Is Theistic Evolution Compatible With Islam? An Analysis of the Philosophical Issues

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

Recent controversy has emerged after Dr. Shadee Elmasry criticized Dr. Mohamed Ghilan’s “leanings” towards the theory of evolution regarding the creation of Nabi Adam (as). Dr. Ghilan, however, views evolution as a process which Allah swt started and guides.

Philosophically, there is no problem with Ghilan’s position; if Allah had willed He could have created the creatures of the earth, including Man, through an evolutionary process.[1] The position is internally consistent.

The question remains, however, whether a) the position that Allah did not create Adam through such a process but rather through some sort of special creation is also philosophically consistent and b) if so, which of the two positions (evolution vs special creation) has stronger evidence?

When we examine the first point, this is really a general question about miracles altogether. Can Allah violate the natural order? If so, how can that be the case?

A detailed answer to this question depends in part on what one means by “a law of nature.” Is a law of nature some sort of metaphysical entity, or is it simply the name we give to a regularity we observe? Are the laws metaphysically necessary (i.e. they could not be any other way), or not?

Let us first consider the most difficult position for the one who claims miracles can occur, namely, that the laws are metaphysically necessary. In this case, it is literally impossible, for instance, for the gravitational constant to be anything other than what it is. Likewise, it would appear to be logically impossible for a human being to simply pop into being ex nihilo (from no previously existing material), or without a father, as is allegedly the case for Nabi Adam (a) and Nabi Isa (a).

The problem with this position is as follows. First of all, there is nothing in the quiddity (the essence) of a law of nature that would appear to make it metaphysically necessary. Why couldn’t the laws of nature be other than what they are? The position amounts to a mere assertion.

But even then, there is another devastating response. Do we know all the laws governing the created order? Is our knowledge complete? If not, then how do we know that there are not deeper laws governing the created order which defy our understanding and allow for precisely the type of miracles that the Quran describes? Perhaps there is a law, for instance, that when a Nabi wishes to raise someone from the dead with Allah’s permission, then such a thing occurs.

There is no way – without complete knowledge of the created order, both material and immaterial – to know what is in line with the laws of nature, and hence logically possible, and what is not.

Let us now take the position that laws of nature are not metaphysically necessary. Suppose the laws are just some sort of contingent entities existing in the created order. Is Allah, the Creator, not more powerful than these laws? Is He not the Sustainer of these laws? If He wills, must not these laws of nature submit? If Allah wills, He can remove these contingent laws from existence in an instant and replace them with other laws.

Furthermore, isn’t it more difficult to believe in the creation of the entire universe ex nihilo (or ex materia, to be more precise) than it is to believe that the existing created order must bend to the will of the Creator? How can one be so incredulous about the creation of Nabi Adam (a) or Nabi Isa (a), yet be willing to accept creation ex nihilo, which is an even more marvellous feat? If Allah can create the entire universe, why couldn’t He simply “pop” a human being into existence? The Quranic account does indicate the use of clay in the creation of Adam as a matter of fact, but my point is even the clay is not logically necessary; if Allah had willed He could have simply “popped” Adam into existence without this entailing any sort of internal contradiction or even improbability. There is no reason to be incredulous in the least about this, as it logically follows from the existence of an omnipotent creator.

Lastly, let us suppose that the laws of nature don’t even really exist, but are simply the imposition of human understanding upon reality. In this case, the situation is even worse! For if there are no laws of nature and all that exist are mere regularities we observe, then why can things simply not act in a different way? On this view, there is no real reason why any created thing *must,* of its own nature, act in a particular way. In fact, theologians like Al-Ghazali held this to be the case. On his view Allah alone is the true agent or cause and so for Allah to tell the fire to be cold upon Nabi Ibrahim (a) or to create Adam (as) is really no different than the earth orbiting the Sun – both are the direct act of Allah.

The Evidence

Now we have established that the special creation of Adam (or any other miracle for that matter) is just as philosophically consistent as any theory of theistic evolution. The only question is, which one actually occurred?

We have two types of evidence available here; scriptural and empirical. For the Muslim the default position is to hold the scriptural evidence as having more epistemic weight than inferences made based on empirical evidence. This is not to say empirical evidence could never change a reading of the scripture, but rather that the proponent of such a view is fighting an uphill battle since few empirical inferences are so certain as to cause a real conflict between the apparent reading of the scripture and empirically verified fact. An actual example of where empirical evidence might cause us to rethink the apparent reading of a scripture are the ayaat which appear to say that that shooting stars are to cast our shayaateen from the lower heavens (see 37:10). Furthermore, some mufasireen famously held that the earth was flat – a position which is demonstrably false on empirical grounds.

