I first heard of this when I read a TalkOrigins Post of the Month, from November 1996. I don’t know how such awards are selected.
Here’s the claim:
When one studies the Qur’an to see references to creation, it makes much sense to look at Muslim scientists interpretations of certain verses of the Qur’an, who lived in the early days of Islam. When this is studied it is realized that Darwin, who gets the credit for the idea of natural selection and evidence for evolution, was one thousand years late in the discovery.
The Muslim scientists ibn Kathir, ibn Khauldun, ibn Arabi, ibn Sina, among other scientists, such as the Ikhwan school of thought, arrived at the same conclusions as Darwin with a convincing amount of evidence. Every Muslim school and mosque used to teach evolution up until a few hundred years ago. Some westerners, including Darwin’s contemporary, Sir William Draper, called it the Mohammedan Theory of Evolution. Draper admitted that the Muslim version was more advanced than Darwin’s, because in the Muslim version, the evolution starts out with minerals.
Different is not the same as “more advanced”. In this case, perhaps “more extreme” would be appropriate. Evolution, in the modern concept, applies to living things. When Islamic scholars applied it to minerals, their thoughts were along the line of Alchemy. From wiki:
“When common people hear from natural philosophers that gold is a body which has attained to perfection of maturity, to the goal of completeness, they firmly believe that it is something which has gradually come to that perfection by passing through the forms of all other metallic bodies, so that its gold nature was originally lead, afterward it became tin, then brass, then silver, and finally reached the development of gold; not knowing that the natural philosophers mean, in saying this, only something like what they mean when they speak of man, and attribute to him a completeness and equilibrium in nature and constitution – not that man was once a bull, and was changed into an ass, and afterward into a horse, and after that into an ape, and finally became a man.”
History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science — William Draper
So the common people imagined Gold at the end of a “Great Chain of Being”. And apparently that is not what the scholars meant. The scholars meant that Gold arose by a process similar to that by which man arose. What was that process?
The Mu’tazili scientist and philosopher al-Jahiz (c. 776-869) was the first of the Muslim biologists and philosophers to develop an early theory of evolution. He speculated on the influence of the environment on animals, considered the effects of the environment on the likelihood of an animal to survive, and first described the struggle for existence and an early theory on natural selection. Al-Jahiz wrote the following on the struggle for existence:
“Animals engage in a struggle for existence; for resources, to avoid being eaten and to breed. Environmental factors influence organisms to develop new characteristics to ensure survival, thus transforming into new species. Animals that survive to breed can pass on their successful characteristics to offspring.”
[Gary Dargan, palaeontologist and a practising Muslim, during a debate on ABC]
Wiki also lists some other Muslim scientists who wrote about evolution and says that their work was translated into Latin and reached the West after the Renaissance.
It also quotes from a summary by Muhammad Hamidullah. He says Islamic scholars gave God credit for creating matter; giving it energy, so that it became vapour then water; mineral life, stones — their highest form being coral. [note: Coral is an animal, Coral Reefs are the structures they build.]
There are clearly things which are simply argument by analogy. For instance: coral has branches like a tree; the date palm “does not wither if all its branches are chopped but it dies when the head is cut off” — so it’s like an animal. And through such analogy they link minerals to plants to animals.
In fact, Hamidullah’s summary reads something like a Great Chain of Being — which was associated with commoners earlier — while al-Jahiz’s description reminds of natural selection.
Clearly, things weren’t agreed upon throughout. But these were mainstream ideas, taught by Muslims to Muslims. Hamidullah ends his summary by reminding us that the theories are firmly within a theistic belief:
This is not the statement of Darwin. This is what Ibn Maskawayh states and this is precisely what is written in the Epistles of Ikhwan al-Safa. The Muslim thinkers state that ape then evolved into a lower kind of a barbarian man. He then became a superior human being. Man becomes a saint, a prophet. He evolves into a higher stage and becomes an angel. The one higher to angels is indeed none but God. Everything begins from Him and everything returns to Him.
[Muhammad Hamidullah and Afzal Iqbal (1993), The Emergence of Islam: Lectures on the Development of Islamic World-view, Intellectual Tradition and Polity]
There’s a lot of irony in all this.
Consider the claims by the likes of Harun Yahya regarding the Quran’s supposed description of the Big Bang — why didn’t Muslim scholars talk about that 1000 years ago? — while at the same time Yahya argues that evolution is intrinsically atheistic and un-Islamic.