An excerpt from THE ISLAMIC THEORY OF EVOLUTION, T.O. Shanavas, BrainbowPress, 2011 (pp.107-114)
Pre-Darwinian Muslims and the Theory of Evolution
THROUGHOUT HISTORY, Muslims had long recognized that humans have an ancestral link to apes, and they taught this fact in schools which, at the time, were extensions of mosques. Nonetheless, Judeo-Christian individuals in the West were shocked when they first read Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859). Their immediate response was generally similar to that of the wife of the Bishop of Worcester, who after hearing that humans evolved from monkeys was reported to have exclaimed, “Descended from apes! My dear, let us hope it is not so; but if it is, that it does not become generally known.”1
The theory of evolution described by Darwin’s in The Origin of Species had once been widely known, however; his book was only a confirmation of a centuries-old Muslim theory of evolution through data that he had collected in his travels. John William Draper (1812-1883), a prominent scientist, evolutionist, and professor of chemistry at New York University, was a contemporary of Charles Darwin. In 1838 he made the first photographic portrait of the moon through a chemical process.2 Among his many works are his History of the Intellectual Development of Europe and The History of the Conflict between Religion and Science.
Six months after the publication of Darwin’s book, Professor Draper presented a paper at the meeting for the British Association for Advancement of Science entitled “The Intellectual Development of Europe Considered with Respect to the Views of Mr. Darwin.” During the discussion of this paper, Bishop Wilberforce of Oxford contemptuously inquired of Thomas Huxley, an eminent scientist and advocate of the theory of evolution, whether Huxley claimed his descent from monkeys “through his grandfather or grandmother.”3 & 4
Draper pointed out in The History of the Conflict between Religion and Science that the Fathers of the Church insisted upon a more recent origin of Creation. He explained such insistence as a justifiable response to claims that God had neglected the human race as a whole in favor of “the few who were living in the closing ages of the world” for salvation. Draper explained that Christian teachings of the story of the perfect world of Adam served as a necessary premise for the fall of humanity, which in turn was a prerequisite for “the plan of salvation.” In Draper’s view:
“[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 Muhammadan theory of evolution [italics mine] which declared that human beings developed over a long period of time from lower forms of life to their present condition.”5
Draper, an independent western source, knew that Darwin’s theory of evolution was actually the Muslim theory of evolution. One finds it difficult to believe that European scientists, who were neighbors to the Muslims, were unaware of their theory of evolution when an American scientist, a contemporary of Darwin, knew that the theory originated among the Muslims. Is it possible that Europeans, who followed Roger Bacon’s advice to “learn Arabic and Arabic science for progress,”6 did not know about the Muslim theory of evolution?
In our own time, there is a sharp rejection of evolutionary studies. The free press in the West, especially that of the United States, avoids the mention of the word “evolution” in some public school textbooks, fearing condemnation from some Western religious establishments. For example, Man: A Course of Study (MACOS), begun in 1963 by the National Science Foundation, was finally published in 1970 by the Education Development Center as an introduction to evolution for elementary school students. “No commercial publisher would touch the project because religious groups would not endorse the teaching of this type of material,” until a small foundation agreed to publish it. By 1974, many school districts in forty-seven states had adopted MACOS, but in 1975, when organized opposition began to assert itself, this sales rate plummeted seventy percent. “The National Science Foundation, which had provided $4.8 million to develop MACOS, suddenly was attacked in Congress. The House of Representatives passed the Bauman Amendment in 1975, giving Congress direct supervision and veto power over every single NSF research grant, [and] Nineteen eighty-one saw a drastic cut in federal support for social science research, and science education was virtually eliminated from the federal budget.”7
Contrary to the current opposition to teaching evolution in American public schools, the doctrine of the gradual development of life, humankind, and other life forms was part of the curriculum in Muslim schools centuries before Darwin. Draper discredited the Western myth that Lamarck and Darwin were originators of the theory of evolution and declared that the Muslim theory was more advanced than that of Darwin.
