The Origins of Life: A Muslim View

Muslims embrace much of the scientific argument about human origins, but not all. We part company with secular fundamentalists on an important issue: Muslims do not take a Promethean view of man and his activities on Earth, that is, the perception that man is the measure of all things.

This disagreement between the Muslim and the purely scientific, secular conception of life and the role and place of man is the litmus test for any meaningful engagement about human origins.

About the Author

Sulayman Nyang, Ph.D., is a professor of African Studies at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He is also the co-director of Muslims in the American Public Square, a research project funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Islam is one of the three Abrahamic religions in the world. As such, Muslims share with Christians and Jews a number of beliefs that together bracket them from the rest of humankind in self-conception and in the perception and understanding of the human race and its history.

The most powerful and intellectually and spiritually potent characters that unite these three faiths are Adam and Eve. Although different interpretations of the myth of human origins put the Abrahamic religions at loggerheads, the story of Adam and Eve is similar in the Tanakh (commonly known as the Hebrew Bible) and in the Christian Bible as well as the Muslim Quran.

In all three narratives, now widely called "Grand Narratives" in the language of the Post-Modernists, the origin of human life goes back to a heavenly location and to a cosmic time during which God, in his wisdom, decided to bring about this phenomenon called the Human Drama.

Because Islam is the last in this chain of heavenly revelations, Muslims claimed that their Prophet got the last word from heaven. This claim has led Muslim thinkers and masses to embrace a historical narrative about human origins that converges on certain points with the Judeo-Christian narratives but diverges significantly on other matters.

According to the Quranic narrative, reported in the second chapter named Baqara (Cow) and elaborated elsewhere in the text, man came into being after Allah (God) consulted with his angels about his selection for the position of khalifa (viceregency) of Allah on earth. Although the angels and Iblis (Satan) warned Him about man's possible future of violence and mischief, Allah dismissed their objection by saying that He knows what they do not know about human possibilities.

This Islamic view of human origins and man's favored status in the universe does not square with the dominant scientific view of evolution as argued by Charles Darwin and the scientific communities around the world. If one follows the logic of the evolutionists, man appeared after a long process of transformation from lower forms of existence to this higher form of biological development.

Traditional Muslim thinkers would say such arguments are based not only on the denial of a Creator but also on the doubt about His ability to create ex nihilo, to create out of nothing. Many Muslims also cite the Quranic verses stating that all living things came out of water, and in so doing, they side step the evolution debate while affirming the Divine presence even at this lower level of creation.

This Islamic view was spiritedly made by one of the most outstanding Muslim thinkers of this century, Seyyed Hossein Nasr of George Washington University in Washington, D.C. As a Muslim who embraces the mystical dimension of Islam known as Sufism and a scientist who went through the halls of learning at Harvard University and M.I.T., Nasr argues that the Islamic view of life has room for many ways of reading the ayah (signs) of God in creation. A false dichotomy between Promethean man and the traditional Adam as developed by the classical thinkers conceals more than it reveals about human possibilities.

Nasr argues that man is a pontifical creature who serves as a bridge between the terrestrial and the celestial worlds. Neither angel nor animal in the absolute sense, man is more than what scientific knowledge knows about him. His intellect, his psyche and his spirit have endowed him with attributes and capacities that go beyond the wildest dreams of the scientific community.

Rather than enclose man within the biological framework of Darwinian theory, man should be seen as a creature that yearns for a rendezvous with the source of his life and existence. That source, Nasr contends, is not the atoms out of which he is made but the metaphysical and transcendental being whose existence cannot be fathomed by our intellects, even though signs about his presence and existence abound.

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