Muslims and Their Chronic Intellectual Stagnation

According to a quotation usually attributed to Einstein, insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over again and yet expecting different results. In my view, this describes the state of the understanding and interpretation by Muslims of their way of life, i.e., Islam, for about the last few hundred years.

Muslim world is in a state of civilizational inanition and stagnation. Corruption, political oppression, poverty, victim mentality, conspiracy theories, and pseudoscience run rampant in the Muslim world. Muslims are by-and-large in a state of lethargy and/or denial vis-à-vis this predicament. They lack the critical mass of a vanguard of scientific and critical thinkers to pull them out of this fatal impasse. It is high time to talk about––and potentially find solutions to––these issues especially now as the so-called Arab Spring struggles are raging and bringing to the fore more of the ills of the current Muslim civilization.  

The Quran provides an acid test for Muslims in Chapter 21 verse 105: “And certainly We have written in the Scripture before the Reminder that my righteous servants shall inherit the earth,” reflecting what Jesus said in the New Testament “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”

Muslims of the last couple of centuries, leave alone being the “inheritors” of the earth, have been in the most unenviable status among the nations of the world: subjugation and oppression by either foreign elements or by their homegrown oppressors, corruption, and sectarianism. To this bleak state of affairs, the response of the influential Muslim religious leaders has been more of what had been tried before: imitation (called taqliyd) of the intellectuals of a bygone era. It wouldn’t be unfair to say that a spell of intellectual stagnation overtook the Muslim lands for the last few centuries.

Especially, the events of the last few decades show that the socio-political machinery, nay, the whole civilizational modus operandi of Muslims has gone broken.

Much has been written and said about this ongoing civilizational crisis of Muslims: especially by Muslim intellectuals themselves. Some blame the West, some blame worldwide conspirators, some blame the Jews, some blame Islam, some blame lack of religiosity, some blame the Quran, some blame the Hadith, and on and on.

In response to this ongoing civilizational crisis, the only practical and visible answer the Muslim world seemingly produced is violence and terrorism, the latter a product of the modern era socio-political struggles and turmoils. Muslim masses seem to be numbed, indifferent, and worse of all, helpless toward the incessant news of senseless killings/sectarian violence coming out of Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, and now Egypt.

Muslims are coaxed into blaming others, sometimes believing in the most fantastic conspiracy theories, but not casting a critical gaze at their own selves. Criticizing fellow Muslims from the same denomination and faction is almost a taboo and viewed as sinful, even if what they do is as despicable as killing innocent civilians in mosques. The magnitude of what Muslims are doing to each other and desensitization and indifference to these atrocities is biblical in its gravity. 

It does not seem to occur to mainstream Islamic religious leaders that perhaps their understanding and practice of Islam is at fault. That perhaps they should begin to try different solutions, adopt different attitudes, and cultivate different viewpoints. Instead, they in fact redouble their efforts of injecting more regurgitation of the previous thinkers and more bigotry and closed-mindedness into Muslims. They tacitly presume that they cannot possibly be the objects of the Quranic warning: They follow their forefathers blindly.  By so doing, I will aver, they, in the words of Einstein, display insanity.

The reason for this insanity and impasse, I will advance, is because the most fundamental cause of the civilizational crisis that Muslims are in is not tackled. I will venture to say that this cause is the lack of practice of critical thinking and analytical reasoning on the part of Muslims in general. In the words of the Quran, Muslims “la ya’kiluun,” that is, they are not using their faculty of reason.

To be sure, the Muslim world does produce brilliant religious scholars, some of whom are the apotheoses of scholarship, such as the late Muhammad Hamidullah1 and Muhammad Asad. However, they don’t hold a great sway for the masses. Their ideas are not the ones that are widely taught in the educational institutions, or discussed on TV channels or heard in mosques. They are not the mainstream. Thus by “Islamic or Muslim religious leaders” this article refers to the mainstream Islamic establishment scholars and figures. I use the word “figures” deliberately because some of them are absolute charlatans without any deep intellectual background who deceive unsuspecting masses by hook or by crook.