“Sometimes, not without surprise, 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 [italics mine]. In fact they carried them much farther than We are disposed to do, extending them even to inorganic or mineral things.”8
Most Western evolutionists agree that Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin (1731–1802), influenced his grandson’s interest
in evolution.9 Little is written, however, about influences on their thoughts on the subject. Erasmus Darwin was a philosopher, a botanist, a poet, a physician, and the founding member of a philosophical society called “the Lunatics.”10 In Erasmus’s day and long before, almost all philosophical and scientific books were translations or retellings of Arabic books from Muslim scientists and philosophers.11 Erasmus Darwin, being a philosopher and physician, most likely had discussed Muslim philosophical and scientific work during the meeting of “the Lunatics.” I believe, therefore, that the Darwins learned evolutionary biology from Muslim scientists, which is confirmed by the history of medical education in Europe. Professor Draper describes the state of Islamic and European medicine before the Enlightenment of the West as follows:
“Saracens commenced the application of chemistry, both to the theory and practice of medicine, in the explanation of the functions of the human body and in the cure of diseases. Nor was their surgery behind their medicine . . . How different was all this from the state of things in Europe: the Christian peasants, fever-stricken or overtaken by accident, hied to the nearest saint-shrine and expected a miracle; the Spanish Moor relied on the prescription or lancet of his physician, or the bandage and the knife of his surgeon.”12
Will Durant, the American historian, informs us that the Manual for Oculists, written by the great Muslim occultist Ali ibn-Isa, was “used as text in Europe till the eighteenth century.” Durant also stresses the importance of the works of Abu Bekr Muhammad al-Razi (844–926), better known in Europe as Rhazes, who was one of many Muslim scientists and healers. According to Durant, Al-Razi’s twenty-volume book, Kitab al-Hawi (The Comprehensive Book), which covered all branches of medicine and was translated into Latin, was “probably a highly respected and frequently used medical textbook in the white world for several centuries” and was one of nine books used at the University of Paris in 1395. Another famous figure whose philosophical and Scientific contributions are illuminated by Durant is Abu Ali al-Husein ibn Sina (Avicenna) (980–1037), whose books were encyclopedias of knowledge that included studies in mathematics, physics, physiology, hygiene, therapy, pharmacology, philosophy, metaphysics, theology, economics, politics, and music. His books were taught as main texts in “the universities of Montpellier and Louvain till the middle of the seventeenth century.”13 Two other Muslim physicians who influenced Europe and European medicine were Abu Bekr ibn Tufail (Abubacer) (1107–1185) and his student Abu al-Walid Muhammad ibn Rushd (Averroes) (1126–1298). Ibn Rushd wrote an encyclopedia of medicine (Kitab al-Kulliyat fi-l-tibb) that was translated into Latin and taught in Christian universities. All Muslim physicians were evolutionists, and Western historians have acknowledged the fact that books of medicine written by physicians of the Golden Age of Islam served as the standard textbooks used in all medical schools in Europe until the eighteenth century. Therefore, Charles Darwin’s (1809-1882), grandfather and father, Erasmus and Robert Darwin, both physicians, were undeniably influenced by the above-mentioned textbooks.
Lastly, the first Latin translation of Abu Bakr ibn Tufail’s The Story of Hai bin Yaqzan (The Journey of the Soul) 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 eighteenth and nineteenth century.14 The publication of many editions and different translations of this book in England and other parts of Europe in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries suggest that it was a very popular book; the probability is great, therefore, that Charles Darwin, his father, and his grandfather, all read it. Moreover, Abu Bakr ibn Tufail’s The Story of Hai bin Yaqzan (The Journey of the Soul) is an allegorical tale of the theory of evolution of life and human society. Erasmus Darwin’s The Temple of Nature15 is mostly a poetic rendition in English of Tufail’s celebrated work.
Clearly, Erasmus and Robert Darwin most likely learned about the Muslim theory of evolution from the translations of Muslim books. A slight chance exists that these erudite men did not know that the authors of their textbooks of medicine and philosophical essays were evolutionists. In that case, such ignorance can only be explained as an unlikely historical oddity. If, as is far more likely, they did learn about evolution from Muslim scholars, their failure to credit their sources appears to be an intentional plan to obscure the pioneering Islamic contributions to the study of evolution. The evidence presented above makes the second premise more likely.
Muslims nowadays, like many non-Muslims in the West, resist the idea of evolution. Curiously, these are the same Muslims who boast about the scientific contributions made by their ancestors. They gleefully ask others whether they have heard about Al-Biruni, who, like Bacon, wrote in his Vestiges of the Past (Atharul- Baqiya), “We must clear our minds . . . from all causes that blind people to the truth—old custom, party, spirit, personal rivalry or passion, the desire for influence.”16 Muslims never fail to remind us that Ibn Sina’s Canon of Medicine (Qanun-fi-l-Tibb) was the chief textbook of medicine in European medical schools until the seventeenth century,17 and continue to praise al-Haitham’s contributions to science. Yet if they were told that these great scientists, of whom they are rightfully so proud, were evolutionists, they would be amazed and annoyed.
