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Dajani on Evolution in the Muslim World

RDajaniphoto 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.


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Thank you for publishing this interview. I like it very much.
It shows me once again how much common ground there is between Islamic and Catholic thinking.

You might not know that, but there have been declarations coming out of the Vatican in recent years regarding the theory of Evolution, that it is not opposed to the faith.
Indeed there are many scientists, including biologist and astro-physicists, within the Church and even within religious orders.

Like Dr. Dajani I also try constantly to look at physical science through the lense of my faith, and I try to re-interpret scripture through whatever knowledge I have about science and scientific theories.
And I know that many of my fellow Catholics do the same.

I also believe that for Christians it is extremely important to reach out to Muslims in a manner of solidarity and reconciliation.
While there are differences, which should not be erased, there are also enough similarities to give us a vast common ground to stand on together.

Actually I believe we Christians have more in common with Muslims than with any other religious group or with secular people.

On the other hand finding common ground is an exercise of good will. Those who want to find it, will do so no matter how vast the differences, and those don´t want to, won´t no matter how close their opinions to one another actually are.

As for my belief in evolution theory:

I think Darwin should be replaced by Kropotkin. The latter wrote in 1902 a paper contradicting Darwin somehow.
He called his evolution theory "Mutual Aid".
According to Kropotkin the driving factor in evolution is not competition but cooperation.

Kropotkin was not a Christian. He came to this idea by his observation of nature and the many examples of inter-species symbiosis he found.
And today, the more one learns about micro-biology, the more one sees symbiotic relationships at work.
The consequence of this kind of evolution then is not "the survival of the fittest" or survival of the strongest that can push others out of existence, but the survival of greatest diversity.

It is diversity which makes life on earth so robust even under adverse conditions. Diversity allows for constant adaptations of flora and fauna to changes in climate and geological conditions as well as to ice-ages, inter-glacials and warm-ages.

As a religious person I believe that God is at work in all life. And as a Catholic I believe that the "Giver of Life" is the Holy Spirit.
At the same time the Holy Spirit is the "Love of God". And the outward sign of love is help, aid and cooperation.
In this way the Love of God has created life through the principle of cooperation - or as the non-religious Russian biologist puts it:
Life develops and sustains itself through "Mutual Aid".

Notsylvia: thanks for your comment. I think there are a lot of commonalities between Muslims and Catholics, but of course there are a lot of differences too. One of the most interesting aspects of Vatican II (from the perspective of a non-Catholic such as myself) was Karl Rahner's idea of "Anonymous Christians" i.e. people who have found salvation but aren't actually Christian. So, for instance, it is possible for a Muslim (or a Hindu, or a Buddhist, or even a nonbeliever) to have found "the grace of God" and be "saved", even though they are not a Christian, as such. This was a huge step forward for Catholicism in my eyes, one that really makes the religion much more "Universal", as the name has always meant.

Funny you should mention Kropotkin... Years back, in the early days of the blog, I posted a really old article of mine I'd written exploring a wider perspective on evolution, beyond just basic Darwinism. The best thing that came of that article was that one reader pointed me toward Kropotkin's "Mutual Aid", which I thoroughly enjoyed.

I agree with many of the points you make concerning co-operation and diversity... these observations don't mean that there aren't a lot of terrible things that happen in nature, of course, but it does mean that focussing solely on that side of things can be highly misleading.

It sounds like you will be quite open to the philosophy book I'm working on right now, "Myths of Evolution: Scientific Metaphor and the Nature of Life", which deals with many of the points you outline here, particularly the inadequacy of the old myths of "survival of the fittest" and "only the strong survive". Some extracts will be coming up on the blog in July.

It's good for me if you do like it, since I'm trying to write a book on evolution that can be read and enjoyed by people of faith AND non-believers. I would love to write a book on evolution that a Catholic Christian could read and find compatible with their faith, especially if the same book could be read by a non-believer who would also find it compatible with their unfaith. :)

Anyway, it'll be interesting to see what you make of the extracts from the new book that are running in July.

All the best!

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