Reconciling Faith and Evolutionary Science: Understanding Ensoulment

(Originally published June 24, 2014)

The “Be Yourself” trope is found in numerous works of film and literature. The protagonist learns a hard lesson when he attempts to change himself in order to gain acceptance from others. Often the character has to sacrifice his most deeply held beliefs and values in undertaking this self-imposed transformation. Tragically, however, those he seeks to impress ultimately reject him despite his attempt to assimilate, at which point the protagonist realizes his folly and resolves to just “be himself.”

Perhaps modern theists can benefit from this simple apothegm as they struggle to reconcile their faith with science, in general, and evolutionary theory, in particular.

Match Evolved on Earth (and Not Made in Heaven)

In attempting to marry religion and science, many theists resort to “theistic evolution,” believing it to be an intellectually and theologically satisfying reconciliation. In the debate on human origins, theistic evolution seems to give due measure to, not only evolutionary science, but also the role of God in the creation of man. As such, many Muslims, Christians, and Jews find in theistic evolution an attractive middle ground to occupy between recalcitrant atheists and scientifically illiterate fundamentalists. As it turns out, theistic evolution is the official position of the Catholic Church, numerous Protestant groups, Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews, as well as a growing number of Muslims.

Upon closer inspection, however, the “middle ground” of theistic evolution is not as mediatory as first seems. Consider that theistic evolution fully concedes, to the letter, the description of human origins provided by evolutionary science. The one and only thing distinguishing theistic evolution from standard evolutionary accounts is a small footnote (or parenthetical) provided by theistic evolution specifying the role of God as “guiding” the evolutionary process. In other words, proponents of theistic evolution make the distinction, contrary to their secular counterparts, that the evolutionary process was God’s means for creating species including man.

Despite its increasing popularity among Christians, Jews, and Muslims of the world, theistic evolution is problematic to religions that recognize the significance of Adam and Eve as historical persons. The Quranic (and Biblical) discourse on human origins is quite rich in that Adam and Eve are described as, among other things, facing temptation, falling into error, seeking repentance, being expelled from paradise, and so on (and this is not even considering numerous significant narrations in the hadith literature). Ultimately, Adam and Eve’s lives — as relayed to believers through descriptions in holy scripture — serve as the primal archetype for the human experience at large. Evolutionary science, of course, denies the possibility of a miraculous unborn origin of a human person and, furthermore, denies that an entire species like homo sapiens could have originated from a single male and female. (NB: The hypothesized “Y-chromosomal Adam” and “Mitochondrial Eve” in phylogenetics cannot be the Adam and Eve of the Quran or Bible because, among other things, “Y-chromosomal Adam” and “Mitochondrial Eve” are not hypothesized to be the only living human beings of their time.)

Theistic Evolution as Revisionism

For Christians and Jews, many of whom already view the Bible as a collection of allegories, it is only natural to similarly interpret the narrative of Adam and Eve as purely figurative in light of evolutionary science. Muslims, in contrast, have traditionally not understood verses and narrations of past prophets as metaphorical. The account of Adam and Eve as historical persons thus poses a unique challenge for Muslims who want to accept theistic evolution. The problem is: Without retreating to the metaphorical, how does one reconcile the gradualist, naturalist, materialist account of human origins given by evolutionary science with the miraculous, unique, cosmically-significant account given in revelation?

To be quite frank, the resolutions to this dilemma given by Muslims are less than inspiring. Most Muslim compatibilist attempts in this vein resort to an “ensoulment theory.” The idea is that humans evolved exactly as evolution describes, but, at a certain point in this evolutionary chain, God selected a specific hominid and miraculously breathed into it the first human soul thereby originating Adam (as). Proponents of this view believe that such ensoulment adequately reconciles evolutionary science and the Quranic account of Adam as the first of humanity. After all, according to Islamic conceptions, a human being consists of both body and soul. This means that the alleged evolutionary ancestors of Adam were not technically human since they did not possess souls.

Malleable Exegesis

There are a number of critical problems with this ensoulment theory of human origins. First of all, it ignores a central theological premise, namely that Adam and Eve were not born. Recognizing this sticking point, some Muslims resort to questioning whether the canonical sources, viz., Quran and hadith, can be interpreted as allowing the possibility of Adam and Eve having biological antecedents. These “evolutionist readings” of the Quran emphasize verses such as:

“Allah has created every creature from water. And of them are those that move on their bellies, and of them are those that walk on two legs, and of them are those that walk on four. Allah creates what He wills. Indeed, Allah is over all things competent.”

“And Allah has caused you to grow from the earth a [progressive] growth.”

“[Allah is He] who perfected everything which He created and began the creation of man from clay.”

Other verses (and ahadith) more than imply that Adam and Eve had no biological predecessors.

