by Mateen A. Khan, Piscataway NJ
A version of this article was first published in Al-Madania Magazine.
Muslims are heirs to a robust scholarship rooted in divine knowledge unlike any the world has seen before. Despite this, few things have caused as much confusion as Muslims’ inadvertent adoption of philosophical naturalism, the un-Islamic philosophy that explanations of the natural world are solely empirical and physical. Philosophical naturalism acts much like a religion with Evolution as its creation story. Thus, we feel it necessary to explain an Islamic approach to human origin.
At the outset, the reader should understand that this article’s objective is not to debate the acceptance or rejection of Evolution. This article aims deeper at the proper contextualization of knowledge on the issue from an Islamic epistemic perspective. We will assign an epistemic value to what is known through revelation and the natural sciences. By epistemic value, we mean how likely is it that the specific information corresponds with reality or actual occurrence (المُطَابِق لِلْوَاقِع). In order of correspondence from strongest to weak, we use the following terminology:
- absolutely certain (yaqīn)
- strongly beyond reasonable doubt (ghalabat al-ẓann)
- weakly beyond reasonable doubt
- some presumption in its favor (al-ẓann)
The reader will benefit from reviewing On Knowledge & Knowing in which we discussed epistemology and the theory of knowledge.
Epistemic Value of Prophetic Words
By “prophetic words,” we refer to whatever was spoken by the Messenger of Allah ﷺ. This applies to knowledge conveyed by him, whether in the form of a Qur’anic verse or his hadith. The former is the reiterated literal words of Allah, and the latter, also a form of revelation, are the words of the Prophet himself ﷺ. Allah said, “Your fellow (the Prophet ﷺ) has neither missed the way, nor did he deviate. He does not speak out of (his own) desire. It is but revelation revealed (to him).” (Surah al-Najm 2-4) He also said, “We, Ourselves, have sent down the dhikr, and We are there to protect it.” Mufassirūn have taken the cumulative meaning of these verses to refer to both the Qur’an and prophetic statements. The Prophet ﷺ, himself, corroborated this saying to his Companion, `Abdullah ibn `Amr, while pointing to his own mouth, “Write (what you hear from me), I swear by Him in whose hand is my soul, only the truth comes from it.” (Sunan Abū Dāwūd) In other words, if one can be sure the words came from him, whether a Companion hearing it directly or another who received it without corruption, then it is knowledge from Allah. Since the source of his knowledge is Allah, the Creator of all existence and the Omniscient, and he ﷺ is without doubt in his truthfulness and integrity, his words are true with absolute certainty. There can be nothing greater in epistemic value than this.
The Qur’an has reached us in a way in which the preservation of its text in epistemic value is absolutely certain. On the other hand, most hadith have reached us in a way in which corruption is possible. So, Hadith scholars have painstakingly established criteria by which we verify the accuracy of hadith. Hadith, which are mass transmitted from the time of the tabi`īn and their students (i.e., khabar mash-hūr) or authenticated single narration hadith (khabar āḥād) when accepted by the scholars, are compelling for belief. Although rejection of them is not disbelief, they range in their epistemic value from near-certain to strongly beyond reasonable doubt. Reasonable people would accept and act on such knowledge wholeheartedly.
Prophetic Words on Sayyiduna Ādam
Having ascertained the epistemic value of the Qur’an and some Hadith, let us now look at what they have to say about human origin. At the appropriate time, Allah informed the inhabitants of the heavens that He was creating a khalīfah, Sayyiduna Ādam, from earthly clay, who would inhabit the Earth. They expressed concern having already seen a previous creation, the Jinn, causing corruption and spilling blood there. (al-Baqarah 30, al-Rahman 14-15, al-Hijr 26-27) Sayyiduna Ādam, unlike other human beings to come, was created without father or mother. (Aāl Imran 59) He was given speech, intelligence, and knowledge. (al-Rahman 3-4, al-Baqarah 31) He was created in the best of forms. (Muslim 2612). His wife, Sayyidah Hawwā’, was created from him without a mother, and from the two of them, descended all of humanity with its many nations and tribes. (al-Nisā’ 1, al-Ḥujurāt 13, al-A’rāf 27, Sunan al-Tirmidhī 3581) He is the “father of humanity,” and we will refer to him as such on the Day of Judgement. (Banī Isrā’īl 70, Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 4476) The people of Jannah will be given the best of forms, which is an appearance similar to Sayyiduna Ādam. (Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 3326)
The account of Sayyiduna Ādam is real and literal. His history, actions, and characteristics are mentioned with such clarity and detail that considering it a fable or allegory is absurd. Texts are to be taken on their apparent meaning unless a more substantial proof exists to sway us from them. Not only is this the opinion of the mufassirūn, but it is also common sense. When one of us addresses another, we expect them to take our words in the language’s intended apparent meaning. If the listener instead reinterpreted our words to another meaning, language would lose purpose and value. Likewise, for revelation to hold meaning, it must be understood on its apparent meaning and not simply reinterpreted figuratively to suit the listener’s biases.
The above summary indicates the belief held by the Companions to whom revelation was immediately directed and indeed, the `aqīdah of our beloved Prophet ﷺ and all the previous prophets. It is absolutely certain to strongly beyond reasonable doubt in its epistemic value.
