A prominent British imam has been forced to retract his claims that Islam is compatible with Darwin’s theory of evolution after receiving death threats from fundamentalists.
Dr Usama Hasan, a physics lecturer at Middlesex University and a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, was intending yesterday to return to Masjid al-Tawhid, a mosque in Leyton, East London, for the first time since he delivered a lecture there entitled “Islam and the theory of evolution”.
But according to his sister, police advised him not to attend after becoming concerned for his safety. …
The campaign is part of a growing movement by a small but vocal group of largely Saudi-influenced orthodox Muslims who use evolution as a way of discrediting imams whom they deem to be overly progressive or “western orientated”.
…In January, Dr Hasan delivered a lecture [at a major East London mosque] detailing why he felt the theory of evolution and Islam were compatible – a position that is not unusual among many Islamic scholars with scientific backgrounds. But the lecture was interrupted by men he described as “fanatics” who distributed leaflets claiming that “Darwin is blasphemy”.…
Most Islamic scholars have little problem with evolution as long as Muslims accept the supremacy of God in the process. But in recent years a small number of orthodox scholars, mainly from Saudi Arabia – where many clerics still preach that the Sun revolves around the Earth – have ruled against evolution, declaring that belief in the concept goes against the Koran’s statement that Adam and Eve were the first humans.
Salman Hameed, a scholar who focuses on the relationship between Islam and science (especially evolution), notes that the press coverage of this incident is missing some key nuance:
We have to be very careful here. Such headlines can provide fodder both to Islamophobic elements in Europe and to the conservative and fundamentalist elements of the Muslim society.
The reality – both on the issue of evolution and also on the specific case of Usama Hasan – is more complex and is unlikely to be captured by the headlines. For example, there is no “official” position of Islam on evolution. There are many who reject evolution and there are many who accept it. In addition, there are many who identify the word ”evolution” or “Darwin” simply with atheism – and have not really thought about biological evolution nor are they aware of even the basics of the scientific idea.
We might also note that there are many who are not aware of even the basics of Islam, or of the philosophical, historical, and sociological studies of the interface between religions and science. And that ignorance can be counterproductive, and even dangerous, in these circumstances. We should also note that the same pattern of equating evolution with atheism is a common barrier to evolution-acceptance for Christians in the US. The dynamic Hameed describes is hardly unique to Islamic anti-evolutionism.
the campaign against Usama Hasan has lot of other elements. For example, there has been an insidious campaign against him (personally) for a while, and some have objected to his statements about hijab. Therefore, to reduce the whole episode to his views on evolution is misleading and too simplistic (but as Nidhal [Guessoum, a physics professor from a university in the United Arab Emirates who guest-blogs at Salman's] pointed out, even if evolution was the only issue, he should still have the right to state his ideas and freedom to say things that others may or may not agree with).
However, such a controversy allows the extreme elements from both sides (those who portray Muslims as a threat to Europe, and those who claim that rejection of evolution is the only Muslim position) to stake out a representational position on the issue.
Lets hope we all root for nuance over a black and white interpretation.
Even the acceptance/rejection of evolution is a complex topic. For example, it will be a mistake to take what is going on amongst Muslim immigrant population in Europe and generalize it to the larger Muslim community. The acceptance or rejection is deeply dependent on the local cultural and political contexts – and rarely do we see a nuanced discussion of religious and philosophical ideas. Europe is currently a battleground for the formation of Muslim identity for the immigrant population (Please note that even within Europe, Muslim immigrant issues are different for different countries – from Turkish immigrants to Germany, Pakistani immigrants to UK, and North-African immigrants to France). Such identity formation battles often take place in public schools and issues such as hijab and evolution then take a center stage and serve as identity markers for the immigrant community. It is easy to see how evolution can get associated with the values of the dominant culture – and thus, its rejection becomes the norm for the smaller, immigrant population. I should add that the immigrant experience of Muslims in the US is different (both economically and in terms of education level) – and so far – we do not see evolution playing the same role here.
I’ll just emphasize a few points Salman makes. This conflict is surely not about evolution in the sense that scientists think of the term. This conflict, as with creationist conflicts in the US, is about cultural identity (what does it mean to be Muslim? What does it mean to believe in the Quran?). It is not about the fossils or homology. It is not about the science, and engaging only on the basis of science is no better than ignoring the issue altogether.
It’s worth noting that a quick search of records from NCSE’s 30 years of anti-evolution flareups reveals no reports of anti-evolution pressure from Muslims on the American educational system. Of the thousands of reports, almost all deal with Christians, with a scattered few involving Orthodox Jews. This makes sense demographically, but given the intense scrutiny American Muslims face, it’s noteworthy that – barring an Islamic ID creationist brought to Kansas by Christian ID promoters – no one is reporting Muslims in the US taking part in that particular culture war. (This is not to say it never happens; NCSE’s records have a bias inherent to any dataset that relies on community members to come forward when creationism emerges as an issue.)
Partly this reflects the different national origins and economic background of immigrants to the US. American Muslims tend to be from more religiously moderate, more educated, and wealthier backgrounds than the general populations of their ancestral countries. Turkish immigrants to Europe tend to be come from lower socioeconomic status, as do some immigrants from former colonies. Level of education and socioeconomic status are linked, and both tend to correlate very nicely with acceptance of evolution. As, of course, does religiosity and especially adherence to conservative forms of religion.
As the figure shows (based on a 2009 survey by Pew), born-again Protestants are the major drag on US acceptance of evolution. Muslims are below average in acceptance of evolution, but there were 8 people among the 2000 sampled, making that result highly sensitive to even small variations. Switching one anti-evolution Muslim to pro-evolution would put that group above the national average, in the realm of Hindus (n=11) and Catholics (n=477). Excluding self-identified born-again, even Protestants are above the national average acceptance of evolution, on par with Catholics. Identifying as “born again” is a common way to identify evangelical Christians, and there is a growing pro-evolution movement within even evangelical Christianity. The major stronghold of anti-evolutionism in the US is not born again Christians, but fundamentalists – a much harder group to tease out in national surveys.
I point this out only to emphasize that, just as fundamentalists or even evangelicals do not represent all of American Christianity, the few voices forcing Hasan to back down from his pro-evolution commentary do not represent all of Islam. There are other voices within Islam, and the key to promoting evolution in Muslim communities is elevating those calmer voices against the authoritarians seeking to enforce their fundamentalist ideology on Muslim communities in the West.
I’m told that a volume on Islam and evolution will come out soon, including an article I wrote, and another by Hameed, and a more personal essay by biologist Ehab Abouheif in which the Muslim evolutionary biologist will describe how he sees his faith and his science interacting. I saw him speak on the topic two years ago at a symposium and I’m told he’s deepened and refined his analysis since then. It promises to be an important contribution to a conversation the Islamic world is just beginning. If the example of Christian interactions with evolution is any guide, the debate in the Islamic world won’t end quickly, but it can only begin when people of good faith stand up for the ability of all involved to speak freely and without threats of violence.