Muslim scholars are often not considered to be the contributors of the theory of evolution forwarded by Charles Darwin (1809-1882). It is not widely known that a few Muslim names realised the process of evolution, way before Darwin was even born.
The 19th century scholar who came up with idea of natural selection is still remembered as the pioneer of the theory which can be summarised as ‘the survival of the fittest’. Darwinism, his school of thought, says all species of organisms today have evolved from natural selection of simpler species that increased their ability to survive and reproduce over the period of time.
It is sometimes said the theory dates back to Greek and Hindu philosophers whereas some Muslim scholars also contributed their due share in understanding the significant biological process. Al-Jahiz is one such name who identified evolution way back in the ninth century.
He once mentioned in one of his writings that animals pass through struggle for survival, adding they avoid being eaten, breed and collect resources for their existence.
“Environmental factors influence organisms to develop new characteristics to ensure survival, thus transforming them into new species. Animals that survive to breed can pass on their successful characteristics to their offspring,” he interpreted once.
It is astonishing to learn that a ninth century scientist wrote about environmental factors, survival for animals, species who transform into new species through struggle for existence and traits passed on to offspring.
Muhammad al-Nakhshabi (10th century)
Later on, a Muslim philosopher from central Asia Muhammad al-Nakhshabi, during the tenth century, argued simpler elements had initially developed into plants, animals and then humans from biological processes. His study revealed that animals used to be plants in their earlier stages, adding a chain of periodical reactions from celestial bodies to homo sapiens existed. Nakhsabi’s observations, though very simplified, contain the essence of the very basic concept of evolution.
Nakhshabi said, “While man has sprung from sentient creatures [animals], these have sprung from vegetal beings [plants], and these in turn from combined substances; these from elementary qualities, and these [in turn] from celestial bodies.”
Nasir ad-Din Tusi (1201-1274)
Nasir ad-Din Tusi is also known by some people to express his ideas about evolution of living and non-living things. He was a Muslim mathematician, scholar, scientist and theologian who identified evolution in the thirteenth century. In his book, Akhlaq-i-Nasri, he opined that the different elements came close together and formed mineral, then plants and ultimately formed animals from which the homo sapiens evolved.
“The organisms that can gain the new features faster are more variable. As a result, they gain advantages over other creatures. […] The bodies are changing as a result of the internal and external interactions … look at the world of animals and birds. They have all that is necessary for defense, protection and daily life, including strengths, courage and appropriate tools,” Tusi believed.
Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406)
The understandings written by Ibn Khaldun about the theory of evolution during fourteenth century cannot be ignored in this respect. He wrote in his book Muqaddimah, “One notices how these elements are arranged gradually and continually in an ascending order, from earth to water, to air, and to fire. Each one of the elements is prepared to be transformed into the next higher or lower one, and sometimes is transformed. The higher one always finer than the one preceding it. Eventually, the world of the sphere is reached. They are finer than anything else.”
His view about the biological evolution suggested that water, fire, air and earth had basic elements to form living organisms and the ascending order of events can be identified. He specially means that the higher species are fitter from their earlier shapes which could have only occurred through survival, breeding and passing of traits.
Ibn Khaldun once stated, “The higher stage of man is reached from the world of monkeys.”
Islam, Quran and Evolution
Some theologians also argue that the real roots of evolution are deeply embedded in the Islamic faith. A few Quranic verses that can be linked with the biological evolution are given here:
“Allah has created every [living] 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 […].” (24:45)
“The heavens, We have built them with power. And verily, We are expanding it” (51:47).
“. . . the heavens and the earth were joined together as one unit, before We clove them asunder” (21:30).