In a first of its kind, the Deen Institute organised a controversial debate asking, ‘Have Muslims misunderstood evolution?’ In two parts, scientific and theological, the programme involved five speakers, leaders in their respective fields, who paced back and forth with argument and counter argument.
Myriam Francois-Cerrah, the chair, opened the proceedings by observing that many in the field of science have tried to reconcile their gained technical knowledge on the subject of evolution with their faith. For some, this conflict shook their belief system while for others, as pointed out later in the day, it removed it entirely; hence the need for such a debate to take place.
Professor Ehab Abouheif of Biology Department, McGill University, began by defining evolution, simply, as change over time: descent with modification of organisms from common ancestors. The facts, he observed are not in dispute, rather, it is the question of theory, which processes took place and how.
Crucially, he addressed a common misunderstanding, that in evolution you don’t transition from one species to another. That is to say the common belief that we originated from monkeys and apes, despite sharing extensive similarities, is an over simplification and inaccurate representation of evolution.
In contrast, Dr. Oktar Babuna opined that evolution is not a theory, rather a false religion. He observed that natural selection doesn’t have evolutionary powers stating that mutations are harmful and do not generate new genetic information. By way of example he shared an illustration of how a starfish ‘evolves’ into a fish, asking for, and offering, a £5 million reward to anyone who can provide a transitional fossil to fit with that or any other evolutionary transition.
The applied biological anthropologist Fatimah Jackson, from the University of Maryland put her focus on how things change, not why. She observed our ability to trace back to the genetic Adam and the genetic Eve (in modern day Africa), raising the question whether they were the Adam and Eve spoken of in the religious scriptures. Fatimah also shared a brilliant diagram illustrating the shape of the forehead of the homo genus over time.
The first skull showed a flat, near horizontal, non-existent forehead, while the last showed our modern day foreheads. This increased area, she observed, is filled with our frontal lobe: ‘the emotional control centre and home to our personality’.
Fatimah then quotes a verse 16 from Surah Al-‘alaq: “A lying, sinning forelock”. In context from the preceding verses:
8: “Indeed, to your Lord is your return”
9: “Have you seen he who forbids?”
10: “A servant when he prays?”
11: “Have you seen if he is upon guidance?”
12: “Or enjoins righteousness?”
13: “Have you seen if he denies and turns away?”
14: “Does he know what God Almighty sees?”
15: “No, If he does not desist, We will surely drag him by the forelock”
16: “A lying, sinning forelock”