Evolution and Islam

The Daily Mail has brought to its readers' attention a timely twist to the conflict between faith and science. The article: "Muslim medical students boycotting lectures on evolution... because it 'clashes with the Koran'," reports the tensions felt by Muslim medical students who are divided between adherence to their faith and the pursuit of their profession. However, readers expecting an updated version of "Inherit the Wind", substituting Islam for Christianity and London for the American South, will be disappointed. There is a great idea for a story here, but no story as far as I can tell.

The article opens with a bang, and telegraphs the Daily Mail's editorial view (the students are villains, the professor the hero):

Muslim students, including trainee doctors on one of Britain's leading medical courses, are walking out of lectures on evolution claiming it conflicts with creationist ideas established in the Koran.

Professors at University College London have expressed concern over the increasing number of biology students boycotting lectures on Darwinist theory, which form an important part of the syllabus, citing their religion. 

Similar to the beliefs expressed by fundamentalist Christians, Muslim opponents to Darwinism maintain that Allah created the world, mankind and all known species in a single act.

Steve Jones emeritus professor of human genetics at university college London has questioned why such students would want to study biology at all when it obviously conflicts with their beliefs.

Everything is here for a screenplay. It includes great characters: Muslim medical students, a lefty professor, and a mysterious Muslim scholar Harun Yahya. The photo of Yahya provided by the Daily Mail could have come from central casting. Forget Claude Akins as Rev. Jeremiah Brown (the preacher in the 1960 Stanley Kramer version of the film) Harun Yahya could be played by a mature Jack Nicholson.

We have a clash of ideals -- the tenets of Islam versus evolution, and a change of scene to London.  And in the background we have England's unease in dealing with the demands of its growing population of immigrant Muslims. Throw in a clash of generations with the clash of cultures and an attractive female lead and we have a modern morality play. But that movie is not this story.

The Daily Mail article is unbalanced, un-sourced, and heavy handed. Neither good entertainment nor good journalism. Following its strong opening Prof. Jones speaks.

"I had one or two slightly frisky discussions years ago with kids who belonged to fundamentalist Christian churches, now it is Islamic overwhelmingly.

"They don't come [to lectures] or they complain about it or they send notes or emails saying they shouldn't have to learn this stuff.

"What they object to - and I don't really understand it, I am not religious - they object to the idea that there is a random process out there which is not directed by God."

So far so good -- pithy, hard hitting comments from the professor. I was initially surprised, however, by placement of the professor's comments first. When a reporter presents two sides to an argument he sometimes gives the less favored side the first chance to speak. That allows the reporter's favorite the opportunity to speak in rebuttal. ("God tells me the earth ends tomorrow" claims Fred Loonie. "Not so," replies Prof. John Serious. "The Science is against it," said the Nobel laureate ....)

But surprise turned to astonishment when I read on and found no student or Muslim voice in rebuttal or explanation. After  the professor's comments comes a statement that an imam received "death threats for suggesting that Darwinism and Islam might be compatible." This is followed by:

Sources within the group Muslims4UK partly blame the growing popularity of creationist beliefs within Islam on Turkish author Harun Yahya who, influenced by the success of Christian creationists in America, has written several books denouncing Darwinist theory. Yahya associates Darwinism with Nazism and his books are and videos are available at many Islamic bookshops in the UK and regularly feature on Islamic television channels.

And the article closes with a word from Richard Dawkins.

Evolutionary Biologist and former Oxford Professor Richard Dawkins has expressed his concern at the number of students, consisting almost entirely of Muslims, who do not attend or walk out of lectures.

That's it. Somebody (known as Sources) in a group called Muslims4UK (who are they?) says the fault lies with a Turkish author who draws his insights from the work of American creationists. How does Muslims4UK know this? What does Mr. Yahya say about all of this? How does Prof. Dawkins know that students are walking out of classes at University College London because of their religious beliefs?

What we have here is the statement of one professor that some Muslim students are cutting his classes -- and the professor believes this is because their faith is in conflict with the school's syllabus. The absence of any contrary voice in explanation might just as well mean the professor was boycotted because he is a boring lecturer.

The Daily Mail commits the further sin of assuming Muslims speak with a single voice and that Islam rejects the teaching of evolution. While Hamas may believe that Darwinism is a nefarious plot by Jews to destroy religion, other Muslims believe Islam and evolution are compatible. A 2004 Guardian article that discussed the teaching of creationism in British schools quoted Dr Khalid Anees, president of the Islamic Society of Britain, as saying:

There is no contradiction between what is revealed in the Koran and natural selection and survival of the fittest. However, Muslims do not agree that one species can develop from another.

The journal Science reported that while belief in Darwinian evolution was not common in the Muslim world,  the scientific communities of many Muslim nations backed the teaching of evolution in state schools. The 21 June 2006 InterAcademy Panel "Statement on the Teaching of Evolution" was endorsed by the national science academies of Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Morocco, Pakistan, Palestine, Senegal, Tajikistan, Turkey, and Uzbekistan.

Saying there is a single Muslim voice on evolution is as false as saying there is a single Christian view. Some conservatives Christians reject evolution, but the Catholic Church does not. While some Anglicans believe in creationism, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, does not. He told the Guardian he opposed teaching creationism in state schools.

"I think creationism is ... a kind of category mistake, as if the Bible were a theory like other theories ... if creationism is presented as a stark alternative theory alongside other theories I think there's just been a jarring of categories ... My worry is creationism can end up reducing the doctrine of creation rather than enhancing it."

The shame of it all is that there is a real story in here -- but not the one the Daily Mail is reporting. If the premise of the story is true, that Muslim medical students are boycotting classes on human evolution for religious purposes, then it is important to learn why and how such a radicalization took place. What has happened in British higher education that has converted Muslim students to an extremist view of their faith? A view rejected by the scientists from across the Muslim world.

All in all, this is a mess.

Photo of Charles Darwin courtesy of Shutterstock - Jose AS Reyes

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