Science and evolution in Muslim societies is a complicated topic. Among the public, what does evolution mean? Whats does evolution stand for? Is there a ‘Muslim view’ on evolution? In this podcast, Stephen Jones interviews Salman Hameed about recent research on Muslim perceptions of science and evolution.
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Podcast with Salman Hameed on Religion, Science and Evolutionary Theory
Interviewed by Stephen Jones
Stephen Jones (SJ): Well hello everyone, my name’s Stephen Jones, I’m a research fellow at Newman University and we’re here in Birmingham in the UK. I’m here with Salman Hameed who is Associate Professor of Integrated Science and Humanities at Hampshire College in the United States. We’re going to be talking today a bit about religion and science and more specifically about Islam and science, and Muslim perceptions of science and evolution. Welcome Salman, glad you could be here with us.
I wonder if I could ask you just first of all a bit about how you became involved in the study of Muslims and science and what your work involves?
Salam Hameed (SH): Well thank you very much for having me here. I should mention I’m probably coming from a completely different angle because I was trained as an astronomer and I got interested because I was fascinated by beliefs in UFOs and aliens and flying saucers and things like that. So from that perspective I started thinking about why smart students, for example, believe in things that actually have no evidence from a scientific perspective. In some senses I got interested because to me, in many ways, it seemed like a religious belief, that well, UFOs, people give meaning to them, they actually become very important for them.
But then later on I got a position at Hampshire College which gave me independence to approach whatever subjects that I wanted to approach and I got interested in the topic of what I was hearing at the time was the rise of Islamic creationism. To me there was a parallel to it because, okay, so the rejection of evolution in the face of overwhelming evidence, to me, there was a parallel to the way people believe in UFOs in the face of overwhelming evidence that, well, we have not been visited by aliens. So that got me interested in… my background, I’m originally from Pakistan and so I was familiar with the debates within Muslim societies that have taken place and I had heard a little bit about creationism as well. So that’s when I thought, well, maybe it’s an interesting topic to explore a bit further.
SJ: When you say explore, I mean your own work…most I think of the discussion around science and religion and this goes probably across different religious traditions, whether that’s Christianity or Islam, it tends to be at a sort of theological or philosophical level. Your work differs from that doesn’t it? It’s more empirically based, it’s social research, going out and talking with people. Could you say a little bit about that?
SH: Yes I mean in some sense I’m less interested in what ought to be the normative relationship between Islam and evolution. I do have another cap because I do oftentimes give public lectures on that, in Pakistan and other places, and from that perspective I do take a stance and that is more like ‘Non-Overlapping Magisteria’, which was Stephen J Gould, the biologist’s, position that, well, science and religion are two separate spheres. To me, from a practical perspective, and again not from a philosophical perspective because there are critiques of that, but I think from a practical, pragmatic purposes, that to a certain degree works.
But, to me, that is not the most interesting question. To me, the most interesting question is: How do people make sense of the world that they live in and the world that is shaped by modern science but in societies where religion is really important? So you can explore the issue of evolution and one of the reasons why I thought evolution would be a good topic to explore the science of in Muslim societies, is because there is an overwhelming narrative that was shaped in the late nineteenth century that Islam and science are compatible. In fact, if you ask most people, and we have tried to ask some people and there are some polls out as well, and if you say, ‘Well, what is the relationship between Islam and science?’, and oftentimes you will get the answer, ‘Well, it’s great’.
SJ: Would that be within the Muslim public?
SH: Within the Muslim public…within the Muslim population, right. But that may not give us any much more information because if everybody says that then actually it’s not a useful question. So I got interested in the question that, well, if you think about evolution and you were hearing about these various kinds of Muslim responses to that, then potentially we will be able to explore a little bit more about this reflexive answer. (I don’t mean to say this is reflexive in a bad way, I’m just saying that it’s a reflexive answer about Islam and science’s compatibility.) But I think when you start to get into the nuances, when you start thinking about evolution – because evolution has challenged religious views in general, but you have various responses to that question, actually dependent upon cultures, societies, individuals. So we wanted to explore how does that match up with what is going on in Muslim society.
SJ: You mentioned a moment ago about your interest coming out of this perception of an emerging ‘Islamic creationism’, and one sees this in the UK, in this country, we have heard certain media articles out recently about Muslim university students creating problems for teachers of evolution, that they somehow would reject it. What is your take, based on your own research, on that kind of media narrative, that there is a burgeoning Islamic creationism that is a danger to secular norms, to ways of teaching, in Europe and the US as well?
