The Problem of Evolution: How Islamic Schools Work Through the Debate on Creationism and Evolution

Few topics in the religion-science debate arouse as much passion as the discussion about how the theory of evolution should be taught to children.

This debate has been the topic of many legal and political struggles in the United States during the 20th century. One will rarely find this much fervor in discussions about other aspects of the scientific curriculum. There are no demonstrations, placards or death threats issued when it comes to teaching the theory of relativity, quantum mechanics or organic chemistry. One of the key reasons for why the topic of evolution has taken center stage is that it puts forth a theory about the origin of life, humans as well as other species. This is perceived by many adherents of religions to directly oppose the views presented in their religious traditions, in which the creation of humans and other species is attributed to God (creationism). The classroom is seen as the place where the minds and characters of the future are built. Perhaps the proponents and opponents of the theory of evolution feel that the school curriculum directs the future of society, which further fuels the emotions in the debate and turns the classroom into a battleground.

For most scientists, the theory of evolution is a critical part of scientific education that lays the foundation of many biological concepts. Even though only few biologists pursue evolutionary biology as a focus of their research, it is quite common for most biologists to work in the context of evolutionary thinking. Cell biologists, for example, who study cell-signaling pathways, often talk about “conserved” pathways, referring to cellular signals that are common to multiple species and are most likely explained by common ancestry. Biologists studying cell metabolism commonly refer to the endosymbiont theory of cellular evolution, which proposes that during the evolution of complex eukaryotic cells, prokaryotic cells were recruited to form critical organelles. This theory may explain similarities between the mitochondria found in human cells and prokaryotic cells, such as cyanobacteria, and may offer potential avenues for metabolism-based therapies.

Opponents of the theory of evolution typically argue that it is just one theory to explain the origin and diversity of life on this planet and that it represents an exclusively naturalistic view of the world. They oppose a theory that does not leave much room for spiritual or metaphysical descriptions of the origin of life in which God creates life forms and species. While many opponents reject the theory based on their religious views, they also try to point out its potential scientific flaws and inadequacies. For the purpose of this article, the term “creationism” will be used in the broad sense, encompassing a range of spiritual or religious narratives, which propose that God or a Creator actively created humans and other species on this planet. Specific types of creationism include young earth creationism, which proposes that the Earth was created roughly 6,000 to 10,000 years ago. Old earth creationists or progressive creationists accept scientific data that life forms have existed for hundreds of millions of years, but also believe that the Creator actively created species in a sequential manner, over the course of hundreds of millions of years. A detailed description of the various forms of creationism and the history of the evolution-creationism debate in the United States lies beyond the scope of this article, but an excellent summary and analysis can be found in the book, Evolution vs. Creationism: An Introduction by Eugenie C. Scott.

Briefly, in the 20th century, the United States witnessed numerous discussions about how the topic of evolution should be taught in American schools. Toward the beginning of the century, legislation such as the Butler Act in Tennessee in 1925 was introduced by predominantly conservative Christian organizations and movements to ban the teaching of evolution in the classroom. However, U.S. courts have repeatedly ruled that teaching evolution was not only permissible, but that evolution represents the only scientific theory to describe the origin of life. As detailed in Scott’s book, Christian organizations opposed to the teaching of evolution shifted their strategy toward the end of the 20th century with requests that creationist views or a theory of intelligent design – which requires a higher “intelligent” being to partake in the formation of species – be taught alongside the theory of evolution. However, even these attempts have been rejected by U.S. courts, which say creationism or intelligent design are religious views that do not meet the criteria of science and are thus not suitable to be taught in biology classes at public schools.

Private Christian schools, on the other hand, have not been affected by these rulings and many have either avoided teaching evolution or taught it side-by-side with creationism or intelligent design. However, the recent lawsuit Association of Christian Schools International et al. v. Roman Stearns et al. moved the issue back in the limelight. This lawsuit was brought against the University of California, which had decided not to give credit to high school biology classes taught at private Christian high schools that used a creationist textbook. The court ruled in favor of the University of California, and this decision was upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2010.

While much attention has been paid to the teaching of evolution and creationism at public schools and private Christian schools in the U.S., little is known about how private Muslim schools address this topic. The Muslim perspective may be especially interesting in light of recent events. First, there is a rising popularity of Muslim creationist literature in the past two decades. Adnan Oktar, an author who is based in Turkey and writes under the pseudonym Harun Yahya, is one of the main sources of recent Muslim creationist literature and his books are widely circulated throughout the Muslim world. His books attack the theory of evolution, as evidenced by titles such as The Evolution Deceit. Second, in March 2011, Usama Hasan, a scientist who advocated the teaching and study of evolution, was forced to retract his statements about evolution and resign as imam of an east London mosque in the face of complaints and threats to his safety made by members of the community. The rising popularity of Yahya’s books and the vitriolic incident at the east London masjid indicate a growing desire among some Muslims to oppose the theory of evolution.

