Biruni (973-1048) that organic beings have an unlimited ability to procreate, but that the world is limited. And both agree that individual variations in the structure of organic beings determine the survival of the peculiar kind among the species. We read in The Origin of Species:

A struggle for existence inevitably follows from the high rate at which all organic beings tend to increase [and] every organic being is striving to increase in a geometrical ratio; that each at some period of its life, during some season of the year, during each generation or at intervals, has to struggle for life and suffer great destruction. When we reflect on this struggle, we may console ourselves with full belief, that the war of nature is incessant . . . the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply [and] that any variation in the least degree injurious would be rigidly destroyed. This preservation of favourable individual differences and variations, and the destruction of those, which are injurious, I have called Natural Selection or the Survival of the Fittest.11

Al Biruni saw examples of selection in the methods of horticulturists, as well as in the natural behavior of bees. He explained:
Agriculturist selects his corn, letting grow as much as he requires, and tearing out the remainder. The forester leaves those branches, which he perceives to be excellent, whilst he cuts away all others. The bees kill those of their kind who only eat, but do not work in their beehive. Nature proceeds in a similar way (italics added).12

Several centuries later, Charles Darwin explained natural selection using examples almost identical to those used by Al-Biruni:
When a race of plants is…well established, the seed-raisers do not pick out the best plants, but merely go over their seed-beds, and pull up the ‘rogues’ as they call the plants that deviate from the proper standard…Natural Selection . . . is immeasurably superior to man’s feeble efforts.13

So far we have established that pre-Darwin Muslims scholars described all three components of the theory of evolution. In the next step, we explore whether there is any probability that Darwin was only a messenger of the Muslim theory of evolution. John William Draper (1812 -1883), a contemporary of Darwin, was a well-known American scientist. He had served as first president of the University of the City of New York (now NYU). He was the first president of the American Chemical Society.

Six months after the publication of The Origin of Species (November 1859), Professor Draper presented a paper at the meeting for the British Association for Advancement of Science (June 1860) entitled “The Intellectual Development of Europe Considered with Respect to the Views of Mr. Darwin.” During the discussion of his paper, the first discussion of Darwin’s book took place. During the discussion, Bishop Wilberforce of Oxford contemptuously inquired of Thomas Huxley, whether Huxley claimed his descent from monkeys “through his grandfather or grandmother.”14 & 15 So, Draper was closely involved in the initial discussion of Darwin’s book. Draper pointed out in one of his later treatises:
[Christian] (t)heological authorities were therefore constrained to look with disfavor on any attempt to carry back the origin of the earth to an epoch indefinitely remote, and on the Mohammedan theory of evolution [italics added] which declared that human beings developed over a long period of time from lower forms of life to their present condition.16

He acknowledged further:
we meet with ideas with which we flatter ourselves with having originated in our own times. Thus our modern doctrine of evolution and development were taught in their [Muslim] schools. In fact they carried them much farther than we are disposed to do, extending them even to inorganic or mineral things.17

If Draper in America, thousands of miles away from Muslims and separated by a huge ocean, knew about “Muhammadan theory of evolution,” there is every reason to believe that Darwin knew about the theory of evolution from Muslim sources.

The publication of several editions of The Journey of the Soul (The Story of Hai bin Yaqzan) by Abu Bakr Ibn Tufail in Europe gives other supporting evidence for the European awareness of the “Muhammadan theory of evolution.” Abu Bakr Ibn Tufail (Latin name: Abu Bazer) (1095-1138), a poet and an eminent physician, was known to have influenced Jewish and Christian thinkers and was the teacher of the great philosopher Ibn Rush (Latin name: Averroes). Although he wrote treatises on medicine and philosophy, Ibn Tufail is remembered for his famous work, The Journey of the Soul (The Story of Hai bin Yaqzan). The book is a fictional and philosophical biography that deals with the idea of evolution. One of the translators of this book, Yiad Kocache, states: “[This] is widely regarded as the prototype of Daniel Defoes’s Robinson Crusoe.... [A]stonishingly modern ideas on physiology, on the process of evolution, on the ‘scientific method’ all find their place in knowledge which his observation and intuition combine to produce.”18