I think it goes without saying that the apparent reading of the text is in line with the special creation of Adam, and in fact opposes the evolution of Adam from a previous species. The problem is compounded in that, unlike the one ayah we have on the comets, the special creation of Adam is described explicitly across several ayaat and in multiple places in the Quran and ahadith. Not only this, we have actual events described in the lives of Adam and Eve, including the temptation to sin, their seeking repentance, the birth of Abel and Cain, and so forth. Here is just one example of a fairly clear verse:

إِذْ قَالَ رَبُّكَ لِلْمَلَائِكَةِ إِنِّي خَالِقٌ بَشَرًا مِّن طِينٍ – 38:71 فَإِذَا سَوَّيْتُهُ وَنَفَخْتُ فِيهِ مِن رُّوحِي فَقَعُوا لَهُ سَاجِدِينَ – 38:72

فَسَجَدَ الْمَلَائِكَةُ كُلُّهُمْ أَجْمَعُونَ – 38:73 إِلَّا إِبْلِيسَ اسْتَكْبَرَ وَكَانَ مِنَ الْكَافِرِينَ – 38:74

And (remember) when your Lord said to the angels: ‘I am going to create a human (Adam) from sounding clay of altered black smooth mud.  So when I have fashioned him and breathed into him (his) soul created by Me, then you fall down prostrate to him. ” So the angels prostrated – all of them entirely. Except Iblees; he was arrogant and became among the disbelievers. (Quran 38:71-74)

In favour of theistic evolution is the empirical evidence for evolution in general. However, this is not enough. For evolution in general poses no theological problem to Islam; as we saw earlier it is entirely philosophically consistent for Allah to have caused the proliferation of different species through a guided process of evolution. It is the evolution of man that is in question here, as it contradicts an apparent reading of the scripture. What we require is the specific evidence for the evolution of man.

What the proponent of theistic evolution must hold is that the evidence for the specific evolution of man is so incontrovertible, so certain, that the evolution of man is a verified fact on par with the earth being the third planet from the Sun.

This is in fact an absurd position to take because the fossil record is incomplete. We, in fact, have very little information to work with, and probably will never have enough information to make definitive, incontrovertible statements about what happened that far into the past.

In fact, as a general principle, for anything in the Quran that refers to a one-time historical incident that no longer occurs, there is no way for empirical observations to disprove it. The reason is because even if we were to formulate a general law, like gravity, it does not prove that Allah could not have caused someone at some point in the past to fly, or, perhaps more aptly, to walk on water. I explained why in the earlier section on the laws of nature. What this means is that even if we had incontrovertible evidence of evolution occuring in other species, it does not mean that Allah could not have caused Man by a miraculous, special creation.

Dr. Ghilan’s Main Objection

Ghilan actually would appear to agree with everything I’ve written above. Ghilan writes: “God is all-powerful and is not in need of naturalistic causes to bring anything into existence. In fact, every instance is a new creation as per Muslim creed. He could have popped both Adam and Eve and everyone else in history and even those reading this into existence from nothing. However, that is not what He did. Is it possible for Adam and Eve to have been created individually and not descended from previous ancestors? Yes.”

So where is the problem?

“In both cases, the Muslim and the Christian define faith as the negation of the human intellect’s rational conclusions after observing confirmed repeatable patterns in nature. This presents an inescapable conundrum that has a scary conclusion for such individuals. If one cannot trust their intellect and rational capacities with regards to what they conclude about nature, how can they trust their intellect in concluding that their choice of belief, assuming it was a conscious choice, is the right one? Moreover, either evolution happened, or God set up every piece of evidence to make it look like it did, and expects us to reject our very rational conclusions. In other words, the God we believe in is now a deceptive God. An appropriate English proverb comes to mind now: You can’t have your cake and eat it too!”[2]

Ghilan also writes:

“This is a matter of accepting a miracle that was made to look like a natural event, perfectly fitting in a sequence of other events, but was not actually a natural event. Again, easy for Muslims not actively in science to say this and believe, but nearly impossible to peacefully accept by actual scientists.”

Dr. Ghilan’s main objection to this is why would Allah cause the evidence to appear to point in one direction, but for that to be false?