Most Muslims in the world believe that Adam and Eve were created in Paradise. They have been indoctrinated with the Judeo-Christian belief that God created Adam, then created Eve from Adam’s rib. Jews and Christians who accepted Islam early in its history imported this theological doctrine into Islam. We shall discuss later how this Judeo-Christian story of the ex nihilo creation of Adam and subsequent creation of Eve was transplanted into Islamic faith. First, however, a review of early Muslim scholarly works will show that these scholars were evolutionists and did not find any conflict between their faith and the theory of evolution.
Ibn Khaldun, the most famous Muslim historiographer and social scientist, who wrote his Muqaddimah [An Introduction to History] over 400 years before Charles Darwin, 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. last stage of plants such as palms and vines is connected with the first stage of animals, such as snails and shellfish which have only the power to touch. 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.”18
The reference in the above passage to the “first stage of man” clearly show that Ibn Khaldun knew that other hominoid species, more advanced than the monkey but not equal to modern man, were created before modern man emerged. Moreover, he states that he arrived at his conclusion from physical observation. As we have seen in the section on uniformitarianism, Ibn Khaldun believed that the human races originated as a result of natural causes. According to the Muqaddimah, Ibn Khaldun and other Muslims believed that a series of transmutations of one species into another over a long period of time resulted in the gradual evolution of life, from primitive organisms into a bush with numerous branches. Thus, life forms are not independently created but are evolutionary products from ancestral species.
Ibn Khaldun concludes his view on the origin of the races as follows: “Physical circumstances and the environment are subject to changes that affect later generations; they do not necessarily remain unchanged.”19 According to him, species are not fixed but subject to changes with a changing environment. Even human species are subject to change. He believed that the physical characteristics of organisms are determined by their “essence.” He maintained that active nature (kiyan) “has the ability to generate substances and change essences”20 and that earthly existence is a continuum of transformations of essences that occur in stages in a natural order of ascent and descent. He describes the transformation of species into other species as a result of modification of essence (gene) by nature:
“The essences at the end of each particular stage of the worlds are by nature prepared to be transformed into the essence adjacent to them. This is the case with the simple material elements; it is the case with the palms and vines (which constitute) the last stage of plants, in their relation to snails and shellfish, (which constitute) the (lowest) stage of animals. It is also the case with monkeys, creatures combining in themselves cleverness and perception, in their relation to man, the being who has the ability to think and to reflect. The preparedness (for transformation) that exists on either side, at each stage of the worlds, is meant when (we speak about) their connection.”21
If he were writing today, Ibn Khaldun would replace the word essences with the term “genes” or “DNA.” He would be saying: “Nature prepares the genotype (essence) of species to be transformed into the genotype (essence) of the adjacent species.” Similarly, instead of saying “transformed into the next stage by nature,” 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.”
NOTES TO CHAPTER 6
1. Blackmore, Vernon., Page, Andrew. Evolution the Great Debate, Illinois: Lion Publishing Company, 1989, p. 106.
2. Ibid. 102
3. Gould, Stephen Jay. “Knight Takes Bishop?” Natural History, (May 1986), p. 18.
4. Lucas, J. R. Historical Journal, XXII (1979), p. 102
5. Draper, John William. The Conflict between Religion and Science, pp. 187–188.
6. Briffault, Dr.Robert. The Making of Mankind, p. 201.
7. Godfrey, Laurie R (ed.). Scientists Confront Creationism, “Scopes and Beyond: Antievolution and American Culture,” Cole, John R, p. 25–27.
8. Draper, John William. The Conflict between Religion and Science. p. 118.
9. Mayr, Ernst. One Long Argument: Charles Darwin and the Genesis of Modern Evolutionary Thought, p. 3.
10. Miller, Richard. The Encyclopedia of Evolution, p. 116.
11. Hitti, Philip K. History of Arabs, p. 588.
12. Draper, William John. The Intellectual Development of Europe, Vol. 2, pp. 39–40.
13. Durant, Will. The Story of Civilization, Vol. 4, p. 246-249.
14. Tufail, Abu Bakr Muhammad. Hai bin Yaqzan (The Journey of The Soul), pp. vi–vii.
16. Durant, The Story of Civilization, Vol. 4, p. 243.
17. Ibid. 249.
18. Khaldun, Ibn. The Muqaddimah, trans. by Franz Rosenthal, Vol. 1, p. 195.
19. Ibid. Vol. 1, p. 173.
20. Ibid. Vol. 3. p. 238
21. Ibid. Vol. 2, p. 422–423.