SH: This is a really complicated issue because this news of rejection of evolution gets framed into the threat to the education system or the threat to secular values. But there are a lot of other things that are taking place. So first of all it’s not about Islam, because there are a billion Muslims out there and there are all these various societies and cultures. There is no single Islamic position on evolution, and one of the reasons is that there is no central pope-like authority within Islam and so you have variations within it. But even at a more practical level, we actually know that evolution is taught in public high schools, in biology classes, in several Muslim majority countries.
So, for example, in Pakistan, right in the ninth grade biology textbook, evolution is presented as a fact of science. So is the case in Malaysia, so is the case in Turkey as well, although in Turkey there is a local tension about it between the government and – depending upon which government it is, whether they’re Islamists or the secularists – there have been efforts to bring in intelligent design-like elements, but overall evolution is still there. We also know that in Iran it is included in the textbooks. In all of these places human evolution is not mentioned. But evolution is certainly there. So even when we talk about evolution, what are we addressing? We have to sort of like look at it in a little bit more detail.
So as it can be seen purely from the perspective of textbooks, evolution is not an issue in Muslim countries. Yes, not in every place is the complete secular perspective given, but there are variations. In Pakistan the interesting example is that the chapter on evolution starts with, actually, a Quranic verse. But that’s it; after that it just presents science as it is. So of course we can ask this question, well, ‘Why is there a Quranic verse on the evolution chapter but not on some other chapter?’, well, obviously the people who are writing textbooks are aware that it can potentially be controversial, so they are saying actually that, ‘Well, actually the Qur’an doesn’t contradict evolution’.
I’m not saying that this is the Islamic position, but this is a position that Muslim textbook writers in Pakistan have taken to support the teaching of evolution. So knowing that context, that, well, there are various responses to it – and I should also mention that Saudi Arabia is one of the few Muslim countries where creationism is the standard thing and their textbooks actually explicitly talk about evolution. So in some Muslim countries there is a textbook [on evolution], in a few it’s against it. So when we are talking about British context or if there are students walking out [of biology classes], well we have to understand what’s going on in England.
This particular story [about Muslim students] actually I followed quite a bit when it actually really made headlines, it was based upon an anecdote by a biologist, also Steve Jones – not you! It was in the middle of an interview that he gave to the London Times, in which he was asked about the state of science in England and in the middle of the interview he had just said that, ‘Well, I used to have students walk out of the room, it used to be mostly Christians. Now the students who walk out are mostly Muslim’. So first of all he wasn’t talking about the majority of the students who walked out, the majority of the Muslim students who walked out, he said, the majority of the students who walk out now are Muslims, okay.
But the newspaper headline from that interview was that, ‘Muslim students are walking out or boycotting evolution classes’. And that particular newspaper headline was covered all over the world because it fed a particular narrative, that Muslims are rejecting evolution. It wasn’t based upon any data, it wasn’t based upon some kind of study that actually looked at it in a systematic way, it was simply an anecdote. What is really happening? Well, we don’t know! All we know is… Remember, it is is also asymmetric because if Muslims accept evolution within a context, say for example in England, it’s not going to be a news item. It would become a news item only when you reject it. So we actually don’t know what is the true acceptance or rejection rate of Muslims and what does evolution mean because, again, human evolution I can imagine that that can be more of a problem, but evolution itself, I mean if it’s being taught in textbooks of other places, how does that feature?
SJ: You spoke a bit a moment ago about variations across different countries. I know you’ve done research on the ground in various different parts of the world, could you say a little bit about how, aside from the teaching of evolution or not in different political contexts, how that impacts on variations in how widely accepted evolution is? What do we know, given limitations of research and so on? Are there particular countries within the Muslim majority contexts that stand out for their high levels of rejection, or low? What do we know about these areas?
SH: So I can talk a little bit about the research and I actually did all of the interviews. The project that we were running was interviewing medical students and medical doctors in several Muslim-majority countries. The reason why we looked at just this tiny fraction is because you can actually compare the apples with apples, so doctors and medical students in different countries and these interviews were all in English and they were all done by me. So we tried to reduce the variables so we can at least potentially say, within that context, what’s going on. So let me just give you an example of two countries, Pakistan and Malaysia, because I think those were surprising and they also give you a flavour of this diversity.
