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March 3, 2009 

Islam's evolutionary legacy
By Ehsan Masood

Last month, scientists from around the world partied into the small hours on 
the 200th anniversary of the birth of Darwin. 

But as we celebrate the work of one of the most influential scientists ever, 
let's take a moment or two to remember others who contributed ideas in the 
history of evolutionary thought. Many came from Britain as well as other 
countries in Europe. Others came from further afield, and their writings are 
increasingly coming to light thanks to the painstaking work of historians of 
science, and historians of ideas. 

One of them is an East African writer based in Baghdad in the 9th century 
called al-Jahiz. In a book describing the characteristics of animals, he 

"Animals engage in a struggle for existence, and for resources, to avoid being 
eaten, and to breed." He added, "Environmental factors influence organisms to 
develop new characteristics to ensure survival, thus transforming them into new 
species. Animals that survive to breed can pass on their successful 
characteristics to their offspring." 

Or there's Muhammad al-Nakhshabi, a scholar from 10th century central Asia. He 
wrote: "While man has sprung from sentient creatures (animals), these have 
sprung from vegetal beings (plants) and these in turn from combined substances; 
these from elementary qualities, and these (in turn) from celestial bodies." 

In their excellent Darwin's Sacred Cause: Race, Slavery and the Quest for Human 
Origins, Adrian Desmond and James Moore describe how Darwin and his family were 
influenced by the anti-slavery movement, and they explore the extent to which 
these ideas, in turn, influenced his own thinking - especially on the idea of 
the connectedness of humanity. 

A parallel line of argument can also be found from a Spanish philosopher from 
the 12th century. His name is Muhammad ibn Arabi and he developed an idea that 
his translators called the "unity of existence". He believed that all living 
matter is connected. And many commentators now think that this was his way of 
showing that within humanity, there can be no outsiders or "others". 

These ideas were later taken up in the writings of Indian-born philosopher-poet 
Muhammad Iqbal in the early 20th century. We also know that Iqbal had been 
reading Darwin and wanted to find a way of synthesizing the latest ideas from 
biological science with earlier Islamic-era philosophy. Iqbal today is revered 
throughout South Asia and also happens to be Pakistan's national poet. 

Why is it important to emphasize links between Darwin, and thinking on 
evolution in other cultures? 

One reason is that in many developing countries today, Darwin - and by 
extension evolution - are seen as being in the service of imperialism. This is 
partly because of the period in which Darwin lived and worked, but also because 
of a perception that Darwin's ideas were used by colonialists to provide 
"scientific" justification for empire. 

Another reason comes from the rise of creationism. I've just finished work on a 
new documentary series for BBC radio 4 on science and Islam in the modern 
world. One thing I didn't expect to find was the extent to which creationism 
poses a risk to what is otherwise more encouraging news: that after decades of 
neglect, interest and investment in science and learning in Islamic countries 
is on an upward trajectory. 

Many countries are building more universities and opening doors for young 
people to embark on PhDs. Progress, however, will be slower if more start 
believing that scientific knowledge can be found in the pages of sacred texts; 
or if they devote time and energy getting sucked into anti-evolution campaigns. 

Instead, if today's young scientists could just take a peek into the history of 
science in Islamic cultures, they would see a respectable tradition of 
thinking, debate and argument on the origins of life and the evolution of 

The irony in all this is that creationism did not exist as a significant 
movement during the heyday of Islamic civilization. Back when Baghdad was a 
centre for advanced learning, scientists did not spend hours examining passages 
of revelation to see if they compare with observed knowledge of the natural 

Instead, they went out and tried to discover things for themselves. 


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