A Book Review of Islam and Evolution: Al-Ghazālī and the Modern Evolutionary Paradigm by Shoaib Ahmed Malik
Having emerged from a particular European intellectual milieu, Darwin’s ideas have influenced the world in a way nobody could have imagined. In disciplines ranging from science to theology, Darwinism and later Neo-Darwinism continue to widen their reach. Religious traditions, particularly Islam, are no exception. There exists a long history of tension and attempted reconciliation between Islamic belief and the modern evolutionary paradigm.
However, the discourse between Islam and evolution is often obfuscated by layers of confusion by its participants. Some resort to misconstrued readings of the sacred text whereas others are biased by scientism in their understanding, all adding to the complexity of the issue. For this reason, Dr. Shoaib’s newly published book Islam and Evolution could not have been more timely. Taking Al-Ghazali’s Sunnī-Ash‘ārī perspective as a starting point, this book provides a detailed theological perspective on the theory of evolution.
The author begins by identifying the hurdles in navigating Islam-and-evolution discourse. One conflict lies between the theory of evolution’s concept of a common descent of all biological entities and the creation of Adam and Eve as understood by many Muslims (pp.1-2). It is also difficult to view evolution strictly as a scientific theory since many philosophical and even emotional contents join the enterprise. The author laments on this state of affairs: “Given these complexities of the landscape, navigating the discourse of Islam and evolution can be confusing, difficult, and at times, hostile” (p.6).
It is important to delineate the approach used in this book. Ash‘ārī theological framework is taken as the main perspective. Al-Ghazālī is chosen as the representative of the Ash‘arite theology for his prominent reputation as ‘the proof of Islam’ (Ḥujjatul Islām) and his coherent metaphysical system and hermeneutic principles (p.9). It is stressed by the author that the theological assessments presented in the book are not what Al-Ghazālī would have thought but instead what Al-Ghazālī might agree with based on the author’s understanding of Al-Ghazālī’s theological ideas (pp.9-10). The author’s view of Al-Ghazālī mainly as a theologian is important to underscore. He acknowledges the many ‘faces’ of Al-Ghazālī, one of them being a mystic (ṣūfi), but chooses the theological ‘face’ for his methodology (p.232,268).
The book is divided into four parts. The first part (chapters 1-2) sets the context of the book. Chapter 1 addresses the scientific understanding of evolution. The modern synthesis between Darwin’s ideas and modern findings (fossil record, homology, and genetics) results in the three core concepts of Neo-Darwinian evolution: 1) deep/long period of time; 2) common ancestry (all living entities are biologically connected); 3) causal mechanics (natural selection and random mutation being the driving force of the process). A brief history of the theory of evolution from pre-Darwin to Neo-Darwinism is also outlined (pp.38-47). Rebuttals against evolution are evaluated with the author playing devil’s advocate against unsound criticisms such as ‘evolution is just a theory’ or ‘Darwin was an atheist’ (pp.47-56).
Chapter 2 categorizes Christian responses to evolution, for one of the earliest responses to the theory was of Christian origin (p.66). The Christian responses are later contrasted with Islamic scripture (chapter 3) and Muslim responses (chapter 4) concerning evolution.
In the second part of Islam and Evolution (chapters 3-5), evolution is evaluated in light of Islamic scripture and the opinions of Muslim thinkers. In contrast to the Christian belief that God created the universe in six literal days some thousand years ago (pp.67-70), the concept of “day” (yawm) in the Qur’ān is flexible, allowing for its interpretation as a 24-hour period or any other (p.89). Therefore, it does not contradict the concept of deep time that is present in Neo-Darwinian evolution. It is also argued that there is no explicit mention in the Islamic scripture of how non-human life was brought into existence (p.94). However, the same cannot be said regarding Adam since many verses and ḥadīths point to the miraculous nature of his creation (p.99).
Chapter 4 categorizes the opinions of twenty Muslim thinkers on evolution, based on their positions regarding the inclusion of the human species in conceptions of common ancestry. Four broad positions were identified by the author: creationism, human exceptionalism, Adamic exceptionalism, and no exceptions (p.111). Admittedly, this is a simplification; in reality their opinions are more nuanced.
