When you hear about the theory of evolution, English scientist Charles Darwin is probably the first person who comes to mind. ‘Muslim scholar’, on the other hand, is the last thing to be associated with the theory.
But, Muslim scholars beg to differ.
While Darwin is greatly credited for putting forth the theory of evolution in the 18th century, Muslim scholars had suggested similar theories centuries before Darwin was born.
The famous theory discusses the process through which new species arise and are perpetuated by natural selection. Originally, the theory is said to date back to ancient cultures, as it was discussed by Greek philosophers, who are believed to have borrowed their evolutionary ideas from the Hindus.
Abu ‘Uthman Amr bin Bahr al-Fukaymi al- Basri, better known as Al-Jahiz, was a renowned Baghdad-based East African prose writer and theologian.
In his writings, Al-Jahiz described three mechanisms of evolution: Struggle for Existence, Transformation of Species into Each Other, and Environmental Factors.
According to The Guardian, Al-Jahiz once wrote: “Animals engage in a struggle for existence, and for resources, to avoid being eaten, and to breed.”
He explained: “Environmental factors influence organisms to develop new characteristics to ensure survival, thus transforming them into new species. Animals that survive to breed can pass on their successful characteristics to their offspring.”
Nasir ad-Din Tusi (1201-1274)
The Muslim polymath, architect, philosopher, physician, scientist, theologian and Islamic source of reference (marjaa taqleed) put forth a basic theory explaining the evolution of species.
According to The Vintage News, Muslim scholar Ibn Khaldun considered Tusi to be the greatest of the later Persian scholars. His writings, which dealt with both religious and non-religious topics, are said to constitute one of the largest collections by a single Islamic author.
In his book Akhlaq-i-Nasri (Nasirean Ethics), Tusi suggests that the universe originally consisted of equal and similar elements, but internal contradictions developed later on, leading some substances to evolve at a different pace and different manner from other substances.
Tusi also explains how elements evolved to minerals, then plants, then animals, and finally, to humans.
Muhammad al-Nakhshabi (10th century)
The 10th century scholar from central Asia believed that celestial bodies evolved to elements, which became plants, which in turn developed to become animals, which yielded human beings.
He wrote: “While man has sprung from sentient creatures [animals], these have sprung from vegetal beings [plants], and these in turn from combined substances; these from elementary qualities, and these [in turn] from celestial bodies.”
Evolution in Islam
Several Islamic figures have argued in favor of the theory of evolution, asserting that it does not contradict Islamic teachings.
Such Muslim scholars and preachers cite Quranic verses that suggest that the universe was not created all at once, but rather in stages.
“Allah has created every [living] creature from water. And of them are those that move on their bellies, and of them are those that walk on two legs, and of them are those that walk on four […].” (Quran 24:45)
Another verse is interpreted as saying that man was created out of clay, which later evolved to human beings. Similarly, Surat Ghafir states, “[We] formed you and perfected your forms.”