Taner Edis on Muslim creationism

i-0fbc7f0253a7f44800644a409fab2878-TanerEdis.jpgTaner Edis, a physicist at Truman State University, came to KU a couple days ago to talk about his research into creationism in the Muslim world. That research most recently led to his book An Illusion of Harmony: Science And Religion in Islam.

Dr. Edis grew up and went to college in Turkey, which is where a lot of modern Islamic creationism originates. Understanding why that should be the case, helps explain why sees claims of harmony between science and Islam as illusory.

A common trope in discussing the history of science relates to the era when science proceeded apace in the Islamic world, while languishing through the Medieval era in Europe. That era in history is offered as evidence that Islam is supportive and even harmonious with science.

What Edis argues is that even in that era, and certainly today, science in the Muslim world is seen through the lens of technology. Improvements in living conditions and advancement of a people or a nation through technological advances are good. Connecting those technical advances to broader theoretical frameworks has always been seen as a dangerous and potentially heretical act. Islamic philosophers have would argue that the Quran provides the necessary overarching framework, and that attempts by the sciences to usurp any part of that role have always found resistance.

Thus, efforts to harmonize science and Islam have tended to focus on finding ways to show that particular scientific discoveries are explained by the Quran. The Prophet referred to the seven levels of the heavens, so exegetes seek to identify seven meteorological or astronomical layers. Vague descriptions of the formation of a fetus are presented as perfect brief descriptions of modern embryology. As Edis writes, "it is striking how little writers of the science-in-the-Quran genre know about science. … [T]hey conceive of science as a set of practical applications and concrete facts to be collected and organized like stamps. This view is not even medieval; medieval science at least enriched its stamp collections with an elaborate God-centered perception of nature."

Connoisseurs of American creationism will recognize this as a strategy employed by Answers in Genesis, Henry Morris and family, or Walter Brown, among others. Indeed, Turkish creationist groups have borrowed and translated American creationist works (excising all references to the Bible) and presented those arguments as evidence against Darwin and for the scientific validity of the Quran as science text.

By Edis's account, creationism in Turkey is a response to modernity, and to the influx of scientific expertise and ideas from abroad. The main targets of creationist literature are not hard-core Islamists, but the moderate Islamists who occupy a prominent position in the center of that nation's politics. Unlike America, where creationism is regarded as a fringe belief (despite majority support for some creationist beliefs), creationism in Turkey is widely held to be at the vital center of the culture wars which define one critical axis in their national political spectrum.

i-35886944f00adc8bec335ff86e731911-evolsign.jpgEdis told me "It's no accident that creationism to this level emerged in Turkey, as the most westernized of Islamic countries. Harun Yahya is obviously looking for people who are interesting in a more devout, traditional form of religiosity, but live in very nontraditional circumstances and very much respect science as a cognitive authority. The same parallels exist in the United States as well. … The creationists appeal to people who really do live in a sort of high tech environment and really respect science deeply. Creationists are actually puzzled by the suggestion that they are anti-science."

Groups like that formed around the pseudonymous Harun Yahya are well-funded efforts to promote various forms of creationism to that broad center. Hundreds of books purporting to be written by Harun Yahya, they have been translated into 30 languages, all available for free on the web, and at low cost on high quality paper in bookstores in Turkey, Europe, America, and elsewhere. Where the money comes from isn't clear, but the financial resources must be immense.

HY also organizes conferences and public speeches, in many cases with assistance from the government. Because of social pressures and the conflation of science with technology, there is a rich pool of Turkish scientists available to speak alongside American and English "scientists" like Paul Nelson in opposition to evolution.

Bringing in foreign supporters plays into the perception of science as a tool of progress (as opposed to a tool for testing knowledge). The moderates who are targeted by Harun Yahya are Islamist in a mode that is pro-Western; presenting creationism as something acceptable to the West helps draw them in.

Harun Yahya translated their books to English and to other western European languages before translating them to Arabic. Their target audience is the Muslim diaspora to France, Spain, Germany, Italy, and England, more than Saudi Arabia or Pakistan. Edis attributes that, and the relative silence of the evolution battles in the Middle East (except for Egypt) to the fact that evolution simply has not penetrated those societies. Egyptian researchers have gotten into trouble for promoting ideas similar to the theistic evolution that is fairly common in America.

