Creationism in the Muslim World

During the Bush years our foreign policy often felt like a no win battle between Christian and Islamic fundamentalism. The Boston Globe shows one of the areas where the two are increasingly in agreement–belief in creationism:

But there is another creationist movement whose influence is growing, and which is fueling challenges to science in countries where Christianity has little sway: Islamic creationism. Campaigners in countries like Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, and Indonesia have fought the teaching of evolution in schools there, sometimes with great success. Creationist conferences have been held in Pakistan, and moderate Islamic clerics are on record publicly condemning Darwin’s ideas. A recent study of Muslim university students in the Netherlands showed that most rejected evolution. And driven in part by a mysterious Turkish publishing organization, Islamic creationism books are hot sellers at bookstores throughout the Muslim world.

“[T]he next major battle over evolution is likely to take place in the Muslim world,” Salman Hameed, a Pakistani-born astronomer at Hampshire College who has dedicated himself to researching Islamic creationism, wrote in an article in Science last December.

The phenomenon has raised concerns among scientists and educators – especially those in Muslim countries and in countries with growing Muslim minorities – who see in it a threat to scientific literacy, a drag on the potential for Muslim countries to build up their languishing scientific research sectors, and as another flashpoint in the Muslim world’s long-running struggle between religion and secularism. Unlike in the West, creationist beliefs are not associated in the Muslim world with religious fundamentalism, but instead are often espoused by members of the mainstream intellectual elite – liberals, by their own lights, who see the expansive, scientific-sounding claims of creationism as tracing a middle way between the guidance of religion and the promise of modern science. Critics of the movement fear that this makes it more likely that creationism will find its way into policies there, especially when the theory of evolution is portrayed among Muslim thinkers, as it often is, as an instrument of Western intellectual hegemony.

There are significant differences in the debate in Muslim countries as opposed to the United States:

And as the Internet facilitates the spread of both evolutionary and anti-evolutionary ideas, the debate over evolution seems to be sharpening. Islamic creationism does have its own distinctive character: While Islamic creationists borrow from the literature of their Christian counterparts, their concerns are not always the same. Without a Book of Genesis to account for, for example, Muslim creationists have little interest in proving that the age of the Earth is measured in the thousands rather than the billions of years, nor do they show much interest in the problem of the dinosaurs. And the idea that animals might evolve into other animals also tends to be less controversial, in part because there are passages of the Koran that seem to support it.

But the issue of whether human beings are the product of evolution is just as fraught among Muslims, and, as in the United States, the argument has played out around the question of what will be taught in schools. Turkey, with its longer and deeper engagement with the West, has had the most vehement debates.

There are many reasons which lead some Muslims to reject evoluton, including the fact that the science was worked out in the west, along with some seeing evolution as “the tool of atheists bent on destroying Islam.” As with religious fundamentalists in the west, some fear “the threat that evolutionary thought presents is its insistence on replacing a divine creator with the nakedly mechanistic forces of randomness and brutal competition for resources and mates.”

Some portions of the Islamic world are more open to a consideration of modern science:

There are attempts within the Muslim world to try to ease the tension between the two by enlisting the authority of the Koran. Salman Hameed points out that the biology textbook used in Pakistani high schools, while it does not mention human evolution, does have a chapter on the broader theory of evolution. That chapter opens with a quote from the Koran – “And He is Who had produced you from a single being.” – that could be read as giving support to the idea that many species descended from one single predecessor.

Edis is quick to point out that the Iranian clerical establishment’s vision of evolution, in which a divine hand guides the process, is closer to intelligent design than to the mainstream Western version of evolution. Still, according to Hameed, it is this relative friendliness to modern biology – and one of its central ideas – that has allowed Iran to pursue an aggressive, state-sponsored stem cell research program unmatched anywhere else in the Muslim world.

“What happened in Iran is that the ayatollahs decided that evolution is OK, and that there was going to be none of this nonsense about creationism, and therefore there isn’t a lot of it in Iran,” says Taner Edis, a physicist at Truman State University and author of “An Illusion of Harmony,” a book on the relationship between science and Islam.

A similar theological rapprochement explains why creationism has gained little purchase in Iran. Unlike in Sunni Islam, Shia Islam, Iran’s majority religion, has an established clerical hierarchy to interpret the Koran, making Shia’ism structurally similar to Catholicism. Iran’s clerics, like the Vatican, have decided that evolution needn’t conflict with Holy Scripture.

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