Dr. Rana Dajani is a Jordanian molecular biologist, working principally in biological studies at Hashemite University. She conducts genome-wide studies concerning diabetes and cancer in the ethnic populations of Jordan, and also researches stem cells and bioinformatics. She has also found herself at the forefront of discussions of evolutionary theories in the Muslim world.
Chris Bateman: The Islamic world played such a critical role in the development of modern science, taking up and substantially developing the work of the ancient Greeks. Yet in recent centuries, Muslim interest in science has waned. What’s your perspective on this?
Rana Dajani: In the past three centuries education has waned in the Muslim world primarily as a result of Western colonialism, cultural imperialism, the corruption of the Ottoman Empire in the late nineteenth century, and a lack of focus on education in the Arab-Muslim world – factors which aren’t fully discernable.
Chris: So you see a lot of these problems as fallout from European imperialism in previous centuries, similar to the problems facing a lot of post-colonial African nations?
Rana: Yes, and another effect of colonialism and the resultant lack of political freedom was the loss of autonomy for the general public. The lack of freedom of thought and opinion resulted in less freedom in terms of thinking about, and pursuing, scientific projects. From another perspective, the turn away from Islam as it was originally practiced reduced the practice of education as a form of enlightenment, which is primary in Islam. Inevitably, science suffered because of this.
Chris: Islam was responsible for the first flourishing of universal literacy in any part of the world, yet you have recently set up a “We Love Reading” project in Jordan, to encourage children to enjoy the stories in books. What happened to make this necessary?
Rana: Because of colonialism and the corruption of political regimes, the literary history unique to the Arab and Muslim world was not preserved. The corrupt political regimes prevented freedom of thinking and a culture developed where children don’t grow up reading what they want.
Chris: You see governmental corruption as a key factor in this?
Rana: Yes, those who are invested in political corruption – those who benefit from it – take advantage of people’s ignorance and ban books, religious and otherwise, in the name of fighting against extremist views. Reading and writing are practiced less often, and the availability of books diminishes.
Chris: Is reading for entertainment less common in the Muslim world, then?
Rana: Reading for pleasure is a luxury when you have food and the basics. We have passed through periods of hunger and poverty especially in the past century. Coming out of the past century, first we achieved literacy now we are gaining our freedom soon we will be reading for pleasure.
Chris: Your field of molecular biology has been playing a key role in the clarification of evolutionary theories in recent decades. Although your work has been primarily medical, you seem to have taken a role as an advocate for evolution in Muslim nations. How did this happen?
Rana: I had studied evolution as an undergraduate and the controversy always puzzled me, in terms of what alternative explanations are offered. Then I was asked to substitute for a professor of ecology who was teaching the evolution course at the university where I teach. I jumped at the opportunity because I love to be challenged, and also because the field of evolution had piqued my interest for quite some time. It was a chance to address the field again from a molecular biologist’s point of view.
Chris: A chance to bring a fresh perspective to the issues?
Rana: It was like a pilgrimage for me that I took my students on as well. As a molecular biologist I know that evolution is a scientific fact and I looked for ways to reconcile it with religion. Because of my conviction that my religion is true, I found support in the Qur’anic verses by looking for new meaning in the light of the scientific evidence concerning evolution.
Chris: In English speaking countries, opposition to evolution (often called “Creationism”) seems to have come about as a result of one of the worst public relations disasters in the history of science – the insistence by certain biologists and philosophers that accepting evolution necessitates rejecting traditional religion. A similar situation seems to have come about recently in the Islamic world – what is your impression of the causes of Muslim resistance to evolutionary theories?
Rana: Ignorance of science in the past few hundred years has led to this kind of “Creationist” ideology. Also, ignorance as regards the theory itself – misunderstanding of the definitions used, language barriers and so forth. In the Middle East in particular, the lack of freedom of thinking also facilitates ignorance about these kinds of scientific issues. So a group of people control what others think or what is permissible to think about in order to push for their political and personal agendas. This kind of cultural and scientific stagnancy is definitely not what Islam preaches as evidenced by the Golden Age of Islam, which coincided with important discoveries in science.
Chris: What do Muslim Creationists believe?
Rana: Creationism in Islam is seen in a different context than it is in the West. For Muslims, ‘Creationism’ means that there is a creator who is responsible for making the universe and all that is in it. That does not deny evolution and the presence of natural selection.
Chris: But there is still a conflict of some kind...
Rana: The only clash would be with atheists who believe that there is no divine being that started it all. But this issue in not the point of discussion in the argument. The whole argument is about whether all creatures were created instantaneously from a human perspective or through a long process controlled by laws.
Chris: On the surface, that doesn’t sound as if it would be problematic for Muslims, since the Qur’an doesn’t offer a literal chronology of creation like the Book of Genesis in the Christian Bible.
Rana: Indeed, in Islam this is not a problem. The problem was created when Islamic scholars out of ignorance adopted the stance of certain Christian Churches against evolution, which was necessarily a response to the particular atheistic understanding of evolution common in Europe and the United States. For some people in the West, if you believe in evolution you are an atheist and if you don’t you are a believer. That is not the case in Islam.
Chris: You have said: “If the religious texts contradict the scientific facts it means that we do not understand the religious text,” and advocated that the Qur’an is “about how to live as a human being… It is not a book of science”. How have these views been received?
Rana: I’ve received conflicting responses. Some have agreed. Some have opposed. Some have agreed but were very careful to emphasize the delicacy and importance of not getting carried away in interpreting everything according to science because science changes – and I agree with this. Also, many responses have stressed that consultation with experts in theology and language is necessary.
Chris: Are you optimistic that the perceived conflicts between traditional Islamic beliefs and contemporary evolutionary theory can be resolved?
Rana: I am optimistic that we will reach some sort of resolve. At this point, traditional Islam has been monopolized by a group of people. With the freedom of speech and opinion following the Arab Spring, people will revolutionize contemporary Islam and discover once again the root of authentic Islam, which calls for questioning and reviving – ijtehad (thinking for oneself) and qiyas (interpreting things in a new light).
Chris: Creative thinking has traditionally been a value in Muslim society, hasn’t it?
Rana: Yes, in the early Muslim community every adequately qualified jurist had the right to exercise original thinking, mainly ra’y (personal judgment) and qiyas (analogical reasoning). So any conflict between scientific theories can be addressed in a scientific way as authentic Islam preaches.
With thanks to Professor Dajani for her time.