Muslim immigrants in Europe tend to be from the poorer, less educated strata of society – analogous I suppose to Mexicans in America. Creationist literature is a way to fight the secularizing or Christianizing influence of those societies, while letting people feel like they are engaging with the technical and technological advancements around them.

When I asked about the influence of Harun Yahya and other forms of Muslim creationism in America, Edis pointed out that Muslim immigrants to America tend to come from the wealthier, more educated, and often more secular strata of society. They tend to be more comfortable integrating religious interpretation to their scientific knowledge, and attempts to force science to conform to the Quran tend to be less appealing to them.

By Edis's account, Turkey seems like the sort of place American creationists wish they lived in. Edis writes "In the Muslim world, thinkers such as [author of Scientific Creationism Henry] Morris are more common, and their influence is more penetrating." Turkish textbooks are reprinted each year by the Ministry of Education, with creationist messages added when Islamists win elections and removed when secularists retake the seats. Creationism occupies the general support of the public, and creationists are held out as respectable scientists. The community of scientists has been maumaued into silence through social pressure, political interference, and even threats of violence.

I asked what scientists could do to support the pro-science community in the Muslim world, and he told me that the only realistic thing is to be a resource for those researchers and those pro-science forces. A pro-evolution push in Turkey will come from the political secularists, currently out of power, and people in the scientific community. The effort could benefit by sharing lessons-learned with scientists in Turkey and presenting experts to counter the offensive by Harun Yahya and its allies in the Discovery Institute. Other than that, Edis was very pessimistic about the future of evolution in the Islamic world.


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By Celine Cara (not verified) on 05 Apr 2007 #permalink

My friend,
Taner Edis neither represents Turkish nationality nor Muslim identity.
As you quote he says claims of harmony between science and Islam as illusory.
If he doesn't believe the possibility of such compromise, this means as a scientist he refuse Islam since according to him islam conflicts with science!?
(or otherwise he should be a Muslim and refuse science.)
so from the beginning we should put that clear that with this narrow perspective he talk against Islam, by putting himself to science party.
So how can he be a trusted, objective commentator in the debate of creationism&evolution? he is not an objective observer he is a party in this debate.
And in Turkey he known as one of the attacker of Harun Yahya?

so you should select your guid carefully? they may lead you wrong.

By berke_serter (not verified) on 05 Apr 2007 #permalink

"Turkish textbooks are reprinted each year by the Ministry of Education, with creationist messages added when Islamists win elections and removed when secularists retake the seats."

Sounds like Kansas' science standards.

By Cheryl Shepher… (not verified) on 06 Apr 2007 #permalink

Great article. I love your term "connoisseurs of American creationism". And I thought oysters were an acquired taste!!!
Heh! I have had known a number of sci/med professionals from Turkey who now live here, and your comments about their economic status, education, and attitudes ring true. One told me a bit of good news, in that there are a number of popular books on sale in Turkey (the titles escape me at the moment), which are advocating a more liberal view of Islam.

The Iranians are going hell bent on a nuclear bomb. How do the clerical leadership in Tehran reconcle this. Pu 239 has a half life of 20,000 years Pu 244 (which is in fact also fissile) 80 million years. Surely centrifuges show a lack of faith! If you really believe in 6 days you should look for a Plutonium mine!

BTW Pu244 was in meteorites when they were first formed. You see the Sun condensed because of a shock wave from a supernova.

By Ian Parker (not verified) on 09 Apr 2007 #permalink

Ian, Muslim creationists have no particular issue with the age of the Earth/Universe. The Quran is apparently less specific than Genesis is about what happened on each of the 6 days, so Islamic creationism is what we might think of as Day Age creationism or Gap Creationism.

Your point about nuclear power/weapons is important, though. Islamic culture, by Edis's account, is taken with using scientific technology as a sign of modernity, and with ways of producing what they can present as Islamic/indigenous takes on Western themes. That is part of the reason that Iran's government uses nuclear power/nuclear weapons research as a domestic rallying point. The hardline religious people will back the Ayatollah no matter what, but the very pro-western youth want that modernity.

Nuclear research shows the youth that their government is giving them those technological advancements.