Let me just talk about the question of human evolution. In Malaysia we interviewed about 30 doctors and medical students and only one accepted human evolution. This is the question of human evolution, and there are variations of that, but overall if you say, well, ‘Do you think humans came are connected to other species that evolved over billions of years’, only one person accepted that. But when we did that in Pakistan, we got about half of the students – and we had a sample in Pakistan of about 45 students and medical doctors – that actually were okay even with human evolution.
Now when analysing the data we find that in Malaysia there was, just even if you ask the question about evolution, forget about human evolution, even if you ask the question, ‘What do you know about evolution?’ most people we interviewed responded by saying, ‘Well, evolution is against Islam’. Then they moved on and later in the interview they may even be okay with microbial evolution, but just this particular question, ‘What do you know about evolution?’ their response was, ‘Well, it’s against Islam’. Now in Pakistan we found that if you asked the same questions, and our questions were identical in different countries, so when we asked this question in Pakistan, their initial response was like, ‘I don’t know’. ‘What do you know about evolution?’ ‘Not much, I don’t remember’.
Then later on when we would ask about, for example, human evolution, there was a whole range of responses where people are thinking right there and then. In some sense to us what it looks like is that there is a particular narrative that is far more established in Malaysia, that there is a clash between evolution and Islam and rejection of evolution in some sense is part of their definition of Islam. In Pakistan that is not the case, and we are trying to analyse why that might be the case, but we have a hunch that, well, in Pakistan it has never been an issue of contention. It has not been brought up in political debates, it has just not been a polarising element. Evolution has not been used like that.
In Malaysia, we’re trying to figure out how did this kind of evolution rejection came to feature, but we think it’s also because of large minorities which are ethnic Chinese and ethnic Indian, which comprise about 40 per cent of the Malaysian population. Religion itself is an identity, is an ethnic marker. So the Malay population in Malaysia are all Muslims. The Chinese and Indian populations are also more prosperous. So when we were interviewing Malaysian doctors and students and we asked them, ‘Well, the teacher that taught your biology class way back’ – and most people actually heard first about evolution in their schools, in schooling – ‘did that person accept or reject evolution?’ Well, oftentimes they used the marker, ‘Well he was Chinese so probably accepted evolution’. Or they would say, ‘He was a Muslim so probably rejected evolution’. So their sense of how they measure rejection of evolution was actually strictly on the lines of the ethnic identity marker. Whereas in Pakistan it was all over the map, and in fact in the same question about teaching most people actually didn’t remember what the teacher said but rather whether it was in the textbook or not. So if it was in the textbooks then probably they accepted it. So that’s where all these variations come in.
SJ: I’d like to ask just about one more context if I may, about Turkey. That’s because for English speaking audiences, they have a certain familiarity with Harun Yahya, the creationist advocate who is from Turkey, and that shapes the debate about Islam and science, certainly in the UK and I imagine in the US too to a certain extent. What could you say about that particular country and where figures like him fit into it, if at all?
SH: So again Harun Yahya, his actual name is Adnan Oktar, but he has to be understood in two different contexts. One is, Harun Yahya in Turkey and then Harun Yahya in Europe and I’m explicitly saying Europe and actually maybe in other Muslim countries as well. I think those are two completely different things. Within Turkey he has a history and he was doing other things before he started talking about evolution. So he was never taken very seriously within Turkey.
Now, we still weren’t sure, there is no empirical data about several Turkish populations’ views on Harun Yahya, but in our interviews we actually had a question that we asked everybody, in Turkey and in other places. Had they ever heard of somebody named Harun Yahya? What was interesting was that actually in most Muslim countries even if they had heard of him they had not heard of him because of his evolution theories, because we also asked them, you know, ‘Do you know his views on evolution?’ Sometimes he was known simply because he has a lot of books. So first of all a fraction, I would say about less than a quarter of our respondents in the Muslim majority countries, knew of Harun Yahya; and when they have heard of him, very few knew of him through the evolution context. Rather, they knew of him as an Islamic scholar.
Within Turkey everybody had heard of him, but very few people – and we interviewed about 40 people in Turkey, medical students and medical doctors – and I would say even people who rejected evolution, they also were sceptical about Harun Yahya. Again, because within the Turkish context people don’t take him seriously. I should also mention that I happened to be in Istanbul actually working on this data when the first creationist conference took place at a university campus. That was actually a big deal, that was at the University of Marmara, two years ago, and this was the first time that a conference on creationism specifically was ever held inside a university campus. There were riot police outside, there were protests, and the protests were actually by academics. There were pictures, they had pictures of Harun Yahya outside, saying, you know, ‘This is all creationism and Harun Yahya…’ And at that time I think there was Prime Minister Erdogan, his pictures, and me and my colleague, we managed to get in, we said we are studying, so we attended the conference. Then when we went inside there was virtually no presence of Harun Yahya! Okay, so that was interesting. In fact, there were actually representatives of Harun Yahya who looked very odd and very different.