To explore how Islamic schools in the U.S. approach the topic of evolution, I visited the private Islamic Foundation School (IFS) in the Chicago suburb of Villa Park, Illinois. It is one of the largest Islamic schools in the U.S., with approximately 700 students from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade. It has a respectable academic record, with a 97 percent high-school graduation rate and school ACT scores higher than the state and national averages. The school building is contiguous with the Islamic Foundation mosque, and a significant portion of the students’ parents are members of the congregation.

I entered the building via the main mosque entrance and was directed to the science classroom. At first glance, it appeared to be very similar to science classrooms at public high schools. The walls were covered with posters of endangered animals, schematic drawings of cells and cellular organelles, an anatomic model of the human body and various depictions of the elements of the periodic table. However, unlike public schools, Quranic surahs and Arabic calligraphy were also interspersed between the scientific charts and posters.

I met with a biology teacher, who wished to remain anonymous. She has a master’s degree in molecular biology and an extensive background of teaching biology at community colleges and multiple private Islamic schools. She highlighted that students at IFS and other private Islamic schools where she has taught are exposed to the concept of evolution in two stages. The biology curriculum first introduces the topic to children in the seventh and eighth grades, where the basic concepts and definitions of the evolutionary process are discussed. At this stage, she has found that a number of the students have already heard of the term “evolution,” but only a minority ask questions such as, “Isn’t evolution haraam (forbidden)?” or “Does evolution mean humans are derived from monkeys?” Interestingly, the biology teacher has never heard any concerns or complaints from the children’s parents. At the seventh- and eighth-grade levels, she usually mentions Charles Darwin’s trip to the Galapagos Islands and discusses general concepts such as natural selection.

In-depth discussions of DNA homologies between species or Stanley Miller’s experiments on prebiotic organic molecules are deferred until higher grade levels. The biology teacher does not use the terms “creationism” or “intelligent design” in her class, and when her students ask her about the compatibility of evolutionary theory with Islamic teachings, she suggests they take up this question with their Islamic studies teachers. The textbook she uses for the higher grade levels is Campbell Biology, which is also used by many colleges for introductory biology courses. When I asked her how learning about evolution affects the students’ views on the origins of life and humans, I was surprised to hear her say that the students simply “disconnect” themselves from the material they study. They study the textbooks and materials and are able to score very highly on the exams, but their views of what constitutes “reality,” in relation to the origin of species, are not affected by the study of evolution. The students seem to accept microevolution within a species, but have difficulty accepting macroevolution in which new species can evolve over time. The idea that new species evolve may conflict with their spiritual views and they feel it reduces God to the role of an observer. The students’ notions of the actual origin of humans and various species may be more affected by their family environment or Islamic education than the material they study as part of the curriculum. These observations – based on the subjective impressions of an experienced biology teacher at an Islamic school and not on extensive research surveys of the student population – raise some interesting questions as to how the students construct their image of reality and what role science plays in it.

I then met with the IFS dean of academics, Omar Qureshi, who has a bachelor’s degree in microbiology, a Master of Science degree and is pursuing a Ph.D. in the philosophy of education at Loyola University. In addition to his teaching experience at Islamic schools, Qureshi has also been a biology high school teacher at a non-religious private high school, which had a large number of Catholic and Evangelical students who were very interested in discussing creationism and intelligent design in the context of evolution. In accordance with school policies, Qureshi taught the theory of evolution but also presented the arguments of creationism and intelligent design proponents. He says his goal was to try to equip the students with the necessary knowledge and thinking skills to participate in a debate on evolution and creationism and see the full spectrum of arguments.

I mentioned that based on my discussion with the biology teacher, it appeared that unlike Catholic and Evangelical high school students, Muslim students do not necessarily actively bring up the concepts of creationism and intelligent design in a biology class. Qureshi confirmed that he had also only been prompted to discuss these terms by Christian students and not by Muslim students. When I asked whether he would advocate using biology books written by Harun Yahya, he said he would strongly advocate against this at a Muslim school. In his opinion, Yahya’s books represent a political agenda with religious overtones that do not belong in a classroom. Another concern Qureshi voiced in this context was that books by Yahya, as well as other Muslim creationists, often conflate scientific methodology with Quranic hermeneutics, using approaches that do not do justice to either science or traditional Quranic exegesis. “The Quran is not a book of science,” Qureshi said, referring to Yahya’s books about biology, in which Quranic verses and attacks on the theory of evolution are intermingled with descriptions of the anatomy and physiology of animals. In Qureshi’s view, Quranic statements about the natural world should be interpreted in the light of the principles of Quranic exegesis and empirical observations. He also cautioned against propagating creationist views in Islamic studies classes, since the Islamic tradition has very complex and elaborate views on the process of evolution that are rooted in Muslim philosophy and theology. In his opinion, creationist discussions among Muslim students about of the origin of life and diversity of species are often based on a popular lay understanding in the Muslim community and not necessarily grounded in Islamic theological and philosophical tradition.

