Evolution and Islam—a Brief Review

by Dr Shoaib Malik

Evolution has become one of the hottest buzzwords amongst Muslims and not necessarily in any positive sense. Indications suggest that the Muslim populous seem to be generally hostile and suspicious of evolution from an Islamic standpoint for various reasons. This is evinced by the available literature[1] and from the author’s personal interactions with various audiences. This doesn’t mean that evolution is rejected by all Muslims in one stroke. Since Muslims aren’t homogenous, there are a variety of opinions that one can find on the topic. The purpose of this essay is twofold. First, to summarise the various perspectives that exist in the literature. Second, to demonstrate that swift dismissals or acceptance are riddled with problems. Due to the interdisciplinary nature of this conversation one has to be very careful with making any final statements.

However, before we can even begin to address why this is the case we first need to get an idea of the different territories that play a part in addressing this discussion. There are three main territories that need highlighting: 1) the science of evolution, 2) metaphysics, and 3) hermeneutics. Let us review each very briefly.

The Science of Evolution

First is the science. Broadly speaking, evolution occurs in a stepwise fashion: through a successive series of distinct stages, a dialectic relationship between genetics and environmental factors leads to the differentiation of species into various branches, which are subsequently developed through time. As the species of these branches progress further, adapt to their localities, and thus diversify even more, they create more genetic differentiation, eventually leading to our current natural context, in which humans are just one end of a parallel series of multiple, diverse evolutionary pathways. On this account, human beings are not derived from chimps, as is popularly assumed. Rather, they once shared an ancestral node, after which a genetic ‘split’ between humans and chimps starts to sharpen. Thus, chimps are considered to be our genealogical ‘cousins’ rather than our progenitors.[2] Compare this understanding to Figure 1, which is a common trope used to represent evolution.

Unfortunately, this diagram completely misrepresents evolution. It suggests that humans are derivative of chimps but as mentioned earlier this is incorrect. Figure 2 represents a better understanding.

There are several lines of evidence for evolution. These include the fossil record, homology, and genetics among others. However, there are some stock objections against these evidences. As an example, the fossil record is criticised because it is ‘gappy.’ There seem to be gaps in the record where the intermediate and transitional species, i.e. the species linking older ones with new ones, are missing. While it is a valid scientific objection, scientists have been able to identify various intermediate links. A famous example includes the Tiktaalik.[3] This was an important discovery as it linked sea animals with land ones by having various properties of both, showing a transition between the two different kinds of species. Furthermore, promoters of evolution admit that the record is incomplete but they give several reasons for doing so. For example, scientists acknowledge that bone preservation is a big problem which is why it is sometimes hard to find complete sets of skeletons of one species let alone a variety of them. However, this doesn’t entail that the fossil record is wrong. Moreover, the fossil record is usually augmented with other, independent lines of evidence that only seem to support the theory, e.g. genetics. Through different inductive inferences, there is overwhelming convergence towards the theory of evolution, or what Michael Ruse calls consilience of induction. This is one out of several exchanges that occupy the space between critics and advocates of evolution. We needn’t worry about the details. This example was only mentioned to showcase that there is healthy scientific debate over the principles and details of evolution strictly as a scientific theory. That said, evolution is considered to be the best narrative that explains the process and pattern of the biodiversity we see today and in our history.[4]


There are various elements of (and implications from) evolution that spark theological worry. Issues such as divine action and chance (i.e. how God plays dice), naturalism, and the problem of evil are to name a few.[5] Take naturalism as an example. Evolution suggests that everything can be explained from a naturalistic perspective, such that even mental and emotional phenomena like free will, morality, and thoughts are taken to be the complex or epiphenomenal results of blind natural forces, whose nature we will discover eventually if we have not already done so.[6] This is obviously completely antithetical to the Islamic worldview, since Islam requires belief in non-observable, supernatural entities such as God, the soul, and angels. This makes the Darwinian narrative of evolution a very serious concern for Muslims. Furthermore, atheists have done an excellent marketing job by equating evolution to atheism. As one thinker writes,

“There is often an assumption in some media narratives that creationism is a big issue and that you naturally have to be an atheist to accept evolutionary science. This binary perception of a link between being pro-evolution and anti-religious (or at the very least atheistic or agnostic) has of course been reinforced by facets of ‘new atheism,’ particularly in the work of Richard Dawkins.”[7]