In Chapter 5, the author presents a curious case of anachronistic reading of historical Muslim figures such as Ibn Khaldūn, Rūmī, Al-Jāḥiẓ, etc. Some have attempted to find evidence of proto-evolutionary theories within their works. After a thorough debunking, the author shows that, rather than biological evolution, these works were premised under the ’great chain of being’, an ontological hierarchy wherein all beings are ranked by their level of perfection, with God at the summit (p.172).
Part three of the book (chapters 6-8) considers how Ash‘arite theology views the metaphysical issues that stem from the theory of evolution. The Ash‘arite theology, i.e. occasionalism, can be understood as follows: God is the primary cause of everything and everything is contingent upon God; He is not bound by the law of nature and it is up to God how He wants to arrange or create His creation; this entails that God has both will to choose and power to actualize His choice. This comes in contrast with the ‘Divine Action Project’ theology that limits God’s action to the one permitted by the law of nature (p.191).
The three metaphysical problems of naturalism, chance, and inefficiency are then addressed. For some, the theory of natural selection is problematic because “God’s hands are cut off from the natural world” (p.194). Under the umbrella of philosophical naturalism, which acknowledges only the phenomenal world and denies the existence of a supernatural entity, this theory would cause tension with the Ash‘arite theology. However, the author argues that this tension disappears under the lens of methodological naturalism wherein scientists solely focus on the natural phenomena, leaving metaphysical aspects untouched (pp.194-195). The notion of chance inherent to the theory of evolution is often seen as a problem, since the random nature of the process implies that God does not know what He is doing. However, this can also be understood as epistemic chance – a “reflection of what we can and cannot know” (p.198) – or ontological chance – “things popping in and out of physical existence without a prior physical cause” (p.198).
The problems of inefficiency and morality, addressed in chapters 6 and 8, respectively, are tightly related, thus addressed together here. Why would God allow the seemingly ‘inefficient’ process of evolution, in which most of the species dies, to take place? Secondly, if humans are a product of evolution, is our morality also evolutionary and thus relative? These questions are dubbed the problem of evil and the problem of objective morality. For the first, Al-Ghazālī states that “God is such a unique being that He cannot be subjugated to any moral framework; He transcends these relative notions” (p.254). Thus, efficiency is a relative parameter that cannot be used to judge God’s work. Furthermore, Ash‘arism does not view evil and suffering as a problem (p.255). For the second question, Al-Ghazālī’s position is that the ultimate good and bad come from revelation and not from the evolutionary process (pp.255-256).
In Chapter 7, intelligent design (as the ‘rival theory’ to the theory of evolution) is also scrutinized under the Ash‘arite theology. The representative of the theory, Michael Behe, argues that an irreducibly complex system featured in living beings such as bacterial flagellum is better explained by the existence of an intelligent designer rather than by Neo-Darwinian mechanics (p.219). Aside from the scientific critics (pp.219-225), the author also outlines several theological problems with intelligent design, such as how the theory does not guarantee God as the designer (pp.226-227) and that there is no requirement for design in all the possible worlds that God can create (p.230). Thus, the theory of intelligent design is no more ‘God-friendly’ than the theory of evolution.
After scrutinizing the metaphysical issues, Dr. Shoaib concludes that “none of those problems raise serious contentions when situated in the Ash‘arite framework and qualified with nuances” (p.267). Therefore, the four positions mentioned in Chapter 4 (creationism, human exceptionalism, Adamic exceptionalism, and no exceptions) could align well with the Ash‘arite theology. However, Dr. Shoaib also analyzes the positions from the hermeneutics standpoint. Chapter 9 outlines Al-Ghazālī’s hermeneutics principles, and Chapter 10 applies these principles to the case of human evolution. It appears that Al-Ghazālī’s hermeneutics principles would agree with creationism, human exceptionalism, and Adamic exceptionalism, but not with no exceptions (p.330). The metaphors reading of the story of Adam as suggested by the no exceptions camp seems to be dominantly influenced by scientific measures, while Al-Ghazālī is not constrained by such a limitation (p.306).