The first Latin translation of The Journey of the Soul (The Story of Hai bin Yaqzan) by Edward Pocock, Jr., was published in Oxford in 1671. Several editions of this work appeared in the years from 1671 to 1700. Then, in 1708, Simon Okley published the first English translation and Dutch, German, French translations were made in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.19 The publication of many editions and several translations in different European languages of this book over of period of three centuries suggests that it was a very popular book; the probability is great, therefore, that Charles Darwin, his father Robert Darwin, and his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, all read it. Erasmus, especially, must have read it because he was a famous philosopher and physician. He was the ringleader of the “Lunar Society,” which discussed in their meetings almost every topic ranging from optics and astronomy, biology chemistry and mechanics, hydraulics and minerals, to meteorology and magnetism, ballooning and ballistics.20 So, it is not logical that he did not read a very popular book, The Journey of the Soul (The Story of Hai bin Yaqzan). Moreover, Erasmus Darwin’s The Temple of Nature has much in common with Tufail’s The Journey of the Soul. A close reading will tell that The Temple of Nature is only an English poetic rendition of Tufail’s book.21

A note for Harun Yahya and anti-evolutionist Muslims: do not blame Charles Darwin for the theory of evolution; Darwin is only a messenger of ideas of the Qur’an and your Muslim scholars. The Qur’an states: “He created you in successive stages” (Qur’an 71:14). The Qur’anic Verse 6:133 gives explicit evidence that modern humans were evolved (created) from earlier hominids. “Thy Lord is All-sufficient, Merciful. If He will, He can put you away, and leave after you, to succeed you, what He will, as the way He originally created you from the seeds of another people.” According to the verse, God may replace modern humans with another species (“whomever He pleases to succeed you”). The process of the creation of new species is similar as in the case of the creation of human originally. God “originally created you [human] from seeds of another people.”

A well-respected twelfth-century exegete of the Qur’an, Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (1149–1209), explains the verse by quoting scholars before him: “[God] said: ‘As We originally created you from the seeds of a different people.’ For a wise person, were he to contemplate on this statement . . . he would know that the Almighty created mankind from a sperm; a sperm that did not contain his picture [genotype] in any form or way.”22
Unlike many scientists, Al-Biruni, Jalaluddin Rumi and other Muslim theists did not feel uncomfortable with a theistic evolution of life and humans. Those Muslims did not find anything objectionable in natural selection because they believed that the nature is an office of God. For example, Al-Biruni stated:
Frequently . . . you find in the functions (actions) of Nature which it is her office to fulfill, some fault (some irregularity), but this only serves to show that the Creator who had designed something deviating from the general tenor of things is indefinitely sublime, beyond everything which we poor sinners may conceive and predicate Him.23

[If] Nature, whose task it is to preserve the species as they are, finds some superfluous substance . . . she forms [it] into some shape instead of throwing it away; when Nature does not find the substance by which to complete the form of that animal in conformity with the structure of the species to which it belongs . . . she forms the animal in such a shape, so that the defect is made to lose its obnoxious character, and she gives it vital power as much as possible.24

Rumi (1207-1273) was born in Balkh, Afghanistan. In his treatise, Masnavi, Rumi echoed the evolutionary origin of human. Rumi wrote:
He came first to the inorganic realm and from there stepped over to the vegetable kingdom. Living long as a plant, he has no memory of his struggles in the organic realm. Similarly rising from the plant to the animal life he forgets his plant life, retaining only an attraction for it which he feels especially in the spring, ignorant of the secret and cause of his attraction like the infant at the breast who knows not why he is attracted to the mother. . . . Then the Creator draws him from animality to humanity. So he went from realm to realm until he became rational, wise, and strong. As he has forgotten his former types of reason (every stage being governed by a particular type of reason) so he shall pass beyond his present reason. When he gets rid of this coveted intellect, he shall see a thousand other types of reason.25

I agree with Keith B. Miller, professor of geology at Kansas State University, that “The presumption of ‘Warfare’ between science and religious faith perpetuates erroneous understandings of nature and content of science.… Science is not learned and applied in some culturally and religiously sterile environment.”26 Let me append to Keith Miller’s thoughts that the theory of evolution with all of its major components originated in a religious environment and transmitted to the Darwin family and throughout Europe through the translation of treatises of medieval Muslim scientists.


