Is the Quran necessarily incompatible with evolution?
I recall the hostility received by Dr Usama Hasan when he suggested the Quran was compatible with evolution, and specifically with human evolution. I never did read what he wrote on the subject, and was deeply disappointed and very frustrated when he appeared on The Jinn & Tonic Show back in January 2013 and I didn’t get a good enough opportunity to discuss with him the details of his views on the subject.
As far as I am able to tell the abundant evidence we have points clearly to the fact that animals, over time, diverge into new species, and that all of the species we see around us today (including humans) came about through this natural evolutionary process. When someone argues that evolution is impossible (often conflating it with cosmology or abiogenesis) it seems they are willing to dismiss a mountain of facts if they conflict with their mental model of what they wish to be reality. If you have not read a case in favour of evolution please read the following books
If you believe that animals evolved but not humans then you must ask yourself why Allah would do such a good job of making human ancestral history look like it evolved in exactly the same way. Believing something in faith is one thing, but expecting one to believe something despite an abundance of evidence to the contrary is insane. Would it be fair for you to be punished in an eternal afterlife for following the evidence?
On the other side of the coin I have seen many ex-Muslims tell their stories on forums about how looking into evolution led to their eventual apostasy. No longer satisfied with listening only to arguments against human evolution (the closest many people come to actually learning about the subject), many have invested time into researching evolution for themselves and come to the conclusion that there is simply too much evidence for it to be false. I really hope that this blog doesn’t upset some of my ex-Muslim friends who feel grateful for becoming atheists or agnostic theists as a result of reading about evolution, but it might come as a surprise for people to read my opinion is that the Quran does not contradict evolution, not even human evolution. I am writing my thoughts on this subject simply because I haven’t seen them put forward in this exact manner by anyone else. I also have no ultimate agenda, whether people change their minds or not is of no relevance to me, I only care that people form their opinions having been given all of the facts rather than being misled.
The Quran is compatible with evolution
I have seen this claim many times before, and whenever I have read into the substance of the argument I have always been very unimpressed. The arguments I have read so far have always relied on reinterpreting the meaning of words, claiming verses are metaphorical, or even outright denying observed reality. Here are a few examples of the kinds of arguments I am talking about
- When the Quran says that mankind was made from clay it is talking about the very first origins of all life, which could have started in clay.
- Humans are the only species that was specially created, all others evolved.
I have always felt that arguments in favour of compatibility came at the cost of having to “reunderstand” the meaning of the Quran, I also feel that denying where the evidence for evolution points is a very weak position. So, for the purposes of this simplicity and integrity I am going to assume that the Quran means exactly what it says, and that evolution is exactly as people like Richard Dawkins claim it is.
Adam was a special creation sculpted out of clay
- A mortal was made out of clay. The angels were told to bow to it but Iblis refused
[Verses 15.28-31] | [Word analysis] | [Tafsirs]
- It was Adam who Iblis refused to bow to
* Therefore Adam was a mortal made out of clay
[Verse 20.116] | [Word analysis] | [Tafsirs]
- An individual man was created out of clay, like pottery
[Verse 55.14] | [Word analysis] | [Tafsirs]
- Adam was created by hand
[Verse 38.75] | [Word analysis] | [Tafsirs]
- Allah said “Be” and Adam existed
[Verse 3.59] | [Word analysis] | [Tafsirs]
Allah created a single soul, and his wife was made from him
The “single soul” that Allah made was biologically advanced enough to sexually reproduce, so did not evolve.
Mankind and descendants were made from a man made from clay
- Allah began the creation of mankind from clay, and then his progeny from (mucky wet stuff)
[Verses 32.7-8] | [Word analysis] | [Tafsirs]
- Allah created mankind out of clay from black mud
[Verse 15.26] | [Word analysis] | [Tafsirs]
- Allah created mankind from an essence of clay
[Verse 23.12] | [Word analysis] | [Tafsirs]
Taking the Quran at face value it seems to say that Allah began mankind when it created Adam out of clay, then used part of Adam to create a sexual partner, then those two reproduced to create all of mankind.
Was there a first human?
At what point do we decide our ancestors are human? Pinpoint a specific human evolutionary ancestor. Now considering its parents would have been far more genetically similar to that individual than we are today it would be difficult to explain why we today are humans when its parents were not. This of course assumes that our definition of mankind/human is based on genetics.
I used to hear arguments that it was the use of tools that set humans apart from other apes, now that we see apes using tools I instead hear that to be human you must use tools which have been made from tools. How long this new definition will last I don’t know, but whatever this defining point is, it obviously makes sense that some kind of social advancement or specific event could at least be an important factor.
Can two people be the ancestors of all mankind?
When people say that human ancestors never experienced a population bottleneck of fewer than X thousand people it logically follows there is no way the group we evolved from has ever been as low as two, and thus humans could not possibly have started from just Adam and Eve. This is where Muslims who subscribe to the idea of a non-evolved special-creation named Adam are usually criticized as being scientifically inaccurate, and possibly why they feel they need to reject the evidence for human evolution.
The Quran says that Allah created a single soul which, along with its female partner/wife, and these were the ancestors of mankind. I was unable to find anywhere in the Quran which states that Adam was the first soul or had the first soul. I can only find verses talking about how Allah created “A soul” (presumably Eve had a soul too), or it talks about the attributes of souls in general .