“The similitude of Jesus before Allah is as that of Adam; He created him from dust, then said to him: “Be”. And he was.”

“[Mary] said, “My Lord, how will I have a child [i.e., Jesus] when no man has touched me?” [The angel] said, “Such is Allah; He creates what He wills. When He decrees a matter, He only says to it, ‘Be,’ and it is.”

“O mankind, fear your Lord, who created you from one soul and created from it its mate and dispersed from both of them many men and women. And fear Allah, through whom you ask one another, and the wombs. Indeed Allah is ever over you an Observer.”

Of course, evolutionists will not be convinced by the plain reading interpretation of such verses as they believe evolution is the underlying reality to which these verses figuratively refer.

Ultimately, however, the bickering about correct interpretation can be short circuited by reference to the traditional discipline of tafsir (Quranic exegesis). Obviously, different Muslims will place more or less significance on the traditional tafsirs and their formalism. On one side of the spectrum, there are deviant Muslims who could not care less about traditional tafsir. Due to the disparities in fundamental methodological outlook that someone like me would have with deviants of this opinion, it is unlikely we would come to any meaningful consensus on Quranic conceptions of Adam (as) without first resolving said disparities.

On the other side of the spectrum, for those Muslims who do give weight to the tafsir tradition, several things can be said. First, consider that in twelve centuries’ time, there is no premodern tafsir of the Quran that sanctions — or even considers — the idea that Adam had a father. Considering the importance that premodern Islamicate civilizations, especially Arab, put on lineage and the extensive, highly detailed family trees that were drafted for all the prophets in the sirah literature and elsewhere — not to mention the religious, metaphysical, historical, and ethical significance of human origins, in general — it is telling that no scholar speculated about the possibility of Adamic ancestry, let alone proposed that such a possibility was implied by the revealed texts!

Isnad and Epistemology

As far as the traditional Islamic worldview is concerned, not only is lineage (nasab) significant from the biological perspective but also the very notion of knowledge, spiritual tutelage, and religious normativity are all built on isnad, or chain of transmission. Undeniably, the keystone of classical Muslim intellectual discourse is the institution of isnad, which, if it can be put concisely, is nothing more than the preservation of knowledge, in the most complete sense of the word, encompassing both `ilm and ma`arifah, connecting the believer through an unbroken chain to God Almighty (in the sense of verse 5:35 among others: “O you who believe! Do your duty to Allah and fear Him; and seek the wasilah [means of approach to Him], and strive hard in His cause so that you may be successful.”).

Undoubtedly, parents and kin play a unique role in the intersection of biological lineage and isnad, and this can be plainly seen in the Quranic and tafsir discourse, where the familial roots of prophets are examined in great detail, especially when it is known that the parents were a spiritual and intellectual influence in the life of the eventual prophet (e.g., Ibrahim to Ishaq and Isma’il to Yaqub to Yusuf, Musa’s mother and foster mother to Musa, Dawud to Sulayman, Zakariyya to Yahya, Maryam to `Isa, etc.).

The point of all this is, given the importance of lineage and isnad as well as the metaphysical centrality of Adam as the first human being, it would be highly unlikely that 1200 years of premodern scholarship simply overlooked the possibility of Adamic ancestry. This unlikelihood is beyond astronomical once we also realize that, throughout this time period, Muslim intellectuals were confronted with various philosophical views opposed to the miraculous origin of man. In other words, resistance to Adamic creation is by no means a modern phenomenon, yet, historically, we do not see Islamic scholarship accommodating or, even, seriously considering that perspective via alternative exegesis. Mind you, the philosophical views in question were just as “decisive” as modern evolutionary science is considered today.

High Stakes

So, does the Quranic text allow for an evolutionist reading of Adam and centuries of exegesis simply failed to consider the possibility? Or, is it more likely that the Quranic (and ahadith) discourse are so unequivocal on this subject that exegetical opinion could not help but settle on a singular interpretation?

A possible rebuttal could be something like this: the traditional tafsirs were simply wrong in that they did not have the information provided by modern science needed to be able to correctly understand the underlying meaning of the source texts. What should be terribly concerning to us about this charge are the epistemological ramifications. After all, the origins of man and the significance of the first human being, his encounter with Satan, his expulsion from the Garden, his situation on earth vis-a-vis the rest of creation, his acceptance of the amanah, etc., are not small, inconsequential things for one to be outright wrong about.

So, what is really at stake with the claim that 1400 years of scholarship — involving hundreds of millions of teachers and students — was fundamentally mistaken about a critical component of theology, while the true, correct understanding could only fully be known through the “illumination” of the past 40-50 years of modern science? What kind of impact would there be to the collective Muslim psyche if it were accepted that 40 years of science trumps 1400 years of Islamic intellectual effort? In fact, what would this mean for the very notion of tradition itself? An epistemological coup d’état of this magnitude would no less than eviscerate the tradition-centric, transmission-based Muslim ethos at large. Unfortunately, this coup is well underway.