The influential Islamic leaders of the mainstream establishment are by-and-large not qualified to bring about, nay even to sow the seeds of, change, which might eventually take Muslims out of this chronic civilizational coma. As I will try to demonstrate below, most of the Islamic religious leaders themselves don’t know and practice critical and scientific reasoning. This claim is closely related to the fact that Muslims distanced themselves from a scientific worldview long before the scientific revolution took place in Europe. In fact, one could arguably claim that a scientific devolution had just been completed in the Muslim lands by the time the scientific revolution began to take hold in the Western world.  Since then the Muslim lands have been in an intellectual sclerosis, which, of late, has started to take its toll in earnest. Muslims must bring their act together and take up a historical role and start tackling their chronic disease before it turns fatal. 

I am not blinded by the technically and materially advanced state of the Western societies.  In fact, I think that the Western societies lack many other valuable and critical civilizational assets that are grounded in spirituality. If not tackled, I will opine, the latter might be the Achilles heel of the West.

So then, why this interest in the so-called Western science?

I am not motivated so much by the technical and material progress science cultivates as the invaluable gift of critical and analytical thinking skills it inculcates. And, as noted above, I am of the opinion that the latter is what Muslims in general are lacking so dearly. Practice of the scientific method is the best way to teach, sharpen and hone the critical thinking skills of our youth. Only a science-conscious society that knows how to think, as the Quran so positively and ruefully alludes to, and that which is complemented by genuine spirituality, can rise high to “inherit the earth.”

Below, I will try to demonstrate the anti-scientific, anti-critical thinking attitude that is very pervasive in the Muslim world today, focusing on evolution as a case in point.

In the last couple of decades, it has become a fashionable thing for Muslim religious leaders and authors to talk disparagingly about evolution and deny its validity, seemingly justifying their position with the Quran. A quick search on the Internet search engines will reveal that a good majority of the influential Islamic scholars and religious leaders are against evolution. They contend, seemingly using Quranic verses, that evolution is an anti-Islamic and anti-Quranic idea. So much so that a few go as far as declaring anyone believing in evolution to be unbelievers.  

A 2008 Pew study, U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, indicates that 51% of American Muslims, who are usually viewed as more educated and progressive than the average Muslim population of the world, don’t see evolution as the best explanation for the origins of human life on Earth.2

In a 2006 survey measuring public acceptance of evolution by country, Turkey––a Muslim majority country––ranked the lowest.3 This is not surprising given the fact that a vigorous anti-evolutionist campaign has been waged in Turkey within the last couple of decades by well-organized and well-funded religious groups, two of whose influential leaders are mentioned below.

A striking example to the vehemence and vigor with which some Muslim religious figures “fight” evolution in the public realm is that of Adnan Oktar, aka Harun Yahya. 

Adnan Oktar is a veteran of the creationist movement in Turkey, who had the now-famed 800 glossy-paged Atlas of Creation sent unsolicited––and free of charge––to numerous places all around the world a few years ago. His group has a slew of websites dedicated to spreading disinformation about evolution.

Fethullah Gülen is an influential and venerable Turkish Islamic scholar who leads a movement known as the Gülen movement.  The latter is known for opening and operating literally hundreds of schools around the world with a mission and philosophy mandated by Mr. Gülen. Gülen’s early work involved debunking the theory of evolution. Zaman, a daily Turkish newspaper run effectively by the Gülen movement, publishes articles every now and again fiercely attacking evolution.

Even some Sufis are not impressed by the theory of evolution. Nuh Ha Mim Keller, an American convert to Islam and a Sufi master, declares that the claim that humans are descended from a non-human species is kufr, that is unbelief.4

The anti-scientific attitude of many Muslim religious leaders goes beyond the theory of evolution.

Bilal Philips, a convert and an Islamist preacher situated in Qatar, claims in his book on Islamic monotheism that believing in Einstein’s famous equation E= mc2 and the conservation/transformation of energy it implies is tantamount to disbelief. Not surprisingly, he also rejects evolution.5

Sheik Bin Baz, the influential late Saudi scholar of Islam asserted that the Sun rotates around the earth, not the other way around as the Copernican paradigm claims.6

Furthermore, pseudo-scientific discussions are very common on the TV channels of the Islamic world. Anyone interested in checking some of these out is encouraged to visit the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) website.7 This does not, of course, mean that I agree with the mission of this institute; it seems to have a pro-Israel agenda.