- Allah proportioned the soul (general “soul” not individual) and inspired it to know its wickedness from its righteousness
[Verses 91.7-8] | [Word analysis] | [Tafsirs]
When asked to imagine Adam’s family tree people mostly think of something that looks like this
with Adam and Eve taking the place of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, where they are at the top of a genetic pyramid with every human descending beneath them. Instead try to think of it the other way around, imagine your own ancestors.
Your existence depends upon two people, in turn their existences each depend upon two more people, and so on. Ruling out incest etc, going back four generations from yourself means that 16 people had to exist for you to eventually be born exactly as you were. Upon reaching eight generations you’d need 256 people.
The formula is quite simple, you take the number 2 (how many parents are needed) and raise it to the power of how many generations you wish to calculate. So to work out your 8th set of ancestors back you would calculate 2 to the power of 8, which equals 256. The number required for each generation is exponentially large because it doubles each time. For 16 generations you require over 65,000 people to mate, and to go back 33 generations you’d need a whopping 8.5 billion people (8,589,934,592) to mate, more people than there are alive on Earth today.
How long would 33 generations take? If we are over conservative and estimate that people wait until they are 30 years of age before having any children then 33 generations takes us back only as far as the year 1024CE (990 years ago). Try taking this calculating 2,000 years using the 30 year generation factor and we find we have enough time for 66 generations. For everyone to have unique ancestors that far back we’d need over 73 quintillion people, that’s a 20 digit number!
The further back in time you calculate the higher the number of unique ancestors are required to mate. The numbers quickly surpass the number of people alive at the time, which means that we must all share common ancestors, and that is how we can all descend from two people without there only being two people in existence.
Richard Dawkins said
Ug is any random man of 500,000 years ago. Ug is either the ancestor of everyone today, or none. You can prove it from within your armchair [Link]
A shared Y-chromosome ubiquitous in Asia came from one prolific male ancestor. Date compatible with the brutal serial rapist Genghis Khan.
Play your cards right and you too could be a future genetic Adam
Far enough into the future, you will be ancestor of either everybody alive or nobody. Odd thought! I’ve explained it in my books
More from the Quran
These are questions often asked in mockery of the story of Adam
- If Adam was the first human, who was Adam a prophet to?
- Who did Adam’s children reproduce with?
- Did Allah have to make incest temporarily acceptable?
- Did Allah temporarily suspend the genetic consequences of incestuously conceived offspring?
It is clearly possible for us all to be descended from a single person without that ancestor having to be the only person alive at the time. It can even be a person as recent as Genghis Khan, who certainly wasn’t the only human around in the 13th century.
Verse 2.31 in the Quran describes Allah parading Adam to the angels so that he can show off that he has taught him the names of all things [Verse 2.31] [Word analysis]. As animals have names this might suggest that these names included the names of animals. This is further supported in the previous verse [Verse 2.30] where Allah tells the angels that he is going to send Adam to Earth as a Khalifa (viceroy). Adam must have had someone or something to act as Khalifa for. This might suggest that, according to this narration, that at least some animals existed before Adam lived on Earth.
When Iblis refused to bow down to Adam, Allah accused him of being “One of the disgraced ones” [Verse 7.13] [Word analysis]. Elsewhere the Quran says that this act of defiance on the part of Iblis made him “one of the unbelievers” [Verse 38.74] [Word analysis]. Who were the ones already disgraced before Iblis, and which others were there in existence in order for there to be unbelievers?
Adam had at least two sons. Mother/son reproduction is explicitly forbidden in the Quran [Verse 4.23]. If a special creation named Adam were created genetically compatible with evolved humans then the direct descendants of Adam would also be genetically compatible, they would have had plenty of mates to choose from. There would be no need for Allah to temporarily suspend the natural behaviour of genes, nor to make incest temporarily permissible (which is an argument against Islamic claims of eternally unchanging morality).
Compatible or not?
I suspect it might be the case that Muslims who take the Quran at face value and feel they have to reject the evolutionary origins of humans have simply misunderstood the science, or it has been misrepresented to them by people like Harun Yahya (aka Adnan Oktar).
Suppose your descendant migrates to Mars, whose colony then loses contact with Earth. You could be ancestor of all on Mars, none on Earth. [Link]
One day there could be a human who finds themself the most recent common ancestor of some future evolved species on Mars. When this new species looks through its history, at which point might they consider themselves “Martian” rather than human? Perhaps they will choose a point in history when their ancestors’ culture changed significantly in order to bring about their existence, the day they traveled to live on another planet.
Despite finding the film boring, I can’t help thinking of 2001 A Space Odyssey – especially the scene where human ancestors experience something changes their future, perhaps I find it difficult to resist because ironically it was an experience with a black stone. If I understood the story correctly this black stone had some kind of influence on these evolved animals which set them on a path to what is now mankind’s reality.
If I consider the verses I am familiar with in the Quran related to this subject there is nothing in there which is explicitly in support of human evolution, however I also think there is nothing in conflict with the known facts of human evolution. Obviously I reserve the right to change my mind upon presentation of new evidence.
There is nowhere in the Quran that says Adam was either the first or only human, it only says that he is the father of mankind. People infer those other factors from having read the Torah, but the Quran’s explanations for some things differ from what in the Gospels and Torah. So, although I suspect the Quran’s biogenesis is based on the inaccurate model of the Torah, I cannot say that there is something specific in the Quran which makes this position mandatory, and that is the point of my post.