Qureshi suggested that tension does not exist between the Quran and the theory of evolution, but does exist between the fundamental underpinnings of a modern scientific worldview, which is primarily naturalistic, and a concept of causality that is distinct from that promulgated by the Quran. He proposed that discussing the philosophical assumptions of science may be a better way to approach the perceived clash between science and religion in an Islamic school. He incorporated philosophical discussions of causality in his science classes when he taught at non- Muslim private schools. In his experience at a school with a large Catholic student body, students were very interested in comparing and contrasting the views of Aquinas, Descartes and Al-Ghazali with those of modern science.

I have to admit that I am quite intrigued by Qureshi’s approach. In my own experience as a cell biologist and as a faculty member at multiple American universities, I have often been surprised by the fact that undergraduate and graduate students in the life sciences are rarely, if ever, exposed to the philosophy of science. An exposure to philosophical ideas at the high-school level may indeed inspire some students to seek out introductory courses in philosophy when they enter college and thus allow them to broaden their intellectual horizon. However, I have two major concerns in regards to incorporating philosophy in the high-school curriculum. My first concern is whether such an approach would be practical. It appears that the biology curriculum for the Advanced Placement class at IFS is already quite packed with required topics, leaving little time for exploring philosophical questions in a science class. Even if one or two lessons are devoted to exploring the philosophy of science, it is unlikely that the students will be able to comprehend key concepts surrounding the issue of causality and epistemology of science. Especially at the high-school level, students may need a substantial amount of time to grasp such novel concepts and this would be best addressed in a philosophy course instead of being an add-on to a biology curriculum.

My second concern is that introducing philosophy in a science class may have a number of unintended consequences. I am an advocate of teaching the philosophy of science to anyone interested in a deeper understanding of science. However, in my years as an academic scientist, and especially in debates about the relationship between religion and science, I have come across attempts by religious people to use questions raised by philosophers of science not as a means to deepen one’s understanding of science, but as a tool to discredit science itself. As any body of knowledge, science operates within certain paradigms, models and assumptions. As pointed out by multiple philosophers of science, these assumptions and paradigms change over time and scientific theories regularly undergo radical revisions as novel empirical data and interpretations arise. Many scientists encourage their graduate students and postdoctoral fellows to question and challenge key paradigms of science, since this process is the motor for scientific discovery and progress. Nevertheless, people who fundamentally disagree with scientific worldviews sometimes misinterpret descriptions of the dynamic nature of scientific discovery as a form of “proof” that science does not adequately describe reality.

One way to ensure that exploring philosophical assumptions is not just a means to discredit science but to actually promote a culture of critical reasoning is to encourage students to similarly investigate and critically evaluate all forms of knowledge, whether in the sciences, mathematics, religion or humanities. In my German high school, we had to take classes in ethics or philosophy and our teachers strongly encouraged us to apply our newly acquired critical-reasoning skills to question the assumptions of all forms of knowledge: from the core paradigms of mathematics, biology and physics to our approach to world history and religion. Whether the parents of children attending an Islamic school would be open to such an approach remains to be seen.

It seems that unlike many private Christian schools, IFS does not teach creationist ideas or intelligent design viewpoints in the biology classroom. However, large-scale surveys and studies on Islamic school curricula will need to be conducted to see if the IFS approach is indeed representative of all American Islamic schools. The discussions with the IFS teachers brought up some important observations about how teachers and students approach the topic of evolution at an Islamic school. The fact that many students have no problem studying evolutionary biology, but disconnect themselves from their academic studies and privately hold creationist ideas represents an unexplored area for future academic scholarship. It would be very interesting to assess, compare and track the views of Muslim students in Islamic and public schools and see whether their views on evolution affect their career choices and approach to faith.

Jalees Rehman, M.D., is an Associate Professor of Medicine and Pharmacology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In addition to his scientific work on regenerative stem and progenitor cells, he is studying the role of postmodern and existentialist thought in interfaith dialogue. Some of his articles on science, culture and religion can be found on his Huffington Post blog.

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