January 2008 Newsletter, Vol. 37, No.1


Islamic Creationism: A Short History

Illusion of Harmony

Creationism, we often think, is a conservative Christian preoccupation. In the United States, young-earth creationists insist that the universe and all life were created in six days about six thousand years ago. There is also the newer intelligent design movement, which is a potent source of pressure on science education. Christian-flavored anti-evolutionary thought has a worldwide constituency, surfacing in Canada, Britain, Poland, Australia, Africa, Russia, and elsewhere. Still, attempts to promote “creation-science” and intelligent design as alternatives to mainstream science seem especially strong in the United States.

Muslim populations, however, provide a counterexample to this picture. Indeed, Islam has been the world religion that has proved most resistant to Darwinian evolution. Creationist distortions of science enjoy considerable support among modern Muslims. Among devout Muslim intellectuals, antievolutionary views are not fringe ideas but mainstream options. And Islamic versions of creationism have enjoyed official support to a degree that is the envy of American creationists. In many ways, the world’s most successful creationists are those who rise up to defend Islam, not Christianity.

Muslim thinkers first encountered evolution in the late nineteenth century, in the context of efforts to import Western knowledge. For example, both Arabs and Turks in the decaying Ottoman Empire looked toward Europe for the latest and the best of modern science, and when Darwinian ideas attracted attention, evolution became a matter for debate among Muslims. A handful of intellectuals embraced evolution wholeheartedly. These, however, belonged to a very small, secularist, radically Western-oriented minority. Indeed, such intellectuals did not care much about biology; they took Darwinian ideas to be part of nineteenth-century materialism and celebrated evolution as a prime example of how science could overcome ossified religious ways of thinking.

Most Muslim thinkers were more cautious. While positive toward technology and other forms of useful knowledge, they were also deeply concerned about limiting European influence on their local cultures. Encountering Darwinian ideas as part of a materialist critique of supernatural beliefs, devout Muslims rejected evolution as an impious philosophy. Traditional religious scholars did not need to learn much to denounce the “Darwin hypothesis,” but more reform-minded intellectuals also responded negatively. For example, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, one of the leading figures in early Islamic modernism, had nothing but praise for science, and using European science to revive Islamic intellectual life was an important theme in his proposals for reform in Muslim lands. Nevertheless, he attacked evolution as an absurdity that was unacceptable to Muslims.

So the initial reaction to Darwinian evolution among Muslim thinkers did not go further than a superficial response, whether in the form of enthusiasm among the very few or more widespread rejection. Evolution did not penetrate into popular consciousness. And even those devout intellectuals who felt a need for a more modern apologetic for traditional beliefs rarely paid evolution much attention. Said Nursi, the most important religious thinker in early twentieth-century Turkey, was typical in this regard. Throughout his career, Nursi tried to develop a modern but orthodox Muslim response to Western intellectual influences, including Western science. Writing on what he saw as the materialist mistakes incorporated into science, Nursi included denunciations of evolutionary thinking. But his attacks on evolution never went into any great depth; he was more preoccupied with classical Muslim philosophical themes such as showing how natural causality was a deeply flawed concept.

Until recently, Muslim discomfort with evolution rarely went beyond assertions of incompatibility between Darwinian biology and traditional Islam. Muslim countries became exposed to secular political ideas and harbored westernizing intellectuals, but scientific matters such as evolution did not take center stage in heated debates about achieving culturally authentic forms of modernity. Public science education tended to focus on physical and applied science. And since evolution did not become a major theme in education, it did not provoke a conservative reaction. With limited penetration of Darwinian ideas, there was no constituency for a creationist movement that went beyond religious affirmations of special creation and distrust of ideas with materialist connotations. In particular, conservative Muslims felt no need for a creationist pseudoscience proclaiming that science, when done properly, supported traditional beliefs about nature and its creator.

This picture of somewhat passive resistance to evolution has, however, been changing. In conditions where conservative Muslims have been strongly challenged by local westernizers or otherwise been exposed to modern scientific views of nature in public education, low-key resistance to evolution has had an opportunity to develop into affirmations of creationist pseudoscience.

