The Evolution of Species and Islam

by Shahid Aziz

The Light (UK), April 2014 Issue (pp. 4–5)

وَ اِذۡ قَالَ رَبُّکَ لِلۡمَلٰٓئِکَۃِ اِنِّیۡ جَاعِلٌ فِی الۡاَرۡضِ خَلِیۡفَۃً ؕ قَالُوۡۤا اَتَجۡعَلُ فِیۡہَا مَنۡ یُّفۡسِدُ فِیۡہَا وَ یَسۡفِکُ الدِّمَآءَ ۚ وَ نَحۡنُ نُسَبِّحُ بِحَمۡدِکَ وَ نُقَدِّسُ لَکَ ؕ قَالَ اِنِّیۡۤ اَعۡلَمُ مَا لَا تَعۡلَمُوۡنَ ﴿۳۰﴾

“And when your Lord said to the angels, I am going to place a khalifa in the earth, they said: Will you place in it such as make mischief in it and shed blood? And we celebrate Your praise and extol Your holiness. He said: Surely I know what you know not.” (The Holy Quran, 2:30)

This verse of the Holy Quran is used to argue that, as Allah has created humankind, the theory of evolution is un-Islamic. Some even go so far as to say that it should be banned, and indeed even in a liberal country like Turkey all sites on the web which refer to evolution have been banned.

In this small note, I want to look at two commentaries on the Holy Quran, one Sunni and the other Shia, to see what they say. The Sunni commentary is by the highly respected classical commentator Imam Ibn Kathir. In his commentary on this verse he asks how is it that the angels knew that the creation proposed by Allah would create mischief and shed blood on earth. He then answers this himself and puts forward four possibilities. He states:

Either they learned this by some special means, or they would have decided it by looking at Nature — for it is stated that he shall be created from dust — or else from the meaning of the word khalifa they would have understood that he would stop injustice and would be one who stops (people from) what is unlawful and what is sinful. Otherwise, because they had seen the previous creation placed on earth, they extrapolated from their (actions).” (Tafsir of Ibn-i Kathir [Urdu], vol, 1, p. 105.)

Here it can be seen that the fourth reason advanced by Imam ibn-i Kathir for the angels’ asking Allah is that they had seen a previous creation cause bloodshed and mischief on earth. This is nothing but a part of the theory of evolution of species as it is currently understood. Indeed, on page 106, the Imam attributes to Hazrat ibn-i Abbas a statement that the jinn ruled the earth before the creation of mankind. Remember, jinn is a word of Arabic and means something that cannot be seen or known.

Tafsir-i Namuna is a standard Farsi commentary on the Holy Quran which was translated into Urdu by Maulana Syed Safdar Hussain Najafi at the recommendation of Iranian scholars for the Shia communities of Pakistan and India. In it, in the commentary on the same verse and regarding the question asked by the angels, it is said:

Some say that Allah had told them in summary humankind’s situation. Some consider that the angels themselves understood this from the words ‘in the earth’ for they knew that man shall be created from dust and matter, because its limitation will not be able to satisfy man’s nature which craves for more; so that even if the whole world is given to one person, even then it is possible that he will not be satisfied. If there is not sufficient sense of responsibility then such condition causes mischief and bloodshed.

“Other commentators believe that the an‍gels’ prophecy was because mankind was not the first creation on earth. On the contrary, before them there were other creatures who caused dispute, argument and bloodshed. The poor record of the previous creatures led the angels to mistrust Adam.” (Tafsir-i Namuna, vol. 1, pp. 150–151)

Here, an authentic Shia commentator is using classical sources to show that before Adam was put on earth there had been Adam-like creatures on earth. So two authentic Sunni and Shia scholars state, on the basis of old, classical sources, that some people believe that Adam was not the first creation on earth but that similar creatures had existed on earth before Adam.

There is also some discussion in the Shia commentary of what the word khalifa means in the verse quoted above. Literally, it means ‘successor’. This leads to another question:

“Whose successor is humankind?”

The commentary says:

Some say successor of humans or of others who lived on earth before (Adam)” (Tafsir-i Namuna, vol. 1, p. 150).

Here again is the possibility mentioned that perhaps human-like creatures inhabited and roamed the earth before human beings as we know them were created and populated it.

I am not arguing in favour of the theory of the evolution of species or against it, for that matter. I am merely pointing out that this is not something new. I am saying that, even if we ignore the scientific context, the possibility of creatures which roamed in the earth and had human-like characteristics was discussed by classical Muslim religious scholars in a religious context to try and understand the Holy Quran and answer some of the questions which were raised by people about creation.