The book is appreciated for its balanced coverage of the issue without going into the minute details of every problem. Each topic is amply introduced, categorized, and concluded. Additionally, many analogies are used in explaining some of the more complex ideas, making the book comprehensible even for non-specialists.
The author is also much appreciated for his openness with different positions and for being courageous to take a stance (despite the controversy that might follow given the nature of the topic). This is a good example of scholarship where courage is combined with moderation and humbleness, which is unfortunately often forgotten now.
Despite this, as the saying goes, “a perfect book has never been written”. In my opinion, Islam and Evolution appears to struggle when extrapolating Al-Ghazālī’s ideas to assess the various topics related to evolution. One instance is in the discussion regarding intelligent design: The author considers the intelligent design argument as being “unclear [on] whether this designer is God or not” (p.227), and thus “it is still far from saying that this designer is an omnipotent and omniscient being that al-Ghazālī holds on to” (p.227). In other words, the author criticizes some Muslims who make a “theological jump” from the fact of a sophisticated design in nature to the conclusion that the designer is God.
However, to my limited understanding Al-Ghazālī also made such a “theological jump”. In Jawāhir Al-Qur’ān (The Jewels of the Qur’ān), Al-Ghazālī starts with the thesis that “He [God] has created every one of these according to the most perfect and best of its kind and has given it everything it needs”. He then tried to back his thesis by observing natural phenomena, such as that of the honeybees and their comb. After analyzing various shapes as candidates for the honeycomb structure, Al-Ghazālī concluded that “none of the figures other than the hexagon approaches the circular figure in contiguity, and this is known by geometrical proof. Consider, then, how God has guided the bee to the characteristic of this figure.” Furthermore, he also explicitly mentioned that “This is a sample from the wonders of God’s works and His mercy to His creation….”
Now, is the “theological jump” from the intelligent design argument an “unsatisfactory position from an Ash‘arite perspective” (p.225) as argued by Dr. Shoaib, or does it actually hold some weight in Al-Ghazālī’s framework? Dr. Shoaib was not unaware of the book, given he himself quotes the honeybee discussion (p.278), albeit in a different context. He might argue that he is focused on the theological ‘face’ of Al-Ghazālī rather than the spiritual, but this only shows how viewing Al-Ghazālī partially can lead to inconsistency with Al-Ghazālī’s writing. As a note, Dr. Shoaib wrote the following in his conclusion: “The reader might not agree with reading Al-Ghazālī as an Ash‘arite thinker, nor how his hermeneutics was solely viewed from a theological lens” (p.341).
Ultimately, this is a matter of epistemology. Solely relying on the bottom-up approach provided by the intelligent design argument may not guarantee that the designer is God, but considering other sources of knowledge (ex: holy scripture) can lead us to a better conclusion. Behe himself writes that “some of these possibilities may seem more plausible than others based on information from fields other than science” (p.221). He also acknowledges that extending the argument will place it within the realm of theology because “a scientific argument for design in biology does not reach that far” (p.226). This shows the limit in the scientific investigation of nature; to pursue further, one’s epistemology must be expanded. To my understanding, Al-Ghazālī combined both theological and scientific reasoning in his Jawāhir and thus successfully linked physics with metaphysics.
Criticisms aside, this book provides a very well-articulated account of Islam and evolution discourse. One can expect to gain a lot of fresh (and more importantly, Islamic) insight regarding the topic, and the references are available to invite curious readers for a more in-depth exploration. As the author states, “this book isn’t the last word on the matter, and nor should it be” (p.341). Therefore, many Muslims await the clarity to come with further coverage of the topic from the Islamic perspective.
The book is available for open access and can be downloaded for free here. As per Dr. Shoaib’s request, if you download the book please send an individual prayer to the anonymous donor who enabled open access publication of the book.
About the Author: Juris Arrozy is an Indonesian currently living in The Netherlands to pursue his doctoral degree in Electrical Engineering. While not too busy reading papers and doing experiments in the lab, he also spends considerable time in following and analyzing the discourse between Islam and the modern world, with the emphasis on modern science & technology. You can find him on Twitter here.