The influential Muslim religious leaders simply lack a true understanding and interpretation of what science is and does. They don’t understand what the scientific method is and how various scientific theories are closely related by virtue of them being the product of the rigorous application of the scientific method. They don’t see that it is inconsistent to accept and physically depend on some of the well-established concepts and products of the scientific method and reject others: For instance, accept that the universe got started and galaxies formed within a timescale, or accept to pay to use cell phones and GPS, but reject the biological explanation of how life evolved on Earth.  

Science is God-neutral; it can of course provide inspiration for people to draw conclusions about God. But the science proper does necessarily concern itself about the “how” question. Strictly speaking, it cannot conceivably answer the why question, although it can and will and should speculate, e.g., why this particular universe with its specific physical laws out of zillion possibilities?

Apart from the above-mentioned inconsistent evaluation of science and lack of understanding thereof, I will venture to add that Muslim scholars, in general, are incompetent to properly understand and interpret the Quranic verses pertaining to natural phenomena.  

In particular, I will try to demonstrate that contrary to the claims of these so-called scholars, the Quran, far from being anti-evolution, in fact describes the creation of man in nothing but clear evolutionary terms. Not only that, but the Quran goes as far as even using the word “evolution” explicitly for the creation of man.

Here, I need to state my philosophy on the interaction between the Quran and science in very clear terms. It is an interaction based on inspiration. I am of the opinion that a Muslim scientist can draw inspiration from the Quran not unlike the way Einstein drew inspiration for his physical ideas from the philosophies and worldviews of Spinoza and Hume.

Of course, the ideas so drawn will have to face the objective test of the scientific method, which can validate or invalidate them. As Einstein said “Truth is what stands the test of experience.” In the case of invalidation, I am not of those who think that the Quran is invalidated. The reason is that one has to have the intellectual flexibility and maturity to distinguish between a holy book, a philosophy, or a work of art, and the inspirations they may engender in people’s minds.

With this in mind, let us see what the Quran explicitly states about the origin of creation (of organic matter, and therefore man).

First task before us is to show that unraveling the mystery of the creation of man is not an unknowable and inscrutable thing as the anti-evolutionists make it out to be. Since obviously if one says that God just created something, although from God’s perspective that may very well be, from our mortal perspective we can only see the creation of that thing through the chain of causality, i.e., cause and effect.

To focus the point, I remind the reader the fact that today the science of cosmology has reached a stage where we have arrived at certain seemingly mysterious knowledge about the creation of the Universe. How all that exists came into being with a Big Bang from a point and how with this cosmic “explosion,” space-time began to expand, and matter and radiation in it became diluted; how first subatomic particles formed, how the atoms formed and how stars and galaxies came into being. By sheer scientific exertion and study, humans have been able to unravel these cosmic mysteries.

Although today we are not yet at a stage where we can claim to know how life originated on Earth, there is progress made on that front as well. Nevertheless, compared with the creation of the heavens and the earth, the creation of man, according to the Quran, is a minute thing. The Holy Quran states in 40:57: “The creation of the heavens and the earth is a greater (event) than that of humans, but most humans do not know.” The creation of the whole universe is an immense thing, the Quran avers, and I think most of us will agree with that statement. Further, the Quran compares the two “creations,” i.e., that of the Universe and that of man, and asserts the former to be a greater phenomenon than the latter. It, in a way, demystifies the creation of man, which is put on a pedestal by so many creationists, much more so even than the creation of the Universe.

So if we can unravel the mysteries of the creation of the whole universe, it is not unreasonable or unholy to expect that the creation of man can also be understood. Evolution is doing exactly that: showing us how man was created.