About the Author

Born and raised as a Muslim in India, Dr T.O. Shanavas. MD immigrated in 1970 to the United States, where he is a well-known pediatrician, for which he has received many "Best Doctor" commendations. He lives in Adrian, Michigan.

Queries from his young son on the Quran and Theory of Evolution prompted him to investigate the subject, which led him to the conclusion that not only there is no contradiction between two, but also the early Muslim scholars advocated such a theory of evolution. He has published two books on the topic (as listed below) and is regularly invited as a speaker on it in many national and international gatherings.

His Publications
1. Islamic Theory of Evolution The Missing link Between Darwin and the Origin of Species, Brainbow Press, USA.
2. And God Said, "Let There Be Evolution!": Reconciling the Book of Genesis, the Qur'an and the Theory of Evolution" [Co-authored] editors: C. Wynn and A. Wiggins, ATTM Press, USA.

References on the Article

1. Abdul-Rahman Ibn-Khaldun. The Muqaddimah (Abridged edition). Trans. Franz Rosenthal (Princeton: Princeton University, 1980), Back cover.
2. Abdul-Rahman Ibn-Khaldun. The Muqaddimah. Trans. Franz Rosenthal (Princeton: Princeton University, 1980), Vol. 2:424.
3. Abdul-Rahman Ibn-Khaldun. The Muqaddimah. Vol. 1:195.
4. Ibid.,173.
5. Charles Darwin. The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication.
Revised Second Edition. (New York: D. Appleton & Co, 1883), 384-385.
6. Abdul-Rahman Ibn Khaldun. The Muqaddimah. Vol. 3:238.
7. Abdul-Rahman Ibn Khaldun. The Muqaddimah. Vol. 2:422-423.
8. Abdul-Rahman Ibn Khaldun. The Muqaddimah. Vol. 1:195.
9. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Micropaedia, (15th ed.) “Al-Biruni.” Vol. 2: 42.
10. Abu Raihan al-Biruni. Fi Tahqiq Ma Li’l-Hind (Al-Biruni’s India). Trans.
Edward C Sachu (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Tuberner & Co. Ltd, 1914), 400.
11. Charles Darwin. The Origin of Species. (New York, Scarborough: New American Library, 1958), 75, 86, 88.
12. Abu Raihan al-Biruni. Fi Tahqiq Ma Li’l-Hind (Al-Biruni’s India, 400.
13. Charles Darwin. The Origin of Species. 49, 75.
14. J. R. Lucas. Historical Journal, XXII (1979): 102
15. Stephen Jay Gould. “Knight Takes Bishop?” Natural History (May 1986): 18-33.
16. John William Draper. The Conflict between Religion and Science (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1875), 187-188.
17. Ibid., 118.
18. Abu Bar Muhammad Tufail. The Journey of the Soul. The Story of Hai Bin Yaqzan. Trans. Yiad Kocache (London: The Octagon Press, 1985), Back cover.
19. Ibid., vi-vii.
20. Richard Milner. The Encyclopedia of Evolution. (New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1990): 116-117.
21. Erasmus Darwin. The Temple of Nature.
22. Fakr al-Din Razi . Lebanon: Dar al-Fikar. Al Tafsir al-Kabir (Arabic). Vol. 7: 212.
23. Abu Raihan al-Biruni. Fi Tahqiq Ma Li’l-Hind (Al-Biruni’s India) 295
24. Ibid., 92-93
25. Khalifa Abdul Hakim. The Metaphysics of Rumi. (Lahore, Pakistan: Institute of Islamic Culture, 1977), 36.
26.Keith Miller. “Communicating Evolutionary Science to a Religious Public.Reports of the NCSE. 29: 2 (2009): 34-35.


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