Development of the Theory of Evolution

By Elmira Akhmetova

 

In 1859, an English naturalist and geologist, Charles Darwin (1809-1882) published a book entitled “The Origin of the Species,” which is considered the foundation of the scientific theory of evolution by natural selection. He established that all species of life have descended over time from common ancestors.

Literature on Darwin and his heritage usually highlight the role of his observations of wild nature during his voyages to Australia, Cape Town, South America and islands in the Pacific as a source for his evolutionary theory. Yet, another source for his inspiration to study wild nature is barely mentioned, and that is the earlier Islamic literature in biology and zoology.

In reality, the serious scientific discussions on evolution began at least a thousand years before Charles Darwin, mainly by Muslim scholars. Abu Uthman ‘Amr ibn Bahr, commonly known as Al-Jahiz, was the originator of the idea of evolution through his famous book entitled “Kitab al-Hayawan” (“The Book of the Animals”). Al-Jahiz was an Arab prose writer, the author of works on adab, philosophy, Mu’tazili theology, politico-religious polemics and scientific essays. He was born in Basra in 776 and learned various disciplines at different mosque circles.  Later he joined Mu’tazili circles and bourgeois saloons in Basra, Baghdad and Samarra, where conversations were animated by philosophical, theological and scientific problems.[1]

In his “Kitab al-Hayawan”, Al-Jahiz introduced the concept of food chains and also proposed a scheme of animal evolution that entailed natural selection, environmental determinism and possibly the inheritance of acquired characteristics. In difference from modern evolutionary theory, for Al-Jahiz, the will of Allah served as the antecedent or originator for all mutation and transformations. As he suggested, inanimate elevates to plant level and animals are evolved from plants. Man, according to Al-Jahiz, was an evolutionary stage of animals. He also widely discussed the concepts of struggle for existence, adaptation and animal psychology, the concepts that make the pivot of Darwin’s theory of natural selection.[2]

Al-Jahiz’s theory of evolution was something completely new in the history of science. He could be called the first evolutionist in the world. As Muhammad Iqbal wrote: “It was Jahiz (d.225 A.H.) who first hinted at the changes in animal life caused by migration and environment generally.”[3] George Sarton in his “Introduction to the History of Science” stated that the “Kitab al-Hayawan” of Al-Jahiz contains the germs of many later theories in biology and zoology: evolution, adaptation and animal psychology.[4]

After him, his revolutionary ideas about evolutionary mechanism and transformation of species were permeated into the works of many Muslim scholars and scientists such as Al-Farabi (870-950), Abu Al-Hasan Al-Mas’udi (d. 957), Ibn Miskawaih (d. 1032),  Ibn Sina (980-1037), Al-Biruni (973-1048), Imam Raghib Al-Isfahani (d.1108), Ibn Tufayl (1100-1186), Ibn Rushd (1126-1198), the Ikhwan Al-Safa’, Maulana Jalal Al-Din Rumi (1207-1273), Al-Damiri (1344-1405), Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) and many others.[5]

These ideas of evolution were widely taught in medieval Islamic schools.[6] Accordingly, pre-Darwinian Muslim scholars had already discussed the concept of evolution and provided sufficient materials to Darwin for his theory who gave it scientific language. But how has Al-Jahiz’s idea been transmitted to the Europeans? Did Darwin know about these writings?

In fact, long before the rise of the school of natural philosophy in Germany, Al-Jahiz and others were well known to Europeans through translation of their works into European languages. For example, Al-Damiri’s “Hayat al-Hayawan” was partially translated into Latin by a Jew, called Abraham Echellensis and published in Paris in 1617. This Damiri’s book has many passages taken from Al-Jahiz’s book and is based on his Evolutionary theory. Along with many other works, Ibn Tufayl’s “Hayy ibn Yaqzan,” which contains the philosophy of evolution, was first published in Latin in Oxford in 1671. Due to translation activities, Islamic knowledge of zoology and biology penetrated European universities as early as seventeenth century and provided the foundation for the development of modern disciplines of zoology and biology.

Interestingly, John William draper, a contemporary of Darwin, called evolutionary theory the “Mohammadan theory of evolution” in 1878. It means, these ideas of Muslim scholars were known to educated and scientific circles in Europe.

According to Imad Hasan and Shahnawaz, Charles Darwin studied about evolution from his grandfather, Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), who got the whole idea from Muslim philosophers preceded him by centuries. Then Darwin collected evidence by observations to support this idea.[7]

Besides, Charles Darwin himself knew Arabic and had the direct access to Arabic literature. He was initiated into Islamic culture in the faculty of religion at the University of Cambridge and learnt Arabic in order to understand Islam. He was the student of Samuel Lee, who was well-versed in oriental sources. According to the letters of Darwin, he used to meet his teacher and discuss the matters of mutual interest with him.[8]

So it is certain that Charles Darwin was familiar with the works and ideas of Muslim scholars and philosophers, including Al-Jahiz, and laid the foundation of his theory of evolution using the material derived from Muslim sources.[9]

Then, is it wise to claim that evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin is completely against Islamic worldview and reject it fully and say that it is alien to the Muslim thought?

 

Writer is a faculty member at Department of History and Civilization, International Islamic University Malaysia

 

Notes:

[1] http://www.salaam.co.uk/knowledge/al-jahiz.php.

[2]http://pu.edu.pk/images/journal/uoc/PDF-FILES/(11)%20Dr.%20Sultan%20Shah_86_2.pdf.

[3] Mohammad Iqbal, Dr., The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, p.96. At another place in this book, Iqbal has again referred to al-Jahiz and wrote: “It was Jahiz who was the first to note the changes in bird-life caused by migration. Ibid. p. 106.

[4] George Sarton, Introduction to the History of Science, vol. 1, p. 597.

[5] http://pu.edu.pk/images/journal/uoc/PDF-FILES/(11)%20Dr.%20Sultan%20Shah_86_2.pdf.

[6] John W. Draper, History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science, (London: Henry S. King & Co, 1875), p.118.

[7] See, http://pu.edu.pk/images/journal/uoc/PDF-FILES/(11)%20Dr.%20Sultan%20Shah_86_2.pdf; Imad Hasan, “Shajara Code Decoded,” www.shajaracode.com; and T. O. Shanavas, Creation AND/OR Evolution: An Islamic Perspective (Xlibbris Publishers).

[8] Muhammad Hamidullah, The Emergence of Islam, translated into English by Afzal Iqbal (Islamabad: Islamic Research Institute, 2004), p.179; and   Charles Darwin, Darwin Correspondence project, Letter 413, Dated 15 May 1838; also available at www.darwinproject.ac.uk.

[9] Muhammad Sultan Shah, “Pre-Darwinian Muslims’ Views on Evolution,” http://pu.edu.pk/images/journal/uoc/PDF-FILES/(11)%20Dr.%20Sultan%20Shah_86_2.pdf.

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