I understand that some Muslims today who are otherwise committed to some notion of traditional religion will want to argue this point and claim that there is sufficient “wiggle room” in the tradition to accommodate modern alternative exegesis in light of evolutionary science. I would suggest, in line with the above, that these Muslims have not fully appreciated the wider epistemological ramifications of such an “accommodation.” Yes, this may sound overly bleak, but, to preview this path, we only have to look at the devolution and dismantling of so many other traditions, religious and non-religious, ravaged by the uncritical application of scientific epistemology inherent to modernity.

The Reconciliation that Reconciles Nothing

As we have seen, the ensoulment theory is not lacking in theological foibles, to put it mildly. But, perhaps those “wrinkles” can be stomached if it means saving Islam’s compatibility with science. Perhaps, compatibility with science is a rich enough prize to be worth the axing of a principle here and a doctrine there every once in a while.

Ironically, even if Muslims paid this heavy price, the ensoulment theory is still not compatible with modern science because, of course, modern science disavows the existence of an immaterial soul! The deeply unscientific nature of ensoulment becomes apparent once it is all spelled out in detail. The idea is that immaterial souls were imparted to two specific hominids who became Adam and Eve, and, then, suddenly, those two beings became sentient and conscious in a way that distinguished them from their non-human ancestors, including immediate family members — e.g., fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, etc. — who presumably remained in an ape-like state! (There may have been some awkwardness at family reunions…) Not only is this story absurd from a theological perspective, it has no basis in any known science, since gradualistic evolutionary development does not allow for such quantum leaps in intelligence and consciousness between two successive generations.

The fundamental futility of the ensoulment theory, then, is that, the greater the number of facets of the traditional narrative of Adam and Eve it accommodates, the less scientific it becomes, and the fewer the number of facets of that narrative it accommodates, the more incompatible with the Quranic narrative and, hence, less theologically sound it becomes. Yet another way to phrase the difficulty is that reconciling the traditional and scientific accounts requires multiple metaphysical contortions, using philosophical gimmicks to push a square peg into a circular hole. At the end of the day, if one is willing to resort to these improbable metaphysical gymnastics — e.g., ensoulment — which are scientifically suspect anyway, why not just accept the metaphysical implications of the traditional account in the first place?

Be that as it may, the ensoulment theory is stuck in a no-man’s-land of philosophy, not theologically viable, not scientifically admissible — in sum, an attempt at reconciliation that reconciles absolutely nothing.

Where From Here?

If theistic evolution cannot provide the reconciliation between science and religion we need, what else is there to do the job? The conclusion we have to face is that Islam affirms a vision of reality that fundamentally and inescapably differs from modern science. Atheists and secularists, despite themselves, are correct on this point. Where we, as Muslims, diverge from that perspective is in denying science an exclusive authority to inform us on the world around us and its history.

For those who cannot accept this more thoroughgoing skepticism of scientific epistemology and still desire a satisfying reconciliation between science and the historical account of Adam as represented in traditional religion, I typically offer a simple suggestion. Elsewhere I have written:

“Modern cosmology asks us to believe that the entire universe, with all its complexities and all its many physical laws and constants in outrageously perfect harmony, literally came out of nothing [i.e., the “Big Bang”]. […] How can one be so confident in this account of the formation of the entire universe but have utmost skepticism for a considerably less fantastic account of the formation of homo sapiens or any other species? Is man more complex than the entire universe? Ironically, only someone with an egocentricity characteristic of the belief that man is the center of the universe and that all revolves around him would be inclined to answer this question in the affirmative.”

In other words, modern science asks us to accept that the entire universe came to be without physical precedent. Then why, by science’s own lights, is it so inconceivable, out of hand, for a single species (or even organisms generally) to appear without physical precedent? After all, science acknowledges within its overall ontology the existence of at least one “bang.” Wouldn’t a truly scientific mind wonder whether such “bangs” occur in other contexts? Shouldn’t the nature of “bangs” be a subject of wide scientific inquiry, with profound implications for all scientific sub-disciplines? One could argue that if natural philosophers and scientists had taken traditional religious accounts of the origins of the universe more seriously, perhaps Big Bang cosmology would have been theorized and subsequently discovered centuries prior to 20th century astronomy.