Now, let us focus on what the Quran has to say about the creation of man, and evolution itself, if any: Well, the first thing that strikes the reader is how the Quran—instead of dismissively saying, like the anti-evolutionists, that we were just created all at once and separately with other creatures, and that there is nothing else to it—talks about how man was created out of various stages and from various substances (water, baked clay, etc.). In fact, after a critical reading of the creation account in the Quran, it is difficult to come away with any sense other than a gradual, step-by-step creation out of not just one substance but a few different substances.

There is a double irony here; especially knowing how vigorously and contemptuously most modern Muslim religious scholars oppose the idea and theory of evolution. In the Islamic Golden era, the idea of evolution was advanced and espoused by many Muslim scholars such as al-Jahiz and Ibn Miskawayh. The second irony is that the Quran actually does give a procedural recipe for unraveling the mystery of the origin of life on Earth. The verses 29:19-20 read thus: “Do they not see how God originates creation and repeats it? This is most certainly easy for God. Travel through the earth and see how He did originate creation. Then God will bring forth a later creation. Most certainly God has power over all things.”

So now we Muslims need to ask ourselves: is there anyone who has followed that procedure, that recipe? Those Muslim scholars who oppose evolution perhaps?! Note here that the Arabic word used in the Quran is “un’zur,” which is stronger than mere looking, and it implies examination and observation. So have modern Muslim scholars travelled the earth and observed how creation did originate? Sadly, no. In fact, perhaps a third irony, it was none other than Darwin and Wallace, two non-Muslim naturalists, who took the trouble of traveling the most exotic places on Earth, observing and studying painstakingly the book of nature, and finally advancing the theory of evolution.

What else does the Quran tell us about the creation of man apart from the expository verses I mentioned? The Quran explicitly does describe evolution to the point of using the Arabic counterpart of the English word “in gradual stages.”

Chapter 71 verses 13 and 14: “What is wrong with you that you don’t attribute majesty to God, seeing that He created you in stages?” A few verses down, verses 17 and 18: “God created you out of the earth in gradual growth (like a plant). Then He will return you to it, and in the end He will raise you forth (in resurrection).”

Apart from the idea of gradual creation being so evident in these verses, the exact Arabic word used for the translated words “in stages” is أَطْوَارًا “atwaran,” whose root verb means “to develop, to evolve”, and whose noun form is تطوّر  “tatawwur,” meaning “evolution”.8

It turns out that the late Islamic scholar Muhammad Hamidullah has made similar claims on evolution and the Quran but apparently they fell on deaf ears.9


My purpose in this article was (1) to critique the outmodedness and inadequacy of the current mainstream Muslim scholarship in general vis-à-vis the intellectual challenges of the modern era, and (2) using evolution as a case in point, to demonstrate how modern Muslim religious scholars and figures who reject evolution don’t understand modern science and thus the Quranic text on natural phenomena properly. Specifically, I tried to demonstrate that contrary to the claims of the so-called Muslim “creationists,” one can make a very strong case for the theory of evolution than against it, using the verses of the Quran. 

In closing, I think we Muslims must start owning up to our civilizational failures and seize the reformist momentum generated in the Arab Spring to transform the region and start establishing modern “Houses of Wisdom” and a new golden era of Islamic civilization. To begin to do that we must claim what is supposed to be ours: critical thinking and analytical reasoning per (1) the Quranic injunction itself to be of “those who think”, (2) per our historical precedence as exemplified by al-Jahiz, al-Khwarizme, Ibn al Haytham (Alhazen), Ibn Rushd (Averroes) etc, and finally (3) per our own God-bestowed faculty of ratiocination, and not regurgitation. 

Serkan Zorba

References and Notes

1  Bamba, A. Islamic Horizons, May/June 2013, p. 50.

5  Philips, B. The Fundamentals of Tawhid, International Islamic Publising House, (2005) p. 51.

6  Holden, D. Johns, R. The House of Saud, Sidgwick&Jackson (1981) p. 262.

8  Anyone can check the veracity of my claims using any Arabic-English dictionary, including Google’s translation website.  

9  Hamidullah, M. The Emergence of Islam, Islamic Research Institute (1993).


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