Epistemic Value of Evolution
The theory of Evolution is the foremost explanation in modern biology to explain a variety of life-forms based on a body of facts confirmed through observation, experiment, and theoretical reasoning from a range of scientific disciplines, including biochemistry, phylogeny, geology, paleontology, and genetics. It is composed of three different parts: historical Evolution, common descent, and Darwinian Evolution. Regarding human origin, it leads one to believe modern humans are descendants in a long line of life-forms starting from a single cellular organism billions of years ago. We will briefly examine and assign epistemic value to each part of Evolution below.
First, it should be clearly understood that scientific theories, unlike revelation, will never reach the level of absolute certainty no matter how well confirmed. In general, there are several reasons for this, including:
Inductive reasoning – By its nature, the natural sciences are an explanation for observations followed by a generalization to other non-observed instances. For instance, we observe a phenomenon X. If we posit theory Y, then phenomenon X is explained. We then generalize Y for all instances of X. For example, we observe that all the swans in our area are white. We then posit that all swans in the world are and have been white. We confirm our theory by noting no one has ever reported a non-white swan. One immediately notices the theory is not absolutely certain as we are unable to know about every swan. The instant a non-white swan is found, the theory is refuted. Thus, the natural sciences are not so much an explanation of reality as an explanation of perceived reality.
Empirical limitations – Testing and measurement are inherently limited by our senses and the modes of tests. Our senses can only perceive so much and are, at times, prone to error. Tools may enhance our testing, but a microscope can only look so deep and a telescope only so far. They, too, are limited by physical properties inherent to their design. All of this introduces the possibility of error and moves us away from certainty.
Biases – All observations are based on a prior paradigm in that field, i.e., they are theory-laden. This is inescapable. Once trained in the culture, we interpret our observations in the light of previous theories and assumptions – valid or invalid. In simpler terms, our ideas are skewed and limited because we naturally think inside the box. Our biases, perceived or not, color our vision making it impossible to be objectively certain.
Now, let us return specifically to the parts of Evolution:
Historical Evolution – This refers to the idea that the Earth is extremely old and has seen a considerable multitude of life forms come and go. Historical Evolution does not infer how these life forms were related or how they came out to be, simply that they were found in the geological layers. Given the many evidences and the absence of another viable explanation, Historical Evolution is strongly beyond reasonable doubt in its epistemic weight.
Common descent – This is the claim that all life forms developed from a common ancestor. It is based upon indirect empirical evidence of previous life forms and inductive reasoning to explain their development. Hence, it is weaker in epistemic weight than historical Evolution and can be classified as weakly beyond reasonable doubt.
Darwinian Evolution – This is the inference from common descent that natural selection alone explains the variation of all life-forms. It is the traditional, most accepted opinion within modern Biology. Still, given other competing and viable accounts, its value is weakened to some presumption in its favor, and therefore, it is best to withhold any conviction or firm belief. Perhaps those who completely reject competing accounts might assign it a value of weakly beyond reasonable doubt. It cannot be greater than that.
In epistemic value, historical Evolution is most robust. Common descent builds upon it but comparatively is of a weaker value. Darwinian Evolution gives a mechanism to common descent, is relatively even weaker, and further reduces the epistemic value of Evolution.
|Sourced from Qur’anic verses||Absolutely certain|
|Authenticated Hadiths||Strongly beyond reasonable doubt|
|Historical evolution||Strongly beyond reasonable doubt|
|Common descent||Weakly beyond reasonable doubt|
|Darwinian evolution||Some presumption in its favor|
Comparing and giving preference to evidence of varying epistemic value is commonplace in revelation and the natural sciences. Examples include the preference of an authenticated hadith over a non-authenticated hadith, or in natural science, an observation of direct evidence over an inference by indirect evidence. The reader will understand quite intuitively that we should construct our belief from knowledge that is absolutely certain or near certain and then, move towards weaker forms of evidence in a stepwise fashion.
Regarding human origin, absolutely certain knowledge from the Qur’an and strongly beyond reasonable doubt, authenticated hadiths state very clearly Sayyiduna Adam was created intelligent, originally and without parents, and every human is a descendent from him and Hawwaa. We can include non-contradictory information from similarly evidenced natural sciences, allowing us to fill gaps in what had occurred. An example of such knowledge is the geological evidence of the Earth being billions of years old and direct evidence of life from millions of years ago.
Next, we can add information of weaker epistemic value, such as those in less-well authenticated hadiths and less rigorously established scientific evidence. This is then followed by weaker sources, such as, previously revealed religions and more theoretical scientific ideas. In situations of conflicting evidence, we will favor what is greater in epistemic value over what is less. For example, absolutely certain knowledge precludes us from theorizing common descent and natural selection for human beings. However, we can theorize common descent and natural selection for other creatures in which such knowledge does not exist while keeping in mind the inherent limitations of the observations and assumptions upon which they are built. They do not give us certain knowledge of the topic but do provide at least some presumption in its favor.
With this, we hope the reader can appreciate a framework from which all sciences, whether revealed, natural, or otherwise, can be accommodated without mental conflict. We ask Allah for the ability (al-tawfiq) to do so.