Given this conceptual proximity between atheism and evolution, Muslims seem to dismiss the theory all too easily. However, several nuances seem to be amiss from the discussion. On the issue of naturalism, as an example, the critic of evolution needs to acknowledge that naturalism is an issue for the entirety of science and not just evolution so harping on about evolution because of this contention is a selective criticism. Furthermore, what seems to be unappreciated is that this is a philosophical position rather than a scientific contention. To consider a priori that everything can be reduced to matter is not a scientific position, it is a metaphysical claim put forward with a scientific veneer. On this point one can appreciate the distinction between philosophical naturalism and methodological naturalism.[8] The former asserts that nature is all there is and nothing outside of nature exists. Methodological naturalism asserts that science is only capable of studying the natural world , i.e. it is an assertion of epistemology, leaving aside the question of ontology to one’s personal beliefs. This helpful distinction immediately also paves the wave for possible non-atheistic interpretations of evolution. These include intelligent design,[9] which is a specific position that rivals the chance elements in the Darwinian narrative, i.e. chance can’t produce the complexity we see in the biological world but an intelligent being like God can, but it must be stressed that it is heavily criticised by scientists;[10] and theistic evolution, which accepts the full gambit of evolution with the added qualification that it is God who orchestrates every step of the evolutionary process.[11] That said, while naturalism may be a manageable problem, other discussions like the issue of chance and the problem of evil may not be as easy to resolve for the evolution advocate. In summary, there are philo-theological debates around the topic and depending on what kind of metaphysical and creedal commitments one has it will affect how one approaches the theory of evolution.


It seems that the central concern in the debate on evolution in Islam is the position of Adam and, more broadly, human beings. It is mentioned in the Qur’an that Adam was created in the best of moulds,[12] that he was fashioned by God himself,[13] and that he was made a vicegerent of God on earth.[14] This suggests that Adam and his offspring have an elevated status above the rest of creation. How can such an honoured, noble entity have been produced from random processes and imperfect ancestors? Furthermore, Adam is referred to as the parent of humanity in the Qur’an[15] as well as in hadith literature, which seems to imply that Adam was the first human being, without any parents of his own. Thus, on the one hand, we have the Qur’an and hadith literature, which point towards a creation narrative in which Adam is created and placed on earth; and, on the other hand, we have the stepwise evolutionary pathway of the Darwinian narrative. These two seem to be irreconcilable, at least after a cursory reading.

In this particular territory one can see various hermeneutic principles and procedures to either reject or accept evolution. From the side of the advocates, examples include interpreting the story of Adam and his fall as a metaphor, reinterpreting Adam as a kind of symbolic figure, and even suggesting that Adam and Eve were not the first of mankind. However, just because these have been suggested as interpretations this does not mean that they are valid interpretations. Attention to the Arabic of the Quran suggests that there is nothing in the relevant verses to suggest that there are metaphorical indicators or idioms which can render non-literal readings. On the other side, some have rejected evolution through scripture because of Adam’s (and mankind’s) noble status.





Imam Tabtabae[16]

Scripture indicates that mankind did not develop from another species, neither animal nor plant 

Syed Ala Maududi[17]

The theory of evolution is only a theory

Dr Tahrir al-Qadri[18]

There are missing links in the fossil record and scientists have various interpretations; no single unified theory has been brought forward

Seyyed Hossein Nasr[19]

The ‘form’ of a human is fixed; transformation of species is inherently incorrect

Nuh Ha Mim Keller[20]

Adam was a special creation and therefore cannot be part of evolution

David Solomon Jalajel[21]

Adam was a special creation and therefore cannot be part of evolution





Nidhal Guessoum[22]

Theistic evolution fits both the data and Adam’s creation story

Rana Dajani[23]

The story of Adam is allegorical

Seyyed Ahmed Khan[24]

The story of Adam must be allegorical because evolution is a fact

Muhammed Iqbal[25]

The story of Adam is allegorical because the Qur’an, unlike the Bible, does not use proper names; Adam refers more to a concept than an individual

Muhamed Abduh[26]

Man is created from one soul, so it matters very little if their father is Adam or a monkey

T. O. Shavanas[27]

Adam was the spiritual father of mankind; Adam and Eve were not the first humans


Hussein Al Jisr[28]

Rejected evolution. But mentions scripture does not contain any specific message on whether Adam came to be through spontaneous creation or evolution; if proven to be true, Muslims will have to re-evaluate their position