It’s hard to describe that but we could actually see them. I mean we were, like, ‘Oh, where are the Harun Yahya people?’ There are all these speakers lined up, there is all this audience. We expected, and again from just the protest outside as well, you would have expected all Harun Yahya, but actually there was no presence except for these four people that were there and they were dressed in all white. I mean, again, I don’t want to belittle these things but they did look like they had come from another planet because they just stood out. We actually managed to talk to them as well at the conference and I interviewed and I talked to the organisers and I asked them about Harun Yahya and they had one speaker. So this was a two day conference, I forget the total number of speakers, probably there were like, well 18, 19 speakers, there was one Harun Yahya speaker there.
So I think who were the participants? There’s a movement called the Gülen movement, in Turkey, a lot of them were there. But the key organiser was actually not part of the Gülen movement, he was just a very smart religious guy who just wanted to have a conference. His point of view was – and I have to be cautious what I’m saying here, because of the message that people take – but he was actually quite savvy, and what his point was, whether we agree or disagree with him on evolution or not, his point was, that at a university you should have room to debate. He was saying that we have always been forced, and again that’s his word, forced into learning about Darwin and evolution. We want an alternative viewpoint that can be debated on campus.
He said that what’s going outside and he was pointing to the protest outside, and he just said, ‘Look, they are trying to stifle debate on this issue, so you cannot have this notion of freedom of speech and also a protest when they try to stop people from going into a conference’. So that was an interesting take and we should not just simply dismiss it, you know, just because we disagree with what is being presented. But within the Turkish context where constitutionally it’s a secular country, evolution has played a role politically. I mean, we’ve been talking about the European context, but in the same way, rejection of evolution has been for a long time used as a way of showing the ‘ignorance’ of the conservative people over there.
So it’s a messy and complex picture and I guess one of the things to take away from this, which is not rocket science, is you have to address whether you’re talking about Harun Yahya or whether you are talking about rejection or acceptance of evolution, in terms of these individual contexts. So people sometimes ask, ‘What do Muslims think about evolution?’, and my answer is, I have no idea! It depends upon which Muslims, it depends upon which context. It’s a messy, complex picture, which it should be because humans are messy and complex and this just represents Muslims as humans too.
SJ: It sounds a bit like, from the Turkish case, that evolution, like a lot of things I suppose, is bound up with politicised notions of modernity, of rationality and that being tied in a certain way to ‘Western-ness’ in inverted commas; it seems that that much of the conflict that we see in the Turkish context might be related to colonial and post-colonial histories across the world. I mean are there other kinds of examples of that kind of history playing out that you’re aware of?
SH: Right, well also, remember that Turkey was never colonised.
SJ: Of course, but….
SH: But it had a very specific, I mean with Ataturk there was this secular movement, and evolution played a role within that, like, okay so if you are modern and if you are secular then, yes, you accept evolution. So evolution potentially takes a particular stance. But a counter example is Pakistan, for example, where actually it doesn’t show up in those debates. There is a Pakistan Museum of Natural History has an exhibit on evolution and Pakistan’s national history is actually supported by the government; it’s a state sponsored museum. But historically, yes, those kind of debates have taken place and in the South Asian context which I’m most familiar with, even in the late nineteenth century, so there were debates between Jamal al-Din Afghani, who was a scholar who was also anti colonial, specifically anti British, excuse me for that!
SJ: That’s just a matter of fact, I suppose!
SH: But he also rejected evolution in a pamphlet that he wrote when he was visiting India. He actually gave a talk as well, in the 1880s, and it was called the ‘Refutation of the Materialists’. So remember, so this again goes back to this question of, ‘What does evolution mean or what does evolution stand for?’ For him, evolution stood for being a materialist, which in the context at that time meant being an atheist as well. Now, if you look at what he was saying often times it’s unclear whether he had ever read The Origin of Species because he attributed things to Darwin which Darwin never said. So what was he responding to?