The example of Turkey is most illuminating, as Turkey has been the most Western-oriented among Muslim countries, and has recently taken the lead in Islamic creationism. The Turkish Revolution of the 1920s and 1930s established official secularism, removed overt religious influences on education, and inserted evolution into the curriculum. This did not immediately lead to creationist activity; in any case, the Turkish state exerted much control over cultural life. Popular resistance to state-imposed secularization included distrust of evolution, but evolution remained a relatively small offense against religion in an educational system that promoted privatization of religious sentiment.

Until recent decades, Turkey presented a picture of grudging but gradual secularization. There was little creationist literature of note, and anti-evolutionary activity was confined to the subculture of a strictly observant, self-consciously orthodox minority. Some popular religious movements explicitly opposed evolution; the most significant was the Nur movement inspired by the writings of Said Nursi. In keeping with their modernizing, pro-technology outlook, adherents of the Nur movement were attracted to claims that modern science affirmed traditional Muslim beliefs. Evolution remained unacceptable, and literature inspired by the Nur movement regularly charged evolution with being nonscientific as well as offensive to true religion. Little of this, however, drew attention from the secular elites who dominated most public culture.

In the 1970s, political Islam started to gain strength in Turkey as well as the rest of the Muslim world. Evolution became a minor culture war item, as a way for Islamists to demonstrate opposition to secular life without taking the risk of naming official secularism as a target. But creationism came into its own only in the mid 1980s, when in the aftermath of a short period of military dictatorship, religious conservatives gained control of the Turkish Ministry of Education. These conservative Muslims thought evolutionary ideas were morally corrosive, yet they found themselves in an environment where science commanded significant cognitive authority. So they needed a way to suggest that evolution was a fraudulent, scientifically dubious idea. They found the resources they needed in American “scientific creationism,” and invoked Christian creationists in a curious mirror image of the way Turkish secularists regularly relied on Western scientific authorities. While the Muslims downplayed some features of popular American creationism such as a young earth and flood geology, they adopted the bulk of the anti-evolutionary debating points developed by their Christian counterparts. Indeed, the Ministry of Education had many instances of creation-science literature officially translated and made available to high school teachers and libraries. Since this mid-80s breakthrough, Turkish textbooks have often contained anti-Darwinian or explicitly creationist material. The creationist paragraphs have disappeared in the infrequent occasions when secularist parties have shared power and reappeared when Islamists returned to government. At present a moderate Islamist party sympathetic to creationist views holds power. This party won another overwhelming electoral victory in 2007, and so it looks like conservative Muslim concerns will continue to influence Turkish science and education policy for the foreseeable future.

The constituency for creationism is not traditionalists but modern people, even though creationists typically affirm conservative doctrines and traditional beliefs. It is precisely because many devout Muslims want to take their place in the modern world, where mastering technology is the key to success, that creationists fashion a pseudoscience that promises to harmonize science and their religious convictions. For example, the ever-popular Nur movement has been and continues to be instrumental in the development of Islamic creationism in Turkey. And social scientists have emphasized the modern character of the Nur movement. Such movements are especially notable for their enthusiasm for technology and embrace of capitalism. Nur adherents do not depart far from traditional doctrines, but their leadership structure and modes of religious participation are decidedly non-traditional. Due in part to the worldly success and influence of Nur and similar movements, many anti-evolutionary leaders and intellectuals are professionals; some are even academics. This, in fact, is an important difference between Islamic and Christian creationism. In Turkey and in other Muslim countries, anti-evolutionary views find plenty of elite support, including among academic theologians and scientists. In North America and Europe, the more sophisticated intelligent design variety of creationism exists on the fringes of intellectual life. In the Muslim world, ideas similar to intelligent design tend to be respectable intellectual options. Indeed, intelligent design itself has begun to attract attention in Turkey. Many intelligent design books have been translated, and in 2007 the local government of Istanbul sponsored public meetings promoting intelligent design.