Ismail Fenni[29]

Rejected evolution. But if proven to be true, Muslims will have to re-evaluate their position; science must be safeguarded as a tentative enterprise

However, this is not free from problems. The argument is that Adam is special because God created him with His own two hands. This seems to be an exclusive description given to Adam from which it (somehow) follows that Adam cannot be a product of evolution. However, there is another verse in the Quran which suggest that God created cattle with His own two hands.[30] This immediately weakens the claim of Adam not being a product of evolution just because of being mentioned with God’s hands. There are plenty more verses and hadiths which need to come under the microscope which is far beyond the purpose of this essay. The intention of this summary was only to show that things aren’t as clear cut as they seem to be.

The Spectrum

The Muslim response to evolution has been mixed: internal opinions range from complete acceptance to complete rejection of evolution, with several thinkers falling in between. Moreover, though there are multiple people on each end of the pole, their reasons for rejecting or accepting evolution also vary. A summary of these positions is given in Table 1 (left) in light of the complexities highlighted earlier.

While we haven’t been able to review every single position in detail due to considerations of space, what this table demonstrates is there is an appreciable nuance in the discourse.[31] Thinkers differ depending on how they have managed the tug of war between science, their metaphysical commitments and Islamic hermeneutics. Thus the question of whether there actually is an inherent conflict between evolution and Islam depends on how one manages the relationship between each of these domains, assess where these different positions in the literature come from, and how they are argued for which is why it becomes a difficult task for many, particularly laymen.

Unwanted Problems

Unfortunately, there have been obstacles that cause unnecessary confusion. A case in point is the wholesale adoption of the Christian fundamentalist arguments and reasoning against evolution by Muslims. There is undoubtedly a considerable amount of tension involved in Christianity’s encounters with evolution; this is reflected by the rise of creationist movements, which have spread across the Western world and are particularly pervasive in America.[32] A similar anti-evolution impulse can also be seen in the Muslim world with the works of Adnan Oktar (more popularly known by his pen name, Harun Yahya), whose works are largely copied from Christian fundamentalist literature.[33] He brazenly misrepresents many points on evolution and, unfortunately, he has created a global network and an online platform where many of these misrepresentations can be found and are disseminated unreservedly as the Islamic understanding of evolution. Consider Jalajel’s comments on this misstep:

“Most of them focus their efforts less on theology and more on attacking the scientific credibility of evolution. In doing so, they tend to borrow their arguments from…American Creationist organizations. This is evident in the many inaccurate statements about evolution found in their writings that have been clearly been lifted from Creationist sources. For instance, they borrow the idea that there are no transitional forms in the fossil record, that all mutations are harmful, and that evolution somehow violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This group…seems motivated by the idea that evolution equates to atheism and a rejection of God’s creative role in the universe.”[34]

Given the points addressed in the previous sections, it should not be surprising to note how problematic such creationist arguments are.


Evolution is without a doubt a challenging issue for Muslims. Unwanted confusion and the interdisciplinary demand of the topic makes it so. However, in the midst of this challenge Muslims should not shy away from the topic. That said, this doesn’t imply that one should resort to simplistic analyses. Great efforts need to be made to first understand the issue at hand along with its complexities and only then make educated opinions and / or offer suggested proposals (be they dismissal or acceptance). Ultimately, God knows best.


Dr Shoaib was awarded a PhD Scholarship in Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at the University of Nottingham which he completed in 2015. On completing his scientific studies, he studied at the Avicenna Academy where he obtained ijaazahs in hadith and aqeedah and is currently under the tutelage of Sh. Ali Laraki at the Meem Institute. He currently holds the position of Assistant Professor of the Natural Sciences at Zayed University in Dubai. Currently, Shoaib is writing a monograph on Evolution and Ghazali contracted by Routledge in which he tries to approach the subject from a theological perspective. This is due to be published in 2021.


[1]    Nidhal Guessoum, Islam’s Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2011), 365-368; and Salman Hameed, “Making Sense of Islamic Creationism in Europe”, Public Understanding of Science 24, no. 4 (2015): 388-399.

[2]    Nidhal Guessoum, “Islamic Theological Views on Darwinian Evolution.” Oxford Research Encyclopaedia, (2016), 1-25.

[3]    Alan Rogers, The Evidence for Evolution (Chicago: The Chicago University Press, 2011), 22-23.