Well, within the South Asian or within the Indian context at the time of the 1880s, there was Syed Ahmad Khan, who was – sorry, he was knighted, so Sir Syed Ahmad Khan – who was arguing that the response to colonialism was actually to learn English and to learn western views, and he thought that anything British is actually good, including evolution. It’s unclear he, also, read The Origin of Species or not, but he was a big proponent of evolution, right? So when Afghani was responding to that, when he’s denying evolution, actually he was arguing with Syed Ahmad Khan and not the concept of biological evolution. It was a deeply political issue right from the get go.
Now, to give this a final twist, Afghani was is actually related to somebody who actually presented Islam as a modern religion, and he also understood that science is essential for the development of any nation or any society. So he thought that Muslims must learn modern science. And towards the end, actually after his death, his thoughts on several things were published, including evolution, and actually he did say, ‘Well evolution actually is a valid idea of science’. But interestingly he gave it a twist and he says, and of course evolution was actually accepted by Muslim scholars of the ninth, tenth century anyways, and in fact he called Darwin a mere specimen collector. So this is another angle that even when he accepted evolution he actually appropriated the evolutionary idea and gave it a Muslim appearance, that, ‘Okay, well this is not a foreign idea, it was a Muslim idea to begin with’.
So as you can see there are many things that are taking place and it’s not exactly about evolution, but it’s about all of these other things that happen. Now I don’t want to be dismissive, and say that it’s not something that people really think about, struggle with. I think evolution is a tough idea and it challenges certain types of religious viewpoints. So do Muslims reject evolution? Yes, some Muslims reject evolution. Do all Muslims reject evolution? No. Do all Muslims accept evolution? No. So there are these variations, and how they do that, it depends upon their race. Sometimes it’s not even an important question about whether people are consistent or whether there are religious and scientific viewpoints as well.
SJ: I guess it’s salience emerges in a particular political context. It’s interesting, of course, Afghani was one of the figures who in some ways helped shape the Salafi movement we see today, so it plays out in contemporary politics as well.
SH: Exactly, and so we have to know these kind of conduits and how the word evolution has also been used. Within the Muslim world people are familiar with the term as well. I mean, for some people it’s a social Darwinism, its Spencerianism. So for many people they don’t see the distinction between biological evolution and social Darwinism and for them the response is, ‘Oh social Darwinism of course that’s a racist idea, I reject evolution’. So again, the term takes on a very different connotation, especially if you are in Europe and there is a colonial history, or in places that have been colonised.
SJ: One final question just to end on. You’ve spoken a bit earlier about the lack of understanding that we have about this question, as an empirical question about what people believe. What would you say do we need to try and find out? What’s the research agenda that we, within universities and in the wider research community, should advance to try and understand how science and Muslim societies interact and how evolution, specifically, is understood across the ‘Muslim world’?
SH: Well I mean I think that’s a really hard question. I come from, again, a science background and I have really lost faith in a lot of the polling, for example. There was a Pew poll that looked at evolution, Muslim views on evolution, in 32 countries. The problem was that the poll was about all these different things and there was one question on evolution, so everything to do with evolution was reduced into one particular question and that’s, ‘Do you accept evolution or not?’ I don’t think that is very useful. So if you are trying to understand that, for me, evolution is a way to look at how people are making sense of the world.
So if you want to do that I think the way to approach it within the academic context would be to embrace the messiness. How do you qualify, or how do you quantify, the real messiness of people’s responses? This is a hard problem. Nevertheless, that is closer to reality. I think right now, in the political environment we are in, simplicity is far more dangerous than having no answers. Simplistic wrong answers, like for example we talked about that narrative where Muslims are just boycotting classes across the UK, well, that’s a far more dangerous narrative than saying that, ‘Actually, it’s really messy and we don’t understand’.
The way to understand would be to actually look at the layered ways people are looking at this and to remember that Muslims, their identity is not solely ‘being a Muslim’. Everybody has different identities. So if we just focus on Muslims for being a Muslim, then I think we are missing the boat because they can be Muslims but they can also be Manchester United fans. So then their identity is different. So I think that kind of messiness, if you bring it to understanding the question of what evolution means to people – and if it’s not anything at all that’s okay too! Don’t force them to pick, to accept or reject evolution, if they don’t even care about the question of evolution. I think that is something that has been missing. What if you don’t care? But if you just force them to make a choice then it may show up in a much more simplistic picture.
SJ: Salman Hameed, thank you very much.
SH: Thank you very much.