In sum, here is a reconciliation attempt that takes the Quranic narrative and its underlying ontological and epistemological precedents seriously, in effect informing science by providing meaningful implications about the physical world. In contrast, ensoulment swallows scientific ontology and epistemology as unquestioned givens in its attempt to inform our understanding of the Quran, in effect bulldozing over 1400 years of scholarship and, ultimately, failing to meet the requirements of the scientific paradigm it was trying to appease in the first place.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Yourself

Clichés aside, perhaps Muslims will one day learn the value of being true to one’s roots. With all my mention of “1400 years of tradition and scholarship,” it would be easy to misinterpret me as advocating a blind acceptance of stagnant theories and philosophies of bygone eras. Nothing could be further from the truth. Rather than merely parroting the natural philosophy found in (or assumed by) the traditional Islamic sciences or, worse, abandoning it completely, Muslims can instead work within and by means of the tradition to develop consistent methodological approaches to the study of nature. This project should not be construed as an “Islamicization of science.” Ideally, it would be sui generis in its methods and results, melding the realm of spiritual, moral, and theological truth with “natural” realities, where the category of “natural” itself would be reconstructed in order to encompass entities affirmed in revelation. Developing such an alternative to Western science while working within the larger paradigm of traditional Islamic thought is a monumental challenge for the Muslim intellectual community, yet it is a challenge Muslims can no longer ignore.

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10 COMMENTS

  1. I like the comparison of the Big Bang. May Allah reward you. Also, a good discussion of this topic is presented by Dr. Maurice Bucailles in his book, What is the Origin of Man?

  2. Though I am firm in the belief that Man is not the product of evolution; Adam’s creation as he was is mentioned explicitly in the Qur’an, I’ve not been able to find evidence for or against the evolution of other species in the Qur’an and Sunnah.

    Kind brother, I would appreciate it greatly if you had any information regarding this. Is there any Islamic interpretation or opinion to be had, based on evidence about non-human evolution.

    • The evolution of other species is not theologically problematic and at any rate we don’t have any qat3i (definitive) statements that would make it a core doctrine like the special creation of Adam is.

      • The only thing I have seen some people argue that animals have not been subject to macro-evolution based on the following ayah: “And there is no creature on [or within] the earth or bird that flies with its wings except [that they are] communities like you. We have not neglected in the Register a thing. Then unto their Lord they will be gathered (6:38)”

        Based on this ayah it was argued implicitly that animals had not been subject to macro-evolution as they “are” like us. I found the argument to be a bit of a stretch. Regardless, as The Muslim Theist pointed out, there is no explicit doctrinal stance on the issue so there is no real theological problem there.

  3. Brother Daniel evolution is real paa ji. Sometimes human can evolve into a braying mule like Ali paa ji Wahe Guru of TRUE Islam.

    NO TO ARABI, TURKISH, IRANI, AFGHANI ISLAAM!

    ONLY TRUE ISLAAM! LOLLYWOOD ISLAAM! BOLLYWOOD ISLAAM!

    TAKE MUREE BEER! ALLAH WHO AKBAR?! THAT IS TRUE ISLAAM!

  4. Evolution theory has failed but it’s still being peddled in mainstrain as a natural fact and unfortunately many educated Muslims and even some scholars have fallen prey to this appeal to repetition. These scholars are advocating what is called as “Theistic Evolution”….

  5. I find it unfortunate that most Muslims have a dismal outlook towards their own tradition in regards to the question of Evolution as this model is becoming obsolete at an increasingly rapid pace as genetic science advances at an exponential pace. Disregarding the fact that most of their ever-changing theories on the origin of life mount up to a bunch of hand-waving fairy tales (as they are unfalsifiable claims that are made that have not been replicated in any meaningful way), many of the fundamental claims that they make are demonstrably false.

    One clear one is the problem of the mutation rates necessary steps for the purported macro evolutionary leaps do not add up with the observed mutational rates in humans between each generation and the alleged time lines between humans and a common ancestor with primates. It’s of by an order of magnitude that is not even funny. I will provide some article links and podcasts links to the discoverer of the problem, Voxday, where he goes into it in more detail and it becomes crystal clear.

    The obvious response that material atheists give is “what if some environmental factor can drastically increase mutational rates for short periods of time to create dramatic short-term change?”. When they get pushed to the wall about it most provide un-thought out explanations or point to alien intervention a la ancient aliens hypothesis or something they have seen in a sci-fi universe. This raises the obvious rebuttal that it’s funny how atheists believe in intelligent design if it’s not Allah and that they haven’t really solved the problem of the origin of life as they have just moved the problem from our planet to another.

  6. That so many Muslims don’t accept even the possibility of evolutionary science is a failure of their respective education systems. Yes, it’s difficult to reconcile with Islamic teachings (the book Reading Darwin in Arabic presents an earlier generation’s attempts to do so). But to so steadfastly resist engaging with evolutionary science itself (read a textbook! watch a documentary!) keeps Muslims in a state of ignorance. Worse, it means that when a Muslim explores science and understands its methods (to pretend that there’s widespread disagreement about the fundamentals of evolution is just dishonest), he or she often feels compelled to leave the faith.

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