[4]    G. van den Brink, J. de Ridder and R. Woudenberg, “The Epistemic Status of Evolutionary Theory.” Theology and Science, 15(14), (2017), 454-472.

[5]    For an excellent range of essays on these issues in a collected volume see Robert John Russell, Stoeger S.J., William R. and Francisco J. Ayala, eds., Evolutionary and Molecular Biology: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action (Indiana: Vatican Observatory, 2006).

[6]    Sam Harris, Free Will (New York: Free Press, 2012).

[7]    Fern Elsdon-Baker, “The Compatibility of Science and Religion?” In Anthony Carroll and Richard Norma, eds., Religion and Atheism: Beyond the Divide (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017), 82-92.

[8]    Andrew Porter, “Naturalism, Naturalism by Other Means, and Alternatives to Naturalism”. Theology and Science, 1(2), (2003), 221-237.

[9]    Stephen C. Meyer, Paul E. Nelson, Jonathon Moneymaker, Scott Minnich and Ralph Seelke, eds., Explore Evolution: Arguments for and Against Neo-Darwinism (London: Hill House Publishers, 2009).

[10]   Eugenie C. Scott, Evolution vs. Creationism: An Introduction. 2nd Ed. (Berkley: University of California Press, 2009).

[11]   J. P. Moreland, Stephen C. Meyer, Christopher Shaw, Ann K. Gauger and Wayne Grudem, eds., Theistic Evolution: A Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Critique (Illinois: Crossway, 2017).

[12]   Qur’an (95:4).

[13]   Qur’an (38:75).

[14]   Qur’an (2:30).

[15]   Mankind is often collectively referred to as the ‘children of Adam’ in the Qur’an, as we see in verse (17:70).

[16]   Muhammad Sultan Shah, Evolution and Creation: Islamic Perspective (Mansehra: Society for Interaction of Religion and Science Technology, 2010), 166.

[17]   Ibid., 164.

[18]   Ibid., 173.

[19]   Seyyed Hossein Nasr, “On the Question of Biological Origins,” Islam and Science 4, no. 2: 181-197.

[20]   “Islam and Evolution: a Letter to Suleman Ali”, accessed January 16, 2018, http://www.masud.co.uk/ISLAM/nuh/evolve.htm

[21]   David Solomon Jalajel, Islam and Biological Evolution (Western Cape: University of the Western Cape, 2009), 149-156.

[22]   Guessoum, Islam’s Quantum Question, 323-324.

[23]   Rana Dajani, “Evolution and Islam: Is There a Contradiction?” Paper presented at Islam and Science: Muslim Responses to Science’s Big Questions, London and Islamabad, 2016.

[24]   Muhammad Sultan Shah, Evolution and Creation, 168.

[25]   Muhammad Iqbal, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam 12th Edition (New Delhi: Kitab Bhavan, 2012), 83.

[26]   Marwa Elshakry, Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1860-1950 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013), 175.

[27]   T. O. Shavanas, Islamic Theory of Evolution: The Missing Link between Darwin and the Origin of Species (USA: Brainbowpress, 2010), 153-160.

[28]   Hussein Al-Jisr, al-Risalah al-Hamidiyah fi haqiqat al-diyanah al-Islamiyah wa-haqiqat al-shariah al-Muhammadiyah (Beirut: Dar Al-Kitab Al-Lubnani, 2012); Adel Ziadat, Western Science in the Arab World (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986), 94-95.

[29]   Alper Bilgil, “An Ottoman Response to Darwinism: Ismail Fenni on Islam and Evolution”, British Journal for the History of Science 48(4), (2015): 565-582.

[30]   Quran (36:71).

[31]   For the avid reader, the authour can only hope that the references mentioned here provide a useful repository for further readings.

[32]   Ronald L. Numbers, The Creationists: From Scientific Creationism to Intelligent Design (London: Harvard University Press, 2006).

[33]   Harun Yahya’s central book on evolution is The Evolution Deceit: The Scientific Collapse of Darwinism and Its Ideological Background (Istanbul: Global Yayincilik, 1999). See also: Damian A. Howard, Being Human in Islam: The Impact of the Evolutionary Worldview (Abingdon: Routledge, 2011), 9.

[34]   Jalajel, Islam and Biological Evolution, 162. In the footnotes of this quote, Jalajel refers to parallels between Yahya’s work and that of Christian fundamentalists.