Let us take a more prominent example than the alleged evolution of man. Something that has far more evidence for it than evolution, an experiment that has been repeated literally billions of times, is that every new human being comes from a mother and a father. We have 0 empirically confirmed cases of a human being born without a father.

Furthermore, we have evidence of millions, of women in history who have given birth to illegitimate children and lied about it.

Now here’s my question for Dr. Ghilan – given where all the empirical evidence points, what does the birth of Nabi Isa (a) to Maryam (a) appear to be?

I seek Allah’s refuge from even reproducing such blasphemous accusations, but to deal with the doubt we must consider the case intellectually.

Why would Allah cause one of his greatest prophets, who is described in the Quran as a word from Him and His spirit, to look like an illegitimate child to the future generations who cannot empirically verify his speaking in the cradle? Why would He cause his mother, who is numbered among the greatest women of all mankind, to appear to be unchaste to the so-called “rational man”? In fact, this is precisely the point Hume made in his famous screed On Miracles.

Note that these questions hold even if we somehow gave a scientific causal account of how Maryam (a) could have gotten pregnant without a man being involved. The point is even if that were true, given that we have zero confirmed births in this manner, but millions of lying adulteress women, the background probability that Maryam (a) gave birth to an illegitimate child and then lied about it is still enormously high.

That is, until you consider the probability that scripture is wrong. What is the probability that scripture is wrong, that therefore the creation of man has no purpose whatsoever and perhaps God does not even exist? What is the probability that the natural order – to which we are appealing in order to make these judgements about what is probable and what is not – is self-contained?

The answer to that is zero, because it is metaphysically impossible for this contingent world to not have a necessary Creator, or for the Creator, who is the Truth, to lie.

Ultimately, only Allah knows why He has occasionally made scripture appear to be at odds with empirical evidence, but I think at least one point can be made. Perhaps Allah wants to distinguish between those who believe in the ghayb, submit to the Word of Allah, and those who will snicker and snide, believing that they come from apes and that they are nothing more than apes. Perhaps, in this latter assessment, they are not entirely wrong.

Does this destroy all empirical knowledge?

I would like to point out one major error in Ghilan’s main objection. As I quoted above he says: “If one cannot trust their intellect and rational capacities with regards to what they conclude about nature, how can they trust their intellect in concluding that their choice of belief, assuming it was a conscious choice, is the right one?”

In other words, if what I’ve written here is correct, why not think, for instance, that at some point in the past a pink elephant was born without a father and passed away? Or, why think that mutawaatir ahaadith are actually correct instead of an accident of history in which a dozen different people in different locations decided to fabricate the same hadith by chance? This would undermine the foundations of religion; why even think historical evidence is valid to begin with in establishing the existence of the Prophet (s)?

The mistake here is as follows: we have no counter evidence in those cases for believing in our empirical conclusions. In other words, we have evidence all stacked on one side and not a single reason to believe otherwise on the other side. In the case of a miracle like the virgin birth, we have the empirical evidence saying this cannot happen on one side of the equation, and on the other side we have counter evidence; namely scripture saying it did in fact happen. We are still being rational and weighing evidence and counter evidence.  A rational person is going to rate clear scripture as epistemically higher in this example.


Here are some take away points:

  1. The creation of Adam out of clay (or even ex nihilo) is entirely within the power of Allah.
  2. The apparent reading of the scripture says this indeed occurred.
  3. Indirect empirical evidence about things that happened hundreds of thousands of years ago is not epistemically stronger than clear scriptural texts so as to force us to reinterpret them.
  4. If one is consistent in claiming that empirical evidence trumps scripture, then one is rationally compelled to reject all miracles, since by definition they are improbable and/or counter to known physical laws.
  5. If one is consistent in claiming apparent reading of scripture trumps almost all empirical evidence, this does not mean we must call into question our rational faculties (which, if unreliable, would undermine our belief in the scripture to begin with).

[1] Some theistic evolutionists take a deistic “watchmaker” view of God who merely set up the dominoes and then left creation to run according to laws of nature after the Big Bang. This view is definitely inconsistent with a classical theistic view of God and is criticized by the likes of Seyyed Hossein Nasr under the general term “theistic evolution.” However, it is very easy to imagine a theistic evolutionary theory in which God perpetually creates creation at every moment as classical theism envisions. This latter interpretation is what I am supposing when I say that theistic evolution is philosophically consistent with classical theism.