The last 10 years has seen a deepening of the popular appeal of Turkish creationism. Moreover, Turkish creationism has attained an international influence. The central figure in this development is Harun Yahya, a pseudonym that serves as a brand name for an ubiquitous, well-funded, and media-intensive form of creationism. In content, there is nothing new in the Yahya material: scientifically negligible arguments and outright distortions often copied from Christian anti-evolution literature, presented with a conservative Muslim emphasis. The range and production quality of this material, however, is impressive. Large numbers of glossy books, magazines, videos, Web sites, and public events make Yahya’s simple, intuitively appealing creationism available to a large public. None of this material focuses on a conservative Muslim subculture; from its presentation style to its use of everyday language, Yahya material is designed to be marketed to ordinary, modern Muslims who need not be attracted to strictly observant varieties of Islam. Furthermore, Yahya material is artificially cheap, and is often distributed free of cost. Clearly the Yahya enterprise has considerable financial backing, though the source of these funds remains unknown.

Turkish scientists have tried to counter such popular creationism, but in the public arena, the creationists have clearly won the day. Building on their success in Turkey, the Yahya brand of creationists have more recently gone global. Today, Yahya publications are available in languages spoken by Muslim populations all over the world. Yahya books are prominently displayed in Islamic bookstores in London, used in classrooms in Pakistan, promoted by speaking tours in Indonesia. Very recently, as a publicity stunt, the Yahya organization mailed copies of a volume of a typically lavishly produced encyclopedia called Atlas of Creation to scientists and educators in Europe and North America, drawing media attention outside of Muslim circles. We now have a global variety of Islamic creationism that goes beyond long-standing Muslim resistance to a Darwinian conception of life. Many modern Muslims are attracted to claims that Darwinian evolution is scientifically false, and that science, properly done, supports Quranic notions of special creation.

Muslims hold a variety of views on evolution; Yahya-style creationists do not speak for all. Some Muslim thinkers accept evolution in the sense of descent with modification, provided that this evolution is explicitly divinely guided. Even such comparative liberals, however, almost always reject the Darwinian, naturalistic view of evolution that is current in natural science. Human evolution meets with particularly strong rejection. Indeed, it is safe to say that most committed Muslims take naturalistic evolution to be religiously unacceptable. Most would consider the evolution of complex life forms through natural mechanisms alone, without the visible direction of a divine intelligence, to be an intellectual absurdity. The Harun Yahya material has no scholarly standing whatsoever. But more sophisticated anti-evolution views have wide currency among serious Muslim intellectuals, including very well-known Western-based scholars of Islam such as Seyyed Hossein Nasr.

Moreover, in the Muslim world, defenders of Darwinian evolution suffer from an extra handicap due to their association with political secularism. Especially in the last few decades, secularism has been increasingly discredited as an alien cultural imposition, a tool of despotic regimes, and the ideology of westernized elites who have lost touch with the pious bulk of Muslim populations. In European history, the development of popular democracy included an anticlerical element, so that developments favoring science, secularism and democracy have often reinforced one another. In Muslim populations, however, anti-evolution sentiments usually belong to political moderates and democratic forces more than to stereotypical militants. Indeed, the recent trend has been that in Muslim lands, more democracy has meant increased religious populism, less political secularism, and a tension between democracy and elite institutions such as science.

We should expect that creationism will continue to enjoy a strong following in Muslim populations. The prospects for a Western-style accommodation between science and religion, where each have their separate cultural spheres, are doubtful. Culturally and politically, conservative interpretations of Islam are very strong, and conservative Muslims see little reason to back off from their ideal of religion at least distantly regulating all aspects of life. The notion that revelation must condition how we understand the world remains a dominant, though not exclusive, theme in Muslim intellectual life. All this may change, as this is a time of experimentation and rapid religious change for Muslims. Political Islam, for example, may yet fail, especially in its promise to make Muslims equal players in the realm of technology-driven development. Conservative failure could create more space for theologically more liberal versions of Islam and for the autonomy of science. But at least in the short term, the Islamic world will continue to harbor very serious tensions between science and religion.

Taner EdisTaner Edis is associate professor of physics at Truman State University, Kirksville, MO, USA. His most recent book is An Illusion of Harmony: Science and Religion in Islam (Prometheus Books, 2007).

 

 

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